A family wash dishes at a water tank in a informal refugee settlement in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.

Can humanitarian implementers achieve multiple benefits from multi-year funding?

Julian is World Vision's Technical Director for Humanitarian Grants

In the run up to the World Humanitarian Summit, the 15 largest Government donors, major UN agencies and several NGO networks will be meeting regularly to agree a “Grand Bargain”.  The aim is to reset humanitarian funding to make the system more efficient, effective and fit for purpose. One critical piece in this discussion is the idea of multi-year funding. The reasons for this are clear.  According to UNHCR the average refugee is now displaced for 17 years (UNHCR, 2006).  Two thirds or humanitarian assistance goes to long-term or protracted crises, like Syria or South Sudan (GHA, 2015). Driven by the need to address complex issues on the ground with long-term solutions, the recent UN Secretary-General’s Report, One Humanity: Shared Responsibility, talked about the need for a fifteen year perspective on humanitarian crises.

Implementers like World Vision are frequently faced with the challenge of shaping, or stitching together, long-term programmes using short-term funding available for short-term projects that are tied to short-term results. The World Humanitarian Summit provides an opportunity to unpack some ideas about multi-year funding that could significantly improve the operating environment for implementers of all kinds.  By applying some of the following ideas, we could make our resources go further and strengthen our ability to help some of the world’s most vulnerable children and their families.

1)     Greater efficiency, less paperwork and more programming

Multi-year funding could help to increase efficiency in the way that funds are distributed.  Currently, NGOs and other implementers compete annually for grants to do humanitarian work.  Some UN OCHA pool fund applications can be for amounts of 250,000 USD and have lengthy approval procedures. To put this in context, NGO humanitarian programmes can often be between 10 and 40 million USD. Several NGOs will invest time, money and scarce resources in competing for the same funds.  This increases NGO costs (as multiple organisations invest staff time developing grant applications), injects uncertainty into programmes and stimulates a culture of competition rather than collaboration.

Multi-year funding would the enable economies of scale that come with long-term planning. By reducing the frequency of award processes and increasing the value of grants, it would also help NGOs reduce the costs of winning grants and time spent acquiring funding. Less paperwork and more programming.  Larger grants to NGO consortia could stimulate more productive collaboration and sharing between agencies.  

For example in Somalia, World Vision’s involvement in the SomRep consortium with five peer NGOs has led to efficiencies in fundraising and in pooling of programme approaches, so that each agency applies some of the best thinking of their peers.  Fewer awars of bigger grants also hold out the promise of significant transaction cost savings for donors too. The EU has been moving in this direction with the development of large humanitarian trust funds such as the Berkou Fund (for the Central African Republic), Madad Fund (for the Syria crisis) and the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. World Vision’s experience with the Madad fund is that consortia can also be used to bring together local, national and international organisations in new ways to access funding.

 2)     Improved support to local capacity building and retention

In the UK, when a private organisation wins a rail franchise, the costs of buying trains and other infrastructure are front-loaded into a long-term contract.  It would be hard to imagine running an effective train service without this up front investment. How does this relate to humanitarian funding? Well, it’s really difficult to build and retain local capacity through the peaks and troughs of short-term funding.  A multi-year funding approach would enable front-loading of capacity building costs so that organisations can invest in local and national partners from the start of operations.  They would then have a certainty of operations for three years or more, avoiding the expensive cycle of building capacity, dismantling it at the end of a short-term project and then rebuilding for the next short-term project. This is particularly expensive during a disaster when costs are at their highest. It could also reduce the need for expensive international staffing capacity, as implementers employ more cost-effective, long-term approaches with up-front costs recovered over the multi-year timeframe.  

 3)     Enabling multi-year planning to tackle root causes

As mentioned above, two thirds of humanitarian work takes place in places like South Sudan, Syria etc.  Annually renewing short-term programmes does not address the challenges faced in protracted crises, because they rarely have simple solutions that can be achieved in a year.  Multi-year funding would enable humanitarian programming to look at longer term solutions rather than short-term “sticking plasters”.  Such an approach would increase sustainability and support efforts to rebuild local systems, which the Secretary General’s report recognises is a multi-year effort.  Moving to multi-year programming would create a good opportunity to move from monitoring project outputs to measuring the medium term impact of programmes. 

4)     Reducing the Relief/ Development divide

World Vision has a long-term presence in most of the world’s humanitarian situations.  I can remember my first field posting in what is now South Sudan in 1997.  Even then some of the older hands had been talking for years about ending the divide between relief and development work. Funding was, and remains, a critical element to this. 

Humanitarians generally focus on short-term outputs that are tied to short-term funding cycles, while development practitioners receive funding to work on projects and systems over several years.  However, a new way of thinking may be emerging. In response to the Secretary-General’s report, ALNAP published a blog that suggested a new way to look at the relief / development divide.  Rather than focus on the division of work, the proposal is to use the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as our aspirational target for all, and International Humanitarian Law (IHL) as the minimum that all are entitled to. This could bring together programming that benefits from a strong focus on humanitarian principles with those who are making a strong contribution to multiyear development goals.

This new way of thinking would benefit from a funding model that addresses medium term goals with multi-year cycles. Instead of discrete relief or development projects, we could think about multi-year programmes to meet needs, measured by the SDGs and with IHL guaranteeing minimum standards for affected populations. Without this there’s a real danger that short-term funding windows will continue to drive humanitarian thinking and approaches and that we will continue to be divided by our resources.

Multi-year funding may be hard to apply across the board, but underpinned by good context analysis, it is a model that can work in many situations of protracted crises. Even in situations of outright conflict, such as Syria, longer term, multi-year funding is becoming a necessity precisely because we have an obligation to sustain our presence and support to local partners for as long as the conflict lasts. This commitment and stability is crucial when it comes to building genuine partnerships that create long-term capacity and share resources and knowledge.

Access to reliable, predictable, multi-year funding could make a real difference to a number of the major issues under consideration in the run up to the World Humanitarian Summit. Pursuing multi-year funding models could make a significant contribution towards some of the big wins - in efficiency, effectiveness and national empowerment - that we all wish to see.

Learn More

Read more of Julian’s ideas on financing reform in his blogs: