Abolish earmarking, strengthen coordination, reform the Security Council

View of the General Assembly (Photo: UN Photo/Susan Markisz)

View of the General Assembly (Photo: UN Photo/Susan Markisz)

This post is in response to J.‘s “How would you make aid better?”:

“Let’s imagine that you could make three changes to the state of things in the aid industry. Forget practicality and reality, press ‘pause’ on good participatory process for just a moment, and just imagine that you could make three decisions or call for three changes and those changes would be followed through, applied across the industry.” 

The deadline for contributions is 1 August 2012.

1. Abolish earmarking

I think it is ridiculous and against the intentions of most non-institutional donors, that some disasters are overfunded, while others barely have money at all. The problem, which many people don’t understand when donating money, is that money earmarked for disaster A cannot be used for disaster B, even if all needs in country A have been met. This leads to absurd situations where the affected population in some countries benefit from “aid deluxe” while beneficiaries in other countries get nothing.

Many organizations have started to address this problem by including options on their donations forms where donors can say that funds can be used for other purposes once the needs have been met. But I don’t think this goes far enough. Using resources where most needed shouldn’t be an option, it is the humanitarian imperative.

Does that mean that donor’s should have a say at all? Absolutely not. Donors already make a decision in how they want their money to be spend, by giving money to organization A instead of organization B. I think that is legitimate, but once you have entrusted your money to an organization you should leave it to the experts to decide how the money is best used. Of course donors should monitor the activities and hold organizations accountable. But they should not try to micromanage the allocation of funds.

2. Strengthen coordination mechanism

Coordination mechanisms such as the Cluster System can add a lot of value – if they are adequately resourced. Unfortunately, in most disasters that is not the case and instead we see programme managers double-hatting as coordinators while being mainly concerned with getting their own organization’s programme and agenda implemented.

In my opinion every Cluster should have at least three full-time, dedicated staff members: a coordinator, a technical advisor and an information manager. In addition they should not report to the in-country head of agency since the Cluster is supposed to provide neutral services for all organizations. Instead, the reporting line should go directly to the global cluster lead. The IFRC has already established such a “firewall” between operations and coordination and other global cluster leads should do the same.

I also think that the role of OCHA should be strengthened. In a lot of contexts, OCHA is simply blown out of the water by the big, better resourced agencies who don’t take OCHA seriously. OCHA is then reduced to being the group of people who publish the humanitarian bulletin based on a emails that reluctant UN agencies send them. That is not coordination.

I used the Cluster system and OCHA as examples, but I actually don’t care what kind of coordination system you put in place, as long as it has enough resources to do its job. Properly resourced coordination adds value – poorly resourced coordination is a waste of time.

3. Reform the UN Security Council

The right of the five permanent members to veto any decision is harmful – and I’m not only saying that because of Syria. The veto is a violation of the very idea of the United Nations and all permanent members are guilty of using it in their own self-interest.

If you create a forum where all nations can come together to discuss issues and find solutions, then you cannot at the same time tell a small privileged group of nations that the rules don’t apply to them. So let’s get rid of the veto.

What are your ideas? How would you make aid better? Please reply in the comments below or write your own blog post and add them to the Aidsource link collection


  1. Guest July 22, 2012
    • Timoluege July 23, 2012
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