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The humanitarian and development sectors need to collaborate, but how can we make it work?

In international development, it has long been recognised that humanitarian and development actors need to work together. Global commitments have been made, but there are still challenges to overcome and we need more than commitments.

Working together

Some disasters and short-term emergencies need only the response of humanitarian actors, but in protracted crises, for example in Somalia, actors need to collaborate. The work of humanitarian actors can often transition into longer-term development, helping to prevent future crises, particularly as the volume and length of humanitarian assistance has increased dramatically in the past decade: inter-agency humanitarian appeals now last an average of seven years. Historically there has been a separation between humanitarian and development assistance; different mandates, cultures, and working principles and practices. While there will always be a necessary separation between humanitarian and development actors and their work, there is no reason why the broader strategies should be separate. Indeed, this lack of coordination in strategies has created a ‘transition gap’ between emergency aid and development work.

This transition gap has been recognised globally and there is now a concerted effort to address it. In 2016 the World Humanitarian Summit agreed ‘New Ways of Working’ in crisis through removing barriers to collaboration, and the Grand Bargain Commitments, agreed in the same year, included commitments to ‘enhance engagement between humanitarian and development actors’.

What does this convergence look like in practice? Synergies between the two sectors could help develop a shared understanding on sustainability, vulnerability, and resilience, for example, as well as encourage the pooling of data, analysis, and information. This would lead to more coordinated planning and programming, enabling more effective leadership and financing to achieve collective outcomes.

Resilient health systems

The health sector is an area where this coordination could bring huge benefits. While health crises usually require humanitarian intervention, the resilience of a health system has been defined in The Lancet as ‘the capacity of health actors, institutions, and populations to prepare for and effectively respond to crises; maintain core functions when a crisis hits; and, informed by lessons learned during the crisis, reorganise if conditions require it. Health systems are resilient if they protect human life and produce good health outcomes for all during a crisis and in its aftermath’.

Before a crisis hits, humanitarian and development actors could be working together to prepare the health system’s resilience to a crisis situation, from developing disaster risk reduction frameworks to establishing public health emergency coordination. During a crisis they can respond to immediate needs, such as recruitment and deployment of additional human resources and rapid health assessments. Post crisis, humanitarian and development actors can work together on lessons learned to prevent, or more effectively respond to, future crises through partnered dialogue with governments and multilateral organisations.

Acknowledgement isn’t enough

The commitments made in 2016 have been widely acknowledged and are certainly commendable. However, acknowledgment, good will, and good intentions are only one part of achieving better outcomes for vulnerable people. We need structures in place to ensure that commitments are being upheld by implementers and agencies. This can only be done by articulating and measuring what these commitments look like in practice. Indeed, core funding from major donors is increasingly dependent on whether this collaboration takes place, making measurement even more pivotal.

Measuring commitment

The commitments made are often discussed in the abstract, but they can be measured through indicators that assess how commitments are turned into actions, in a timely way. Third-party monitors can then independently assess the results, using these indicators, milestones, and targets, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Indicators could fall broadly into the following categories:

  • joint data, analysis, and information
  • those relating to joint planning and programming processes
  • those related to leadership for collective outcomes

Concrete targets examining different stages of interaction between humanitarian and development actors could then be developed and the wider impact this engagement is designed to have could be measured.

For example, an indicator relating to joint data, analysis, and information could look at the extent to which humanitarian and development actors collaborate to undertake a needs assessment. In relation to planning, indicators could look at the extent to which the needs assessment has fed into development and humanitarian planning processes. An indicator on leadership for collective outcomes could look at whether a joint problem statement has been produced. Such indicators can then be aggregated to assess the extent to which these collaborations occur, tracking the operationalisation of these global commitments.

With initial monitoring and evaluation in place, and a shared and agreed understanding of indicators that can assess the practical application of these global commitments, discussion can move from the abstract to the concrete. The convergence of humanitarian action and development practice is only going to increase, and practitioners and donors should look at this positively. But now more than ever before, we need practical measures in place to assess whether genuine progress towards collaboration is taking place, where the ultimate objective is to deliver more sustainable impact before, during, and after crises take place.