The language was rich with promise — the “Grand Bargain”, the “Participation Revolution.” At the World Humanitarian Summit one year ago in Istanbul, 30 of the biggest donors and aid providers committed to a series of actions aimed at getting more money to local NGOs on the frontlines of humanitarian relief. To put things in perspective, at present less than 1% of development aid goes directly to southern organizations.

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A year on, how is it all going? Is the bargain really being struck? Has the revolution started?

In May, the CDAC Network (“Communicating with Disaster-Affected Communities”) and the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR) held a Global Forum in Bangkok aimed at reflecting on progress so far. The conversation got off to a brisk — but rather sobering — start, with the announcement that the participation revolution was not happening and that fundamental change was (still) going to be required to avoid a “Grand Bargain” for business as usual. Kate Halff (SCHR) laid out the challenge: mindsets and organizational cultures needed to change, the conversation had to be about more than money and become much more people-centred. Organizations in the humanitarian space had to be more open to working with new, perhaps non-traditional, partners, and finally, the humanitarian aid system overall should be prepared to give up some of its power.

So much for the diagnosis.

Over the course of the two days, I looked hard for evidence that change was underway. Amidst the soul-searching, the head-scratching, the bright spots, signs of progress, and some great insights on systems change, there were less encouraging moments of back-pedalling (“I prefer to think of evolution rather than revolution”) or a simple lack of imagination (“We can do more feedback..?”).

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