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A collaboration for better aid

July 20, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    In Zimbabwe, Mercy Corps leads a consortium of five NGOs that work to assist the displaced urban poor in the country's major cities. This collaboration results in better coordination and gap coverage across agencies, reduced overhead costs for donors and excellent project outcomes. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

In early July, hundreds of relief and development experts from all over the U.S. descended upon Washington DC for the annual InterAction Forum. InterAction is a coalition of the United States’ international relief and development organizations and each year it holds this forum to enable its 165 member organizations to build linkages, exchange ideas, learn about new program innovations and meet with senior U.S. government policymakers. Mercy Corps was well-represented, with our CEO, Neal Keny-Guyer, and our President, Nancy Lindborg, leading our delegation.

Mercy Corps strives to be a thought leader within our community, and our delegation’s members led and contributed to a number of the Forum’s seminars. Neal led a discussion on gender issues in relief programming; Nancy took part in a panel discussion on the Obama Administration’s track record on development policy; our Technical Advisor for Market Development, Sarah Ward, led a panel on best practices for livelihoods programming in emergencies; and I spoke on a panel on funding trends in the humanitarian sector.

The humanitarian funding panel was attended by a standing-room-only crowd and we had a lively discussion. My co-panelists were Steve O’Malley of the United Nations, Carol Chan, the Director of USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, and Joel Charny, Vice-President of Refugees International. We explored an issue that is of growing importance to many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – what is the best way, in addressing a humanitarian emergency, to ensure that scarce donor resources get to the right people, as quickly and efficiently as possible, and with the maximum impact?

Traditionally, NGOs such as Mercy Corps have sought large-scale resources directly from government donors like USAID; however, in recent years, more and more governmental donors have been turning to the United Nations (UN) to act as a pass-through for their humanitarian resources. As I argued in a recent article, the UN’s performance in this pass-through role has often been problematic.

In the panel discussion, I argued that this trend towards a greater UN role in humanitarian funding is leaving less money for the NGOs who actually implement the aid projects, greatly worsening the bureaucratic hoops that NGOs must jump through in order to access that money, and ultimately hurting the effectiveness of aid programs. At the same time, I noted, it is important to acknowledge that this funding trend is driven by legitimate donor concerns – a desire to incentivize improved coordination, reduce their own administrative overhead and ensure that critical gaps get covered.

One obvious step is for the UN to improve its performance – and in fairness, they are making progress in this direction. But an equally important part of the solution is for NGOs to put forward an alternative model that can address the donors’ concerns while also avoiding some of the shortcomings we have seen in UN’s efforts.

This is precisely what Mercy Corps has done in Zimbabwe, where we lead a consortium of five other agencies working to assist the displaced urban poor in Zimbabwe’s major cities. In this effort, Mercy Corps acts as the prime recipient of funds from a number of different donors, and apportions those funds to our partner agencies across a wide range of assistance projects. The result is better coordination and gap coverage across agencies, reduced overhead costs for donors (who get to deal with one agency, rather than six) and, most importantly – excellent project outcomes.