Humanitarian coordination has been described in a new ODI paper as a ‘wicked problem’ which demands new and radical solutions. This post explores the  longstanding incentive issues underlying the lack of effective coordination and suggests possible ways forward.

In a paper published last yearMichael Barnett and I argued that the humanitarian system was stuck in much the same kind of bizarre loop as Bill Murray’s character in the film Groundhog Day: that it was ‘condemned to repeat’. Each major disaster highlights pretty much the same problems and flaws, from Rwanda to the Tsunami to Haiti. This is despite a lot of work to try and improve the quality and accountability of aid between these events. Although some remarkable innovations have improved specific aspects of humanitarian aid, system-wide performance remains a major issue.

Drawing on the game theoretical work of Professor Elinor Ostrom and other leading political scientists, we argued that at the heart of this repetition was the issue of incentives.

The humanitarian system has few incentives for collective action, which are seen by many as key to effective coordination. Few of the humanitarian reform initiatives which have been launched over the past 15 years have attempted to understand or address the incentives that underlie and reinforce existing behaviours. This is because few if any agencies have been willing to sacrifice delivering quickly against their individual mandates for the benefit of the wider response.

This  ‘me first’ mentality is apparent throughout the interactions that make up the system – not just between international actors, but also in interactions with national and local actors, with ‘non-traditional’ actors such as the private sector and the military. It is also painfully evident in interactions with disaster-affected populations themselves.

Michael and I argued that without serious effort to examine and strengthen the incentives to cooperate versus those to ‘go it alone’, the coordination of humanitarian aid is likely to continue see a Groundhog Day-style repetition of below-par performance characterised by this ‘me-first’ mentality.

Haiti is the tragic exemplar for our times. Despite the complexity and scale of the post-earthquake response, the mechanisms set up to coordinate international efforts – sector-specific clusters in health, shelter, and so on – had no formal decision-making mechanisms or mandates. Remarkably, given their nominally central role in ensuring the coherence, effectiveness and efficiency of the response, the success of the cluster operations by and large came down to the personality or leadership skills of a single individual.

An ODI roundtable last month on the workings of the humanitarian system concluded that:

The recent humanitarian experience in Haiti is a tale of exclusion. The humanitarian system, with all its resources and coordination and information-sharing mechanisms, succeeded in by-passing many of the spontaneous, ad hoc or informal indigenous humanitarian responses. [agencies] actively excluded others, often without good reason.

None of this is new, of course. A UNOCHA-commissioned study published ten years ago revealed

…a ‘system’ that shows determined resistance to cede authority to anyone or any structure… Despite the urgency of the task, and the potential impact on human lives of poorly coordinated humanitarian responses, [key leaders] at the field level are all denied the ability to direct or manage humanitarian responses. Instead, all have to work on the basis of coordination by consensus. In the face of the obstacles, this is an uphill struggle…”

The Rwanda evaluation, published five years earlier in 1996, noted that the international system had ‘a hollow core’. It would seem that the latest solutions to this problem are also somewhat hollow.

And this is increasingly being recognised by disaster-affected states. Those that can afford to are turning down or strictly limiting international assistance. When Australia’s foreign minister Kevin Rudd was interviewed after the recent floods affecting his country, he argued that that one of the worst things they could have done was to have “a whole lot of uncoordinated delivery of stuff from around the globe plonked on [our] doorstep”. There are numerous ongoing debates in the context of the Japanese earthquake response which are also pertinent to this issue.

How can we deal with the Groundhog Day problem in system-wide humanitarian performance? There are numerous ideas bubbling around at the moment, from strict regulation to nationalisation to partial privatisation. But unless these new efforts tackle the incentives that arise at the point of disaster, they are unlikely to lead to significant and lasting change.

An important focus for anyone reflecting on how to improve system-wide performance is to explore ways to change the pay-offs, so that the longer-term incentives for mutual cooperation in the interests of disaster-affected people outweigh the short-term incentives for going it alone.

Without this issue being put front and centre so as to address the ‘hollow core’, any new reform to improve system-wide performance will sit on top of these issues instead of resolving them. Agencies will continue to deliver against their narrow, short-term organisationally-defined objectives, to the detriment of their own longer-term benefits, overall system-wide performance, and most importantly of all, the communities they purportedly seek to help.

Of course, such self-examination is not an easy thing to do, nor is it easy act upon. As the write-up of the ODI event notes, humanitarian coordination is a good example of a “wicked problem“: “difficult and fluid problems with no clear solutions, to which any response typically creates additional problems… the more closely they are examined or the better they are understood, the more complex and insoluble they may seem.” It continues:

Collective strategic action in the face of these problems may be continually frustrated; more effective responses may depend on developing and strengthening decentralised, diverse, non-linear and non-hierarchical approaches to problem-solving across the humanitarian sector.”

One radical suggestion for changing the pay-offs by along these line scomes from Yaneer Bar-Yam, president of the New England Complex Systems Institute. He suggests that the shortcomings of the humanitarian-response system in Haiti have a lot to do with a principle of systems thinking known as requisite variety. This states that an effective system has to have as many different states of response as conditions that are presented by its environment – or more simply, that internal diversity has to match external diversity.

This implies that we need to be seeing a lot more creativity and innovation in coordination efforts, in ways that are appropriate and tailored to different emergency contexts. The ‘one-size-fits-all’ model of the clusters, together with their lack of coordination ‘teeth’, may well be hindering more than helping performance.

There are also serious questions to address about who gets to judge the performance of agencies. According to a Slade interview with Bar-Yam, one example of such an improved model would be:

…one that understands that duplication and competition among NGOs is not a bad thing, so long as organizations are rewarded with donor money for delivering effective solutions.  And those solutions can only be determined by Haitians themselves…”  (emphasis added)

This idea seems to have some resonance with “cash on delivery” – an innovation from the development side of the system. Of course any attempt to apply this principle to humanitarian aid needs a lot more thought – and it is just one suggestion – but it is certainly an intriguing one. There are no doubt more such ideas to consider. What does seem clear is that this kind of incentives-focused thinking needs to play a central role in the current round of efforts on humanitarian performance and reform, if we are serious about change.

In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character was only able to end his continuous loop of the same day when he started putting his own interests to one side. He ended the cycle when he stopped being arrogant and duplicitous, stopped trying to ‘win’, and started acting in the interests of the greater good in a simple and honest way.

Groundhog Day is a fable, of course, and to many it may appear a rather sentimental one. But it also contains a lesson that international humanitarian actors would do well to heed.

Join the conversation! 14 Comments

  1. […] signed to vowing to stop the fragmented service delivery.Making the system work as a market, with incentives to make it more responsive to efficiency gains would improving the results of the system as a […]

  2. […] being confronted with the latest ideas on best practices from ODI and the daily chores of coördination, there seems to be little movement towards a more market based approach. Does the following story […]

  3. […] is not safe to assume that participants in a coordination mechanism share a common development goal. Indeed, sometimes one organisation is interested to push local […]

  4. Do you have pingbacks activated? I have some related posts where I explore exactly the need for incentives, not towards coordination as an objective, but towards a coherent respons.

  5. […] The Humanitarian Groundhog Day – Aid on the Edge – For those of you wondering why Japan has decided to turn down most offers of assistance, this article discussed the continued failure to coordinate in disaster response situations. […]

  6. […] a paper published last year,  Michael Barnett and I argued that the humanitarian system was stuck in much the same kind of […]

  7. As Ramalingam rightly emphasises humanitarian aid organizations should focus on deep understanding of the intricate dimensions of the situation at hand, operating in a flexible manner that can accommodate unforeseen developments, and allowing for a more in-depth programme approach that requires a longer timeframe to deal with this “wicked problem”.

    Reality shows that (humanitarian) aid organizations often treat donors as most important stakeholders in the aid chain (Wallace, Bornstein, & Chapman, 2007). Compared with downward accountability, the accountability to the beneficiaries in the aid chain, the upward accountability to donors is much stronger. An important factor to explain this upward accountability is the financial incentive (Ebrahim, 2005) and (Mebrahtu, Pratt, & Lönnqvist, 2007). When aid organisations do not match project selection criteria and comply with the contract conditions, funding will not be released. The financial contribution of donors, especially institutional donors, is often based on short-term project applications, rather than developmental oriented programmes. Context analyses and needs assessments are normally not regarded by donors as fundable activities. Instead donors stress compliance with contractual obligations and the donor’s procedures, while the room for negotiation on contract conditions is rather limited. Donors require project reports that demonstrate predictable and tangible results. Only if reports are approved the donor transfers the next financial instalment, otherwise the financial transfers are stalled. This may lead to situations where decisions and actions directed to the donors may not always coincide with the desired change in people’s lives.
    One way to deal with this situation is to influence the funding flow and the decision-making criteria to make funding available. Altering the decision-making criteria may not be achievable, as donors themselves define them. However, once well justified, a case could be made to make the donors more lenient to an approach based on complexity principles, in which projects should be embedded and anchored in programmes that are based on sound analysis of changes in the community and take into account that planning should be flexible. The Most Significant Change technique may be a good tool to motivate such a case why the humanitarian aid organisation is convinced that a certain strategy will be effective. Also I would like to stress here the importance of downward accountability as promoted by HAP-I as a integral part of any programme/intervention.


  8. […] on The Humanitarian Groundhog Day, the always efficacious Ben Ramalingam pointed out the coordination is a wicked problem [pdf] […]

  9. […] The Humanitarian Groundhog Day – Aid on the Edge – Asks why we keep repeating the same mistakes in post-disaster coordination. […]

  10. […] Similarly, if there are multiple NGOs involved in the area, whether they’re coordinating or not, there are likely to be cumulative impacts. (However, I should note that this game works regardless […]

  11. I think it is an essential post in solving the main humanitarian issues.

    In essence, the incentive structure every single organisation faces leads to just minding its own business.

    The incentive placed by the international community is much more towards executing co-ordination (see: we are sitting in the meetings) than delivering results without gaps nor overlaps.

    I would argue that treating the humanitarian system like a market, where the regulator (donor, not UN) enforces the free flow of information, would manage to divert attention from a means objective (sitting in co-ordination) to a results objective (having humanitarian results). While the international community seems to choose for the cartel as a solution for the co-ordination problem, competition probably might have more impact.

  12. […] on The Humanitarian Groundhog Day, the always efficacious Ben Ramalingam pointed out the coordination is a wicked problem [pdf] – […]


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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Chaos, Evolution, Innovation, Institutions, Knowledge and learning, Leadership, Meetings, Natural disasters, Networks, Organisations, Public Policy, Self organisation