The philosophy and culture of aid
- Start Network (SN) is made up of 55 aid agencies working across six continents, ranging from large international organisations to national and local non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Together, our aim is to transform humanitarian action through innovation, fast funding, early action, and localisation.
- SN believes it is well placed to give evidence to this inquiry. As a change agent, SN works to tackle some of the biggest systemic problems that the sector faces – problems including slow and reactive funding, centralised power and decision-making, and an aversion to change – which mean that people affected by crises around the world, do not receive the best help fast enough, and needless suffering results. The purpose of this submission is to share with the International Development Committee (IDC) the key topics that the Committee should consider as priorities for the inquiry, the problems, and challenges that the aid sector faces and how the culture of aid can change so action and delivery can be improved.
- SN has been challenging the traditional aid delivery model since 2010. Its vision is for a locally-driven, proactive and innovative humanitarian system in which people receive better quality humanitarian aid, maintain their dignity and are protected from suffering and harm. Since its inception, SN has successfully demonstrated that a more proactive aid with local voices at its core is possible, shifting paradigms and the behaviours of some of the sector’s key players, for example:
- The Start Fund is the first multi-donor pooled fund managed exclusively by NGOs, with devolved and collaborative decision making. It is the fastest and earliest fund – it activates funding in 72 hours of a crisis alert – and increasingly works on crises anticipation.
- Start Fund Bangladesh is a rapid emergency response fund in which 85% of funds go directly to local organisations. It has reduced the average operational cost from as high as 30.5% to as low as 11.2%.
- The Disasters and Emergencies Preparedness Programme (DEPP) worked with local, national, and international actors to strengthen capacity and provide flexible funding to better prepare for disasters.
- The Working Differently Challenge developed innovative solutions led by communities affected by humanitarian crises. One team in the Philippines developed an information management system which is now used by the local authority of Puerto Princesa to support COVID vaccine roll out.
- SN’s decentralised network of country-based civil society Hubs are launched by collectives of organisations on the front lines of crises to lead, design and manage their own programmes, shifting power away from centralised, international structures.
- The UK has been a world leader in providing humanitarian and development assistance to millions around the world, significantly supporting research and innovation in the humanitarian system. UK aid has demonstrated to be effective, transparent, and accountable to its mission of contributing to poverty reduction and sustainable development across the globe. Countries around the world recognise its commitment to help people in need.
- The UK was SN first donor and is the largest donor to the Start Fund. The leading role the UK has played has been key to influence international commitments to principled humanitarian action. The UK has also been instrumental driving SN vision for change supporting community innovation through the DEPP Labs, driving early and proactive humanitarian action through Disaster Risk Financing (DRF) funding – and through these instruments, locally-led aid.
Changing the culture of aid
- As a progressive supporter of global humanitarian change agendas, the UK has an opportunity to support what SN believes to be the cornerstone of the future of aid: achieving a locally-led humanitarian system to proactively, effectively and sustainably address the largest humanitarian crises of our times.
- Solutions to crises are often designed far away from the frontlines and are out of touch with the needs of people on the ground. Too many resources are held by a handful of international organisations, and often excluding local organisations, which lack direct access to funding, decision-making and representation in global forums. This means that millions of people are left without help when they need it most and communities find it harder to recover.
Therefore, SN believes the philosophy and culture of aid inquiry should consider the following topics:
Locally-led humanitarian action
- Nearly five years on from the World Humanitarian Summit, limited decision-making power, and access to resources for local and national actors remain a reality across the humanitarian ecosystem. While there is a greater recognition of the value and importance of local and national actors, and high-level commitments, such as the Agenda for Humanity and the Grand Bargain, have been agreed, tangible change has yet to take hold.
- SN believes that the current global humanitarian system is not accountable to people affected by crisis. Recognising, valuing, and prioritising local and national voices and creating the space for them to take on leading roles in crises is paramount, not only to optimise the limited resources and increase efficiency of aid, but ultimately to save more lives. Therefore, SN believes locally-led humanitarian action is the way forward.
- SN understands locally-led humanitarian action as a humanitarian system in which local actors take on leading roles in preparing for and responding to crises and are the primary determinants of how resources are invested, all the while ensuring that primary accountability is towards people affected by and at risk of crisis.
The reasoning behind advocating for locally-led humanitarian action is based on concrete evidence. To provide evidence to this enquiry, we have selected the following examples:
- Start Fund Bangladesh (SFB): The SFB is a £10 million rapid emergency response fund created by SN in 2017 with support from UK aid. SFB is transforming humanitarian action in tangible ways.
- Reaching out to local communities - Between 2019-2020 Start Fund Bangladesh provided 73.6% of funding directly to local and national NGOs. The global equivalent in 2019 was only 0.5%. This meant that resources were channelled more directly to front line responders, who are more responsive and connected to the communities.
- Faster response - Before SFB was in place, it took up to 20 days for help to reach communities. Now aid delivery is much more efficient, taking less than 10 days on average to reach communities. Operational costs have now reduced from 22% to 16%, as funding no longer passes through a long chain of intermediaries.
- Start Fund Covid-19: It provides rapid funding for small to medium responses at the local level, to address neglected or underfunded aspects of the broader COVID-19 pandemic, with a focus on neglected communities and geographies, as well as early action and anticipation.
- Reaching underfunded crises - It responded to, and prepared for, neglected or underfunded needs arising from the COVID-19 pandemic in specific countries, filling a gap in the existing responses of public health and government structures, funding mechanisms, and other NGOs responses. From April to June 2020 Start Fund COVID-19 funded 25 projects across 22 counties, disbursing £5 million. 
- Targeting the poorest - It supported vulnerable groups that were not covered by existing funding, either neglected communities or geographies. It reached 1, 702,328 individuals, 46 % of them male and 54% female.
- Investing in faster early action - It mitigated further spread or impact of COVID-19 by implementing anticipatory activities. COVID-19 has showed us that local action can be faster and more efficient. Funding our local members for COVID-19 meant that assistance began within 15 days. 
- Disaster and Emergency Preparedness Programme (DEPP) Innovation Labs: the DEPP Innovation Labs were a flagship initiative to support community-centred innovation in humanitarian environments in Bangladesh, Jordan, Kenya, and the Philippines.
- Supporting local-level innovation - The programme supported around 100 local innovations, 70 of which were incubated or supported to develop business plans, and around half of these have made progress in their identified pathway to sustainability.
- Scaling up local wisdom - Communities are better prepared for emergencies, 40% of the innovations have secured additional funding, partnerships for implementation, or are actively serving customers. DEPP Labs succeeded in creating community-centred innovation processes in four countries, representing a change to traditional humanitarian innovation that often lacks local leadership.
- Start Network Hubs – SN believes in the effectiveness of locally led humanitarian action, and in the ownership and agency of local actors and communities in humanitarian response. Hubs are collectives of local, national and international civil society organisations operating in the same country or region working to:
- Shift decision-making to the frontlines - They control their own resources and define their own responses to crises affecting their communities. This locates decision-making closer to the frontlines, ensuring efficient and sustainable responses and supporting community resilience.
- Decentralise the humanitarian system - With five initial hubs SN is becoming a diverse and disbursed network with the majority of its membership from countries affected by or at risk of crises. These hubs are in the DRC, Guatemala, India, the Pacific Region and Pakistan.
SN’s view is that the UK government should:
- Encourage commitments to and build a more power-balanced system by shifting resources and decision-making to the frontlines. Implement the Grand Bargain pledge of 25% of funding to local and national actors.
- Act as a complementary partner for locally-led responses that are being defined by those closest to crises, enhancing accountability and transparency. Require that every crisis response programme should be co-developed with local expertise at every stage of the response.
- Allocate resources for projects that enable and foster decentralisation. Fund initiatives that are led by communities and their local wisdom, as they are better suited to assess their needs and implement more impactful solutions.
Acting ahead of predictable crises
- Due to the global climate crisis, the severity and frequency of natural hazards is rising, which is increasing humanitarian needs. The number of people displaced by conflict is the highest on record, and millions more are driven to migrate out of necessity. COVID-19 and its related impacts are contributing to a further rise in humanitarian needs. These trends can be contained or reversed by anticipating predictable hazards to safeguard lives and livelihoods before they are affected.
- Given the increasing availability of risk and forecasting information, it is unacceptable to continue to wait for hazards to impact communities instead of acting before humanitarian needs manifest. Analysis suggests that at least 55% of crises are somewhat predictable, so could be managed and planned for in advance. While there have been moves to finance anticipatory action and early warning through funds like the UN Central Emergency Relief Fund (CERF), humanitarian appeals still take approximately 7-9 months to reach those affected. It is estimated that funding released based on pre-agreed triggers or plans through regional risk pools and early action and anticipation systems is equivalent to less than 1% of the UN appeals funding channelled to these crises. Here are some evidence-based reasons why SN advocates for new financing mechanisms:
- Fast and flexible funding promotes early action. The Start Fund was the first pooled funding mechanism in the world to release funding based on a forecast to enable NGOs to implement anticipatory action projects. It is the fastest humanitarian fund in the world, releasing funds within 72 hours of a forecast or onset of an emergency. Since then, it has disbursed £67,060,020 reaching 16,116,409 people in crisis. Alongside reaching communities earlier, NGO members have made their internal processes quicker to enable themselves to easily access this rapid funding.
- The right information enables anticipation. SN embedded crisis anticipation within the Start Fund. The combined investments of risk information and partnerships with cutting edge forecasters alongside the rapid Start Fund processes enabled Start Fund members to access funding before the peak of a crisis. It has since disbursed £7,590,956 and has reached 3,959,963 people. SN external evaluation in 2019 showed that 64% of the membership have conducted humanitarian action based on a forecast for the first time.
- Pre-agreed finance for better response. SN is developing more trigger-based humanitarian funds. These combine quantitative risk analysis with pre-agreed finance and contingency planning to automatically release funds when a risk model triggers. This improvement in the predictability of funds enhanced operational readiness and better coordination among actors. SN has already reached communities affected by flooding, heatwave, and drought in this way.
- Proactive risk management to adapt to climate change. In 2017, SN and the World Food Programme began a disaster risk financing project in Senegal with African Risk Capacity (ARC), a pioneering initiative transforming climate risk management across Sub-Saharan Africa. The ARC Replica project has improved the predictability and speed at which responses to drought are implemented, through proactive risk management. In Senegal in 2019, a pay-out from the ARC replica project reduced drought related hunger by 19%.
- The UK Government must continue to play a leading role in promoting anticipatory approaches which reduce the impact of hazards on people. To support anticipatory work, the UK Government should:
- Make pre-arranged finance the primary way that crises are paid for, so that funding gets where it is needed faster and with greater impact.
- Ensure that new and pre-agreed funding is channelled towards the poorest and most marginalised communities who are at most risk from crises and have the greatest ability to act early.
- Ensure that disaster financing systems are underpinned by a better analysis of risks and ensure that at-risk communities have access to the risk information that they need to act early.
- Continue to support NGOs as a critical complementary partner to governments in the effort to manage crises. This supports global efforts to build resilience and adaptation in the face of climate disasters.
A rethink of accountability and risk
- The Grand Bargain called to recognise the agency of people affected by crises and to improve efficiency and transparency of humanitarian action. In response to this, humanitarian actors and donors committed to improve leadership and governance mechanisms to ensure accountability to communities.
- Accountability is about holding power to account and enabling affected people to contribute into the decisions affecting them. Unless humanitarian agencies can find ways of creating broad, informed participation and leadership of affected populations and relevant stakeholders in decision-making processes, their response to address the needs and priorities will not be sufficient.
- Affected people often lack a voice in the decision-making process of the humanitarian agencies. Traditional accountability mechanisms have focused on fostering trust towards governments and donors to maintain ongoing support, this has hindered locally led humanitarian action. This has led to efforts to build alternative models that aim to include the participation of at-risk people and the most marginalised, in decision-making processes.
- Start Fund Bangladesh developed a framework for accountability to at-risk populations (AAP). One of the findings is that in most cases, the needs of the especially vulnerable people are ignored during needs assessment due to lack of clear strategy and guidelines that would ensure the voices of vulnerable groups are taken account of it.
- Accountability to at-risk populations should go hand-in-hand with developing Disaster Risk Financing (DRF) systems. DRF systems present opportunities for greater transparency and overall accountability, when compared with more conventional humanitarian responses. DRF may provide more time for deeper planning and engagement between and with stakeholders including communities before the need to act.
- Risk-averse due diligence and compliance systems are disproportionate barriers to locally-led humanitarian action. SN has developed an innovative ‘risk-aware’ approach by testing a tiered due diligence framework that enables a diverse spectrum of actors to get classified and gain access to resources. SN intends to enable due diligence assessments to be ‘passported’ across other donors and partners, reducing duplication and increasing efficiency.
- Build an evidence base for local humanitarian action that focuses on supporting and empowering communities and consider a holistic definition of risk and accountability. Strive for the use of local experts, and other local stakeholders, instead of international ones throughout the process of DRF System development.
- Increase the depth and breadth of accountability. Be accountable from the beginning and throughout each stage of aid delivery, and towards each actor involved, especially to the crises-affected population. Integrate to each funding programmes accountability towards affected populations.
- Reshape how to manage risk in a constructive way. High-risk aversion can be detrimental to localisation and can paralyse action; adapt your risk appetite to empower local actors by reforming your compliance requirements to be proportional to the context by which local actors operate in, and the level of access to resources to be equitable. Seek flexibility in the design of grant-making mechanisms so that local actors are not disproportionately holding most of the risk (e.g. disallowance clauses).
- SN thanks the UK government for the support given to its programmes and for being a partner in delivering humanitarian assistance and encourages UK aid to commit to early locally led humanitarian action, which as the above evidence shows, it is more proactive, efficient, timely and dignifies the lives of the world’s poorest.
- SN believes that this inquiry comes at a critical moment for the global aid system. In the context of key leadership moments for the UK, through its COP26 and G7 presidencies, and there has not been a better time to reflect on the purpose, quality, and delivery of UK aid. We would welcome further opportunities to contribute to this important discussion.
 SN. (2021). Start Network. Retrieved from Start Fund Bangladesh: https://startnetwork.org/start-fund/bangladesh
 SN. (2021). Start Network. Retrieved from Start Fund - Covid-19: An overview: https://startnetwork.org/resource/start-fund-covid-19-overview
 Clarke, D. and Hill, R., 2012, Cost-benefit Analysis of the African Risk Capacity Facility, University of Oxford and IFPRI, commissioned by WFP
 Weingarter, L., & Spencer, A. (2019). Financial flows mapping: the potential for a risk finance facility for civil society. ODI
 SN. (2021). Start Network. Retrieved from Start Fund: https://startnetwork.org/start-fund/alerts
 SN. (2020). ARC Replica pay-out Senegal 2020 Internal Evaluation. Retrieved from https://startnetwork.org/resource/arc-replica-payout-senegal-2020-internal-evaluation
 Hill, R. (2020) ‘Focusing on poverty: reducing vulnerability with disaster risk financing’, guidance note, Centre for Disaster Protection, London