The echo chamber: Results, management and the humanitarian effectiveness agenda

Fiori, Juliano, Fernando Espada, Jessica Field, and Sophie Dicker


This critical analysis of the bureaucratisation and professionalisation of humanitarian action proposes that, in spite of bringing order and focus to efforts to improve humanitarian action, the development of the effectiveness agenda has reinforced an echo chamber within the humanitarian sector that is depoliticising humanitarian agencies, distancing them from the humanitarian imperative and the people they seek to support. The paper explores a number of questions: Why have the effectiveness become an organising ideal for humanitarians? What is the character of the ‘humanitarian effectiveness agenda’ that has been constructed of initiatives to improve humanitarian performance?; Why is it understood in this way and what are the implications? A series of essays, based on field research in 9 countries and presenting stories of how effectiveness has been constructed, discussed, operationalised, or even imposed in different contexts compliments it.

The echo chamber is a result of:

  • the processes of bureaucratisation and professionalization inside and outside the humanitarian sector that have framed developments in humanitarian performance management.
  • the influence of the management revolution that became the basis for public sector reform in the 1970s.
  • the birth and elaboration of the humanitarian effectiveness agenda itself, demonstrating the prominent role that commercial ideas have played in shaping humanitarian performance management.

Seven trends are identified:

  • The use of humanitarian principles in other, non-acute emergency settings, such as urban violence.
  • The construction of the ‘exceptional’ crisis to capture donorship, encourage mobilisation and better the competition that dehistoricises and politically decontextualises emergencies
  • A focus on technical inputs and solutions at the expense of engagment with politics and governance issues
  • A tightening of donor controls that disconnects humanitarian actors from the needs and aspirations of crisis-affected comunities
  • Competition in a market-orientated environment has encouraged organisations to chase lower-risk activities or those with more measurable outcomes, rather than respond to real needs.
  • An emphasis on deliverables as the primary concern of a project/programme.
  • The projection of international humanitarian action, underpinned by assumptions from a particular time and culture, on to societies that may not have that shared history.

To re-imagine success, humanitarian organisations can:

  • Question the significance of effectiveness in determining how success is understood.
  • Determine organisational structure and set their own structure.
  • Check obsessive attention to results, recognising that the application of commercial principles accentuates inequalities in the relationship between agencies and those they seek to support.
  • Reform organisational structures and processes so they are people-centred and adaptive.
  • Sacrifice organisational growth in the short-term to change business models in the longer term.
  • Articulate interests and incentives in primarily political rather than commercial terms in order to give greater currency to the needs of crisis-affected populations.
  • Promote solidarity principles through interrogating values, critically engaging with history and establishing clarity regarding the ethical frameworks that guide their actions.
  • Challenge how knowledge is produced and used – quantitative methods should be complemented by the more regular use of qualitative approaches, including anthropological, historical and sociological methods.


Fiori, J.; Espada, F.; Field, J. & Dicker, S. (2016). The echo chamber: Results, management and the humanitarian affairs agenda. London: Humanitarian Affairs Team & Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute.