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From climate-related disasters to health emergencies and armed conflicts, humanitarian crises are intensifying both in scale and frequency. The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on health, economic, and food systems; the growing impacts of climate change on extreme weather events and associated food and water shortages; and the increasingly protracted nature of conflicts have placed millions more people in situations of vulnerability.
In January, the Global Humanitarian Overview estimated that 274 million people would require humanitarian assistance this year — some 39 million more than in 2021 — putting mounting pressure on the humanitarian system to respond.
How have development and humanitarian organizations adapted to this changing landscape? And what shifts are needed to build resilience in the face of change? Devex spoke with three past recipients of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize that have been weathering the storm and building their ability to tackle challenges with greater agility.
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About the Hilton Humanitarian Prize
Established by the Hilton Foundation in 1996, the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize honors the work of nonprofits making a mark in humanitarian action and having distinguished themselves by leading innovative solutions to humanitarian relief or development assistance. It is the world’s largest humanitarian award presented to an NGO annually.
Shining Hope for Communities, or SHOFCO, a Kenya-based nonprofit organization, had been delivering a range of services in informal settlements when the pandemic struck. Its close ties to communities made it uniquely positioned to provide front-line pandemic response, SHOFCO founder and CEO Kennedy Odede told Devex.
While the decision to change course from its regular programming and provide emergency assistance to communities was a no-brainer, Odede said international guidelines were of little help. The World Health Organization’s stay-at-home and hygiene recommendations, for instance, were impossible to put into place in informal settlements facing overcrowding and a lack of running water.
“I met a woman in Kibera [an informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital] one day. She told me, I’d better die from corona than from hunger,” Odede recalled. “COVID-19 was the eye-opener to tell us the [naked truth] of the inequality that exists.”
SHOFCO joined local partners to provide context-sensitive services including emergency food support, clean water distribution, and cash transfers using Kenya’s M-PESA mobile money service. The organization also built a COVID-19 rumor-tracking system, using artificial intelligence to provide factual information on the disease via text message.
Odede credited SHOFCO’s ability to deliver critical programming at that time to the unprecedented partnerships that emerged between public, private, and civil society actors. His organization could have done even more, he said, had it been able to direct more resources toward its pandemic response. But with a large part of its international funds being tied to specific objectives, that wasn’t possible.
“What’s interesting is that the only funding that helped was unrestricted,” he said. “That is the money that did the magic during that time.”
A recipient of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize in 2018, SHOFCO directed the funds toward growing its capacity by hiring core staffers and improving its impact measurement processes, Odede said. This allowed the organization to build credibility in the eyes of international donors, which still helps the organization secure funding, he added.
Partners In Health — the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize Laureate in 2005 — which provides health care and works to strengthen health systems in a range of countries, also found that local partnerships were central to responding efficiently to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Lesotho, the organization was able to leverage existing relationships with the Ministry of Health and local groups such as village chiefs and community workers to provide and assist with front-line services during the pandemic, said Dr. Melino Ndayizigiye, the executive director of Partners In Health in Lesotho.
Forming long-term partnerships and tackling the social determinants of health are essential to help organizations and their partners build resilience and address challenges, Ndayizigiye said, yet restricted funding often prevents organizations from working toward that goal.
“Humanitarian organizations and donors should understand that if they want to make a big impact on human lives, they should be flexible and make sure that the money is used to build health systems and to address the needs of the communities,” he said.
By allowing more flexibility in how funding is spent, donors can also enable local organizations to deliver solutions that are culturally appropriate, said Shipra Deo, the director for women’s land rights in India at Landesa, which aims to strengthen land rights for people living in poverty.
With its work already attuned to the interconnection between gender and poverty, Landesa knew its pandemic response had to take into account local norms when delivering assistance on the ground. For example, places of worship that had been identified by the government as locations for food delivery were not all equally accessible to women across the country, Deo said.
“Gender norms differ from place to place and they are very localized, so it's important that we understand what those norms are, and the specific challenges that are preventing women from accessing any sort of service at the time of crisis,” she told Devex.
Landesa’s own trajectory reflects a greater attention paid to the increasingly complex nature of humanitarian challenges. A Laureate of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize in 2015, the organization directed the $1 million prize toward supporting its expansion into new areas, including women’s land rights and climate change, new partnerships with local governments, and hiring more local staffers. The prize allowed Landesa to test and scale a new approach to addressing poverty from a systems perspective and set the stage for long-term impact, said Deo.
“We know that our approach is not easy to explain to the development community, which is conditioned to see immediate results,” she said. “The main thing for us is to have clarity on our own theory of change.”
Landesa’s systems approach is key to tackling climate change, according to Chris Jochnick, the president and CEO at the organization. Having secure land rights is fundamental for local communities to maintain and develop climate-friendly practices that protect land and forests, but working simultaneously on women’s rights is equally important.
“Women are the first line of defense,” Jochnick said. “They are the ones who will take the kind of actions to help mitigate against climate change if they're given secure rights to their land, if they're given the ability to protect their land.”
Systemic approaches would also help countries build their capacity to respond to health challenges, said Partners In Health’s Ndayizigiye. Whereas Lesotho has received significant funding to tackle specific diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis, those funds cannot be used to strengthen the country’s health system, for example.
“If a health center does not have water, electricity, or medications, instead of directing the money to one disease, it's better to invest in infrastructure, equipment, staff, systems, and social support for the most poor and vulnerable populations,” he said.
Organizations can no longer aspire to work single-handedly on complex issues, Jochnick said. Systemic approaches require collaboration and partnerships with a range of groups, including local governments and organizations. That’s why Landesa has increased its number of local staffers, who are better positioned both geographically and culturally to form those partnerships. Building those relationships is critical for international organizations to demonstrate the value of their work and maintain their legitimacy, in a context where they’re faced with increased skepticism from local groups.
“We have to confront the legacy of colonialism,” Jochnick said. “It's not enough anymore just to transfer resources. We have to be mindful of power imbalances and how our work is ultimately helping to shift power, which means building the capacity, building partnerships, giving more space for local actors.”
For SHOFCO’s Odede, shifting power is also about recognizing the inherent ability of local organizations to handle complexity. As a grassroots organization, SHOFCO knows that communities face multiple challenges that cannot be easily tackled in isolation.
“We, as Africans, live as a community, and in a community, it’s complicated. There are issues of water, gender, violence that need to be addressed,” he said. “We believe that for anything to happen, the community has to really take charge.”
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