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Humanitarianism at breaking point? New roles for local and international actors

Humanitarian Action / Review-related 13 mins read

Humanitarianism at breaking point? New roles for local and international actors

Sabir mountain, Yemen. Restrictions on movement of goods force people to undertake arduous journeys. ©ICRC/Akram Al-Rasni

Is humanitarianism really at breaking point? The gap between today’s overwhelming needs and the constraints on international humanitarian actors’ efforts to address them, means we are facing a very serious test. Rather than ‘breaking’ the ‘system’, Claudia McGoldrick believes the ever-shifting dynamics of war and violence will reshape the nature and form of humanitarian response. This could mean adjusting the current imbalance of power between local and international actors, even if this entails the latter accepting a smaller role.

In the upcoming edition of the International Review of the Red Cross on “The evolution of warfare” (Fall 2016), McGoldrick writes more extensively about current trends and features of armed conflicts, their humanitarian consequences and the implications for the international community. On this occasion, we make the article available as a free download (.pdf) ahead of official publication.

EXCLUSIVE: The state of conflicts today: Can humanitarian action adapt? (.pdf) by Claudia McGoldrick. Free download, courtesy of Cambridge University Press.

The state of conflicts today – and the overall paucity of effective response to the overwhelming humanitarian needs they produce – has prompted critics to declare the end of humanitarianism, or warn against the end of international humanitarian response. The challenges are seen by some as unbridgeable, pushing organizations to “breaking point”, with senior figures claiming that the humanitarian community has reached its limit and that the system is totally broken”.

In fact the question facing humanitarian action is less ‘make or break’ than one of accepting that the ever-shifting dynamics of war and violence, and all the geopolitical realities around them, will in any case naturally reshape the nature and form of humanitarian response.

While the perennial debate about the future of humanitarian action still revolves largely around money, principles and institutional reform, many see the crux of the matter to be a question of power – more precisely, how much of it international humanitarian organizations are willing to give up. The international humanitarian ‘system’ is only one part of a much wider ecosystem of humanitarian response, parts of which have been largely marginalized but are now demanding fair recognition.

In view of the widely held belief that “the global South remains one of the defining terrains for humanitarian action in the twenty-first century”, how international humanitarian actors interrelate with predominantly non-Western, ‘local’ actors, and with crisis-affected populations themselves, is one among many factors which may prove critical to their future. While there will always be a need for neutral and impartial humanitarian action by international organizations like the ICRC, the role of local actors in the humanitarian ecosystem could be better recognized.

Trends in armed conflict, challenges to humanitarian action

Looking back at the evolving humanitarian landscape of the past 150 years or so, it is clear that humanitarian response has always had to adapt to changing realities and continuous challenges to its acceptance, relevance and effectiveness. In fact many of the challenges of the past remain familiar today: massive humanitarian needs outstripping available response capacity and resources; the politicization of humanitarian aid and its use as a vehicle for other agendas; the role of the media; the erosion of humanitarian principles; poor coordination and leadership among humanitarian organizations; inefficient and ineffective funding mechanisms; and the questionable relevance and effectiveness of international humanitarian response.

At the present time the humanitarian sector is, as best, facing a very serious test. As the Syrian armed conflict demonstrates, war is more complex than ever before. Multiple protracted armed conflicts, often with regional repercussions, are typically characterized by complex webs of asymmetric warring parties, by a widespread lack of respect for even the most fundamental rules of IHL, and by a lack of any viable political solution to end them. Failing infrastructure and public services, chronic hardship and poverty, and displacement on a massive scale are just some of the outcomes. Armed conflict and armed violence are increasingly concentrated in urban areas, affecting some 50 million people with catastrophic humanitarian consequences. While the number of armed conflicts has decreased in recent years, the number of fatalities has nevertheless been rising, while other situations of violence have also been increasing.

The number of concurrent, drawn-out crises around the world is producing humanitarian needs on an overwhelming scale. And the various parts of the international humanitarian system are beset by internal weaknesses and external challenges to such an extent that they are increasingly paralyzed, if not absent altogether, in conflict zones where the needs are greatest. All the while humanitarian funding is generally not targeted impartially, according to need. This is partly because of the lack of an accurate picture of global needs, and also because global funding allocations still tend to favour responses in geographically or politically strategic countries over neglected or protracted crises. In this environment, a critical challenge is to “find a way to break down financial and institutional silos and work towards plans that make all resources count for crisis-affected people”.

Localization of aid: The future of humanitarianism?

The evolution of the international environment towards a new multipolar order – with the rise of the ‘global South’ and its challenge to the predominance of the ‘West’ – is reflected in the evolving paradigm of humanitarian aid. In the face of increasing State-based assertions of sovereignty, and the overt politicization and militarization of aid, humanitarian response as such is likely to become increasingly diversified and fragmented among different actors, both local and international.

Local aid actors, in all their diversity, are invariably the first to respond in emergencies: their proximity and first-hand knowledge and understanding of their own contexts cannot be matched. Their growing role in some of the most challenging environments is evident. In Syria, where humanitarian access for international actors is particularly constrained, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent is a key actor (although it too faces enormous challenges, not least in terms of security). Meanwhile, the ‘informal’ system is growing exponentially. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the number of diverse local NGOs providing different kinds of relief assistance in Syria – including a wide range of professional bodies, diaspora groups, faith-based groups and fighting groups or activists – increased from twelve at the start of the conflict to 600–700 in 2015, about a fifth of them based inside Syria. While many diaspora organizations started off in an ad hoc manner, the professionalism of their approach and their resources soon grew. In Somalia, to take another example, different types of commercial actors have played a significant role in meeting the relief needs of conflict-affected populations.

The debate around the ‘localization’ of aid – in terms of the role of local humanitarian actors and that of crisis-affected people (which may naturally overlap) – has been dominant in the various reform-oriented UN initiatives currently under way, not least the process around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the World Humanitarian Summit (.pdf). According to the IFRC, local actors are the “key to humanitarian effectiveness”, while the Future Humanitarian Financing Initiative envisages a future in which “much of the cost of providing humanitarian assistance will be borne by local and domestic actors”, and where rising and emerging donors will challenge and reshape modes of assistance.

Institutionalized discrimination and power imbalance

While the concept of engaging with crisis-affected people has been institutionalized in countless resolutions, aid policies, codes of conduct and standards, practice on the ground has been inconsistent at best, with generally more rhetorical than real results. This has been partly due to some genuine constraints, particularly in complex and fragmented situations of armed conflict where access and actual presence are problematic. It has also been due in some cases to the perceived condescension of humanitarian actors, whose efforts to engage beneficiaries have been dismissed as donor-appeasing tokenism, and to services that lack quality and relevance.

In situations of armed conflict, the localization agenda brings with it some real concerns and a number of broad assumptions, principally about aid being delivered in accordance with humanitarian principles and a weakening of the protection aspect of humanitarian response. Especially in the case of new, ‘untested’ local actors (regardless of their knowledge, capacity and networks). International agencies tend to be wary not only of their adherence to humanitarian principles, but generally of their professionalism, transparency and accountability, and of their operational standards. Excessively rigid criteria for partnerships have certainly led to lost opportunities.

At the same time, humanitarian agencies are increasingly outsourcing their response – and the risk that goes with it – to local implementers, resorting to ‘bunkerization’ and remote management and retaining little or no control over how and where aid is distributed and no proximity to the people they are trying to help. This raises ethical questions about risk transfer to local implementing ‘partners’, while jeopardizing the impartiality and relevance of the humanitarian response.

Overall the relationships and types of engagement between international and local actors in conflict settings remains one of unequal power relations. The WHS global consultations concede that “the current system remains largely closed” and “is seen as outdated”, while another study claims that state institutions and local organizations “have often been kept at arm’s length by the international humanitarian community”.

This imbalance is starkly illustrated by global humanitarian funding patterns. According to the Global Humanitarian Assistance (GHA) 2014 report, between 2009 and 2013, local and national NGOs combined received a total of $212 million – 1.6% of the total given directly to NGOs and 0.2% of the total international humanitarian response over the period.

This prevailing power imbalance is being met with growing impatience by some NGOs from the global South. During the WHS global consultations some southern NGOs levelled accusations of “neo-colonial” behaviour; there was a dominant view that any attempt at humanitarian reform would have to address the current “institutionalized discrimination”. Although Southern NGOs might not yet present a united front, their power and momentum will only grow.

From service delivery to capacity building: a new role for international humanitarian actors

In 2015 the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR) laid out its vision for the next few years:

“People and communities affected by crisis – informed, connected and empowered through easy access to technology – will choose from increasingly diverse sources of aid, be they public or private, local or international […] The role of “traditional” humanitarian actors – beyond helping to facilitate this inexorable power shift – will be limited to pockets of ‘off grid’ situations of protracted conflict and extreme violence, where access will be a prevailing challenge.”

Even in these ‘off grid’ situations where international humanitarian actors may still play an important role, they will need to be ever more innovative to prove themselves as relevant and effective. Better harnessing the enormous opportunities posed by new technologies, continuously looking for new ways to better communicate with the people at the centre of humanitarian response, and connecting better to increasingly diverse stakeholders and potential partners – including from the private sector, civil society and the full range of ‘local’ actors – will be increasingly common objectives in all environments.

More effective, and sincere, capacity-building of local humanitarian actors could be a key factor in this adaptation. As middle-income countries develop their national capacity to prepare for and respond to crises, the role of international humanitarian agencies will inevitably change and become more advisory and less operational. International NGOs might become “humanitarian brokers: facilitating, supporting, and bringing together local civil society”, and this role may also increase as more international actors resort to remote management. As Paul Currion compellingly writes, “humanitarian organisations must become hubs, connecting individuals and communities to enable them to share knowledge and resources more freely, and using their position to embed humanitarian principles within their networks”.

Closely connected to this is the increasing focus on boosting the resilience of people and communities affected by crises, which has the potential to save lives but also to reduce the overall cost of humanitarian assistance and disaster recovery. This puts a premium on the role of local actors, given their proximity and knowledge of affected people and communities. Ultimately, international organizations may need to transform their management model from one of “delivering services” to one of “support and local capacity-building”, according to the interests and capacities of their Southern partners rather than their own.

For all international humanitarian actors, this about walking the talk when it comes to engaging and empowering beneficiaries – that is, increasingly ceding decision-making powers to those directly affected by crisis, and recalibrating the balance of power between international and local humanitarian actors.

Accepting and adapting to change is not a choice

The future shape of humanitarianism will be determined by various factors, including the increasing assertiveness of States and insistence on sovereignty, the politicization of aid, the proliferation and diversification of new actors, security issues, new technologies and the drive towards a common approach to emergency relief and development.

Different types of aid will most likely coexist, including initiatives led by the private sector, deployment of military assets, bilateral State aid, UN-led integrated approaches, and neutral and impartial humanitarian action. Increasingly diverse, ‘non-traditional’ donors will likewise impose their own agenda, challenging the monopoly of Western States on humanitarian funding.

In such a competitive humanitarian arena, ‘local’ actors in all their diversity – including well-informed, tech-savvy and empowered beneficiaries themselves – will increasingly determine the type, source and duration of aid. This would effectively increase the onus on providers of aid to prove themselves in terms of relevance, effectiveness and overall value – to donors, to the public at large, and most particularly to crisis-affected people themselves.

Many would say there is no choice: international humanitarian organizations must accept change and adapt accordingly, even if this entails letting go of power and controland accepting a smaller role. The question is not about local replacing international actors – both have roles to play – but a better, fairer balance must be struck.

International humanitarian actors will continue to adjust to a changing world and redefine their role as they have in the past, not only because they must in order to stay relevant and continue to exist, but also as long as the fundamental desire and ambition to uphold human dignity even in the midst of armed conflict continues to be their main driving force.


Claudia McGoldrick works as Special Adviser to the ICRC’s Presidency and Office of the Director General.


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