In a season of lists and predictions, many of them dark, it’s easy to forget what underpins much humanitarian work: hope for change.
As we did in 2019, we asked a wide-ranging group of humanitarians to share their hopes for the year ahead. Those hopes range from putting more power in the hands of people actually affected by crises, to training non-state fighters to avoid civilian casualties.
Better communication for the Sahel
2019 was an extremely difficult year for the Sahel. Conflicts in northeast Nigeria, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso have stretched humanitarian responses to their limit. As humanitarians battled to address the needs of the Sahelian citizens, they were confronted with hostilities from both state and non-state actors. In Nigeria, humanitarian workers were kidnapped and executed by the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP). The Nigerian government also banned humanitarian organisations from working in Borno and Yobe states in the northeast. Some citizens and local actors are even propagating theories of humanitarian complicity in the ongoing war: that they are benefiting from the pain and anguish of the citizens.
What is obvious from 2019 is the lack of understanding of responsibilities and poor communication among key stakeholders. The priority in 2020 should be communication, communication, and more communication. Instead of pleading neutrality, the humanitarian argument should be framed around the Geneva Conventions, which promote humanitarian engagement in armed conflicts to protect populations in need. In communities, humanitarians should be clear on when their support is ending, instead of disappearing when they run out of funds. We must communicate better to address the prevailing mistrust between humanitarians, governments, and citizens.
Train fighters to respect civilians
“If I know these rules, I will use them to spare civilians. Just teach me what they are.”
Those were the words of a prominent leader of a non-state armed group, spoken to our team in a remote place somewhere in the lands of conflict. It brings hope, because it opens the possibility of an engagement on the very rules that would bring some humanity to the violence caused by wars.
Humanitarian response cannot limit itself only to providing material relief to affected populations. Don’t misunderstand me: it is essential to provide relief, but if it is not accompanied by efforts to change the behaviour of those with the guns, it won’t be enough to break the cycle of violence.
In 2020, I hope that more education on rules that protect civilians will be offered to youth in countries affected by conflict. Some of them are students by day and fighters by night; by targeting them through adapted programmes, we can improve their behaviour towards civilians.
I hope for more understanding and support by donor communities, that you can still be a “true” humanitarian player even if you don’t bring tons of food or blankets but instead provide awareness sessions or training to armed actors, making them commit to the rules they should respect.
I hope that my team members will be able to work safely even when engaging with actors labelled as “terrorists”: We cannot change the patterns of violence if we can’t talk to everyone involved.
Finally, I hope that, through increased education on humanitarian norms, we can convince armed actors to commit to respecting rules of engagement. Families will be spared, and schools and hospitals will remain intact, as those with weapons gradually learn to remain as fighters and not killers.
Let’s really work together
My hope for 2020 is that we all roll our sleeves up and fight for more collective, flourishing futures.
We don’t have the privilege of time – or the luxury anymore – to be simplistic in our thinking. Our world is literally burning and we have global leadership that appears to have lost their moral compass. We are inherently unequal, and we are grieving for a future that seems to be taken away from all of us.
We can no longer afford as humanitarians, as governments, as part of the private sector, or whichever other “group” we identify with, to just talk about “building greater trust” or “not working in silos”. We can no longer just offer rhetorical platitudes while maintaining labels, tropes, and behaviours that continue to reinforce the inequalities of our past. We can no longer afford to be lackadaisical about change.
Whilst we argue and worry about our institutional relevance, civil society – from all walks of life – is fighting and pushing for a more equal and just future that can exist within planetary boundaries. We need to join them.
My hope for 2020 is that we all see that we are in this together – and we fight for change – dismantling the status quo. My hope is that in whatever roles we play, we open our minds and our hearts to embrace the dawning of a new age in which we can all flourish.
But to do this, we have to turn up every day. We have to embrace complexity in our work and let go of simplified, short-term solutions. We need radical hope and radical reimagining, and we need radical, unsettling, deep transformational work.
We have miles to go before we sleep.
Do more and do it better
In December, my office published the Global Humanitarian Overview 2020. It predicts that 2020 will be a difficult year for millions of people.
But I remain an optimist, and here is why: the humanitarian system has, despite mounting challenges, never been more effective, better at reaching the most vulnerable first, and acting faster.
But we can always do more and do it better. My hope for 2020 is that everyone in the humanitarian community grabs the opportunities that present themselves to make a real impact on people’s lives.
Here are three candidates to kick off 2020:
Sudan is at a critical juncture. Swift and robust humanitarian and development action now could make a real difference in stemming epidemics, addressing malnutrition, and restoring livelihoods.
Southern Africa is a case study of the worst effects of the planet’s climate crisis. But cutting-edge predictive analytics can forecast more climate shocks than ever before.
The tools practitioners and donors should reach for are anticipatory financing and early action. I want to see more resources released based on data-driven predictions.
Third, I’m pleased to see that humanitarian responses are getting better at addressing the needs of women and girls and other marginalised groups, such as people living with disabilities. Good examples include the network to detect any instance of sexual exploitation and abuse set up in Mozambique following Cyclone Idai, and the Humanitarian Fund in Lebanon, which has allocated one third of its funding to increase protection for Syrian refugee children with disabilities.
Act early and go local on climate
There’s no time to hope: we must change our ways of working now, as extreme weather events and other types of crises are growing rapidly. The devastating impact of the climate crisis on current and future generations is what worries me most.
We can prevent or reduce these impacts by acting early, based on improved science and forecasts. In 2020, humanitarians will need to anticipate more and improve our collaboration across the humanitarian, development, climate, and finance sectors. Alongside forecast-based early action, the digital transformation also provides opportunities for data processing and sharing for better risk management.
But our shared work will only be successful if it is grounded at the local level, through local humanitarian actors working hand in hand with the communities we ultimately seek to support. This is key to making the last mile: the first mile. People affected by crises are best placed to know what their needs are, and we must listen to them first, act on what they tell us, adjust our work where necessary, and build on their ideas. Otherwise, we lose relevance – and we risk losing our most precious commodity: people’s trust.
We must collectively aim at a massive increase in the number of communities ready and able to act early to prevent a disaster or crisis, or to mitigate their impacts. And I am proud that with our network of 192 Red Cross and Red Crescent national societies and more than 14 million volunteers, we are part and party of the necessary shift towards increased anticipatory and local humanitarian action.
Fund local women
In 2020, I hope donors and international aid groups recognise the important role of women-led organisations in crises, and increase funding to locally run programmes that understand the unique ways in which women are affected.
Humanitarian funders are often unwilling to finance standalone gender projects – even though women and children are more than 80 percent of Uganda’s growing refugee population.
Here on the ground, we often hear the contentious narrative that local organisations lack capacity. But who receives refugees first? Who stays with them until the end?
Local women’s organisations struggle for funding even though they have a better understanding of female refugees’ needs. Instead, a “gender mainstreaming” approach to humanitarian programming often results in a tick-box exercise that has few tangible results.
In 2020, I hope we will see refugee programmes that, rather than relying on imported ideas, leave ample room for local knowledge to be practised and explored.
Transfer power to crisis-affected people
My overriding hope for 2020 is that we – collectively and as individuals – make faster progress towards transferring power to people who need it the most: those who are crisis-affected and marginalised. This will allow them to better direct and control their own lives.
This means continuing to relinquish power intentionally, as an explicit objective of humanitarian action – not reducing humanitarianism to a purely technical exercise in delivering goods and services. It also means being more mindful of our everyday actions as individuals – being constantly aware of the temptations to hold on to power, and asking ourselves whether we are giving up power where we can.
As part of this, I hope 2020 sees progress towards larger-scale, outcome-oriented partnerships in the humanitarian space, both between NGOs and between sectors. The role of NGOs as conveners or platforms, bringing together private, public, and civil society organisations to innovate new approaches and scale impact, has been mooted for a long time. I hope 2020 is the year this really takes off.
Finally, I hope that in 2020 we find ways to consolidate an NGO sector that remains overcrowded. In particular, we should be pushing to reduce the number of small-to- medium-sized international NGOs that compete with national organisations for funding. By consolidating at the international level, power would be relinquished and space and resources freed up for local and national NGOs. This would, in turn, enable greater clarity on the role of international agencies, especially in the world’s most fragile places.
Enable local leadership
In 2020, I hope to see a humanitarian system that enables local leadership and brings back “humanity” and dignity to the people at the centre of crises.
I hope to see aid agencies’ risk aversion and compliance mechanisms be geared toward ensuring accountability to the people who receive aid, rather than only the donor. I hope safeguarding policies will uphold the rights of affected people.
I hope to see a humanitarian system that doesn’t only respond to the impact of failed social protection systems, but one that also supports actions that address the root causes of what makes people vulnerable. I hope to see a holistic system that connects the humanitarian, development, and peace processes.
The increasing disaster threats and continuing displacement on our home front and around the globe are telling us that something bolder must be done to respond, to reduce and prevent risks, and to increase the resilience of the people affected by them.
I hope to see bolder action by international actors to enable locals – especially vulnerable communities themselves – to take the lead, strengthen their capacity, and uphold their dignity; in other words: seeing their humanity.
Address Syrian refugees’ true needs
I hope to see all the United Nations decisions and resolutions implemented – especially regarding security inside Syria.
It is sad to see that while the entire world is celebrating the end of the year and the holidays, two deadly attacks killed innocent civilians in Qah and Saraqib, in Idlib, which are considered safe zones inside Syria. I hope the international community takes a stronger stance to prevent further humanitarian disasters.
The conflict has been going for nearly a decade, and it is time for us as aid organisations to change the way we respond. I have spent some time inside a refugee camp, and it helped me realise that what people need are lasting, durable solutions.
Most aid organisations distribute food parcels in refugee camps, which sometimes creates a surplus of food inside some areas.
Refugees do not need food: what they need is financial empowerment and independence through small projects that will provide them with a source of income.
It has been nine years since the conflict began, and thousands of people are still living in tents, which are prone to fire and flooding. We must provide them with a safe alternative that is not susceptible to climate change, like caravans. This way, they can live in a safe and humane shelter that would protect them from extreme weather conditions.
As aid organisations, I hope that we work closely and communicate with the people living inside the camps to better understand their needs and respond accordingly, rather than deciding their needs on their behalf.
Own up to using aid as a tool in Yemen’s war
In 2020, I hope to see donor countries and warring parties held accountable for using humanitarian aid as a tool in the Yemen war.
The leading funders of the humanitarian response in Yemen in 2019 – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – also lead the military coalition supporting Yemen’s internationally recognised government in a war that has created one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. The United Kingdom and the United States, also key donors to Yemen, have provided the coalition with military support, which plays a critical role in sustaining the war. Meanwhile, warring parties in Yemen regularly impede the delivery of aid, imposing taxes and restrictions and stealing and diverting aid to help support their war effort.
Yemeni citizens see themselves as being attacked by every side in this devastating war. Humanitarian aid being under the control of this mosaic of conflicting parties, whether directly or indirectly, imposes added suffering on the people instead of being a blessing to them. Donating aid to Yemen cannot be a substitute for the political will necessary to end the conflict; the former in the absence of the latter will only sustain suffering and prolong the conflict.
Reduce the risk of dependency
In 2020, I envision a world where the needs of people in humanitarian crises are voiced by people in need, rather than determined by people at the top. Sustainability is more than just a buzzword – it is a requirement for countering the risk of dependency.
When a crisis becomes protracted and humanitarian aid becomes long term, the potential of entire generations can be lost – without skills, without ownership, and without a voice in their own futures – if affected communities are not involved in creating their own solutions.
Countering aid dependency is possible through a three-pronged approach to build and support resilience. Humanitarian actors should involve local communities to ensure that livelihood programmes, education, and localisation are included in every humanitarian response.
Livelihood programmes for men and women help families live in dignity, provide for themselves, keep meaningful purpose, and prepare for life after crisis.
In protracted crises, gaps in education mean the loss of knowledge and skills for an entire generation, which is overall more costly, dangerous, and detrimental to a society than the small investment it takes to ensure that children stay in school.
Localisation is a critical approach and perspective in every crisis: to support and build the capacity of the local community and civil society is not only ethical, but strategic. Localisation ensures that practices, services, and networks continue after aid workers leave.
With the right support from the humanitarian community, we can work together to reduce the risk of the dependency culture.
Put climate on the humanitarian agenda
My hope for 2020 is that the humanitarian system will forge close ties with the climate community.
Climate change, fuelled by human-induced global warming, is mainly responsible for increasingly powerful cyclones, extreme droughts, severe floods, and rapidly rising seas. The humanitarian system is clearly overstressed and lacks the resources to respond to a multiplying number of climatic disasters and impacts. In 2018 alone, 16 million out of 28 million total new displacements worldwide were caused by heightened vulnerability and exposure to sudden-onset weather-related hazards, according to the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).
Yet, the upcoming humanitarian conferences in 2020 have not put climate change firmly on the agenda. For example, displacement and migration are core themes at April’s World Humanitarian Forum, but there’s no mention of climate change as a main driver. Similarly, the International Council of Voluntary Agencies, a network of humanitarian organisations, will focus on principles and risk at its annual conference in March, but there’s no explicit mention of the climate emergency on a draft agenda.
In particular, the humanitarian sector needs to learn more about slow-onset events aggravated by climate change, such as salinisation, sea-level rise, glacial retreat, ocean acidification, and biodiversity loss. The IDMC acknowledges that the number of people displaced by such slow-onset disasters globally is unknown. In order to respond to the growing risks, the aid sector must better understand what challenges these slow-onset events are posing and how to respond to them. This means connecting to climate science much more fundamentally.
On the other hand, the aid world has a lot to contribute to the climate community. Who knows better than the humanitarian sector about relief, recovery, and rebuilding? There is a vital two-way exchange that must take place.
As the Paris Agreement becomes operational in 2020 and the issue of “loss and damage” gains more traction, there will be numerous opportunities to connect with the climate community. It is high time that the humanitarian sector prioritises the climate emergency on its agenda, in order to prepare for what the future brings.
Help local responders address safety risks
If the sector is serious about localisation, it must eliminate the disparities in risk mitigation between national and international aid workers.
More than two decades of data on attacks against humanitarian aid workers point to two indisputable facts. First, casualty rates for this profession are significant – comparable to uniformed military and peacekeeping personnel. And second, most aid workers who meet with violence on the job are nationals of the country in which they work.
Nationals make up over 90 percent of humanitarians operating in crises, so it is no surprise that they are a majority of victims in absolute terms. But extreme operating environments like Syria and Yemen have seen national organisations and staff thrust into forward roles as their international counterparts remain bunkered in capitals, resulting in a fatality rate for nationals over threefold that of internationals. This is a dark version of localisation, in which nationals are assuming the lion’s share of the responsibilities and risks of aid provision, while afforded only a fraction of the resources they need to secure their staff.
A 2019 study found that international organisations and donors could address this disparity in a number of ways. Among them, provide more direct funding to national NGOs as primary fundees, complete with appropriate overhead rates, since adaptive security risk management requires flexible funding.
When sub-contracting to national NGOs, international organisations should do more to co-own risks, including jointly assessing these risks and providing the resources necessary for mitigation, rather than, as is now too often the case, creating incentives for national organisations to cut corners to be seen as competitive, low-cost partners.
Seek new voices and ideas
My hope is different voices at the table. We have all found ourselves at a humanitarian conference where the issues seem to be on repeat from the previous 5, 10, 20 years. The solutions seem a re-potted version from the last conference. I hope to hear new voices bringing new ideas and solutions.
It is something the private sector has known for a long time. Having diverse voices and leadership creates innovation, and promotes better risk management and engagement with stakeholders. So, for 2020 I hope that we might take some of this learning on board in the humanitarian sector. I hope we will be brave enough to hire and promote different leaders and listen to different ideas. I hope this will include more diversity of race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic and professional background.
Acknowledge links between aid and local politics
I hope that in 2020, the humanitarian sector will be more reflective about its political effects in the regions where it intervenes.
Your initial reaction may be: “Wait, aren’t humanitarians supposed to be neutral, impartial, and independent?”
Of course, that remains the bottom line. But that does not mean that humanitarian action does not have impact nor that humanitarians should be blind to what happens around them. Of course, these questions are not new, but in a context where donor support is decreasing, decisions where to intervene, which groups to prioritise, and how to organise support have increasing implications on local politics – whether you like it or not.
In our research in 2019, we’ve seen many examples. Host communities in Uganda resent the fact that they don’t get as much support as refugees, and threaten to take back the land that they donated for the settlements. Local authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) feel they are left out of decision-making about displaced people living in their areas. Returning refugees in Burundi face exclusion and pressure to share their limited humanitarian resources. In the areas of the DRC struck by Ebola, we’ve seen how an ill-informed, over-militarised approach can have deadly implications.
What could humanitarians do to change this in 2020? Listen to local communities, to civil society groups, and to researchers who are grappling with these complexities.
Many humanitarians are consulting these groups more often, but rarely involve them in decision-making, despite demonstrable benefits. Doing so does not always require more complicated assessment tools, or some new policy lingo. Just open your doors and make some time in 2020 to listen.