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A peek into the humanitarian future

A man in coastal Bagerhat District grieves for the lost of his loved ones in the wake of Cyclone Sidr, which struck Bangladesh in November 2007

Not too far in the future - say, about 15 years, by which time the impact of climate change might have escalated tenfold - the day could come when the humanitarian community would have to provide water and food to millions of people in drought-affected Africa, tend to a few hundred thousand after a cyclone in Asia, and deal with another "Haiti" - all at the same time.

"Do you think the humanitarian community would be able to cope?" asked Randolph Kent, director of the Humanitarian Futures Programme at King's College, London, and co-author of Humanitarian Horizons: A Practitioners' Guide to the Future.

Not unless they reinvent themselves. But the shift has begun, and long-standing views of how disasters play out are being challenged. "No longer are humanitarian activities limited to immediate response and post-conflict recovery," the guide noted.

For some time the humanitarian community has tried to address both the "'causes' and the 'effects' of disasters, leading to an increasing number of humanitarian interventions that look more and more like traditional development activities".

Kent and the co-author of the guide, Peter Walker, director of the Feinstein International Centre at Tufts University in the US, predicted the emergence of a "new humanitarianism", in which the humanitarian agenda would expand to include governance, livelihood, security, social protection, and other development-like activities. Addressing vulnerability would become the key focus.

The guide also forecast that developing-country governments, particularly in Asia, would become more involved in national social protection programmes and seek open-ended support. Walker said in that context local humanitarian agencies "will grow, and international agencies may have to become more willing to be led by their local members/branches."

''The UN has to become more of a standard-bearer, online coordinating facilitator, an innovations catalyst, and an active advocate about future vulnerability and solutions''

Paul Harvey, a humanitarian aid consultant, said he foresaw the re-emergence of the primacy of the state in addressing disasters. He noted that over the years aid flows to developing country governments had shifted to humanitarian agencies, "but recently the funds have begun to flow to governments directly with the emergence of countries such as Indonesia, Indian and China capable of responding to natural disasters."

The guide suggested that a new three-part humanitarian organization could be on the cards, with one part devoted to providing impartial aid in and around conflict zones; another to development assistance in areas of the world where poverty was rife but the state was stable; and a third part focusing on uncertain, disaster-prone, crisis-driven "fragile" states.

How to make it happen

What would it take for a humanitarian organization to adapt? "Two things ... the key is becoming far more aware of context and being evidence- rather than anecdote-driven," Walker told IRIN.

"If we are honest, we have seen a drift towards being over-concerned with financial accountability, meeting the deliverables of government contracts, and meeting internal standards. This needs to be balanced with a far greater push for local evidence, and this means moving much more authority into the field," he said.

"Second, in many places, rather like with the safety net system in Ethiopia, humanitarian agencies will have to choose between being independent emergency players and long-term providers of welfare, working closely with government systems. It is not a matter of right or wrong; both are legitimate, but they call for very different types of agencies."

Kent had six tips for aid agencies:

1) Become more anticipatory so you need less time to plan

2) Become more adaptive and agile

3) Consider collaborations with scientists and academics to improve analytical capacity, broaden understanding of the complexities of societies and communities, and get a new perspective on possible future scenarios

4) Engage in more collaboration with the corporate sector and the military. "The military spends 90 percent of its time on strategic analysis," he pointed out.

5) Keep up to date with innovations such as Plumpy'nut, the ready-to-use therapeutic food that has revolutionized the treatment of severe malnutrition in children.

6) More strategic leadership with vision is needed. Kent said the humanitarian community had moved from an "advocacy, and morally driven" approach, to "being increasingly driven by managerialism"; it was time to bring advocacy and vision back.

Where would this leave the United Nations? Kent commented: "Broadly speaking, I feel that when it comes to humanitarian affairs, the UN has to become more of a standard-bearer, online coordinating facilitator, an innovations catalyst, and an active advocate about future vulnerability and solutions."


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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