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Aid and innovation

Jeremy Konydyk on the flaws in the humanitarian business model

Bureaucracy, turf wars and miscoordination are part and parcel of the U.N. and the aid sector. But the U.N. is what donors make it, says the former head of disaster relief for USAID.

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Chief Innovation Officer, International Rescue Committee
Director of Innovation Strategy, International Rescue Committee

Talking about a “humanitarian business model” might sound like an oxymoron. But according to Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, if we want to improve the way U.N. agencies work, we need to start thinking about them like businesses with competing priorities, working in a system of incentives that don’t always generate the desired outcome of supporting people in need.

Konyndyk was the director of USAID’s Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) from 2013-2017, where he led the US government’s response to international disasters. At OFDA, Konyndyk headed a global team of nearly 600 humanitarian professionals, managed annual resources of more than $1.4 billion, and oversaw OFDA’s responses to an average of 70 disasters in 50 countries every year. He led major US government humanitarian responses including the Ebola response in West Africa.

The way money from donor nations is funneled to different branches of the U.N. isn’t based on impartial assessments of need, Konyndyk tells Grant and Ravi, summarizing his recent report. Instead, aid allocation is highly political. Different U.N. agencies receive different funding levels based on political considerations in donor countries rather than need in recipient nations.

Jeremy Konyndyk, senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development. Photo: CGD

Contrast aid for refugees and aid for people in war zones. Over 13 million people in Syria are in need of food, water, health and educational assistance, according to the United Nations. Another 5.6 million Syrians are refugees who have fled their countries. But because of the way funding is allocated to different U.N. agencies — in this case, the U.N. Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees — Syrian refugees receive over four times the aid per capita as Syrians in Syria, $1,076 per Syrian refugee as opposed to $252 per Syrian resident. For donors, Konyndyk implies, supporting refugees is more politically expedient than supporting disaster relief.

The business of aid can also generate perverse turf wars on the ground. Konyndyk recalls visiting an IDP camp in northern Nigeria where agencies had built entirely different structures to serve only the very specific health needs under their mandates: A UNICEF building for women’s and children’s health. A UNFPA building for survivors of gender-based violence. A local NGO building providing primary care. “It's not setting up service provision based on the presumption of the whole individual,” Konyndyk explains. “It is segmenting the individual's needs to meet the bureaucratic structure that we've set up.”

It's not as if there is some inherently correct and neutral way to give humanitarian assistance … The model that we have today predominantly evolved to serve the interests of the largest U.N. aid agencies and the donors. That doesn't mean it's inherently bad, but I think it's important to recognize that this is not necessarily an inherent reflection of the only way … things can be.

This episode is a fantastic complement to last week’s discussion with Owen Barder on why we need an alternative to refugee camps. In this episode, we dissect the humanitarian business model through the lens of the Ebola epidemic and the refugee crisis.

Related Resources

Rethinking the Humanitarian Business Model — Center for Global Development, Jeremy Konyndyk

Empty Ebola Clinics in Liberia Are Seen as Misstep in U.S. Relief Effort — New York Times, Norimitsu Onishi

Ebola: A Humanitarian Crisis, or a Crisis of Humanitarian Governance? — Humanitarian Policy Network, Kristina Bergtora Sandvik

Responding to Puerto Rico’s Disaster is Uniquely Complex. But the Trump Administration is Still Falling Short. — Washington Post, Jeremy Konyndyk

Is USAID set to fail on disaster response? — Center for Global Development, Jeremy Konyndyk

Opinions and views expressed by guests are their own and do not reflect those of the International Rescue Committee.