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Efficiency & Effectiveness = Saving More Lives

Efficiency & Effectiveness = Saving More Lives

There has been a driving conceit in humanitarian action for decades that to rush into the abyss of a conflict or natural disaster, heart-bent on saving lives, means that the humanitarian doesn't need to pay attention to costs and whether one approach is more effective than another. You have to rush to save lives and such considerations take too much time.

While the rush to save lives is a potent argument, it neglects the fact that a near surgical approach is necessary to how we deploy people and resources into some of the most complex operating environments in the world. One need only look at Haiti or the growing mess around the Syria crisis to recognise that a flood of actors is not the best way to save lives.

We also have to recognise that while humanitarian funding is growing, needs far outstrip available funds and this disparity is likely to grow. Humanitarian funding is growing. It has seen a sharp increase over the last five years, from US$20.5 billion in 2014 to US$24.5 billon in 2015, or 16% increase. Humanitarian spending has seen similar increases over the last 10 years. (GHA Reports) This trend is likely to continue with climate change and the continued weakening of poor states around the world. While it would be nice to think that the world's rich countries will step up and support these increasing needs, it is unlikely. They usually underfund these needs already by 30 - 50%. 

Even if there was adequate funding for humanitarian action, we confuse ourselves with the notion that efficiency and effectiveness don't matter. The ability to track and understand what contributes to efficiency is a powerful tool that can be used to understand operational performance. Money is like the magnetic dye used in a CAT scan--we can see how it winds its way through every part of an organism. Spike and dips in costs indicate operational issues that need to be investigated. Effectiveness comes in when one can analyse such data, combine the analysis with data from other sources, and then act. Data should drive every action. 

The results associated with being more efficient and effective are becoming more and more clear. We are seeing this in our extensive work with DFID in Somalia. This includes the use of SMART Phones for real-time data collection, quality assurance through GPS, time stamps, and visual/audio media collected at intervention sites, and the ability to mix, match, aggregate/desegregate data on intuitive, detail rich on-line dashboards. This didn't come easy. We needed to help DFID partners, from UNICEF. WFP, FAO, UNHCR, ICRC, and over a dozen INGOs to standardise their survey instruments and log-frames. Now, DFID and its partners can use data to understand issues associated with the pipeline of supplies, the actual delivery of services, and the quality of the people there to serve those in need. When problems occur---and, in Somalia, there are always problems--partners can adjust, moving resources to new areas or changing the mix of interventions to better serve communities. While this approach still has a long way to go, it is showing that the collection of useful, actionable data is possible even in the toughest operating environments. 

Much, much more can be done. An evaluation we conducted of UNHCR's response tot he Syria Crisis in Jordan and Lebanon shows that they typify the humanitarian communities' perception of efficiency and effectiveness. (Beyond Humanitarian Assistance? UNHCR and the Response to Syrian Refugees in Jordan and Lebanon)  Senior UNHCR staff were able to site various initiatives that they had taken to save money, from advanced registration biometrics to credit cards for cash transfers, and yet when we asked for the actual cost:benefit analysis they were stymied. We said maybe we should talk to people in their accounting departments but these people had never conducted any such analysis. UNHCR staff, managers, and accountants, simply don't think that way. When we presented this in our conclusions, very senior people in UNHCR kept saying, "Yes, but we have budgets that we stick to . . ."

This is of course is true but a budget has nothing to do with financial management, with being able to trace the flows of money through an operation so that inefficiencies can be tracked and so that areas where there are significant returns, a reel bang for the buck, can be scaled-up. 

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