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2018 in Review: Humanitarian policy and practice

Highlights from our coverage

Spilled maize lies in the dirt after Turkana nomads in northern Kenya flee their home fearing attacks from raiders
Spilled maize lies in the dirt after Turkana nomads in northern Kenya flee their home fearing attacks from raiders (Gwenn Dubourthoumieu/IRIN)

The world of humanitarian aid in some ways is predictable and hasn’t changed much for years: donations flow from governments and individuals to aid groups that help those in need with food, healthcare, shelter, or clean water.


Simple, right? Not quite. Raising the cash, controlling the purse strings, protecting data, and stopping fraud and sexual abuse are all hot-button issues that demanded the attention of the humanitarian enterprise this year.


Here are some of the events and issues that shaped policy and practice in 2018:


Counter-terror compliance

Shutdowns, suspensions, and legal threats put relief in world’s troublespots at risk


Militants, governments, and local officials may try to steal aid. Aid agencies aren’t expected to prevent every single such incident. But when they involve sanctioned and terrorist groups, US enforcement can come down hard, as major aid agencies found this year. Deliveries to some of the most vulnerable in Syria have been cancelled and aid agencies pulled out as a result.

Aid workers offload supplies


US funding

Three charts on US funding cuts for Palestinian refugees


By cutting US funding for the UN Palestine refugee agency almost to nil, the Trump administration gave a funding headache to the UN and other nations. Judging by administrative manoeuvres and the political climate, it could be a harbinger of more to come. In the case of UNRWA, the United States was paying about 28 percent of the bill – roughly proportionate to its share of global income. Some aid organisations, including the UN’s food and refugee agencies, are more dependent on the US taxpayer – up to 40 percent.

Black and white photo of an old bearded man with his head on a burlap sack with a young girl holding it and looking into the distance


Heads in the cloud?

“Do no digital harm”


An “accident waiting to happen” – that’s what a data protection analyst said of shortcomings in a cloud-based UN database of millions. Keen to beat cheats and wow donors, aid agencies have dived into digital record-keeping and biometric registration. Home-grown humanitarian IT systems hold “toxic assets” and need to be more secure and limit the risk of personal data abuse. A discussion in October offered rare candour on “doing no digital harm”, with a range of views from a blockchain startup, a data-specialist consultant, as well as officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN.

Closeup of a digital fingerprint being taken


Unfriendly fire

What is humanitarian deconfliction?


Hospital bombings have become common in the Syrian war. Many analysts (but not all), say there has been a pattern of deliberate targeting, to demoralise and crush any resistance. Perhaps surprisingly, aid groups are now voluntarily giving the coordinates of their hospitals to those doing the bombing. In the worst case, they’re handing over a list of targets. But they do it because if a declared site is then bombed, the criminal intent of the bomber will be plain for all to see. “Deconfliction” may, for some at least, be a gut-wrenching gamble, but it’s becoming more and more routine.

A map of Yemen with many red dots


Keeping up standards

#MeToo sex scandals spur interest in standards for the aid sector


Aid agencies are loosely governed: their tax privileges may be tightly defined in their home countries, but their far-flung field operations have less regulatory scrutiny. How to detect bad apples? How to know if an agency meets minimum standards? Borrowing from international best practice in other business sectors, a Geneva-based independent audit scheme is working to make quality standards transparent in the humanitarian sector.

Closeup of a document reading This is to certify


Plug and play

3D printing offers new hope for war-wounded


Clunky, heavy, and ugly, a replacement arm for an amputee is too often left on a shelf, unused. A better, lighter (and maybe cheaper) alternative may be possible using 3D printing. This pilot scheme is trying out the technology for war-wounded and disabled patients in Jordan. Hype about humanitarian innovation may be in decline, but this is an experiment worth watching.

A man on crutches and a doctor in physical therapy
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