Remaking Humanitarian Action


In protracted crises and in emergencies that combine conflict, disaster, and endemic poverty, the humanitarian system needs to shift away from its favored types of responses towards a more empathetic type of response. While the specific benefits of neutral humanitarian responses should remain where it is essential, there should in addition to this be a newfound emphasis on a more integrated response (one that is more compatible with people and place it is helping).

Part of Solution

  • A Three-point Proposal to Change the Humanitarian system

  • Additional Information

    Action Items from pp. 74 + 75 of HMG's report, "Time to Let Go"

    Promote more complementary and rationalized crisis response
    Most of today’s crises require a collective approach to crisis management that increases complementarity between humanitarian and other aid organizations, and aligns strategies, performance management frameworks and monitoring accordingly. Such complementarity also requires that humanitarian and development teams develop a better mutual understanding of their respective principles, approaches, processes and tools, work together more regularly and systematically at country level to develop joint vulnerability and risk analysis, prioritize activities and set and monitor common country-level objectives (Carpenter and Bennett, 2015). Where crises and needs are to some degree predictable, they can be met more effectively and more cost-effectively by using permanent structures and institutions. In this regard, social protection, cash transfer programs and risk financing, as well as measures outside of the humanitarian and development sector, such as micro nance and micro-insurance, can contribute to making communities more resilient to future crises (WEF, 2016).

    Re-establish what it means to be ‘humanitarian’
    At the same time, there will be situations where a narrower form of emergency response, based on the ‘classic’ humanitarian principles, governed by IHL and suited to a limited range of circumstances and players, will be necessary.This form of ‘humanitarian action’ will be critical in contexts where the effectiveness and legitimacy of humanitarian work will derive from the ability of specialized actors such as the ICRC to uphold independent and neutral conduct, and who are both knowledgeable about IHL and legitimate in the eyes of warring parties when negotiating on the basis of IHL. The role of these specialized organizations is also critical to working with states in the pursuit of a new mechanism for strengthening compliance with IHL, and to ensuring that all aid organizations, irrespective of their mandates and operational approaches, understand its core tenets and implications. Distinguishing this form of humanitarianism from wider interpretations embracing a solidarist, more developmental or more integrated perspective would not imply that one is less valuable or legitimate than the other, but it does require that aid organizations be explicit and upfront about the nature of their aspirations, objectives and operational frameworks, and transparent about delivery lines and methods. To be effective, crisis response requires differentiated approaches, ranging from one based on a narrow interpretation of what constitutes humanitarian action and humanitarian actors to one based on a more expansive, flexible and coordinated form of relief. Accepting that different forms of emergency response co-exist would go a long way towards removing the ideological blockages that prevent skilled and capable responders, whether international, governmental or local, from working more cohesively and with the full extent of capacity, skills and resources, to meet – and potentially resolve – people’s needs. Effectively addressing people’s needs – not ideology – should dictate operational approaches and tools. Driven by this understanding, the next era of humanitarian action must find more commonality than difference in approaches to the way the human impacts of crises are addressed.


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