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The world tomorrow: COVID-19 and the new humanitarian
Two months in, the COVID-19 crisis has sent shock waves throughout the humanitarian sector, prompting new questions and fast-tracking older ones. Which humanitarian agencies and organizations will survive the crisis, which will collapse, and which may come out stronger? What will it take to integrate an emergency and humanitarian response into the road back to the Sustainable Development Goals? What will principled humanitarian action look like if the trending centrality of national governments is cemented by the pandemic? In this blog, senior aid policy expert Raphael Gorgeu navigates the murky waters of the current pandemic and forecasts potential scenarios for the future of the humanitarian sector.


A public health crisis to begin with, the COVID-19 pandemic has quickly metastasized to nearly all fronts of society. Considered one of the biggest crises in modern history, the pandemic’s effects will deeply impact the lives of billions of people, shake the foundations of our solidarity models and redesign parts of the international humanitarian sector. The way aid actors move forward now will shape the future of the humanitarian landscape: pre-existing trends are speeding up as new ones are brought into play, all while the overall balance is placed under scrutiny. In a myriad of ways, many still unforeseeable, the intensity of the present period is accelerating change.

Looking back over the last two months since the pandemic was declared – and examining it alongside the trends in humanitarian aid prior to COVID-19 – reveals some indication of elements that will influence the humanitarian sector of tomorrow.

Rebuilding the road to the Sustainable Development Goals

While the humanitarian sector struggles to meet the most urgent needs resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, narratives are starting to shift toward a more comprehensive approach to the crisis. Meanwhile, development and financial actors, such as the UN Development Programme (UNDP) or the World Bank, are edging closer than ever to traditional humanitarian settings. This ‘human and societal crisis’, triggering and exacerbating protracted crises and relegating hundreds of millions of people back or further into poverty, calls for a multi-dimensional response.

The increasingly protracted nature of humanitarian crises pre-COVID-19, signalled by the volume and cost of humanitarian assistance and scarce development action in such contexts, had already led to a renewed reflection on how to tackle the vulnerabilities of populations more comprehensively within the overall framework of the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. Central to this new paradigm was the concept of a ‘nexus’ between humanitarian action, the development agenda and peace.

Acknowledging the major step back in achieving the SDGs that this crisis will no doubt cause, such an integrated approach will certainly become even more fundamental in the coming period. And considering the significant financial dimension of the pandemic, the engagement of international financing institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – often portrayed as ‘saving lives’ in the current environment – will stand as more prominent signposts on the path to the SDGs and in humanitarian assistance, leading eventually to a renewed ‘humanitarian, development, peace and finance nexus’.

The momentum surrounding the concept of social protection – be it through social safety nets, health insurance models, universal income, protection systems, or cash assistance, etc – already feature as a key pillar for improved response to and preparedness for shocks. In the public health domain, the concept of affordable access to quality care, promoted so far by the concept of universal health coverage, is expected to gain further traction alongside the global response to pandemics, along with the overall climate change and green agenda that is mainstreaming into the COVID-19 response debates.

Rebuilding the road to the SDGs will drive, more so now than ever, the policies and practices of many key actors, be it the United Nations, major donors or NGOs. In this context, reflecting upon the articulation between long-term development gains, principled humanitarian aid and emergency response will continue to fuel operational and policy debates in the sector, particularly in conflict and complex emergencies settings.

Furthermore, the road to the SDGs and humanitarian action will be paved with enormous obstacles, considering the limits of multilateralism, trends towards isolationism and protectionism, potential setbacks for human rights frameworks, and increased tensions exacerbated by fear of even scarcer resources. Under these conditions, the notion of universal health coverage and the responses to major public health threats and health emergencies risk being articulated through the lens of security and the concept of ‘securitization of health’. The needs of the most marginalized populations may slip under the radar in the name of protecting broader political interests.

The trending centrality of national governments

The centrality of national governments and State authorities in the humanitarian response has gained considerable momentum over the last several years and has been actively promoted within the sector itself, in accordance with the contribution towards the SDGs and the UN resolution 46/182 of 1991. Whether due to national governments and State authorities having increased capacity to coordinate humanitarian and medical assistance, the opportunity for them to access new types of funding, or the willingness of some States to further assert their sovereignty, such a trend had already become a more set reality in many contexts prior to the pandemic.

Against this backdrop, the severity and multi-dimensional characteristic of the COVID-19 crisis catapulted the role of State authorities into another dimension of leadership. Measures to address situations of exceptional circumstances are being implemented in many countries, granting extensive powers to governments. The threat that the crisis poses to national stability in many countries, its potential to enflame tensions and increase conflict, the risks of further protectionism, and the maintained focus on counter-terrorism are all likely to shepherd the engagement of many national governments in the aid response through stability, political and security agendas. In such settings, the space for principled action, aligned with human rights frameworks and independent from broader political and security consideration, will become even more challenging.

This increased role of national governments and State authorities may also translate into a growing tendency – also pre-existing – to impose normative and administrative frameworks on aid organizations in order to regulate, register and control their activities.

Given the scale of the crisis, the role of Member States, international organizations and a handful of significant private stakeholders, such as the Gates Foundation, are coming to the fore of the response to this global phenomenon. Key decisions and directions are navigated by a small club that is simultaneously shaping the main narratives on how to approach this new reality. Space for many other humanitarian and aid actors risks being reduced to the role of implementer, pushed to certain niches areas or left at the margins of the sector.

In this selective club, and despite the limits of multilateralism that COVID-19 has exposed, international aid organizations and the main UN agencies are likely to consolidate their roles of leader and coordinator of the traditional international humanitarian system, as already demonstrated over the last two months. The World Health Organization (WHO), the World Food Programme, UNDP, and the World Bank illustrate the space taken by such institutions in the current broader aid response to this crisis. The quest for a new vaccine positions organizations such as Gavi at the front and centre of the game.

The most visible will see their paths shackled by key Member States’ power interaction, as the polemic around the WHO demonstrates. But the scale of the crisis and needs, along with its global nature, will continue to make such international bodies necessary to coordinating international humanitarian assistance.

The stakes will be high for those agencies and international organisations to navigate a thin and thorny line between pragmatism in a constrained environment (both politically and financially) and advocating for the protection of marginalized populations and principled humanitarian action, all while ensuring more efficient coordination within the international aid landscape and rebuilding the aforementioned road towards the SDGs.

The centrality of State authorities and the increased role of some major international organizations and main UN agencies, along with the unprecedented nature of this crisis, might lead to a desire to further review the coordination of aid through comprehensive and adjusted structured frameworks of response at international or national level, including for public health emergencies. The increased focus on the SDGs by UN agencies, along with the fact that humanitarian crises increasingly occur in middle-incomes countries, will only contribute to this overall trend.

In this environment, it is natural to anticipate that space for international humanitarian action, independent of comprehensive frameworks and working alongside international and national systems, will be increasingly challenging: positions may remain limited to a few specific actors, or be circumscribed in deregulated contexts, or find a new life in alternative forms of international solidarity and increased activist action.

However, the amplitude of needs that this crisis will generate worldwide, as well as the potential risk of collapse of some already fragile states, may nevertheless create additional space for some international actors or civil society to rise within or along the margins of the traditional aid sector.

Towards a humanitarian reshuffle?

While the main UN agencies may reinforce their role as leader and coordinator of the international humanitarian sector, the humanitarian actors’ landscape is likely to see important changes in the coming period.

For some international NGOs, the shock caused by COVID-19 has been massive. Some have had no choice but to uproot and examine their traditional ways of working, centralized around the Western world and dependent on international personnel and supply. Many need to scrutinize fundamental aspects of their programmes to adapt to the crisis and demonstrate their added value.

The crisis is likely to challenge the financial balance and models of many aid organizations. The lockdown measures in place have already had massive repercussions in the fundraising abilities of some, while the financial impact of the crisis, along with the lack of visibility on institutional funding for the months and years to come, generates significant uncertainties.

The choices made now will have important consequences on the viability of organizations in the coming months and years. In this unknown environment, who is going to survive, who is going to collapse, and who is going to adapt and come out stronger? Will the current environment lead to fewer international NGOs, an increased number of consortiums or even mergers between organizations? Will such changes create gaps in the response, and will those gaps be filled by others?

The visibility of traditional donors for 2021 is still hypothetical. Even before the crisis began, the cost of the response to humanitarian needs had been growing faster than the funding capacity, leading to a revisiting of the interactions between donors, humanitarian organizations, development agencies and aid recipients, as promoted in the ‘Grand Bargain’. How then will the funding component of the aid sector be adjusted in light of increased needs and a worldwide economic crisis?

Humanitarian action is not immune to the changes occurring within the societies from which it originated. The evolution of the political landscape in many donor nations will continue to impact foreign policies related to aid and its financing. Shifts in global dynamics will certainly impact the way aid financing is designed and organized. It may also bring additional new players into the game, such as the private sector, non-traditional partners and emerging States.

The localization agenda was roped into the crisis early on, triggered mainly by the challenges and restrictions international organizations were facing and the vital role of community engagement in the fight against the pandemic. However, the space for local civil society organizations within the international humanitarian system is intrinsically linked to the space provided to them by international organizations and their capacity to directly access international funding, which requires a shift in funding mechanisms as has been requested since the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016. In such a murky and financially constrained environment, it is unlikely that international donors will be able to review their funding allocation processes in the short term. The role of local organizations may remain limited, in the coming period, to that of an implementer ‘delivering the last mile’, while they could offer so much more.

Alongside worldwide transformations, the ongoing globalization of the aid sector has led to an increased number of diverse and ‘non-traditional’ actors becoming further involved in aid assistance, from Member States such as the BRIC countries to regional entities (e.g. ASEAN), the United Nations, international institutions (e.g. the World Bank), the private sector, international NGOs, NGOs from the global South, local NGOs, ‘GoNGOs’, religious groups, or academics. By its very nature, globalization brings forth new actors that significantly impact the role that some traditional actors, such as Western international NGOs, will play in the future.

Such a landscape is, in part, linked to broader geopolitical dynamics. Its development is therefore likely to follow the evolution of power dynamics worldwide that this crisis will influence. China and affiliated stakeholders such as Jack Ma and the Alibaba Group might, for instance, become a viable alternative for some recipient countries in parallel to the traditional international UN and traditional donor-led aid system, as they are increasingly getting involved in medical response and development assistance.

This diversification of actors and evolution of stakeholders in the aid sector at large will continue to affect and shape the way humanitarian action and the concepts of ‘aid’ and ‘assistance’ are conceptualized, as well as how humanitarian principles are articulated. The definitions and meanings of these latter are directly influenced by stakeholders’ interactions and power dynamics, as each actor comes with their own perspectives of what humanitarian action means but also for some with their own interest regarding the soft power that can result from it. Those evolutions are occurring in a context wherein the mostly western conception of the aid sector and its funding were already put into question by some states and organizations from the Global South. In a quickly evolving world, accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis, the traditional ‘Dunantist approach’ is likely to continue losing traction and give way to diverse, integrated approaches.

Conclusion: embracing (unknown) change

In the current environment, dynamics are not fixed but rather fast moving. Additional factors will certainly pop up in the near future and impact the overall equation. Regardless, the COVID-19 crisis will undoubtedly mark a turning point in the evolution of the international humanitarian sector.

How then should aid organizations anticipate and prepare for this new reality, still opaque in many ways, and balance it against the expected overwhelming needs? Better yet, rather than adapting and anticipating to this new reality, how can aid organizations lean in and embrace the present crisis as a conduit for radical change, proactively reshaping and repositioning an aid sector that is fit for purpose to protect and address the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalized?

The strategic choices made today by each actor in the humanitarian sector will significantly impact their respective positioning in the world of tomorrow.

Editor’s Note – The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of an entity or organization.

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