Make the “Grand Bargain” Grand Again

A Five-Step Proposal

20 July 2018

Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock at the 18 June 2018 Grand Bargain Annual Meeting in New York saying: “The Grand Bargain is ‘grand’ for its inclusiveness on an equal footing of donors and aid agencies and a ‘bargain’ for its ‘quid quo pro’ approach to tackling systemic problems.” [Photo by ICVA/ Melissa Pitotti]

The 18 June 2018 annual meeting of the Grand Bargain signatories in New York was a reunion of sorts, a celebration of a multi-stakeholder negotiation that began in February 2016 and culminated in an important deal struck in May 2016 between humanitarian donors and aid agencies to work better together. As someone who sat through every single round of the Grand Bargain negotiations in 2016, and who has been active in 2017 and 2018 trying to deliver pieces of the Bargain, I was genuinely happy to be there. However, I left the meeting with some concerns.

ODI’s presentation of its annual independent review of progress made against the 51 Grand Bargain commitments found that “the sense of urgency with which signatories originally came together in 2016 is starting to ebb.” Furthermore, the Grand Bargain’s “bureaucratic footprint” – or structural set-up for implementation comprised of a Facilitation Group, a Secretariat, nine workstreams each led by a donor and an agency “co-convenor,” a self-reporting system, and an independent annual report – is not particularly “light.” (This is awkward, given that the Grand Bargain is supposed to improve efficiency.)

Evidence of tangible impact of the Grand Bargain remains elusive. Farida Bena of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) notes that “despite the overall progress, IRC’s average grant length from humanitarian donors is still only about twelve months.” Réiseal Ni Chéilleachair of Trócaire points out that generous, unearmarked core funding provided to UN agencies like UNHCR are not being replicated for NGOs, including national NGOs who also need core support. Nick van Praag reports that affected people surveyed by Ground Truth Solutions continue to be “unable to participate in decisions that affect them.”

Kristalina Georgieva, the World Bank’s CEO and Grand Bargain “Eminent Person,” threw out some ideas for consideration.  “To streamline bureaucracy, let’s streamline our own bureaucracy,” she said. According to documents circulated a month later, the Grand Bargain Facilitation Group will now work with ODI to “propose a list of priority commitments for consideration by workstream co-convenors by 30 July.” Workstream co-convenors will “identify current baseline[s] and indicator[s] for success.” Some workstreams could merge. Kristalina Georgieva will meet with a “select number of Principals” on the margins of the UN General Assembly meeting in the Fall to discuss this further. 

Although my organization is a signatory of the Grand Bargain, we are unsure which commitments will be chosen as priorities. We do not know how much time and effort will be required to come up with new baselines and indicators. We have not yet heard who will be invited to meet with Ms. Georgieva in the Fall. More importantly, we can’t say with confidence that this long process will eventually result in the desired end state as framed by Sheri Arnott of World Vision: “For us, the Grand Bargain’s success will ultimately be measured by how its commitments lead to positive change for disaster-affected children, families and communities.” 

Keeping the desired end state in mind, I would humbly put forward for consideration a five-step proposal to put the Grand Bargain back on a trajectory that will leave contributors feeling it was a worth-while endeavour.

First, to maintain the feeling of ownership in the Grand Bargain process, all 59 signatories should be meaningfully consulted on proposed changes. This can be done by replicating the model used by NGOs, whereby InterAction (the current NGO representative in the Facilitation Group) regularly consults NGO signatories. Other members of the Facilitation Group - Sweden, the U.S., OCHA, UNICEF, and IFRC - should hold similar consultations with donors, United Nations agencies, and Red Cross Red Crescent Movement constituencies. During the consultations, the change process should be made very clear. As pointed out by Ignacio Packer, ICVA’s Executive Director, reflecting on the introduction of a Video Assistant Referee system at the World Cup: “You set the rules of the game. We play by the rules. If the rules change, there should be a transparent decision-making process with clarity of roles, responsibilities and where decisions are taken.

Second, we should avoid spending too much time picking and choosing commitments and restructuring and agreeing on baselines and indicators. Rather, we should immediately help workstream co-convenors to “sequence” the delivery of commitments, design collective processes as needed, and allocate the resources required to get the job done. We should remain committed to implementing the whole package. I believe the workstreams looking at transparency and reporting are moving in the right direction in this regard. I would like to see accelerated progress on the UN’s harmonization of approaches towards NGOs (which falls under “reducing duplication and management costs” workstream).  As noted by Michael Mosselmans of Christian Aid, “Whilst we have made good progress on some of the low-hanging fruit, we need to unlock higher-level political will and commitment in order to successfully reach some of the highest fruits.’’

Third, we should double down on those pieces of the Grand Bargain that are working. For example, 12 donors and 23 partners are currently testing out a harmonized “8+3” narrative reporting form in three countries – Iraq, Myanmar, and Somalia. According to GPPi’s July 2018 mid-term assessment, one-third of users already feel it saves time. We need more donors and partners to join Year 2 of the reporting pilot. If this experiment works, we can eventually take simplified, harmonized reporting to scale, potentially saving partners thousands of hours to engage more with affected populations and less with paperwork, as described in Less Paper More Aid. A Charter4Change analysis of Grand Bargain self-reports on the localization workstream found examples of good practice among donors, UN agencies and NGOs the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement. These can be replicated.

Fourth, as stated in the NGO consortia statement at the Grand Bargain Annual Meeting, we want to see country level dialogues on what the Grand Bargain means for affected people and providers of humanitarian assistance and protection. Bringing donors and agencies together at the country level will be more inclusive of national and local actors – including women’s organizations - and allow for more context-specific solutions to arise through the Grand Bargain framework. NGOs have pioneered the way for taking the Grand Bargain conversations to the country level with a 9 July 2018 workshop in Mogadishu organized by the Somalia NGO Consortium, VOICE, ICVA and INTERSOS. IFRC and Switzerland are currently organizing three “demonstrator country” missions to other locations. The more of these types of engagements, the better. The presence of the Eminent Person in country-level dialogue would be meaningful.

Fifth, let’s talk about risk. Since the first round of negotiations in February 2016, NGOs have been warning that the Grand Bargain does not adequately address issues of risk mitigation and sharing in the humanitarian system. The issue cuts to the core of the ‘quid pro quo,’ which fundamentally requires greater levels of trust between donors and partners to function effectively.  Improved management of risk is one of the few paths through which donors are likely to trust partners with greater funds, over longer periods of time, with reduced oversight burdens – characteristics which cut across many of the Grand Bargain workstreams. To move forward in this area, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) has a plan to map existing studies and develop some key messages that could serve as the basis for a discussion with donors. The recent OCHA-commissioned study on partner capacity assessments (PCAs) – linked to another Grand Bargain commitment on sharing assessments - could also serve as a lens to look at risk, as PCAs are tools used to assess risk and should be the basis to tailor-make investments in capacity (another Grand Bargain commitment, by the way).

These five steps would help, in my opinion, to put the Bargain back on track. They will not, however, close the system-wide funding gap. In the best case scenario, according to the January 2016 High Level Panel report called “Too important to fail: addressing the humanitarian financing gap”, the Bargain would save $1 billion in efficiencies, leaving a $14 billion funding gap remaining for humanitarian action.  To help close the gap, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Humanitarian Financing Task Team is launching a learning lab on innovative financing to explore ways to tap into new resources. But it needs that same level of political support and spirit of solidarity that has enabled the Grand Bargain to progress as far as it has today.

By Melissa Pitotti, Director of Policy, ICVA