New Year's resolutions for the humanitarian community

Cartoon of a man with the whole world on his shoulders
(Stan Eales)

Like all right-thinking people, I hate New Year’s resolutions, but paradoxically my New Year’s resolution for 2016 is to be less cynical about New Year’s resolutions. This is because it has been brought to my attention that my cynicism about the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) made some people sad – and when high-ranking aid representatives are sad, that makes me sad. So let's start the year by looking at how well the Top 10 New Year's Resolutions – as measured among the general public by polling firm Nielsen – can be adopted by the humanitarian community to make change really happen in 2016!

1. Stay fit and healthy (37%)

Aid worker welfare was suddenly in the spotlight in 2015 – to the shock of the agencies that employ them. Top of the shocks: NRC, found to have failed in its duty of care over an employee kidnapping, and made to pay handsomely for that failure. The legal implications of that ruling are game-changing; but many other stories were heard in 2015, particularly around sexual violence, and hopefully this increased awareness will lead to national and international staff staying healthy. Everybody knows this is the most difficult resolution to stick to, but it's one which the sector can keep if it tries.

2. Lose weight (32%)

Watch the weight drop away as the humanitarian sector says goodbye to large-scale food aid in 2016! Instead say hello to cash transfers, which have been on the rise in the last few years, culminating in the recommendations of the High Level Panel on Humanitarian Cash Transfers. There's a slight danger of cash being seen as the solution to the woes of the sector, but cash also opens up the possibility of better monitoring that everybody loves in this age of Big Data. You can bet the humanitarian community is going to be keeping an eye on cash like Weight Watchers keep an eye on calories in January.

3. Enjoy life to the fullest (28%)

It's well known that aid workers work hard and party hard, but not everybody gets that chance: in emergencies, vulnerable groups are often marginalised. Only one of the 31 proposals that came out of the worldwide WHS consultations mentioned women, and only one mentioned older people and people with disabilities. I'm not a fan of shoehorning vulnerable groups into reports for the sake of appearances (that feels too much like paying them lip service), when what we need are much stronger frameworks for analysis and action. That's the only way that the humanitarian community can ensure that all groups affected by disaster will get to enjoy their life to the fullest.

4. Spend less, save more (25%)

Fun fact: the well-known target that “economically advanced” countries should give 0.7 percent of their Gross National Income to overseas assistance was agreed by the UN General Assembly in 1970. Nearly five decades later, you can usually count on one hand the number of countries that meet that commitment in any given year, which is pitiful. By the end of 2015, humanitarian funding was down more than 18% on 2014, the funding gap had continued to grow, and the UN launched its largest ever funding appeal. You can pretty much guarantee that we're going to keep this resolution.

5. Spend more time with family and friends (19%)

Not a good resolution for international aid workers, since most of our careers began with an intense desire to get away from family and friends. We spend more time with other people's family and friends, known in the business as “local actors.” However we don't even spend enough time with them; time is money, and only 1.6 percent of funding goes directly to local actors. The consensus is that localising aid requires turning the current system on its head in order to fund frontline agencies to avoid further missed opportunities. The more local capacity increases, the less need there’ll be for international aid workers, which means we can spend more time with our actual family and friends, although for most of us this isn’t always a desirable outcome.

6. Get organised (18%)


7. Will not make any resolutions (16%)

This is an epic fail before we even start the year. Everybody knows that institutional donors love making resolutions to help those affected by crisis, even if they rarely deliver (see Resolution #4) and we’ve already heard much of the same in the lead-up to the WHS. The WHS consultation process produced 31 proposals from the global humanitarian community, all of which are important to negotiate, but are also “really boring... little concrete items”. As everybody knows, the secret to keeping a New Year's resolution is to keep it vague and inspirational, rather than commit to a specific goal and work at it.

8. Learn something new (14%)

Everybody's talking about innovation, but ironically that makes it harder to know how much actual innovation is going on. Research at the University of Brighton has found that most humanitarian innovation is incremental – i.e. doing things a little bit better rather than doing them differently. More worryingly, the research team identified that there's “little time for continuous and cumulative learning – the bedrock of innovation that actually works”. The humanitarian sector has plenty of new things to learn – especially from innovation happening in disaster-affected communities – but first it needs to learn how to learn.

9. Travel more (14%)

This isn't really a New Year's resolution, more of an occupational hazard; no matter how much travel is written into your job description, you will travel more. We'd probably do better to make a resolution to travel less, although MSF already thinks we're travelling less than we should, and nobody wants MSF giving them the side-eye at the next coordination meeting. Localisation is part of the answer (see Resolution #5) but only if we do it right, and don't just turn to remote management in insecure locations as an excuse for transferring risk from international to national staff.

10. Read more (12%)

Originally for this column I was going to read all the reports and consultations and submissions to the WHS, but I quickly realised that they're as frequent as airdrops over South Sudan during rainy season. Trying to read more would be an exercise in masochism, so why don't we go back to the classics? As Oxfam's Briefing Paper for the WHS says: “the fundamental way to reduce the terrible toll of suffering in humanitarian crises... is to uphold the international humanitarian and refugee law to which governments have already agreed.” Unfortunately, states already closed that door late last year, so we’re not off to a great start in 2016. So much for New Year’s resolutions….

Paul Currion is an independent consultant to humanitarian organisations. He previously worked on responses in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Indian Ocean Tsunami. He lives in Belgrade. 


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