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Humanitarian Aid on the move # 15, special issue: The Quality of Aid

Integrating complexity and uncertainty into the quality debate
François Grünewald

The debate on quality and certification is often limited to questions of procedures, protocols, and indicators. But it is dangerous to limit the debate in this way when complex and unpredictable situations call for rapid and flexible action. There is tension between “doing things right” and “doing the right things”.

Quality assurance consists of managing pre-identified “critical points”. Logical frameworks and other planning tools are theoretically expected to guide us towards clear objectives. Standards and other norms should allow us to conduct our activities as well as possible and in a coherent way within an organisation, or a group of organisations. However, as they say in the army, “no plan survives contact with the enemy”.

Revisiting past experiences is essential in order to identify poorly-managed critical points and the results of potential conflict between well-designed and well-planned humanitarian operations and complex and turbulent realities. We can learn a lot from looking back at the lessons from the 2004 Tsunami, the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the crises in Chad, Somalia and the Middle East.

 Desegregating complexity and turbulence

Humanitarian aid programmes which are ineffective, or which may even “do harm”, are generally the result of an insufficiently fine-tuned diagnosis of the situation. This often leads to security incidents, loss of access to the population, and inappropriate delivery of basic services. It is therefore very important to understand the complexity of situations.

Cultural and religious complexity: There is no shortage of examples which show the importance of these dimensions. In Chad, the ethnic and socio-cultural fabric of the country and the complex relations between the pastoral, agro-pastoral and agricultural groups is a key factor which affects the definition of needs. In Somalia, the complex clan system and the interaction between traditional Somali values and the current rise of a more monolithic Islamic system are amongst the numerous factors which have shaped the current conflict and explain certain problems in terms of access to the population. Lack of understanding of these issues has led numerous organisations to run inappropriate programmes and put communities and their staff in danger.

Situations with a mixture of political and religious issues which are difficult to grasp: Political processes, which are often linked to religious processes, are different in each area and are key parameters in the development of disaster management capacities and the establishment of effective and accountable basic services. As such, authorities can either accept or reject humanitarian aid organisations depending on their own political interests at a given time. In order to be able to operate in these contexts, it is therefore necessary to read political situations, which is not always the strong point of humanitarian aid organisations.

The new challenges of working in “high risk zones”: “High risk zones” are characterised by the rise of climate change-related disasters, and rapid and unplanned urbanization linked to rural poverty, which is the result of lack of work in rural areas, the difficulty of making a living from agriculture, and growing competition over natural resources. On the one hand, there is the tendency for people to settle in unsafe areas. On the other, the socio-economic equation in these urban areas plays an important role in shaping the centrifugal forces that challenge the powers in place in numerous contexts. Understanding this set of parameters is a key factor in the definition of programmes, negotiation of access and whether projects are successful in the end.

Thus, in many parts of the world, people question whether aid really has any effect. There are many different reasons, some objective and justified, some less so, for this crisis of confidence: the corruption of elites, the fact that the aid community is overly indulgent of unacceptable practices, problems of dialogue between national civil societies and international aid organizations, poor coordination and serious gaps in responses, lack of faith in national disaster management systems, the manipulation of aid for political ends, and the impression that the humanitarian system is self-serving. This facet of the problem needs to be taken into account in the debate on quality in order to establish how to rebuild confidence in these contexts which are always different.