Much of the current humanitarian system was shaped in the aftermath of the Second World War – at a time when problems seemed fewer and more soluble, there were high hopes for institutions like the United Nations, and a handful of recently-formed international aid agencies were optimistic about the future.
In the seven decades since, humanitarian crises have come and gone with ever increasing frequency. Now there is widespread acknowledgement that, for many reasons, the system is no longer fit for the challenges of the 21st century. Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations’ secretary general, argued as such at the first World Humanitarian Summit in May, 2016.
How the Start Network began
Our network was born in 2010 from informal conversations between humanitarian leaders from aid agencies in and around London. They were frustrated by the challenges they faced. Governments were struggling to adapt quickly enough to tackle global problems such as climate change. Conflicts were becoming more frequent – and more violent – driving ever larger numbers of people to flee from one country to another.
Too much of humanitarian action seemed reactive, driven by politics or media and influenced by factors other than the needs of people directly affected by each crisis. If an event didn’t make newspaper headlines, there might be no response at all; when help did come it was often too late, or of the wrong kind.
The result was unnecessary human suffering, scarce resources used inefficiently, and crises that were allowed to escalate into disasters before anybody intervened.
The humanitarians realised they had a common agenda. They were part of a system that was no longer delivering what was needed. They decided it was time to challenge and try to change the status quo.
Later in 2010, they brought together 15 agencies to form the Consortium of British Humanitarian Agencies (CBHA), with the goal of rethinking the humanitarian aid system – and of showing that by working together they could innovate, do things differently and deliver aid more effectively.
Together they won £8 million from the UK’s Department for International Development for an emergency response fund and an initial “capacity building” project to help countries prepare for future disasters.
A new international conversation
It was the first step to what in 2012 became the Start Network. The new name reflected members’ ambition to step in at the very beginning of each crisis – and their determination to launch an international conversation about reinventing the humanitarian system. Drawing on the shared knowledge and expertise of its members, the network has since embarked on a range of ground-breaking programmes.
The Start Fund, financed by the governments of Britain, Ireland and the Netherlands, was formally launched in April 2014. Set up specifically to respond to the kind of small-scale crises that often pass unnoticed – but which affect millions of people each year – it is the only such fund in the world to be managed entirely by its members.
It provides a uniquely rapid response to the disasters in which it decides to support intervention: at most, it takes 72 hours from the first alert being raised to projects being agreed and funds being disbursed to agencies in the affected areas. By August 2016 the Start Fund had been activated on 76 occasion, and had reached 4.2 million people across 45 countries. It will soon be empowered to respond in anticipation when a looming disaster can be foreseen – saving more lives by intervening even earlier.
Start Engage manages an extensive disasters and emergencies preparedness programme (DEPP), with 14 separate projects involving 44 organisations in 10 countries. All involve some form of experimentation or innovation, and all are aimed at helping local communities in disaster-prone regions prepared better for the next time an emergency strikes them.
In 2015 Start Response began the first of three long-term projects that involved new levels of collaboration between members and partner agencies, tackling the Ebola emergency, displaced people in Cameroon and the European refugee crisis.
Start Labs was set up in parallel, to create a flow of new ideas and experiments for humanitarian action. Alongside governments and the private sector, for instance, it is working to develop new financial and insurance mechanisms that could ultimately transform the entire aid system.
Leading for change
All this has led to Start Network being hailed as one of the most innovative and effective organisations in the humanitarian world – leading by example as well as through its advocacy at international events. It presented its case at the Clinton Global Initiative and at the World Humanitarian summit. It currently has 42 members on five continents; it has helped millions of people in times of crisis; and, with the backing of three governments and the European Union, it is leading for change in the humanitarian system.