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Emergency aid leaders and donors met in Geneva. Here’s what happened

‘You can’t humanitarian your way out of this.’

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What happens when you take aid leaders and policymakers and put them in the same corridors for a week?


Facing spiralling humanitarian needs and stretched funding, parts of the aid sector converged last week in Geneva for meetings meant to come up with solutions for an emergency aid system that’s teetering toward a breaking point. The meetings brought aid groups face to face with the donor governments and institutions that fund the bulk of international humanitarian assistance.


In the annual “humanitarian affairs segment” of the UN’s Economic and Social Council, diplomats debated political directives to guide aid – while on the sidelines, aid groups and policymakers focused on the nitty-gritty of how aid works.


In separate meetings, dozens of donors and aid organisations who signed on to the Grand Bargain package of aid reforms moved forward with a tighter focus on improving funding, rectifying power imbalances for local humanitarians, and including people who use aid in decision-making. 


Geneva is never short on summits and gabfests. But this week of meetings paired the usual cast of aid actors with their counterparts in donor governments – offering a more constructive stage to nudge issues forward.


Here are a few takeaways from the week:


Humanitarians are calling out other corners of the aid world


Crises are lasting longer, driven by a cocktail of conflict, climate change, and economic turmoil. 


A relatively small slice of the international aid sector, the humanitarian system has little control over these root causes. Yet it’s humanitarians who are often left holding the fire extinguisher – a point emergency aid officials are trying to reinforce in stronger terms.


“We have seen ourselves as humanitarians going from the actor of last resort, when everything else fails, to becoming the actor of first resort, mainly because the other actors are not stepping up in terms of response to development, governance, and political needs,” Ramesh Rajasingham, director for coordination at the UN’s humanitarian aid coordination arm, OCHA, told the council at a panel on food insecurity and famine. “So I think it’s imperative that we have a much stronger collaboration with all these actors.”


This is echoed in a recent analysis by UK-based Development Initiatives, which found that countries facing prolonged crises – lasting five years or longer – are increasingly relying on humanitarian aid, and seeing proportionally less of the development aid that might help them move out of crisis mode for good.


Reena Ghelani, the UN’s famine prevention and response coordinator, said development funding must be better targeted to reach rural areas of countries facing extreme hunger.


“Development aid, which is the majority of [overseas development assistance], is not reaching the people most in need,” she said.


They’re also trying to make ‘humanitarian’ a verb


Aid officials are trying out a new catchphrase; language purists may not be pleased.


Undaunted by the limits of English grammar, several officials – including the UN’s emergency relief coordinator, Martin Griffiths – spent precious podium time repeating a variation of the phrase, “You can’t humanitarian your way out of this”.


Time will tell whether this ushers in a new dictionary definition, but the underlying point is clear: Humanitarians can’t solve the world’s crises, and pushing others to step up is a bigger part of their public messaging.


Ready or not, there may be more money for anticipatory action


Donor governments are betting on anticipatory action, but is the humanitarian sector ready to scale up?


Anticipatory action is the push to better predict and prevent crises before they spiral. One proposal that made the rounds during the week calls for donors to spend 1% of next year’s budgets on anticipatory action (the Rockefeller Foundation report also advises that the figure rise by another 1% each year).


There’s broad political support for anticipatory action. But in a humanitarian sector built to respond to crises rather than prevent them, “anticipation” is often still in pilot or project mode.


Rein Paulsen, the Food and Agriculture Organization’s emergencies director, said the challenge is “being able to move at scale” when the alarm bells ring.


“What we need to be focused on is… moving from anticipatory action projects to a more anticipatory approach in the way we understand crises and the way they’re financed,” Paulsen said.


One recent example: The 2022 humanitarian appeals for Somalia and the Horn of Africa went underfunded for months, despite early warnings that famine could be on the horizon. Humanitarian support was eventually credited with helping to avert a technical famine declaration, but millions of people still face crisis levels of hunger.


Emergency pooled funds are still in favour


Aid groups often rely on pooled funds – pots of humanitarian cash with less restrictive funding – to get around rigid donor rules and an inflexible system.


As with anticipatory action, donor support for pooled funds continues: The resolution that delegates passed at the end of the humanitarian affairs segment includes calls for governments to contribute to pooled funds. The UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund, or CERF, even gets its own laudatory line item (a holdover from previous resolutions).


Some of those in attendance last week stuck around for separate meetings on pooled funds, scheduled for today.


Some donors believe pooled funds can be used as a quicker way to get cash to local aid groups, and pivot funding to where it’s needed on short notice. In February, for example, the UN used CERF to quickly fund $250 million in hunger responses – a chunk of funding that usually comes through time-consuming pledge drives and yearly humanitarian appeals. 


While pooled funds are one way to make humanitarian money more nimble, the funding that emerges on the other side isn’t particularly flexible, local humanitarians say. The management of pooled funds can also mirror the wider aid sector’s power imbalances.


“Representation may be balanced on paper, but an equal voice is not ensured when in practice you may have only one national actor represented [as decision-makers] amid several international ones,“ stated a recent analysis by the International Council of Voluntary Agencies, a network of NGOs.


The aid sector has a new bargain


What a difference seven years makes. Before ECOSOC’s humanitarian affairs meetings, signatories to the Grand Bargain reforms met in a conference room at the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross to plot out its next three years.


It was a far cry from the headline-grabbing spectacle of the 2016 summit that birthed the Grand Bargain with promises of overhauling humanitarian aid. Most of the commitments have crawled at a snail's pace (with a few exceptions), stalled by the bureaucracy of a massive system that's resistant to change. 


Today's Grand Bargain, dubbed 3.0, is slimmer, leaner, and perhaps more realistic, analysts say. Representatives of 60-something signatories to the original pledges agreed to a more streamlined focus on improving how funding works, localisation, and making aid more accountable to the people who use it. 


The jargon may sound familiar, but there are reasons for cautious optimism even for local groups that have pushed for change for years: Major donors are at the table, calling for equitable partnerships, and tweaking their funding rules, they say. Some believe a new “risk-sharing framework”, launched at last week’s meetings, may help level the playing field.

On the other hand, the absence of UN agency leaders was discouraging, multiple attendees at the closed-door meetings said.


As with anything that happens in aid hubs like Geneva, the proof will be in making sure the policies trickle down to the front lines of crises.


“For the next three years, we hope to see it go from paper to practice,” said Nanette Antequisa, who heads the Philippines-based NGO Ecoweb and participated in the talks as part of the Alliance for Empowering Partnership (A4EP), a civil society network.


Donors are showing up in more meaningful ways


One notable shift at these and other recent high-level aid meetings, according to long-time observers: Representatives of donor governments are showing up and sharing the table with local humanitarians.


“It feels like there is momentum from the donors. I felt that energy more,” said Smruti Patel, a member of A4EP who also advocates for local leadership in humanitarian response.


In recent months, major humanitarian donors have outlined plans to encourage direct funding and more equal partnerships, using the sort of language and terms that local aid groups have been pushing for years.

“It feels like there is momentum from the donors. I felt that energy more.”

Separately, representatives of eight donors sat down with local groups for a roundtable on the sidelines of last week’s meetings.


“Local actors are talking directly to the donors” in a way that wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago, said Howard Mollett, head of humanitarian policy at the UK Catholic charity CAFOD, which organised the face-to-face session.


Another nudge for humanitarians to climate-proof their operations


The resolutions at ECOSOC and other high-level forums tend to be boilerplate – copying, pasting, then tweaking previous year’s texts before they’re debated and changed.


One new element in this year’s resolution: a line urging humanitarian groups to better study and prepare for the impacts of climate change.


An early contender for 2024’s theme


Switzerland has an early idea for a panel to lead off next year’s humanitarian affairs segment: Why are we still talking about the same things?


“All this is not new,” Switzerland’s delegate told the council, after listing off priorities touching on improving emergency funding, making aid more local, transforming food systems, and linking humanitarian work with development and peacebuilding.


“We are all repeating it constantly at the global level. The question is what is holding us back from doing it? We might need a panel at the next ECOSOC [humanitarian affairs segment] on this question.”


Edited by Andrew Gully.

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