Dr. Jemilah Mahmood Under-Secretary General for Partnerships, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
Date: Friday, 7 February, 2020
Location: Ireland

Dr. Jemilah Mahmood,

Under-Secretary General for Partnerships, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

Ireland at Fordham University Lecture, 06 February 2020

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen.  All protocols observed.


I would like to begin with my thanks to the Permanent Mission of Ireland and Fordham University, for the honour of speaking today as part of the Ireland at Fordham Humanitarian Lecture series.  I am standing on the shoulders of giants, since this series has previously brought two of the globe’s most important humanitarian diplomats to this stage.

Last April, former President Mary Robinson spoke with passion and urgency about climate justice, an issue to which she has contributed so much, and in October current President Michael Higgins brought you an equally strong call for action, on the role public intellectuals have to play in defending some of our most life-saving ideas, from humanitarianism itself to refugee protection.  I can assure you, like my predecessors, I was partially educated by the Irish and my headmistress, a feisty 90-year-old Sr. Enda Ryan, deserves much credit for my achievements, and is surely very proud of me today.

While it is hardly likely that I may ever have the chance to take my turn as President of Ireland, but like the former esteemed speakers, I am also here with a call to action for you.  In other words, no one is walking out of here free of your share of responsibility to help us solve one of the biggest threats currently facing humanitarian action.

The threat I want to talk about is not as obvious as the international community’s terrifying failure to take the steps so obviously needed to halt global warming, or the crazy way that our debates are turning vulnerable migrants and refugees into scapegoats instead of people who need and deserve our protection.

But it may be just as damaging.

“They never listen, so I don’t trust them,” told us a young migrant woman who had spent some time in a transit center in Italy.

“’You make promises without delivering anything,” a community member told us in Beni, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the epicenter of the current Ebola epidemic.

We have a trust problem or deficit in the humanitarian sector, and we all need to fix it.

We in the Red Cross and Red Crescent, are so concerned about this that we devoted a major part of our recent quadrennial International Conference with the states to it.  As you can see from the title of my speech, I have an idea about what we can do, and it involves paying the right attention to “going local”.

To begin with, I need you to keep these THREE things in mind:

  • First – trust is often seen as something warm and fuzzy.  Trust makes us feel safe.  It makes us feel comfortable.  But the truth is that trust is about taking some risks.  It is a leap of faith.  This is why it can be lost so quickly.  Trust in long-standing institutions is not necessarily eternal.  It is also often hard to come by when it is time for fundamental change.
  • Second – trust is a matter of life and death.  If the right people don’t trust humanitarians, we can very literally die, and so can they.  On the other hand, if the humanitarian sector (including our donors) can’t find a way to start trusting the right people – then humanitarianism itself may die.  Who are those people?  Those we hope to help – and also those who want to help in their own communities.   This is what I mean by going local.
  • Finally — trust is like water.  Too little and we die, too much and we drown.  We absolutely need trust in the humanitarian sector.  But it is not a stand-alone.  Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) reminded his companions :  “Trust in God, but first tie up your camel”.   Former US president, Ronald Reagan, used to say, “trust, but verify”.    

So, trust is about ensuring adequate risk assessment, being accountable and finding a way to balance and measure both.

So, this begs the question – how much should we trust?

Setting the scene

Let me start by setting the scene.  Why do I claim that trust is so important to humanitarian action?  It is – as President Higgins already told us in October – humanitarianism is basically an idea — a story we tell ourselves — and stories only work if we “suspend our disbelief”.

The historian Yuval Harari has explained that the shift of human beings’ from small family social units, to nations and ideologies gathering millions owes a great deal to our ability to invent and then believe in stories.  In other words, having common “imagined realities” — that allow us to believe in invisible constructs such as limited liability companies and nations as a way of organising ourselves.

Our economy is based on these kinds of helpful fictions.  It is only because we all believe in the worth of currency and in the stability of markets that these things continue to function.  Over many decades, we have also built up a shared concept of reality for humanitarian action, with a notion that that there is such a thing as global solidarity, rules in war, and principles to which humanitarians will abide.

This is closely linked to the history of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, which I have had the honour and privilege to be a part of, for just over the last four years.  Born more than 150 years ago in an Italian battlefield, and now represented through 14 million volunteers in 192 countries around the world, both our individual National Societies and their international components (the IFRC and the ICRC) are among the most trusted “brands” in the world.

But trust doesn’t necessarily last forever.  We can fall out of love with even the oldest and most traditional imagined realities.  Certainly, we have seen many market crashes where that mutual belief – as well as huge amounts of “imagined” money — suddenly went up in a puff of smoke.

Along the same lines, we are currently about 10 years (perhaps starting with the Arab Spring) into a febrile period where public belief in many core aspects of “the system” is disappearing around the world.  We see unprecedented doubt in government, in multilateral institutions, in the media, in globalisation and trade, and even in science.

About two weeks ago, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called this global wave of mistrust one of the “four horsemen” that “endanger 21st-century progress and imperil 21st-century possibilities.”

As many of you know, the Edelman Company has been running annual public surveys in several dozen countries on trust issues for the last twenty years, finding a major falloff in public confidence in institutions such as government, large corporations, the media and even NGOs (though there has been a modest uptick for the latter in the last few years).  This year’s report shows a continued  “trust inequity” gap, with the most highly educated segments of society showing much higher confidence in NGOs, the media, and other institutions than the public at large.

Last year’s report specified that only one in five people (educated or not) believed that “the system” was working for them and over 70% were ready for change.  In the West in particular, the politics of many countries have embraced change of unprecedented scope, with large swathes of voters essentially endorsing Mark Zuckerberg’s motto of “moving fast and breaking things”, and we have seen the consequences of that.

As people reject official sources of information, they are increasingly turning to search engines and social media to inform themselves.  In the absence of accepted referees of truth, new imagined realities can easily form in the algorithmic echo chambers, that fly in the face of facts rather than building on them, sometimes based on who is shouting loudest.

Pressure on the principles – particularly neutrality

This environment is a new test for the traditional tools of the humanitarian sector.  The International Red Cross and Cross and Red Crescent, and many other humanitarian actors, have placed a great deal of faith in our humanitarian principles as our central tool for maintaining trust.  This is particularly true for the fundamental principle of neutrality.  Our statutes describe neutrality as indispensable for “enjoying the confidence at all.”  For us, this means not only refusing to take sides in war, but also avoiding “controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature.”

In his commentary on our Fundamental Principles written over thirty years ago, ICRC legal guru Jean Pictet pointed out that, even then, there was a rising tendency for many to see neutrality as a cop-out, as essentially siding with the status quo, and insisting that everyone must take a stand. He said that, and I quote:  “the Red Cross must make it clear to those concerned that it constitutes an exception, at a time when, throughout the world, things are becoming more and more politicized….The Red Cross cannot compromise itself in this wild turmoil. It has therefore confined itself to fields of action in which there are no such disputes, or at least should not be, and aims at carrying out tasks which rally virtually unanimous support.”

This has always been a hard balance – so hard, in fact, that some of our peers, such as Oxfam, have formally signed off from neutrality.  Others interpret it so narrowly that their advocacy messaging stops just short of what one could expect from a political party.  But there is a clear price for this.  Governments in crisis-affected countries increasingly see humanitarians as the vanguard of political meddling — using crisis situations (when controls are weak) as an opportunity and excuse to push a partisan agenda.  In many recent crises, from Sudan to Myanmar, Syria to North Korea, the National Red Cross or Red Crescent Society has found itself the only humanitarian actor allowed access to many of the people most in need.  In other countries, like here in the US, the National Society is the only non-governmental actor allowed regular access to major governmental committees on emergency response.

Neutrality is an important reason why.  And, like trust itself, one does not easily “get neutrality back” if it is ever set aside.

On the other hand, it is abundantly clear that our current (and potential future) young volunteers are now, more than ever, expecting us to raise our voice, particularly on climate change, for the dignified treatment of vulnerable migrants, for gender justice and inclusivity.  To a large extent, the aspects of these issues where we have the most expertise – such as in the human impacts of climate disasters, and the humanitarian needs of vulnerable migrants – fit well within Pictet’s exception for issues about “which there are no … disputes, or at least should not be”.   You are starting to hear a louder voice from us on these issues where “there should not be” dispute.

For example, in September, the IFRC released a report on “The Cost of Doing Nothing”, which shows that, if we do not change the ongoing rise in global warming, the number of people needing humanitarian aid due to weather related events is likely to double to 200 million per year by 2050 – and that even by 2030, the global humanitarian spend on such events will have already skyrocketed to USD 20 billion per year.

In December, we confronted state parties to the Geneva Conventions at our quadrennial International Conference with a series of scenarios about the rising tolls of humanitarian crisis driven by the climate that our members are already struggling to address, and obtained their endorsement of calls to strengthen and modernize disaster laws and policies to account for climate change and to leave no one behind.

Likewise, migration is among the most contested political issues in a significant number of countries.  But without taking a stance on whether states should promote more or less migrants, we are speaking up for their dignity and rights, and in particular for their safety and access to essential services.  We raised this consistently in the recent development of the Compacts on Migration and on Refugees.  At our recent statutory meetings in December, the entire Movement adopted a “Statement on Migration and Our Common Humanity” presented to the state parties to the Geneva Conventions at our International Conference.

We are doing our best to thread the needle between neutrality and standing up – but we know that we will continue to be challenged to do more.   Maintaining trust with an activist public (and volunteer) base may come to be directly at odds with maintaining trust with states – yet we need both to do our work.

Rise of the compliance culture

As challenging as that may be, just staying true to our principles will not be enough to maintain trust in the humanitarian sector.  While they disagree on many things, both our individual and governmental donors are worried about value for money, and the possibility that money will be wasted, or even go awry.  These concerns are common sense and nothing new.  They are absolutely right that this money must be spent transparently, wisely and well.

But the ever-rising level of anxiety about these issues — and the way we balance them against other kinds of risks – is a drag on our ability to save lives.

Just a few years ago, on the occasion of the World Humanitarian Summit, donors and agencies signed a far-reaching “Grand Bargain” with the intention to finally correct some of the longest-standing and most costly absurdities in the way the global system functions.  The flame of that moment’s courage is still alive, but it is still struggling under heavy headwinds.   

On the donor side, these commitments included reducing the “earmarking” of pledges to reduce the top-down rigidity in how we respond to needs, the provision of multi-year funding to allow us to address the long-term issues, particularly in chronic situations, and the reduction of donor reporting burdens.

As of last year, multi-year and unearmarked funding had grown overall in the sector, but only by a few percentage points, according to Development Initiative’s Global Humanitarian Assistance Report.  At the IFRC, nearly 70% of pledges to our 2018 appeals were still earmarked, and less than 20% of our pledges overall were for more than one year.  We were also required to produce over 1,700 separate donor reports. That is a lot of time that could have been put to much better use.

Trust from the people we seek to help

We will do what we must to keep the trust of the individuals and governments that fund us, or money will stop flowing, and people in need will suffer.  But what about those people we hope to help?

It turns out that their trust is even more important. 

Let’s take the case of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  First announced in August 2018, to date, over 3,000 cases have been identified.  This is an area suffering from over two decades of conflict, where basic services are already scarce – and people have already been dying from many, less headline-catching diseases from malaria to pneumonia.  They don’t trust the authorities and they don’t trust outsiders.  As voiced to Marie-Rosaline Bélizaire, a WHO doctor, people say: “They say, we are in a war zone. We have been killed -so many people, so many times.  So why are you coming now?”

Now overlay on this the extreme strangeness of Ebola, with its grisly symptoms, the bizarre spaceman uniforms, the shocking separateness we need from the bodies of loved ones, and the terrors of quarantine.  We had already learned many lessons about this from our experience with Ebola in West Africa in 2014-16.  Frightened, distrustful people do not seek help when they are sick.  They do not report deaths.  Some even attack their helpers.

When the virus first appeared to the city of Butembo in DRC, a 25-year old carpenter was exposed to an identified case.  Health workers asked him to  be tested.  “I had heard many rumours about how those who left for the Ebola treatment centre died,” he said later. “So, I fled the centre and went back home.”  When many feel like this, you will never contain an epidemic.

Building on our experience in West Africa, the DRC Red Cross organised volunteers to undertake safe and dignified burials.  Hundreds of volunteers regularly collect information from the neighbours and communities about rumours, attitudes, fears and complaints.  With help from Centre for Disease Control (CDC), we analysed this data to get a granular sense of what people were thinking.

In some communities, we heard that people thought that our burial teams were replacing the bodies with rocks and then selling their organs.  They thought that people transported to Ebola treatment centres were injected with poison and then died.   With our community engagement and accountability programmes we found ways to address these fears (for instance, by ensuring that family members could see their loved ones being prepared and at the time of burial).   Taking simple measures – like changing from an opaque to a translucent body bag – does much to dispel doubt and mistrust.  Yes, we listened and more importantly, we acted.

In late October 2018, only 28% of reports of Ebola deaths were coming to the DRC Red Cross from the communities themselves, with the rest coming from the treatment centres.  After extensive community-based information and education work – by February 2019, 81% of our calls were coming from the communities.  This is an important success – and after 20,000 burials, we feel we are making a huge difference in containing this disease, a good thing as coronavirus seizes global attention.  But we can never be complacent.  There have been attacks against the DRC National Society volunteers as recently as last month – when two were seriously injured.  We have to keep listening.

During my visit to Erbil in Iraq last year, I sat and listened to the lamentations of a group of women from local NGOs.  They shared some examples on the lack of ability of international donors and agencies to engage, listen to, understand and trust the views of people.  One of them is hard for me to forget, as if it wasn’t so sad, would be terribly funny.

A UN agency wanted to work in a community and decided, with obviously little consultation, that rearing egg producing hens, would be an effective way to restore livelihoods.  There were a few problems.  Many in the community had no experience with rearing hens, were unclear what the hens were for and beautiful, fluffy white hens imported from Ukraine (yes you heard me right) costing probably five times more than the local hens finally arrived.  Within a week, half were slaughtered for meals, another significant portion sold off leaving a suspicious community wondering if humanitarian workers were making money on the side through a hen racketeering business.

Ground Truth Solutions, an NGO with whom we have been partnering, has been surveying aid recipients in crisis settings around the world.  In a survey of over 7,000 people in 7 countries it found that many – over 70% – were willing to say that they trusted humanitarians.  But when they dug deeper, they find them feeling mainly disappointed and disempowered.  Seventy-five per cent of them said that the aid they received did not meet their needs. This shows that, even if we are saving lives, we are obviously not listening well enough to what people want and need.

But will we trust them?

This brings me to the flip side of this issue – how can we expect the people we serve to trust us, if we are not willing to trust them?  The Grand Bargain promised not only some change in this area, but a “revolution” in community participation.  We are nowhere near there yet.

It isn’t that we don’t talk to people affected by crises.  We are constantly asking them questions – in big operations with multiple responders, affected communities sometimes get “assessed” over and over again by different agencies.  However, we are still not good enough at actually listening.  And even when we do listen, we often do not act on what we hear, and worse still we don’t deliver what we promise.

For example, among those who are currently living in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, after fleeing Myanmar, we found in 2018 that 43% sold the aid they received on the market. The following year this number was up to 59%. This is in part an argument for providing cash rather than our stock food and non-food items (another one of our commitments in the Grand Bargain).  Giving cash – particularly unconditional cash – is our way of trusting that people are smart enough to address their own most important needs.  A great deal of research has been done on this and it fully supports the case for trust.

This is now widely agreed by donors and agencies alike – and the volume of cash programming is rapidly increasing.  As of 2018, it was estimated at USD 4.7 billion, with an increasing proportion in the form of cash rather than vouchers (rising from 55% in 2015 to 78% in 2018) – though still only representing 16% of the overall aid spend.  Within our own network, the Turkish Red Crescent is currently leading the world’s largest cash assistance programme in coordination with the authorities and support from the IFRC and ECHO.  The IFRC and our network of national societies, deliver 25% of the entire global cash program annually and this figure is rising.

However, while donor agencies have mainly accepted the case for cash, a distrustful electorate and press in some donor markets are still making ominous noises, based on disproven assumptions that recipients are likely to “waste” cash, or that cash is more likely to be the object of fraud.

Still, cash is not a panacea. True community engagement and accountability is about more than just the type of aid we give.  It is about our readiness to adapt what we do more generally to the needs of affected people as they themselves see them and not just respond to our own assumptions.  We need to get beyond the suggestion box to real transformation.

Let me give you another example from just across the border. Indigenous communities are the most affected by the many natural hazard related disasters affecting Canada every year. The Grand Chief of the Prince Albert Grand Council in Saskatchewan which represents 22 indigenous communities, said that for a long time the communities he represents did not trust the Canadian Red Cross because they perceived it as an arm of the government, with whom they had of course historical grievances.

However, all this changed when the Prince Albert area was affected by severe flooding a few years ago—many indigenous communities disagreed with the evacuation plans proposed by the government and therefore evacuated on their own, in a different area than the one designated by the government. The Canadian Red Cross still provided those communities with cash assistance and other support, even if they were not officially registered with the government. This was a turning point for the Grand Chief, where he saw that the Canadian Red Cross was willing to meet them on their terms, even if the government wasn’t.

Since then, the Prince Albert Grand Council has signed a historical agreement with the Canadian Red Cross through which communities will be able to participate in and work in the planning of evacuations. “We recognize that communities know their communities best’’ said Cindy Fuchs, Vice President of the Canadian Red Cross in Saskatchewan.

In major emergencies, however, we are still often on autopilot – copying and pasting from one plan to another without taking the time, up front, to engage.  Like many of our partners, we are trying hard to break out of this pattern.  In December, we formally adopted a harmonized and ambitious approach to community and accountability that will apply across our Red Cross Red Crescent Movement.

Donors need to help the humanitarian community to succeed with this.  This means finding ways to allow for more flexibility in mid-stream changes of plan. Aid organisations need to be able to go beyond rigid log frames but to be able to listen, adjust, deliver impact and learn.  With all the best intentions, efforts to do this are often still too difficult to be effective.

Building trust with local civil society and governments

Finally, we need to address our trust gap between international and local responders.  When we were preparing the World Humanitarian Summit (as I was leading the WHS Secretariat before joining the Red Cross), we carried out what I believe is the largest and most diverse ever consultation with a wide variety of people,  about the global humanitarian system.  We connected with over 23,000 people, in 151 countries.  A consistent message that we heard throughout the consultations was the need for the international humanitarian community essentially to wake up to the enormous capacity of governments and civil society in states impacted by crises – particularly in situations of non-conflict disasters, where we expect all to be pulling in the same direction.

Around the same time, the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing concluded that much greater investment in local responders would be absolutely indispensable in a world where humanitarian needs continue to far outpace international funding (to the tune of over USD 15 billion) and where global appeals are constantly under-funded (usually persistently just around 60%)!    

The rationale for investment in local actors was certainly related to value for money, including over the long term, but also touched on other values.  Local actors can work much more efficiently in response to emergencies and investments in them build sustainability, by connecting today’s response with tomorrow’s preparedness capacity.  Increasing focus on “localisation” was one of only a handful of game changing steps that the Panel recommended to bridge the humanitarian financing gap over the long term.

Local actors also bring advantages when it comes to winning the community’s trust.  As pointed out in the Edelman Trust Barometer, “people in my community” were among the most trusted categories of persons in 2020 and “people like myself” were considered amongst the most credible sources of information.  With this in mind, community-level volunteers, like those supporting National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, have some of the best chances of winning the trust of affected persons in their communities, as we have seen in the DRC Ebola virus example.

Many international NGOs and UN agencies have realised this and look to directly hire as many local staff as possible.  Unfortunately, particularly in a major and protracted response operation, this can have the reverse  effect of undermining local capacity, as talented governmental and local civil society staffers are lured away for better-paid positions, leaving their local institutions and organisations weaker.   This is not the way to strengthen local capacity.

There are still major hurdles to overcome.  Overall, direct funding to local actors (the majority of it to governments and not civil society) has barely budged – from 2.0% (USD 433 million) of overall humanitarian funding in 2016 to 3.1% (USD 648 million) in 2018, while less direct funding was estimated that year at 8.74%.  Most of the funds they received was through intermediaries, such as UN agencies or INGOs, with consequent added expense as well as loss of direct communication and understanding – between those carrying out the work at the last mile and those paying for it.

Local actors complained that they were often treated as sub-contractors, with little discretion to make use of their knowledge of local needs and traditions, and very little opportunity to obtain support for their long-term capacity.

This led to a commitment in the Grand Bargain to increase funding channelled to national and local responders “as directly as possible” (removing multiple layers) to 25% of the overall humanitarian spend by 2020, as well as to increase investment in their institutional capacity, support their voices in coordination mechanisms, and promote stronger partnerships between international and local responders.  None of these goals could be met without significant levels of trust between international and local partners.

Together with the Swiss Government, the IFRC has acted as a co-convener of the Grand Bargain’s Localisation Workstream, where signatories are cooperating to support each other in carrying out their commitments.  Since 2016, we have seen important progress on some of those commitments but much less in others.

Many donors, UN agencies and INGOs have been rethinking how they work with local partners, changing policies that get in the way, and piloting new approaches.  For example, Italy revised procedures in 2016 and moved to a direct funding relationship with its first local NGO partners.  The ACT Alliance changed the rules for its Rapid Response Fund to make it available only to local actors.  Mercy Corps ran a capacity building program in Syria, through which local partners received remote coaching, mentoring, training and ongoing support to strengthen their capacity in financial, operational, and programmatic areas. UNHCR changed its policy on providing overhead costs, which had provided INGOs an overhead amount on contracts but not local civil society organisations.  Germany and many other donors significantly increased their support for the UN’s Country-Based Pooled Funds, with the ambition that many of those Funds would increase the number of local actors receiving funding.  While this has achieved progress in some contexts, but it is not across the board, and still has many challenges for local actors to gain direct benefit.

Apart from IFRC which is the largest global humanitarian network, others particularly faith-based network organisations, like Act Alliance and Caritas – have long devoted themselves to supporting local actors to respond in their own communities.  But we also have many things to improve.  The IFRC general assembly last December just adopted a new ten-year strategy committing themselves to a series of transformations, including a major shift of leadership and decision-making to the most local level – particularly to our 165,000 branches, where most important services are delivered.

During our visits to several “demonstrator countries” and in regional workshops in Africa, Asia-Pacific and the Middle East, we heard from many local actors who struggled with repeated capacity assessments and heavy due diligence processes, after which they were still often treated as sub-contractors.  Women-led and women’s rights organisations report particular difficulties breaking into humanitarian financing and coordination mechanisms.

Donors are leery of risk and worried about the capacity needed to oversee a multitude of new partners.  Not all local actors are prepared to act according to humanitarian principles or humanitarian quality standards.  International actors worry about how this shift will affect their funding and role in the future.  There are still plenty of stumbling blocks on the way to major system change.

In the meantime, however, some steps are being taken toward “localisation” whether the international community wants them or not.  After the Sulawesi earthquake in Indonesia, the authorities limited the entry of international actors unless they could find a local partner to sponsor them.  With the tables turned, and as reported by the Humanitarian Advisory Group, “some international organisations reported radical shifts in their partnership management.  Fewer international staff were employed into the partner organisations.  In-country partners took strategic and operational decisions … resulting in greater local ownership of the response.”  The majority of cluster meetings were conducted in Bahasa Indonesia instead of English.  International actors were still contributing – but in a different way.  As governments grow in capacity and confidence (particularly in Asia), we can expect more to take their cue from Indonesia’s experience.

Of course, bans on international humanitarian action are not what we are looking for.  International responders will continue to have an important role in a more localised humanitarian system, most especially in conflict settings where blocking humanitarian aid is often used as a tool of war.  But the turned tables in the Sulawesi case show a glimpse of a response that is much closer to the ideal of “as local as possible, as international as necessary” than many internationals have managed to achieve so far in their own incremental changes to partnerships and coordination mechanisms.

In fact, just last week, my day turned a little brighter reading about SOS Sahel, an international NGO working for more than 36 years in Sudan and Ethiopia, that decided it was time to close down the charity as enough local capacity had been developed to continue the work.  We need to learn how they arrived at this point and reflect on the role of many organisations that have persisted for decades without significantly supporting leadership by local actors.

As someone who began her career from the global south, founding a national/southern based hybrid national – international NGO or a southern based INGO as some called us, that somehow fit neither here nor there, but yet seamlessly able to blend in and learn from all sides, let me also share my personal reflections and regrets.

Local and southern based NGOs have to be very careful not to strive be a mirror image of the more established northern NGOs.  When I founded MERCY Malaysia, I wanted to prove that we were as good as, if not more effective and efficient, as these established organisations.  My colleagues and I worked on quality assurance, obtaining then the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership certification ahead of many other large INGOs.

All this was very important for our internal learning, quality assurance and commitment to accountability both to donors and people we serve.  But one thing I always reminded myself and colleagues then, was that we should never lose what is precious as local southern organisations.  As an organisation born in a multi-racial and multi-ethnic country, our humility, our deep knowledge of culture, our innate ability to easily build relationships with diverse communities, our precious asset and natural ability to listen, understand and learn from the people we aim to support, were crucial building blocks to enable us to deliver the best possible assistance for people and with people.  There is no magic formula.

Sometimes, I felt like the token southern organisation representative, this rather unique Muslim woman from the global south, who was a decent communicator, was opinionated and courageous enough to speak out.  I am glad there are many like me more visible now, but the reality is we do NOT fully represent all the smaller community organisations, the grassroot organisations run by women, nor the people affected by conflict and crises who can themselves self-organise and act.

So, both international and southern based organisations, especially the ones who are often represented in workshops and meetings around the world, need to be humble and acknowledge that.  We all need to do more to build those bridges and relationships with people, and I daresay, to one day be able to allow them to lead us.

Personally, after a more than 20-year persistent and patient journey and stubborn advocacy, dialogues and commitments to localisation are common today. In my lifetime, I have seen the shift we pushed for actually begin to happen.

Looking to the future, I know there will similarly be another hopefully more persistent group of individuals, who will push forward and continually transform the “system” and put trust and power into affected people’s hands themselves.  And people affected by crises or caught in conflict will raise their voices more frequently and louder.  I urge you to read the Guardian article published yesterday appropriately entitled “Stop ignoring us: Rohingya refugees demand role in running camps”

To achieve this much needed shift, we will require a completely different funding model and system, from what we now widely use in the humanitarian sector.  The fast-growing application of FinTech, digital social networks and the ability for people caught in crises to connect directly with those who want to assist will certainly catalyse this.

It is also the action of individuals, like my friend Amierah who crowdsources funding to get much needed warm blankets for migrants and refugees landing on remote Greek islands, and connects to friends on the island, and others who have shipping containers and storage.  The private sector will increasingly play a role, we just need to know how to harness and guide the partnership, so that our precious humanitarian principles are preserved.  Most importantly, we need to ensure that everything we do will protect the safety and dignity of those we hope to serve.

But there are dark clouds looming above us today.   A narrowing humanitarian space imposed by governments may result in national and local actors being more able to strengthen preparedness, response and recovery from disasters arising from natural hazards – that gives us reason to celebrate!   

However, closing and limiting access to people caught in conflicts is threatening our ability to reach those most in need and hardest to reach.  Added to this, current discourse and increasingly restrictive counter-terrorism legislation can cripple humanitarian action.  I would never argue that security is unimportant, but we may yet see the negative repercussion of these regulations, when people feel they are victimised and forgotten.

The way forward

So, how do we maintain trust in humanitarian action?  Even in our turbulent times, our principles are still a potent tool and certainly one we will want to protect from permanent damage.  We hope that this will be possible even as we stand up for humanitarian values when the political sphere becomes so extreme as to place them in jeopardy.

To keep the trust of the public (and through them, our major donors), humanitarian organisations must maintain best-in-class safeguards against fraud and misuse of funds.  We must be transparent and conscientious in our use of resources that are entrusted to us on behalf of those in need.    And for aid to be effective, donors must also allow us enough breathing space to make some of our own decisions about how to use these funds without being buried in over-reporting and paperwork.  To turn around Reagan’s phrase – verify, yes, but with some trust.

We need to rise to the challenge in trying to maintain trust in an increasingly noisy world. Where confirmation bias of artificial intelligence create algorithms that drive greater polarisation, where fake news is paradoxically taken more seriously than mainstream news, where social media becomes the first point of news and information – and we need humanitarian actors to diversify skillsets to manage this, to master these digital and media platforms rather than always being on the reactive side.  We need to continually engage in ways that might seem non-traditional today, but obsolete in just a few years’ time, as the rapid speed of change in digital communication and increasingly available technology to all.

And we must work together to go local.  This is where you come in.  As I hope you remember, this speech is ending with an assignment for you.  Because going local requires its own leap of faith at a very distrustful time.  If we do not take it, we risk losing the confidence of the communities where we work, the people we seek to help, and the governments of affected countries.  Losing that confidence can be just as fatal as closing the spigot of humanitarian funding.

What is your role?  Some of you, like me, are Grand Bargain signatories.   I am sure among you here are international actors and you need to adjust to current and future realities – to be bold, courageous and adaptable – to foresee what role you are best placed to contribute, and when you might eventually exit.  Others of you are current, and my hope is many of you are future thought leaders for our sector.  I need all of your help to overcome that most deadly of threats to change – “humanitarian reform fatigue.”

We are moving, very slowly and painfully, toward a more localised approach, where communities are supported to be their own heroes and international support strengthens and enhances, rather than replacing and undermining, local capacity.  This is just the moment when many past reforms in our sector have begun to lose steam – when the incremental improvements make the finish line look impossibly far and people begin thinking about the next catchphrase.  We need your voices – and your tweets and posts — to encourage all of us to keep on going in this race to truly build a system fit for our future –  that is empowering, and acknowledges the power that people who we see as being on the receiving end – are often capable of being innovative, effective and accountable.

Excellencies, distinguished guests, friends – I met someone I admire, Sir Ellen Johnson Sirleaf at the UN General Assembly last year.  I lamented how it is sometimes so hard to push for reform and she replied “The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.” 

So to paraphrase John Lennon – you can say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I know many of you share the same desire to see not just a better humanitarian system, but more importantly better outcomes for people who are caught in some of the worst circumstances, merely because they were born in a different place, under different circumstances – not by any choice of their own.  We are no better than them if not for that.

If improving our systems and approaches helps us achieve our goals, then let’s start by investing in building trust, doing and delivering what we say, with humility and perseverance, to the very people who deserve that trust – the local populations.

And may the Force be with us.

Thank you.


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