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As the Grand Bargain gets a reboot, the limits of aid reform come into focus

‘We are steadily making progress, but those waiting for a revolution will be disappointed.’

A graphic image showing 6 hands with their palms joined together at the center, signaling group work.

Signatories to the Grand Bargain – a bid to make aid more effective, locally led, and efficient – will sit down next week to work out the fine print on the agenda’s next three-year extension, amid flickers of progress but a sense that its loftier reform goals might never be realised.

The meeting comes at a critical time for the aid sector, as humanitarian needs spiral upwards – driven by climate-related disasters, ongoing protracted crises, and major outbreaks of conflict. Despite record levels of funding, it’s not enough to keep up with the unprecedented cost of responding. Aid organisations are seeing their budgets slashed, but the fallout for people living in crisis is dire as their assistance dwindles.

It has been seven years since the Grand Bargain was launched – an original set of 51 commitments born out of the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 among donors and the main international players, with local organisations more recently coming on board. 

Two years ago, the pledges were renewed with a 2.0 upgrade. This honed in on issues like longer-term and more flexible funding arrangements, localisation, and accountability, and on using political muscle to push through some of the issues that were persistently stuck. 


While much of the Grand Bargain’s 2.0 arrangement and priorities are expected to remain, the extension emphasises other areas – things like anticipatory action, innovative ways of financing, and the humanitarian-development nexus – with the hope being that these newer drives will stimulate engagement from actors beyond the humanitarian system. 


Another main change is that the Grand Bargain leadership will shift from one “Eminent person”, currently Jan Egeland from the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), to three high-level ambassadors who will lead on specific objectives. Their names are set to be announced at next week’s meeting. 


“It’s very difficult for one person to shoulder that leadership burden,” Wendy Fenton, co-author of the annual independent review of the Grand Bargain progress commissioned by the UK-based Humanitarian Policy Group, told The New Humanitarian.


With the multiple layers of bureaucracy circling these commitments – champions and sherpas, caucuses and thematic workstreams, communities of practice, and even a friends of gender group – it’s no wonder there’s waning enthusiasm to keep the process going. The HPG report notes it’s become just one more agenda competing for staff time and institutional resources amidst an already crowded and overlapping policy space – including the ERC’s Flagship Initiative, the UN Action Agenda on internal displacement, and the Global Refugee Compact.


But this next version, insiders say, is intended to be leaner, with less bureaucracy, fewer processes, and lighter reporting requirements.

Slow advancement since the 2.0 upgrade

The past two years have seen pockets of headway for many of the commitments.


As Cecilia Roselli, NRC’s director of humanitarian policy told The New Humanitarian, “We are steadily making progress, but those waiting for a revolution will be disappointed.” 


“I’m not sure why anyone would have thought there would be this instant transformation.” 


That shouldn’t necessarily be surprising: The ambition was high from the start, and change takes time.


“The overwhelming public narrative is that there’s been no impact, but if you track it over time, you can see incremental progress,” said Fenton. “I’m not sure why anyone would have thought there would be this instant transformation.” 


Multi-year funding – important in protracted crisis settings because it allows organisations to plan and programme longer term – has seen some growth. According to the Grand Bargain Secretariat, Canada nearly doubled its multi-year funding from 30% in 2016 to 59% in 2022; Germany went even further, declaring 75% of its overall humanitarian budget was for multi-year funding, while the European Commission aims to increase its multi-year funding portfolio by 30% by the end of this year. 


When it comes to the flexibility of that funding – unearmarked donations that allow organisations to spend how they like – the HPG report notes that while there has been growth among at least eight donor signatories, the overall percentage has decreased due to additional earmarked funding for certain crises in 2022, including Ukraine.


Other notable, system-wide shifts have happened in the past two years: A new cash coordination model was agreed, intended to make cash delivery at the country level more predictable and accountable. And the process for how organisations jointly quantify humanitarian needs has also been simplified and made more transparent. This is expected to lead to a more robust and impartial analysis across the system. 

Localisation, and the elusive 25% goal

The goal set in 2016 to give 25% of funding as directly as possible to local organisations, originally by 2020, continues to be an uncomfortable disappointment for the Grand Bargain’s signatories. Direct funding to local actors has actually declined since 2017, both in volume and percentage share of total international humanitarian assistance.


“Giving to local organisations – this is the demand of the time, and the demand of the future,” Reza Chowdhury, executive director of the COAST Foundation in Bangladesh, told The New Humanitarian.


Recent crises demonstrate the system’s repeated fumbling. Ukraine was expected to be a potential showcase for localisation, but local and national NGOs had received only around 1% of direct humanitarian funding by the anniversary of the Russian invasion, despite shouldering the most risk and burden of compliance requirements.


That said, international NGO signatories to the Charter for Change – a set of commitments on locally led response – found that almost half of its 40 signatories have, for the first time since C4C started collecting data on this in 2016, met the 25% commitment. For the remaining 50%, there is no data available.


Despite the naysayers, Nils Carstensen, a researcher who advises Local2Global, a collective effort to push more locally led response, told The New Humanitarian, "it is doable to reach the target, and it is possible to monitor and track it."


UN agencies, international NGOs, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and a handful of donors have agreed to develop individual roadmaps to reach the 25% funding goal, aiming to publish them by the end of 2023. Notably, in 2022, USAID’s direct funding to local organisations reached $1.6 billion – or 10.2% of its obligations. It’s still shy of their intended goal, but the highest amount in at least a decade.


“The donors are changing the game,” Carstensen said.“They’re using their power to incentivise… Grand Bargain commitments on localisation. Even ECHO’s localisation policy is opening up a bit,” he said, referring to recent guidance from the European Commission’s humanitarian aid department on promoting equitable partnerships with local organisations. 


The result is that recipient aid organisations are wrestling with how to change their business model. “They must find a way of getting on board [with localisation] to maintain their funding,” he explained. 


Some organisations have completely reworked their approach. For example, according to the HPG report, all of Christian Aid’s programming after 2024 will be delivered by local and national partners, and it will stop directly implementing altogether. Others, along with Christian Aid, have signed up to commitments through the Pledge for Change, working on improving their partnerships arrangements with local groups and undoing the power imbalances within the system.


But it’s not only the 25% funding figure that’s tracked. Signatories to the Grand Bargain also pledged to improve partnership arrangements with local groups so they can pay for things like overhead costs, having an office, paying staff between projects. Funding arrangements for international organisations cover these things, but are rarely passed onto local partners. 


The C4C found that progress around this among its self-reporting signatories has actually slowed, with most organisations not even having a policy on supporting internal cost recovery for partners.


“It’s a difficult one and tricky one [for international groups],” Carstensen said, but cautioned that more money to local actors won’t be helpful if it’s not helping them build capacity by covering the basics like overhead costs. “One will not deliver without the other.”

Participation: The ‘revolution’ that never was

The Grand Bargain’s supposed “participation revolution” – giving more voice and decision-making power to people affected by crises – has never materialised, despite continued investment in tools, task forces, and frameworks to try to improve engagement.


“The gap between what is discussed at global level and actual, tangible change in participation in decision-making grows monthly.”


However, the HPG report does note a few steps forward: Organisations like Christian Aid have rolled out an inclusivity dashboard, and Save the Children developed performance indicators around accountability and participation. One of the few UN organisations to make progress, UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, has helped grassroots organisations led by displaced and stateless persons access financial, administrative, and other support to design and implement their own responses.


The survivor and community-led response (SCLR) approach – in which affected people decide how funds are used – has also been trialled by a few organisations. The amounts are still small-scale – Carstensen described them as “peanuts” – but insiders say there’s growing interest among private donors to advance this model. 


Overall, however, people in crisis still do not have influence over the aid they receive. 


“The gap between what is discussed at global level and actual, tangible change in participation in decision-making grows monthly,” Rosie Jackson, director of policy and programmes for the CDAC Network, a global alliance promoting communication with communities, told The New Humanitarian via email. “National actors are developing digital and other means for communication, participation, and inclusion much faster than the clunky humanitarian systems.”


The participation revolution has come down to establishing mechanisms for affected people to provide feedback about the aid they receive. Even if this feedback is featured into decision-making – it so rarely is – the information comes far too late to redirect programmes that have already been launched, and affected people are rarely consulted or factored into the project design phase. 

An important platform for engagement 

Despite the limited quantitative shifts, many still see value in the Grand Bargain as a platform to bring all actors of the system together – from donors to local groups – and where organisations can exert pressure upwards, especially to donors. 


“The Grand Bargain gives greater visibility to the asks of local leaders. It doesn’t sound significant, but for our members, they want to be able to not be filtered and to say their own truths.”


“It has offered an opportunity to mobilise constituencies of support around [certain issues],” Fenton said. “For donor governments, the Grand Bargain gives them something to point to, and they can use that with their parliaments to initiate changes that they want to make. It gives them more leverage.”


For local actors, this is particularly important. “It’s a way to elevate [their] voices and contributions,” Anita Kattakuzhy, director of policy at the NEAR Network, a consortia of local and national civil society organisations from the Global South, told The New Humanitarian. 


NEAR put out an online survey among its members in March: 284 responded. For about half, the Grand Bargain was instrumental in supporting local and national organisations’ work, helping them access international funding and improving their participation in international coordination mechanisms. 


“The [Grand Bargain] gives greater visibility to the asks of local leaders,” Kattakuzhy said. “It doesn’t sound significant, but for our members, they want to be able to not be filtered and to say their own truths.”


However, ​the quid pro quo, the give and take arrangement between the various groups signing onto this bargain – considered back in 2016 as the unique breakthrough – has not materialised as hoped.


When it was rolled out, aid actors from across the sector agreed that system change was up to all of them, and they would all make certain concessions or compromises to improve it. But seven years later, it has too often descended into playground finger-pointing and foot-stomping.


Aid organisations say donors haven’t provided enough flexible and longer-term grants, even though they’ve been more transparent with how they spend that money. Not transparent enough, say the donors. Meanwhile, international NGOs say they’re busy trialling ways to pass more flexible funding onto their local partners, and it’s the UN, the organisations who hold the most funding in the system – who haven’t stepped up. 

‘Terrible, but inevitable’

Puji Pujiono, senior adviser to the Pujiono Centre, a local Indonesian NGO focused on disaster and humanitarian knowledge management, is one of the Grand Bargain sherpas, representing communities from the Global South.


He agrees with the convening benefit of the Grand Bargain, but he is displeased with the process overall, calling it “terrible, but inevitable”. Inevitable because, “there’s no other mechanism that brings together the UN, the Red Cross, the INGOs, the donors, and us into one place.” Terrible, because he’s fed up with the lack of results on the ground, and is “losing patience with this convoluted conversation”. 


“Changing the structure doesn’t change the practice.”


“How long can you continue talking if you’re not changing much?” Sudanshu Singh, founder and CEO of Humanitarian Aid International (HAI) and another sherpa to the Grand Bargain, wants to know. “No need to talk forever, just change your practice – it’s as simple as that.” 


The Grand Bargain 2.0 established National Reference Groups – led by representatives from the Global South – that were meant to bring the commitments to these countries and get better engagement at that level. “But they weren’t clearly articulated and people didn’t understand what they were meant to be, how they would relate to other coordination mechanisms, or how they could be supported,” Fenton noted.


Puji tried to set one up in Indonesia. When it was initially presented, people from the international sector agreed. “But after the meeting, none of the UN agencies, none of the donors, none of the INGOs wanted to come,” he recalled. “The polite nodding round the table about the Grand Bargain does not shake the arms or the legs – it doesn’t reverberate to the ground.”


Singh is also disappointed, saying, “there’s been no progress on the national reference groups” where he works. But he doesn’t have much faith that they’ll do much in the way of reform anyway: “Changing the structure doesn’t change the practice,” he said.

What’s next?

Amid shrugging resignation over these incomplete goals, signatories have agreed that the Grand Bargain should continue until at least 2026, 10 years after it was originally launched – at which point a high-level event will assess achievements and determine the agenda’s future. 


The policy shifts have begun to break loose, but as Kattakuzhy said, “seven years later, we’re not at the impact level and that’s frustrating. What are we waiting for?”


In the end, it comes down to the voluntary nature of the commitments. There’s no way for one part of the system to hold another to account for poor progress, or for failure to live up to their end of the bargain.


But because signatories don’t report complete or accurate data, it’s also hard to track trends. 


For example, the HPG report notes that 19 signatories – 12 donors and seven aid organisations – “do not or can not” provide holistic data on how much they fund to local or national actors. 


Ultimately, what matters most, and where changes are so far least felt, is not in global meeting rooms but on the ground – where the crises are actually happening. And that’s where many in the sector hope the Grand Bargain’s next phase might finally start to bear fruit. “That’s the missing link, and that’s what needs to happen,” said Fenton. 


Edited by Andrew Gully.

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