Delivering Humanitarian Impact with the SDGs

By Rakesh Bharania | October 28, 2019 | Impact Labs, International Development & Disaster Relief, Nonprofit, Public & Social Benefit

With another powerful North Atlantic hurricane season underway, and climate change only making serious weather events worse, it’s more important than ever to think about how we increase our impact in the humanitarian sector.

One way we can think about this is by using a framework that 193 countries agreed on: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These 17 goals outline the world’s to-do list for people and planet by 2030. They recognize that the challenges we face related to global health, safety, security and opportunity are interdependent and linked. The goals call for measurable action from governments, the private sector and all aspects of civil society. The 2030 Agenda also calls for us to prioritize the needs of those who have been left the furthest behind.

For humanitarian organizations responding to the most vulnerable people on the planet, including those affected by conflict and crisis, the SDGs compel an evolution in how humanitarian organizations of all sizes and capacities deliver on their mission.

An International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) informational  poster for refugees and migrants seeking to locate missing and separated family members. Chios Island, Greece. (Photo: Rakesh Bharania)
An International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) informational poster for refugees and migrants seeking to locate missing and separated family members. Chios Island, Greece. (Photo: Rakesh Bharania)

Leaving No One Behind

Humanitarian action – as compared to international development – is focused on meeting the basic human needs of people affected by an emergent circumstance, such as a natural disaster or conflict situation where a population’s safety and security may be at immediate risk. When working in support of people in inherently fragile contexts, the SDGs may seem fairly distant and unapproachable, but they also provide an opportunity. If the SDGs are to be met by their 2030 deadline, the global results framework must benefit everyone, regardless of circumstance.

This essential spirit of inclusiveness means that humanitarian organizations have an important role in delivering on the promise of the SDGs. Of course, meeting critical human needs will always remain core to the humanitarian mission – but it is no longer sufficient. As stated in the OCHA Policy Paper Leaving No One Behind: Humanitarian Effectiveness in the Age of the Sustainable Development Goals, “The 2030 Agenda calls on humanitarians locally, nationally, and internationally to work differently with one another and with counterparts in development, peace operations, climate change, and gender equity to move people out of crisis, reducing vulnerability, doubling down on risk management, and tackling root causes of crises and conflict.”

With an estimated 132 million people in 42 countries in need of humanitarian assistance in 2019, that is no small challenge. And that challenge continues to grow: when the SDGs were initially ratified in 2015, that number was 114 million.

UNHCR and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) refugee camp for migrants and refugees arriving from Turkey. Leros, Greece. (Photo: Rakesh Bharania)
UNHCR and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) refugee camp for migrants and refugees arriving from Turkey. Leros, Greece. (Photo: Rakesh Bharania)

Recommendations to Align Humanitarian Action to the SDGs

OCHA has identified five fundamental shifts necessary in the global humanitarian system to align with the SDGs and maximize impact:

    1. Reinforce existing capacities and coping strategies, don’t replace them. Respond to needs at the necessary scale and speed required by the circumstances in a way that supports, rather than displaces local capacities, actors and institutions.

    2. Enter with an exit: collaborate to reduce and end humanitarian need – Many humanitarian crises are persistent and long term. Yet, humanitarian organizations must work to reduce chronic shocks, strengthen local communities and capacities, and support a path back to safety and dignity for people.

    3. Leverage comparative advantage: strengthen connectivity and strategic leadership – Establish coordination platforms, tools, and financing models that reflect the diversity of actors in humanitarian work. This includes the donor community, governments, development organizations, the private sector and others who are stakeholders in humanitarian action.

    4. See the whole picture: a 360-degree view of needs and risks.Keeping beneficiaries at the center of humanitarian action requires all humanitarian organizations other allied constituents to focus on the ethical and secure use of data to identify and mitigate potentially destabilizing hazards and risks to a community, to identify the needs of people on the ground, and to ensure the effective delivery of relevant and timely humanitarian aid and support.

    5. Measure shared results for collective accountability – all organizations engaged in humanitarian action should be accountable for their activities. This requires the creation of shared benchmarks, establishing feedback mechanisms from affected populations, and a commitment to improve decision-making processes and the quality of humanitarian service delivery.

The Grand Bargain coming out of the World Humanitarian Summit of 2016 built out a framework of humanitarian reforms with a view to contributing to the SDGs. It represented a commitment of 61 donors and aid organizations to improve the quality of humanitarian action, and aims to get more aid directly into the hands of affected populations and harmonize reporting requirements among the signatories. Technology is obviously important to this effort. This is highlighted by the fact that 56% of Grand Bargain signatories are already reporting on their use of technology for programmatic data, and 80% of signatories are publishing data to the IATI standard, improving humanitarian coordination and accountability in the process.

Syrian and Iraqi children attend an improvised school session at a refugee camp in Chios Island, Greece. (Photo: Rakesh Bharania)
Syrian and Iraqi children attend an improvised school session at a refugee camp in Chios Island, Greece. (Photo: Rakesh Bharania)

Let’s Put Beneficiaries at the Center of Strategy: Being Impact-First

The entire humanitarian sector is challenged to move to an “impact-first” culture that firmly places beneficiaries at the center of humanitarian action and is enabled by the principled, respectful collection and use of data in every aspect of humanitarian operations. Each of the fundamental shifts described earlier requires smarter, faster decision-making on the part of humanitarian actors, in partnership with allied organizations, and accountable to both the affected populations and donor communities.

Salesforce technologies are well-suited to supporting the “impact-first” shift. First, it is important that data can be securely collected, analyzed and used effectively in the field where humanitarian action occurs using Salesforce partners like TaroWorks. Impact measurement against the SDGs can be enabled by technologies such as AmpImpact by Vera Solutions. But technologies are only one part of this shift. To really transform the sector, humanitarian organizations will need to challenge themselves to develop the right skill sets around data collection and use, to enable the right organizational and cultural shifts needed to maximize the benefit of technology, and to prioritize the use of impact measurement to improve mission outcomes. is committed to working with the global humanitarian community to accelerate the use of impact data. This includes the use of processes and techniques of Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) for our own social impact reporting.

You can help in the design and development of SDG solutions! Submit a topic for Impact Labs to focus on, then stop by the Lodge at Dreamforce to lend your expertise to create solutions to some of the toughest challenges we’re facing. Impact Labs leverages expertise from thought leaders, partners, customers, and employees to co-design and develop solutions for scalable impact in response to the world’s toughest challenges. Sound exciting? It is!

Sign up to get involved early, stay informed, and share issues you’re passionate about!


About the Author
Rakesh BharaniaRakesh Bharania is Director of Humanitarian Technology Impact at He has spent more than twenty-five years in the humanitarian sector, focusing on the intersection of emerging technologies and international humanitarian crisis response and development. Rakesh has also engaged across the board with policy-makers, senior government officials, academia, first responders, NGOs/IGOs, volunteer organizations and industry leaders. Connect with Rakesh on LinkedIn.