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‘Basics’ won’t do: A response to Marc DuBois’ ‘new humanitarian basics’

Analysis / Humanitarian Action / Protracted Conflict / Sexual Violence 14 mins read

‘Basics’ won’t do: A response to Marc DuBois’ ‘new humanitarian basics’

This blog post aims to challenge Marc DuBois’ proposition of a ‘new humanitarian basics’ and the notion that humanitarianism should be limited to ‘short-term delivery of emergency relief’. It argues for an alternative conceptualisation of humanitarian action and crises, as well as for recognition of the added value of humanitarian responses to situations that do not fit in the traditional realm of humanitarianism. Note: This article has been written in the personal capacity of the author. 


Earlier this year, the Overseas Development Institute’s (ODI) Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) published The new humanitarian basics, a working paper written by Marc DuBois that includes his vision for the future of humanitarian action.

On the one hand, the paper rightly criticises the Western bias and paternalism of the formal humanitarian sector, which emphasise ‘victimhood and helplessness rather than human agency’ of people affected by crises. It also calls out the sector’s ‘overly siloed’ interventions and the consequent mismatch between people’s needs and humanitarian responses. As a result, DuBois’ vision calls for much-needed transformations in the sector, such as advancing greater localisation of humanitarian responses as well as moving beyond siloes of specialisation and even beyond the ‘silo of the sector itself’.

On the other hand, the author envisions a humanitarianism that is restricted to ‘the delivery of emergency relief/assistance and protection in times of crisis’. He calls on the sector to ‘shrink its own role’ and ‘stand back in situations of protracted crisis’. This vision builds on DuBois’ criticism of the ‘humanitarianisation of a range of crises and problems which are not humanitarian in nature’.

While acknowledging the great value of—and concurring with—DuBois’ criticism of the paternalism and over-siloed approaches of the formal humanitarian sector, in this blog post I seek to challenge the reconceptualization of humanitarianism that he proposes. First, I examine how humanitarianism has historically adapted to new challenges and expanded the scope of its action. Second, I discuss the characteristics of crises and responses today, which testify to the ability of humanitarian actors to respond to protracted crises. Third, I observe that the voices of affected populations on their own needs constitute a strong moral justification for these expansions.

Finally, I argue for a humanitarianism aimed at overcoming aid dependency. I contend that such humanitarianism is incompatible with DuBois’ ‘humanitarian basics’, for it requires acknowledging the sector’s value beyond traditional humanitarian issues and crises.

Beyond ‘traditional’ humanitarianism

Modern humanitarianism was historically conceptualised as a response to the suffering caused by conflict, as the ‘starting point for modern institutionalized aid agencies resulted from the Battle of Solferino on 24 June 1859’. However, humanitarianism has gradually expanded from its original focus on the sick and wounded, to the ship-wrecked, to prisoners of war and to civilians.

DuBois’ own narrative on humanitarianism includes crises that were not always seen as humanitarian, such as Hurricane Katrina. The very understanding of a hurricane as a legitimate trigger of humanitarian action stems from the historical ‘humanitarianisation’ of man-made and natural disasters. For example, it was only in the 1880’s that National Societies of what is now the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (the Movement) began to respond to forest fires, volcano eruptions and other disasters. This approach then consolidated after World War I, with the creation of the IFRC, and its focus on disaster response.

Other historical ‘humanitarianisations’ include the expansion of the ICRC’s field of work from international to internal conflicts and the inclusion of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in UNHCR’s work.

More recently, the ICRC has expanded the scope of its work to other situations of violence (OSV) that do not amount to armed conflicts and to the protection and assistance of migrants (including those that are not fleeing conflict or violence). These transformations reflect the recognition of the added value of the humanitarian sector beyond traditional humanitarian issues. For example, the ICRC’s expertise in detention and restoring family links (RFL) plays a pivotal role in developing its response to migration. This is because it visits persons detained in relation to their migratory status and provides RFL services to migrants.

Most importantly, this expansion builds upon the understanding that both violence and migration can have humanitarian consequences, even when not linked to conflict. As the ICRC policy on OSV puts it, ‘the ICRC does not turn its back on people’s suffering on the grounds that it is not the result of violence committed during an armed conflict’.

While the expansion of the ICRC’s work into migration and OSV has been challenged—both by humanitarians as well as by States themselves—so too were earlier ‘humanitarianisations’. For example, the work of National Societies in peacetime (including disaster response), faced opposition from the very founders of the Movement. Discussions on a potential role for the movement in civil wars also faced State opposition. Nonetheless, ultimately, both natural disasters and internal conflict became widely accepted as components of humanitarian response. This was largely because of the undeniable need and the demonstrated capacity of the humanitarian actors to address it.

Beyond ‘short-term tools and mindsets’: Humanitarian actors’ response to protracted crises

The evolution of humanitarianism has also led to an extension of the length of the crises to which humanitarians respond. While humanitarianism may have been focused on short-term crises in the past, protracted crises have unarguably become the ‘new normal’. The average length of ICRC presence in the countries hosting its ten largest operations is 36 years. Refugee situations have been estimated to last an average of 26 years, while ‘[t]he average length of conflict-induced [internal] displacement is an astonishing 17 years’. Nineteen of the twenty-one Humanitarian Response Plans OCHA presented for 2018 were ‘for humanitarian crises that have been running for five years or more’.

Yet, DuBois rejects the idea that protracted crises belong to the realm of humanitarian action. He argues that the ‘short-term tools and mindsets of the formal humanitarian community’ are not suited to responding to these crises. However, while ‘short-term tools and mindsets’ may be characteristic of DuBois’ envisioned ‘short-termist’ humanitarianism, they do not accurately reflect the full range of responses in which humanitarian actors are engaged.

As stated in ICRC policy, ‘“[e]mergency responses” […] cannot be equated with “short-term operations”’. The ICRC has provided humanitarian responses in protracted conflicts for the past 70 years, and most of ICRC operations focus on both ‘life-saving needs and support [to] long-term structures’, including through the development of high-quality seed-supply chains (rather than only supplying food) and training medical personnel and upgrading hospitals (rather than only providing medical aid). Even short-term objectives—such as ensuring that a hospital is not targeted during the looting of a town—may require long-term efforts, such as a ‘longer-standing dialogue with all levels of the hierarchy of the armed forces and armed groups’ in order to ensure changes in their behaviour and the adherence to humanitarian norms.

Thus, humanitarian actors do have the right tools to respond to protracted crises. Even though development actors may be just as qualified to ‘support long-term structures’, humanitarian actors may be better placed to do so in conflict-affected or other humanitarian contexts. This is because humanitarians may have previous experience that is valuable when operating in such contexts—for example, engaging with weapon bearers and negotiating access to hard-to-reach areas.

This does not mean that humanitarian actors are bound to be forever present. However, the transition from humanitarian to development responses must be context-specific—not an automatic shift triggered by the duration of a crisis.

Most importantly, humanitarian actors have a moral responsibility not to turn their backs on communities affected by a humanitarian crisis simply because it has become protracted.

Listening to communities

The moral imperative for humanitarianism’s expansion into new issues also stems from the voices of communities affected by humanitarian crises. Recognising the agency of persons affected by humanitarian crises—which is in line with DuBois’s own criticism of the paternalism of the formal humanitarian sector—implies that the shape of humanitarianism cannot be defined by humanitarians only, but also, and mostly, by those they seek to serve.

DuBois contends that what he calls ‘humanitarianisation’ leads humanitarians to engage in areas and responses that do not receive the attention of humanitarian actors in Western nations, such as ‘long-term health, nutrition and education, food assistance, livelihood support and social protection measures’. This, he argues, ‘reduces people to their victimhood’ and reinforces the sector’s Western bias. However, in many cases, interventions on these issues stem from demands from affected populations. Ignoring their demands would only reinforce the Western bias the author criticises.

For example, Save the Children reveals that education is not only a development issue, but also a key concern to children, their caregivers and communities affected by humanitarian crises. This framing of education as a humanitarian need has been at the centre of the ICRC’s approach to facilitating access to education.

Women’s voices in particular have been central to transforming humanitarianism, as local women right’s actors increasingly ask for a ‘prioritization of gender equality and women’s rights in humanitarian action’. Indeed, international organisations such as Oxfam,CARE and UN Women are increasingly integrating activities aimed at transforming gender norms and roles into their humanitarian work.

Humanitarian responses in the form of livelihood support have also become increasingly common and demanded, especially as crises become protracted. In Syria, for example, affected populations ‘prefer livelihood and job training, and cash to other types of humanitarian assistance’. In Chad, communities specifically asked for income-generating activities, with the provision of training and tools in areas such as agriculture, gardening, livestock and fisheries.

While education, gender equality and livelihoods are often associated with the development sector, humanitarian actors may be uniquely placed to address them in conflict settings, as seen above. Undoubtedly, engaging in these areas requires context-specific analyses of the relevance of humanitarian responses to each of these issues. Thus, it is not about turning humanitarians into development actors. Rather, it is about harnessing their added value to address problems not traditionally seen as humanitarian. For example, the ICRC’s response to education needs in Ukraine consisted of directing activities toward schools facilities and communities that were common to the organisation’s work—such as first aid trainings, mine risk education and rehabilitation of buildings impacted by conflict.

It is also not about abandoning ‘classic’ interventions—such as direct distribution of food or medical supplies—which may be prioritised by some communities. However, communities’ calls for humanitarianism to respond to non-traditional issues testify to the diversity of humanitarian needs. Therefore, a less paternalistic humanitarianism must be able to adapt and engage in non-traditional areas—instead of ‘shrink[ing] its own role’.

Moving forward: Overcoming aid dependency

By restricting humanitarianism to the mere ‘delivery of emergency relief’, DuBois’ vision excludes strengthening capacities and resilience from the realm of humanitarianism responses. This vision of an ‘assistentialist’ humanitarianism builds on the author’s rejection of the World Humanitarian Summit’s call for a shift from delivering aid to ‘ending need’.

Ending all need may be, admittedly, an overly ambitious goal—especially as it requires political solutions beyond the scope of humanitarian action itself. Nonetheless, as a humanitarian, I believe humanitarian action should ultimately aim to end the need for its own intervention, to make itself obsolete. And, in the absence of political solutions to humanitarian crises, this requires strengthening the capacities and resilience of affected populations. As the ICRC puts it, such a commitment to resilience is rooted in a sensitivity ‘to the dilemma of aid dependency and the sustainability of humanitarian response’.

The need for overcoming aid dependency also stems from a strong moral imperative, as it is a concern of affected populations themselves. For example, as REACH reported, IDPs in north-eastern Nigeria were critical of their high dependency on humanitarian aid: ‘We used to give away to help others meet their needs. Now before we even get food to eat, we have to wait to get it from NGOs.’ In addition, according to Ground Truth Solutions, in Somalia and Afghanistan, only 43% and 29% (respectively) of people affected by crises believe the humanitarian aid they receive empowers them to live without aid in the future. This percentage was even lower in Iraq (16%), Uganda (14%), Lebanon (4%) and Haiti (0%)[1].

Overcoming aid dependency often requires long-term efforts aimed at strengthening capacities and resilience—including through the humanitarian activities that DuBois rebukes, as seen above. For example, livelihood support can contribute to strengthening communities’ resilience and self-protection capacities, as these are often linked to the ‘resources that can be mobilized or otherwise drawn upon when a crisis hits’. Education can play a similar role, as ensuring school attendance can reduce children’s vulnerabilities ‘to recruitment, sexual violence, early marriage, enforced labour and weapons indoctrination’. Gender-transformative action can be equally important, as women’s lack of decision-making power can ‘[prevent] them from using their first-hand knowledge (of weather patterns, crops, health, etc.) to make decisions that are in the best interest of the broader community’.

This shows that eschewing paternalism in humanitarian action—which requires listening to communities’ voices—goes hand-in-hand with ensuring the sustainability of humanitarian responses. For, it is This is so because their voices demand interventions targeting areas key to reducing vulnerabilities and strengthening self-reliance.

Furthermore, overcoming aid dependency also helps alleviate the funding gap of a humanitarian sector that is increasingly overburdened by the increase in number, duration and complexity of humanitarian crises.

DuBois’ answer to this overburdening of the sector is ‘shrink[ing] its own role’. This would leave a gap that would deprive millions in need from humanitarian aid. The author himself acknowledges that there would be ‘a challenge for other sectors to fill the gap as humanitarians stand back’, and, more worryingly, that ‘other domains (peacebuilding, development, etc.) may not be able to occupy the turf ceded by humanitarians’.

Alternatively, a humanitarianism ultimately aimed at strengthening the resilience and capacity of those it seeks to serve, could ensure sustainability without creating such a gap. However, this requires accepting humanitarianism’s added value beyond traditional humanitarian issues and crises. A humanitarianism that does respond to protracted crises and does engage in long-term support to authorities and communities. A humanitarianism that is willing to strive to respond to the needs voiced by affected populations, and not only the needs it is programmed to address.

The formal humanitarian sector as it stands today needs a transformation. DuBois rightly points out numerous important areas for improvement, notably the sector’s paternalism and overly-siloed approaches. Yet, by ignoring affected populations’ calls for long-term support and resilience-strengthening activities and by creating an even narrower ‘silo of the sector itself’, a more basic humanitarianism seems to go precisely in the opposite direction.



[1] A total of 91% do not believe the aid they receive helps avoid aid dependency, while the remaining were either ‘neutral’ or had ‘no opinion’.


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DISCLAIMER: Posts and discussion on the Humanitarian Law & Policy blog may not be interpreted as positioning the ICRC in any way, nor does the blog’s content amount to formal policy or doctrine, unless specifically indicated.


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