The Grand Bargain: will it all be over by Christmas?

As the year draws to a close it is natural to look back and reflect on what went well and what could have gone better. The Grand Bargain on Humanitarian Financing was undoubtedly a highlight of the World Humanitarian Summit in May.  A document was signed by most of the humanitarian world’s donors and UN agencies.  Several NGOs like World Vision also signed up.  This document outlined ten commitment areas of measures that should be taken to make humanitarian funding more efficient effective and accountable.

In September a follow-up meeting in Bonn unpacked the detail and developed concrete work plans to go forward. Early fruit of this process is the work on the localisation marker that is really beginning to yield results. ICVA’s less paper more aid initiative also seems to have benefited with a fresh injection of vitality. This will help to reduce reporting burdens on implementers so that more energy can be spent on field work. Apart from these elements, it can be difficult to see what the progress has been from an NGO perspective. In this blog I want to suggest three questions that we should be asking of the process to date and what happens next.

Change is coming but is it reaching the field?

It is very good to see most major donors and UN agencies come together around a set of priorities like the Grand Bargain. Reaching an agreement around the 10 commitment areas was an achievement and is a good way to generate some much needed momentum for changes to how humanitarian action is supported globally. 

Greater efficiency in the funding arrangements between donors and the UN are to be welcomed, but now is the time to ask, "What is in it for implementers?" For the Grand Bargain to reach its full potential, it must be judged by the improvements that it delivers to front line services and in particular to those organisations that deliver them. Improvements that benefit host governments and NGOs of all types must be considered.

Resolving many of the financing challenges that implementers face requires coordinated action across a number of interrelated but separate issues. For example, improving capacity-building for front line actors really needs to draw on multiyear funding and overhead savings from ‘fundemediaries’ (intermediary organisations who receive funds from donors and distribute to implementing partners) that are driven by reducing duplication and management costs. Savings could come from greater transparency around funding flows that enable donors to choose the most efficient mechanisms. For these changes to be made in a mutually reinforcing manner, a coordinated work plan is needed that is clearly communicated to all. As the promise of the Grand Bargain starts to move closer to field level, plans and progress need to be communicated to a larger number of organisations and people in the sector.  What is in it for implementers needs to be clearly communicated in a practical and tangible manner.

Is accountability only for everyone else?

Recently it has been good to see several donors come together to challenge the UN about how they are implementing the Grand Bargain at field level. In Haiti and the Lake Chad Basin this has taken the form of formal letters asking how the Grand Bargain commitments are being applied by the UN at field level. NGOs are also beginning to use some parts of the Grand Bargain as a means to lobby donors for changes (in particular the 25% target for funding to local organisations). This is welcome, but we need to work together to ensure that the Grand Bargain does not become only about what others should do. 

...we need to work together to ensure that the Grand Bargain does not become only about what others should do.

Organisations should take responsibility to clearly articulate what they are going to do to help make the promise of the Grand Bargain a reality. For donors, each one should publish a plan designating parts of the Grand Bargain on which they will take a lead, and oulining what they are prepared to implement. Without clarity around intentions, we cannot have visibility around performance. Without this visibility it will be hard to see progress and build the collective momentum we need to make this happen.

What should NGOs be doing?

When it comes to the Grand Bargain, NGOs also need to step up. Several large NGOs and four NGO networks (VOICE, Interaction, SCHR and ICVA) have signed up to the Grand Bargain. This has given them a welcome chance to bring implementer perspectives to some key discussions. However, the NGO community now needs to come together to work with the UN and donors on implementation of the Grand Bargain. As the Grand Bargain looks to advance practical solutions for each commitment area, NGO inputs are needed now more than ever. But practical ways to input can be difficult to find. VOICE is to be congratulated for their work to form a task force to mobilise NGOs around the issues. This task force has practical priorities around the Grand Bargain commitment areas:

  • increase collaborative humanitarian multi-year planning and funding,
  • harmonise and simplify reporting requirements,
  • and, more support and funding of tools for local and national responders.

Most bilateral donors are engaging in the Grand Bargain, but are discussions taking place with their NGO partners in headquarters?  It would be great to see the NGO Platforms in various donor countries prioritise parts of the Grand Bargain and work with their donors to make them a reality.

The problems faced by the humanitarian system are complex and require coordinated action on multiple levels. NGO networks such as ICVA, SCHR, VOICE and Interaction have had an important role in representing NGO interests so far. We have an opportunity to achieve significant change. However, the work of these networks needs to be complemented by national level work in donor and field countries. 

The Grand Bargain represented an unprecedented level of consensus between donors and the UN on what should be changed to more effectively finance humanitarian action. However, NGOs now need to step up at each level of the system to ensure that changes are made that best support implementers and those they seek to serve.  Otherwise is there a danger that much of the field promise for the Grand Bargain may be over by Christmas?