DARA matters

By Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop

This year DARA will celebrate its 10th anniversary. In these ten years, DARA has become a force to be reckoned with in humanitarian policy and thinking. As a small independent organisation, DARA has been able to deliver high quality publications aimed at improving performance in the humanitarian sector. DARA has pushed humanitarian agencies and governments, even to the point of irritation, to reflect on their policies and practices, calling for step changes in the way they conduct their work and to address ongoing gaps in the way aid is delivered. The organisation’s strength has been its analyses and recommendations, which are based on evidence and extensive field research in over 50 crisis countries.

Ed Schenkenberg, DARA Chief Executive ©Juan Michel/The Sphere Project

Ed Schenkenberg, DARA Chief Executive/ © Juan Michel/The Sphere Project

As any other (humanitarian) organisation, DARA must make sure that it stays relevant, especially at a time when the organisation changes its leadership. “You have big shoes to fill,” was a saying that I heard often when I took over from Ross Mountain as DARA’s Chief Executive at the beginning of this year. Clearly, his achievements in DARA have been many and have contributed to extending the organisation’s reputation and influence.

In taking over from Ross, I am taking a good look at DARA’s internal matters as well as our environment and the rapid changes in the humanitarian landscape. One of the main challenges for DARA will be to continue bringing the real picture of the situation on the ground to the attention of policy and decision-makers. Too often, agencies continue to report on the quantities of relief items that they have distributed. Not on how many people they did not reach.

Especially in situations of armed conflict, be it Syria or the Central African Republic, there are too few humanitarian organisations that have direct operations in combat zones. Remote management, which means that international agencies work through local partners, is becoming more the rule than the exception. The implications of this type of operations for aid effectiveness and accountability are yet to be examined.

Also, new humanitarian agencies from Turkey or the Gulf States have entered the humanitarian sphere. They may have other, different and unconventional, ways of working. As a result, there is a dearth of operationally relevant and accurate information. This serious constraint must be seen in light of the trend of the increased attention from donor governments on standards, accountability, and ‘Value for Money,’ a concept introduced by them to express to their constituencies, the tax payers, that they will choose the channels that are most effective and efficient. These donors, however, forget to mention that no one exactly knows which agency is more effective and efficient, because no one has the complete and true picture.

Complicating matters further, consolidated inter-agency appeals are rarely a timely and accurate reflection of the real needs on the ground. They are more mandate-driven than needs-based. If available, a ‘who is doing, what and where’ (3W) picture is often out-dated or only partially correct. Inter-agency meetings with donors often become fundraising events, instead of meaningful dialogues on strategy, operational challenges and capacities.

The humanitarian business model is based on embellishing one’s operations in order to fall within the favour of the donors. This fundamental flaw is what makes DARA relevant. Donor and agency performance must be measured, made transparent, and, where possible, improved. I am committed to leading DARA as a lean organisation that holds humanitarian players to account on their performance and to remain the independent voice on behalf of disaster and conflict affected populations, who deserve better and accountable humanitarian aid. DARA’s work on quality and effectiveness matters.