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Humanitarianism in a changing world

In face of floods and climate change, Bangladesh is turning to floating farms Wetland Resource Development Society
Selon le groupe de réflexion DARA, basé à Madrid, le nombre de pays touchés par le changement climatique passera de 15 actuellement à 54 en 2030
There is “worrying evidence” that the scale and scope of disasters will increase significantly in coming years and “the international community is not prepared,” says Ross Mountain, director-general of Development Assistance Research Associates (DARA), a Madrid-based think-tank which advocates better humanitarian policies.

He was speaking at the Dubai International Humanitarian Aid & Development Conference & Exhibition, which ran from 1-3 April.

In vulnerable countries food prices, urbanization, migration, the impact of climate change and population growth are all increasing. But as the challenges grow, the resources available in OECD countries - the traditional donors - to respond to humanitarian crises are shrinking.

“The challenge will be huge,” Johannes Luchner, head of the Middle East, Central and South-West Asia unit of the European Commission’s humanitarian aid arm ECHO, said at the conference. “We need to do things differently in order to cope with this development.”

Part of doing things differently is planning for the future.

“Given the increased scale of needs and vulnerability, we need a radical shift in attitude and working practices to integrate anticipation, disaster risk reduction, preparedness and resilience into our programmes,” Mountain said.

“Many governments and many organizations still operate on a model that focuses on short-term crises, rather than looking at the longer term trends and their humanitarian implications… If we do not take a more participatory preventive approach, we will be responsible for countless avoidable suffering in the decades to come.”

His thoughts were echoed by Yacoub El Hillo, director of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR)’s Bureau for the Middle East and North Africa, who told the conference:

“I don’t think the international capacity today is well placed to respond - not to a collection of these mega-crises - even to one of them… And they are literally all over the world.” He said the international community needs to ask itself “whether the business-as-usual approach will continue to cut it…

“Prevention is better than a cure,” El Hillo told IRIN later. “A cure can never be adequate if the needs are growing by the hour, but the resources are declining by the minute.”

Speakers at the conference identified a number of trends, challenges and issues that humanitarians should take heed of if they are to “do better” in the future. Here are some of them:

Youth bulge: Almost 40 percent of the global population is under 24; over one billion people - one in five people - are aged 15-24; in one third of the world’s countries, more than 60 percent of the population is under 30; and 85 percent of the world’s youth live in the developing world. “Youth are a dominant demographic reality… a reality that demands urgent focus and consideration, especially in our development plans,” William Lacy Swing, director-general of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), told the conference.

“Without investments early on, youth remain trapped in situations of poverty and dependency, and are easily co-opted into criminality, social conflict, and patterns of inter-generational violence.”

''Forging smart and strategic partnership is one way for the international humanitarian community to better respond to today's growing humanitarian challenges''
Participants also stressed the need to better engage youth in humanitarian aid. “People under-estimate the capacity of youth,” said Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, wife of the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and a UN Messenger of Peace. “How is it that we give them so little role in setting the global development agenda or helping find new routes to ending political conflicts that deplete our energy and resources?”

Unemployment: With this “demographic tsunami”, as Princess Haya put it, “there are already too many people for too few jobs and the impact of technology, especially in the manufacturing sector, will be to reduce those numbers even further.” The Middle East and North Africa, for example, will have to create 20 million jobs in the next 10 years to align its unemployment rate of 25 percent with the global rate of 10 percent - a task that is “utterly daunting,” according to Justin Sykes, manager of social innovation at the Doha-based company Silatech, which focuses on creating jobs in the Arab world.

Migration: The rising number of young people, combined with high rates of unemployment, has been a key driver of global migration, which has reached unprecedented heights. Today, one in seven people in the world is a migrant. About 215 million migrants are crossing international borders and another 740 million are domestic migrants moving from rural to urban areas in search of work.

“Migration is with us to stay. It is a mega-trend of the 21st century,” Swing said. In some North African countries, more than three-quarters of youth said they intended to migrate at any cost, but had little information on the details of their journey or what job they would do once they reached their destination, IOM surveying has found. Increasingly, people who would meet the definition of a refugee are hidden in large groups of migrants, El Hillo added. This so-called “mixed migration” is making it harder to help refugees.

Climate change*: Climate change in the coming years is expected to affect almost every aspect of our lives, making it a challenge for the aid community to design effective response strategies.   Beyond financial loss, “extreme events …  can lead to a loss of what matters to individuals, communities, and groups, including the loss of elements of social capital, such as sense of place or of community, identity, or culture”, points out the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s new report, Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX).  Higher temperatures and altered rainfall patterns could potentially lead to an increase in the incidence of vector-born diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever, onchocerciasis or river blindness, and trypanosomiasis or sleeping sickness, the IPCC said in its last assessment.

Politicization of humanitarian aid: Governments are increasingly linking humanitarian assistance to political, military or anti-terrorism objectives. Think Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, Sudan, Somalia and the occupied Palestinian territory. “This is a dangerous game which has deadly consequences in terms of access, protection and safety of civilians and humanitarian actors alike,” Mountain said. In other cases, like Syria, governments and/or armed groups have increasingly denied access to humanitarian organizations. Read more on the politicization of aid in the 2011 release of the Humanitarian Response Index, an annual survey published by DARA.

New actors in humanitarianism: There has been an explosion of NGOs in recent years; but also a change in the donor landscape. The economic downturn in the West has meant a growing role for donors and organizations from the Arab and Muslim worlds, for example. This means two things. First, the international community needs to better, and “more respectfully”, engage these new players. “The tendency on the part of many of us in the international community is to come thinking that money is to be given so that we, the experts, go back and do the work,” El Hillo said. “The talk should be more about strategic partnerships and not about money… Forging smart and strategic partnership is one way for the international humanitarian community to better respond to today's growing humanitarian challenges,” he told IRIN.

But as humanitarian aid becomes more popular, ECHO’s Luchner said, “we also need to be sure we can channel all this good will into a professional way of providing humanitarian aid.”

Local ownership: National actors have shown a desire to take on increased responsibilities in responding to crises, and the international community should welcome that, according to Ambassador Manuel Bessler, deputy director-general of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Department. He said he learned this lesson during the floods in Pakistan, when, as the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs there, he was not in enough contact with the authorities. The Arab Spring has also shown the capacity of civil society, and this must be embraced, El Hillo said: “Civil society organizations, NGOs in the Arab world are not there to be taught what they will do. They have a lot to teach.”

Innovation: The humanitarian community must move beyond traditional ways of thinking and look to innovative ways of dealing with the crises it faces. Bessler pointed to the success Switzerland has had in places like Somalia, with giving cash assistance instead of in-kind donations to vulnerable people. The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) is now experimenting with how to do this in emergencies. “It moves away from hand-outs to hands-on,” Bessler said, and also helps stimulate local economies. Another growing field is the use of text messaging on mobile phones to connect youth to potential employers, as Silatech has done in several new projects in the Arab world, or farmers to markets as has been done in sub-Saharan Africa.

Humanitarian versus development aid: As the lines between humanitarian aid and development work become increasingly blurred, humanitarians need to do a better job of advocating preparedness, Mountain said.

“When you deal with the military, they spend about 90-95 percent of their time planning and maybe 5 percent of their time doing,” he told IRIN, “whereas the humanitarians spend about 95 percent of their time, if not more, doing, and very little time planning… Even when people are not at war, they have an army. When there are no fires, you have a fire department sitting there. When you have a humanitarian crisis, by and large, you actually go out and try to get the firemen to come together and go out. So surprise surprise, we’re not as fast as we need to be.”


*This article was amended on 5 April to remove data IRIN could not verify

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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