Interview with Lars Peter Nissen, Director of the Assessment Capacities Project (ACAPS)
International Cooperation Geneva met with Lars Peter Nissen, Director of the Assessment Capacities Project (ACAPS), one of the new actors working within the humanitarian sector in Geneva.
Why was ACAPS launched 4 years ago?
ACAPS was born out of a desire to strengthen the capacity of the humanitarian sector to better understand the situation of people affected by conflicts and disasters. Humanitarian actors often have to make urgent decisions in very difficult, fast-pace situations, where information is scarce. ACAPS is about giving humanitarian decision-makers better tools, through trainings and analysis, in order to respond to people's actual needs.
If you had to explain ACAPS to someone coming from Mars, what would you say?
The best and shortest "elevator" pitch I can come up with is, that ACAPS is the Lonely Planet for humanitarians. Now, I am not sure they have Lonely Planet on Mars, but what I mean by this is that we try to provide humanitarian responders with a one-stop-shop for information related to humanitarian action. We are not there yet, but this is the ambition.
I think there is a very strong parallel in the private sector, where there is a large "B2B" sector, comprised of companies specialized in providing services to other companies. In this sense, ACAPS is a "H2H" – humanitarian to humanitarian: a service provider to the humanitarian sector.
What are you working on at the moment?
Our biggest project at the moment is on Syria. We have more than ten people dedicated to analysing the situation in Syria and publishing reports. We try to come up with new and innovative methods and approaches to do assessment. For example, at the moment, we try to use the data generated by cell-phones to track how people move in post disaster situations.
Can you explain why ACAPS is not an organization but a project?
ACAPS was set up as an experiment four years ago. Today it remains a humanitarian start-up, supported by nine of the major donors. We are not a legal entity as such. Here in Geneva, we are hosted by the Norwegian Refugee Council, which is one of the three organizations of the consortium that initiated ACAPS - along with Save the Children International and Action Contre la Faim (ACF).
Do you think this is a new model for the humanitarian sector?
The humanitarian sector is looking at new ways of organizing itself. Projects such as this allow for lighter modalities to test out different ideas which, in turn, provide support to the more traditional actors. There are a lot of new initiatives in this field; Including Sphere and the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP International), Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), Cash Learning Partnership (CaLP), the Joint IDP Profiling Service (JIPS) and the International NGO Safety Organization (INSO) to name a few. Some of them are projects, some mature into organizations and others become integrated into bigger organizations.
I see a lot of similarities between ACAPS and start-ups in the IT sector for example. We have a start-up kind of enthusiasm. The way we develop, make mistakes and learn from them is very similar. I think that the humanitarian sector has a lot to learn from other sectors. Despite working in a unique environment, the humanitarian sector is not fundamentally unique in terms of organizations.
You worked for many years within the Red Cross movement. How do you see ACAPS in regard to traditional humanitarian actors? What are the differences and benefits that come from running such a project?
ACAPS plays a supporting role for the traditional humanitarian actors as people working in the field are our clients. To assure that we understand their needs, all of our management staff have operational backgrounds, having spent 10 to 15 years in the field.
Being a project gives us more flexibility to innovate and to change things very quickly. If something does not work, we stop doing it. Contrary to the main humanitarian actors, ACAPS does not have a mandate; we have clients. We are judged on our products and are therefore much more responsive to the needs of our clients. Of course, our core activities are donor financed and we are a free service to the humanitarian sector. Yet, last year, 22% of our budget was covered through cost recovery of services provided to humanitarian actors such as UNHCR and the IFRC. We want to find the right balance between having enough stable funding and checking the relevance of our actions through paid services.
Who are your donors?
We have nine donors today: the Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department of the European Commission (ECHO), the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and the UK's Department for International Development (DFID), Denmark, Ireland, Norway and Switzerland. We are looking at extending our donor base to private and non-traditional donors. Our core budget is around CHF 3 million, and we have a core staff of 15 people in addition to 10 people working specifically on Syria.
What is your interaction with the traditional international humanitarian organizations based in Geneva such as OCHA, the UNHCR or the ICRC?
We participate in various fora under the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC). We also have bilateral agreements with some actors such as UNHCR, UNICEF and the IFRC to mention a few. In a nutshell, they share information with us and we provide them with analysis, training and tools.
One of the fascinating, and sometimes frustrating features of the humanitarian sector is the patchwork of organizations that are involved. There is a relatively well organized core within the IASC family, and then there are actors like ACAPS, IDMC, JIPS and CaLP which provide services and innovation for those big actors.
Why did ACAPS chose Geneva as it headquarters?
Geneva is the capital of the humanitarian sector, so naturally being located here allows ACAPS to easily reach its main clients. On the other hand, with the restrictions on working permits, being in Geneva makes it difficult to recruit a sufficiently diverse group of staff. This is something I am extremely concerned about.