Here are six humanitarian policy trends that have our attention.
They’re challenging a system at a crossroads, influencing aid policy debates from Bridgetown to Brussels, and may just trigger a bit of change in a sector that often resists it.
Money: Learning to do less with less
Why we’re watching: For the first time in recent memory, UN-backed appeals will ask for less in 2024 ($46 billion) than they did the year before ($51 billion). The humanitarian system will target fewer people, concentrate on core life-saving activities, and try to say “no” to the longer-term development work that has crept into emergency responses.
Humanitarians have spent precious podium time advocating for debt relief, for climate justice, and for the importance of development work in crises. They’ve even tried to make a new catchphrase stick – “You can’t humanitarian your way out of this” – with limited success.
On paper, 2024 spending plans are a rare roadmap for restraint that’s driven by a hard reality: The system’s traditional government donors are tightening their belts and say the era of limitless budget expansion is over.
But how much of this is just talk?
The international humanitarian system isn’t one to leave money on the table. While some aid leaders preach temperance, others may be eyeing what they think is a growing pile of cash available for climate loss and damage, adaptation, and resilience work (more on that below).
Over-dependence on emergency response is baked into the aid system itself. Donors cut development aid when politics gets in the way, then ask humanitarians to fill the void – a growing trend seen anywhere from Afghanistan, to Niger, to Gaza. For all the talk of a triple nexus linking up the different corners of the aid world, humanitarians say they’re always left holding the fire extinguisher.
Next steps: Humanitarian response is a small slice of international aid, whichever way the pie is cut. And international aid is only one of the many solutions that can also come from the diaspora, national and local governments, local responses, volunteer groups, neighbours, and crisis-hit communities themselves. If humanitarians are serious about scaling back with the times, they’ll need to acknowledge that others have viable answers as well – and learn to share the available resources.
Politics: The rise of the right
Support for populist right-wing parties is surging in Europe, and Donald Trump could re-enter the US political fray. These governments are key aid donors but are increasingly controlled or influenced by politicians hostile to the idea of spending resources away from home.
Why we’re watching: Policy does not happen in a vacuum: It is authorised, influenced, or funded by political decisions. Aid policies are inherently outward-looking and rooted in international cooperation, but those characteristics are opposed by the style of politics that is gaining momentum in Europe and the United States.
Migration is the key issue many right-wing parties – Brothers of Italy, Alternative for Germany, Sweden Democrats, to name just three – have used to gain steam. The implications go beyond refugee policies. Aid budgets are already strained and could be cut, or used to further geopolitical goals. Populist right wing parties also tend to be sceptical of green policies: Lower-income countries have big climate finance demands – and high-income countries are obligated by UN treaties to pay up.
At the COP28 climate summit, Dutch diplomat and politician Sigrid Kaag warned of the risk of backsliding on international climate finance. In the Netherlands’ November elections, the Party for Freedom, led by far-right politician Geert Wilders, won the most seats.
“The mood is quite conservative” across Europe, said Kaag, who was recently appointed to a senior humanitarian role for the UN in Gaza. “So the risk of a retrenchment or a reversal of pathways, investments, and progress is quite real. So you can have the best quantifiable goals but you need to also focus on the politics around it.”
Uncomfortable precedents for humanitarians are not hard to find. In the UK, aid policy suffered dramatically after a populist right-wing government under Prime Minister Boris Johnson closed the Department for International Development, then slashed budgets (despite initially promising not to). Under the Trump administration, the US withdrew from the World Health Organization and the Paris Agreement on climate change, taking away valuable resources. A similar transactional approach to foreign affairs could further weaken already strained multilateralism.
Next steps: There could be an outlier in the UK of all places, where the Conservative Party is widely expected to lose the next general election. For the Labour Party, currently in opposition, aid and climate policy is much less contentious (though they still haven’t committed to return the aid budget to its previous level of 0.7% of gross national income). For the rest of the continent, Kaag offers this remedy: “Political will, a straight back, and have the courage to withstand the tide and sometimes organise in a different manner.”
Re-imagining aid: The Gaza effect
Crises that capture the world’s attention can be tipping points for change. The emotionally and politically charged catastrophe in Gaza is centring new perspectives on oft-debated issues like interpreting humanitarian principles, double standards in aid, or even re-imagining a better funding model.
Why we’re watching: Principles like neutrality are sacrosanct, the orthodoxy goes. But Israel’s siege of Gaza is unearthing painful divisions, and pushing many aid workers to question their roles and/or their organisations’. Opinions on Israel and Palestine are widespread and, for many, deeply personal. As Gaza crumbles, conversations about new kinds of humanitarianism seem a little more mainstream – even after similar arguments from places like Myanmar were quickly brushed aside.
Rank-and-file aid workers, at least the ones who feel empowered to do so, are pushing back, speaking up, and criticising decision-makers. Does the backlash put a new spotlight on the opaque UN leadership appointment system? It was never a secret that people like World Food Programme boss Cindy McCain or UNICEF’s Catherine Russell, who have both faced internal criticism, have close ties to the US political machinery. The de facto convention of Western powers horse-trading key seats in the UN system is often criticised but rarely challenged. This may well continue, but the internal revolts sparked by Gaza show how this political baggage can become a liability.
Next steps: Similarly, Gaza has again exposed the humanitarian sector’s uneasy balance with another core principle: independence. If all your major funders are governments that back Israel – and that fund humanitarians with one hand but explicitly tie their aid to political objectives with the other – the veneer of independence wears a little thin. Will Gaza spark a new push to revamp how the humanitarian system is funded? Combined with the current backdrop of tight donor budgets, ideas to re-imagine the system so it isn’t so chained to fair-weather contributions from a few wealthy governments – think carbon taxes, a “solidarity levy”, impact bonds – start to sound a little more urgent and a little less pie-in-the-sky.
Climate: Humanitarians push into resilience
As the climate crisis worsens – and related finance flows rise – humanitarian agencies have embraced the realm of climate resilience, at least rhetorically.
Why we’re watching: Facing a long-term budget crunch, the world’s most well-funded humanitarian agency, the World Food Programme, says it’s cutting back and switching gears. In 2023, the WFP told staff it needed a “sharper definition” of what the agency “does and does not do”. Part of this, McCain wrote in an internal letter, means developing “a more focused program offer that… showcases how our innovative work on resilience and climate adaptation helps to reduce needs”.
Is the WFP’s light rebrand simply a message to donors that it can change with the times, or is it part of a wider humanitarian pivot to climate resilience? Resilience is distinct from traditional emergency response, which is reactive by nature. Instead, climate resilience aims to help communities adapt, prepare, and withstand crises; it often has more in common with what’s seen as longer-term development work.
If the intention is genuine, can humanitarians embrace a supporting role instead of seeking the limelight? Some in the climate space worry that under all the rhetoric, a move to resilience is simply a cash grab for new funding without meaningful reforms. Humanitarians showed up in force at COP28. But analysts say they face a choice when it comes to climate change and funding: Do they step back and share space, or do they crowd in and join the queue?
Can humanitarians both prevent and respond to disasters? The UN’s 2024 funding appeals say humanitarians will “prioritise response in areas where people face the most life-threatening needs”. That’s not the same as climate resilience. It’s possible the humanitarian sector could learn to walk and chew gum, but it won’t be easy given the scale of urgent crises demanding their attention.
Next steps: Resilience shares much DNA with preventative approaches. Anticipatory action – the move to better predict and plan for crises – remains a key trend. Donors and humanitarian planners alike hail it as the solution for rising needs and shrinking budgets, but in practice it has had trouble scaling up. If humanitarians are expecting a cash windfall in the climate arena, they may be disappointed: Tight purse strings have also limited climate adaptation financing, which funds resilience activities, and are consistently far off what’s needed.
Global South leadership: Where change happens
A growing assertiveness from lower-income countries – and an ability to work together – has led to big shifts on the international stage. Key policy agendas, especially on climate change, have seen progress that some didn’t think possible just a few years ago.
Why we’re watching: Global South leadership has led to major policy shifts with real-world impacts. The most notable recent win has been the loss and damage fund, approved at COP28 after a year of fraught negotiations, and despite vocal opposition from the US.
The campaigning of key leaders has played a big role in these successes. Chief among them is Mia Mottley, prime minister of Barbados, who leads a country of less than 300,000 people. Having shot to prominence making the moral case for climate justice, Mottley is now campaigning for slavery reparations (she says Barbados is owed $4.9 trillion).
It was Mottley’s spearheading of the Bridgetown Agenda that gave political momentum to the ambitious push to reform the international financial system. The agenda links lower-income countries’ climate finance needs – including preparing for emergencies – to the wider economic system. In particular, it gave voice to how debt burdens make it harder for governments to prepare for or respond to disasters – a point that humanitarian leaders have since adopted into their own advocacy.
For all its bluster, the humanitarian sector is still a small part of the international aid system, and its ability to instigate meaningful global change is limited. So how does this change happen?
A key factor is how Global South countries have been able to work together on often-divisive stages like COP climate summits. Coalitions of the world’s least powerful countries are the ones pushing for the most ambitious targets, such as limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
South-South multilateral cooperation hasn’t been restricted to climate. In November, 125 countries backed a Nigerian-led proposal to move international tax discussions from the Western-dominated Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to the UN. The African Union said it was a victory in a “decades-long fight of Global South countries” to get fairer tax rules. Why does it matter to humanitarians? More money in government budgets means a greater ability to prevent and respond to crises – without resorting to the cash-strapped aid sector.
Next steps: Finance is the critical thread running throughout humanitarian response, climate, and development. The boundaries between each sector are increasingly hard to distinguish. Governments and campaigners will be looking to build on 2023’s progress. Avinash Persaud, Mottley’s climate envoy, told The New Humanitarian that the task of 2024 “is the design of international financial revenues”, in particular through a French-Kenyan taskforce that aims to scale up climate funding. The main emphasis for COP29 is already shaping up to be finance. The climate summit’s late-2024 timing means it will likely be a barometer for financial reform in the coming year.
Mistrust: The waning belief in multilateralism
Trust in the international community and the multilateral system is eroding – and the crisis reaches the heart of the humanitarian sector.
Why we’re watching: Signs of this mistrust run up and down the system. Government donors don’t trust the humanitarian sector to spend their money effectively: That’s why funding is heavily earmarked, why it’s quickly cut when scandals hit, and why aid agencies are rushing out anti-fraud schemes and touting slightly smaller budgets.
National governments facing stark disasters – from Pacific Island countries to Indonesia or Morocco – don’t trust international aid to have their best interests at heart. Mistrust abounds at COP climate negotiations because rich nations have consistently failed to meet their pledges. And crisis-hit communities, tired of not being consulted on what they need, may not see solutions among the humanitarians offering help.
It’s internal as well: Gaza lays bare the uncomfortable divisions between the international aid sector’s majority Global South workforce and its largely Global North leadership. Sudan, Afghanistan, and other emergencies where international workers are evacuated while national staff fend for themselves expose the sector’s double standards.
Aid groups have difficulty trusting each other, so they manoeuvre for position and compete for funding. Local aid NGOs have difficulty trusting international groups and donors: Years of unmet promises will do that.
Next steps: The humanitarian sector knows it has a trust problem – there’s even a coordination group that discusses it. The goal of the UN General Assembly’s high-level summits in 2023 was to renew trust in the multilateral system, but the renewed Israel-Hamas conflict exploded weeks later.
Many of the sector’s reform promises big and small – the Grand Bargain, localisation, accountability, preventing sexual abuse, refugee inclusion – have been aimed in part at rebuilding that trust. The UN’s relief chief, Martin Griffiths, is today pushing a so-called flagship plan to better listen to communities and transform aid. The sector has seen reform pledges come and go. Those that stick help to repair the trust; those that don’t chip away at what’s left.
Edited by Andrew Gully.