Christalyn Steers McCrum Piece

Christalyn Steers McCrum, Guest Contributor

Not every humanitarian crisis occurs in a developing area, and not every developing area needs a humanitarian response. But what happens when a natural disaster strikes “a fragile … [and] post-conflict state,” such as Haiti, which was devastated by an earthquake in 2010? Will humanitarian actors be ready to exit the country when the time comes? When does the time for exit pass? Can development actors successfully build upon the assistance structures put in place by the humanitarian actors? Questions such as these illustrate the existing gap between humanitarian and development work. During her Statement to the First Regular Session of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Executive Board, UNDP Program Administrator Helen Clark identified the “integration of humanitarian and development efforts” as a key issue. The time for this integration has come.

The work of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the UNDP has traditionally been unaligned. OCHA has handled crisis response and the coordination of humanitarian actors, whereas the UNDP has advanced international development efforts. While this has allowed both agencies to hone their respective competencies, this siloed approach has resulted in UN agencies facing difficulties when addressing situations that require both humanitarian and development assistance.

In his book, Doing Bad by Going Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails, Christopher Coyne argues that humanitarian actors have engaged in “mission creep,” going beyond simply the “delivery of humanitarian goods and services” to “attempting to end poverty.” This can result in humanitarian agencies staying beyond the conclusion of a crisis, engaging in development work outside their competency, and requesting additional funding for this work, which may pull funds away from expert development actors. For instance, a humanitarian effort that engages in a cash-for-work program, if not designed and implemented properly, can stunt local markets and create dependency. It is crucial to ensure that a development-type program, such as this, is undertaken with the utmost caution and expertise.

Part of the problem is that the line between humanitarian assistance and development work is ambiguous, especially in areas with protracted, multi-faceted crises involving more than one problem, like political instability, conflict, or famine, coupled with a natural disaster. Somalia, for instance, has not had a properly functioning government since 1991 due to a civil war. This political instability and conflict has led to massive food-insecurity and the internal displacement of over a million Somali citizens.

Despite this ambiguity, it can be dangerous and ethically questionable to define the line between humanitarian and development work when lives are at stake. As K. B. Sandvik has said in Strong, Faster, Better: Three Logics of Humanitarian Futureproofing, “Packing up and leaving may, more often than not, entail untenable forms of abandonment.” Is it appropriate for humanitarian actors to exit after a crisis is over if they are the only ones providing vital health assistance?

So what can bring clarity to this muddy dilemma? The UNDP has pointed to an “artificial separation between humanitarian and development issues, actors and funding channels” as “an obstacle to effective crisis response….” This barrier can be dismantled through the coordination of humanitarian and development actors. In his Report for the World Humanitarian Summit, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon calls for “transcending the humanitarian-development divide…setting aside artificial institutional labels of ‘development’ or ‘humanitarian,’…[and] working towards collective outcomes, based on comparative advantage….”

Tying this objective into the work of OCHA and the UNDP could require a team to coordinate implementing transitional programming aimed at ending humanitarian crises and promoting development. Like OCHA’s cluster approach, this team would work to ensure all humanitarian and development actors are partnering effectively to pursue the same impacts, allowing humanitarian NGOs and others to know when it is appropriate to exit and allocate resources elsewhere.

Additionally, this team would engage in collective impact projects, by conducting joint needs assessments, using joint tools, leveraging comparative advantages in planning and implementing a project, and deconstructing funding silos. A report by the UNDP in 2010 called for the consideration of “joint funding strategies to address mainstreaming, coordination, and programming needs.” Any UN-coordinated appeals should reflect the mutual goals of alleviating humanitarian crises and accelerating development.

The UNDP is already beginning to pursue a more integrated approach by supporting early recovery through the Inter-Agency Standing Committee on Humanitarian Affairs (IASC) and the Cluster Working Group on Early Recovery (CWGER). Early recovery efforts facilitate the transition from humanitarian assistance to development by designing and implementing programs that do just that, such as cash-for-work programs and the rebuilding of physical and social service infrastructure.

While early recovery represents one piece of the puzzle, in response to the multi-faceted crisis in Niger, Helen Clark has called for more: “[H]umanitarian, early recovery, and development actions need to be designed to reinforce each other…in a way which goes beyond relief and builds long term resilience,” indicating further integration between humanitarian and development actors is required.

Humanitarian and development efforts do not need to be in conflict, and in fact, the potential for change is much greater when efforts are coordinated. The UNDP has indicated that they are planning to use the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit as a time to break down the walls between humanitarian and development assistance. Hopefully, during the summit, the world will see the UN capitalize on the gains made with their coordination efforts, like that of the Early Recovery Cluster Working Group.

Christalyn Steers McCrum is a full-time PNP student at NYU Wagner, with an emphasis on international development policy. She is a Research and Public Policy Fellow with the Women’s City Club of New York, where she focuses on housing and homelessness. She recently finished an internship with the State Department’s US Mission to the UN, and before Wagner, she worked in Hubli, India for a year, managing a vocational training department for Operation Equip India, a nonprofit that seeks to empower people with disabilities in rural areas.