Affirming our unique role as development & humanitarian NGOs: interview with ACT EU member CEOs

ACT EU Junior Policy Officer Stefano Filipuzzi against a white background
By Stefano Filipuzzi
9 July 2024
Collage of three close-up pictures of DCA, Diakonia Czech Republic, and NCA Secretaries General.
Following ACT Alliance EU's General Assembly, we interviewed three of the CEOs of our member organisations - DCA Secretary General Jonas Vejsager Nøddekær, Diakonia Czech Republic Executive Director Kinga Komorowska, and NCA Secretary General Dagfinn Høybråten—to hear their perspectives on the alarming trends in national development and humanitarian agendas and learn more about the steps being taken to navigate and influence the evolving global landscape.  

CEOs of our member organisations recently met in Brussels during ACT Alliance EU’s General Assembly. This year, with EU elections looming and alarming trends in national development and humanitarian agendas, talks centred on reaffirming the role of civil society at this crucial juncture.

We interviewed three of the CEOs of our member organisations – DCA Secretary General Jonas Vejsager Nøddekær, Diakonia Czech Republic Executive Director Kinga Komorowska, and NCA Secretary General Dagfinn Høybråten—to hear their perspectives on these trends and learn more about the steps being taken to navigate and influence the evolving global landscape.  

They bring a combination of vast operational experience globally, politically and in NGO leadership. We asked their perspectives on challenges currently affecting the development and humanitarian sector and the main priorities for change. We also asked them about the contributions ACT Alliance EU, its members & supporter bases, and the sector at large must make to address these global challenges. 

Priorities and challenges in the development and humanitarian sector 

When asked about the key priorities for change in humanitarian aid and development, our interviewees emphasised several critical issues.  

Decolonisation and localisation of aid 

One overarching concern is the slow progress in decolonising and localising aid efforts. “In 2016, the world’s largest donors and development organisations committed to ensuring that at least 25% of aid funds would be administered by local responders,” explains DCA Secretary General Nøddekær. “However, today, only 1.2% goes to local actors. This is not good enough, and the relief and development sector need to do some soul-searching.” 

Dagfinn Høybråten of NCA echoed these sentiments, stressing that while localisation is essential for effective and sustainable responses, the dominance of large Western organisations within the international aid system continues to hinder progress. This situation affects the quality of efforts and perpetuates the false narrative that local partners are less capable of managing humanitarian crises compared to large international NGOs and the UN. A narrative that should be relegated to history, according to Nøddekær. 

Diakonia CR’s Kinga Komorowska provided a stark example from Czechia, where governmental restrictions on fund transfers to third parties threaten to undermine collaboration between international and local NGOs. “While all major donors encourage or even require international NGOs to collaborate with local ones, this option may no longer be viable for those (co-)funded by the Czech government,” she laments. 

Growing funding gap 

Another pressing issue highlighted by Høybråten is the growing funding gap, which poses a severe challenge to effective humanitarian action. “Last year, only 40% of humanitarian funding needs were met, compared to 60% the year before,” he notes. “Meanwhile, budgets for development aid are falling even faster than humanitarian allocations.”  

This growing discrepancy, DCA’s Nøddekær adds, leads to greater human suffering and prolonged recovery times. Consequently, “local teams and partners must shift some focus to meet the most basic needs of communities in crisis as early as possible,” as waiting for external aid may no longer be viable. At the same time, however, he stresses the importance of resisting the temptation to allocate dwindling resources solely to crisis response. 

Politicisation of aid 

The politicisation of aid emerged as a significant theme in the discussions, with NCA’s Secretary General emphasising that geopolitical interests increasingly influence aid distribution. “The long tradition of providing foreign aid in solidarity with those in need globally is under serious threat across Europe as governments increasingly frame aid as a tool to advance national geopolitical interests,” he observes.  

This troubling trend undermines universal humanitarian principles. As DCA’s General Secretary explains, “aid is not primarily directed by need but by political agenda.” As a result, “humanitarian crises in regions of less strategic importance are frequently overlooked, leading to severe underfunding and inadequate support for those most in need.” 

Promotion and implementation of a less siloed approach 

Moreover, while the aid system grapples with becoming more locally led, it also struggles to adopt a less siloed approach across humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding sectors. “NCA, like many ACT Alliance members, works across the humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding pillars,” Høybråten explains. “For our country teams, this means that the HDP Nexus is not just about coordination and financing but also about programmatic approaches. How can we achieve better results by strengthening the connections between our interventions? Even more importantly, how can we learn from our partners?”.  To underscore this perspective, Høybråten cites an upcoming study by NCA and two partners, which highlights that the distinctions of the international system hold little relevance for local actors who seamlessly cross these lines to meet the needs of their communities. 

The call to action for civil society  

Faced with these daunting and complex challenges and ambitions, what scope do development and humanitarian agencies have to shape change? 

First and foremost, in the minds of the Secretaries General is to reaffirm our role as civil society organisations. “We must remind our own supporters as well as those in power that we exist to translate the commitment of our constituencies to justice and solidarity, and their faith, into action,” asserts Høybråten. Building on existing and potential connections with parishes, churches, associations and schools presents opportunities to engage supporters, especially youth: “The future is in the hands of the next generations, and we need to invest our time in helping them to shape a better world” (Kinga Komorowska, Diakonia CR). 

For Komorowska and Høybråten, this involves explaining what we do, to be aware of global suffering and the ways of alleviating it, and to know the impact of national policies and their power as citizens to hold government to account on issues as pernicious as the politicisation of aid. “This threat is one that speaks to our strengths as ACT Alliance. We can speak directly to the public in the language of fairness, morality, solidarity, and justice. We can speak to our constituencies in the language of our shared faith.”  

Nøddekær further underscores the multiple constituencies and partnerships of influence in the work of DCA and ACT EU organisations: “We work with both large and small companies and offer various support and co-operation opportunities in both Denmark and the countries we work in internationally. All our advocacy efforts will need to be informed by and closely linked and anchored in the work and analysis of our civil society partners in the countries where we work.

A collective voice to inspire political change 

In this period of elections globally, resulting in many cases in alarming consequences for support to those in crisis globally, our collective voice and advocacy is crucial: “In the upcoming year, Denmark will join the UN Security Council and assume the presidency of the European Council, providing two crucial platforms for multilateral and supranational advocacy” highlights Nøddekær. And Komorowska argues that the juncture also challenges over-reliance of civil society agencies on the government funding, “we all have to diversify our donor portfolios at a time when needs are outstripping donor funding commitments, and where donors’ “strategic priorities” which may not be in line with our core values and objectives.” 

Leadership in today’s landscape

And finally, what does it take today to be a visionary development and humanitarian leader? 

With combined vast experience in leadership in operations, political advocacy and civil society engagement, we asked what core skills development and humanitarian leaders need to make change in today’s landscape:  

  • Leaders must deliver a clear, courageous and values-based vision. This calls for bold leaders who are willing to challenge the growing trend of inward-looking, self-interested political agendas prevalent in many European countries. More than ever, the world needs leaders who can inspire hope during times of crisis. (Dagfinn Høybråten) 
  • They must sharpen their listening skills: As support for populist right-wing parties surges across Europe, leaders must engage with politicians as well as citizens holding diverse views on aid and development. This is crucial to avoid exacerbating polarization while steadfastly upholding principles such as human rights and the rule of law. (Jonas Nøddekær)  
  • They need brave authentic communication: leaders must find how to navigate the ratio challenge of upholding humanitarian principles, protecting the dignity of individuals and also to be brave enough to break the taboo of not showing suffering. We have created a false picture of the situation in the places where we provide aid. Yes, we do change lives (temporarily?) for some people, but the needs are massive and we are not able to help all. (Kinga Komorowska)
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