Are Humanitarian Agencies Policy Graveyards?

by | May 11, 2023 | Change |


Last year, I tackled a small area behind our vegetable garden. I knew the soil was rich as we had found a lot of rotting manure there when we moved in. The weeds loved it and so I found myself clearing 5ft high stinging nettles, thistles, docks, and all manner of weeds. In the end I cleared it, put down lots of cardboard (following the no-dig method) and then added an enormous amount of wood chip on top. I marked out my rows, planted a plum tree in one, a pear in another, and then added raspberry canes and dreamt of eating them.

But then I did nothing. I was pleased that the cardboard and the woodchip kept most of the weeds at bay. The key word is ‘most’. This morning, after a year of neglect, I was back in the same spot pulling out 5ft high stinging nettles, thistles, docks, and all manner of weeds. And of course, trying not to pull out the raspberries. Most of the time spent last year was wasted. Instead of doing a small bit of weeding throughout the year not allowing new weeds to get a foot hold, I was repeating my efforts. (And it will take many more mornings!)

The humanitarian space is full of policies, guidance, and ideas of how to improve all manner of things. We do landscaping reearch, key informant research, secondary research, and create tomes of paper about most things. We may lovely, pretty even, designs like I did last year. But then, we, like I did, we walk away. We don’t do the hard work, the consistent work of showing up day after day after day working with frontline teams, discovering with them, how to implement the policy. We don’t translate the policies into everyday language, everyday action that help shift the culture.

Unfortunately, we see the policy as an end goal. Therefore, many humanitarian organisations are graveyards of wonderful policies, never implemented. We measure policies created, not culture changed. In the early years of the Sphere Standards, we saw a massive push for the roll out, for training. Years were spent regularly training people who would in turn train others. Why don’t we see the same kind of effort for data responsibility?

Too often we repeat ourselves. We don’t follow through. And so, we are back in the same part of the industry (or garden) doing policy work once again. What would happen if we took all that energy, all those resources, and did consistent training and work with frontline teams? I think we might have a different result.

Photo by Forrest Smith

1 Comment

  1. Abraham ABRAHAM

    I fully agree! Even in conference rooms we continue to theorize humanitarian policies without spending all that valuable time and energy on the front lines! I think we have enough data to move on the ground but prefer to continue theorizing in our comfort zones away from the front lines where the action is needed.


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