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A tasting menu from Geneva’s humanitarian trade fair

From the climate crisis to cybersecurity, what’s hot and what’s not at this year’s emergency aid gabfest.

The aid community gathers in Geneva for Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week
The aid community gathers in Geneva for Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week (Josie Rozzelle/TNH)

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With 250 sessions scheduled – featuring everything from misinformation and cybersecurity to accountability and the climate crisis – attendees at this year’s Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week had a lot to choose from. 

The aid industry trade fair of sorts wraps up its in-person segment this week in Geneva, while the three-week summit continues online for another week.

The conference is a mixed bag of substantive discussion, networking, and the showcasing of different aid initiatives, but it’s really a place where those in the aid ecosystem simply come to exchange new ideas and rehash some old ones.

Here are some takeaways from the face-to-face sessions that piqued our interest (in no particular order):

Cybersecurity risks

With wounds of the January International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) cyber-attack still fresh, experts warned of the potential consequences when cybersecurity is treated as an afterthought. 

As the humanitarian sector becomes more digitised, its data vulnerabilities are increasingly evident. A session organised by Data Friendly Space (DFS) and the CyberPeace Institute heard how just 1 in 10 NGOs train their staff on cyber, while only 1 in 4 monitor their networks, and just 1 in 5 has a cybersecurity plan.

It’s not as if the ICRC breach has been the only red flag. According to the panellists, there have been 500 attacks on NGOs since 2016, resulting in more than $10 million in stolen grants, and 1.2 billion stolen records. The lucrative payout of selling such confidential information on black markets – combined with weak security – make NGOs easy and desirable targets for hackers, said Adrien Ogée, chief operations officer at the CyberPeace Institute.

Ogée and other panellists advised a range of proactive efforts beyond just a change in password (though they recommended that too): increased accountability, transparency, advocacy, and not being afraid to seek help are all seen as critical. Organisations also need to be conscious of who they partner and share information with. “The weakest link breaks the chain,” said Glenn Rolland, senior technical adviser at DFS and chief technical officer at BoldCode.

Rolland also explained how organisations can avoid risk, and offered one golden rule: “Don’t collect data you don’t need” – good advice for any aid organisations that still collect too much information from those they intend to help: from their phone numbers to their parents’ names.

Ukraine’s environmental risks

Conflicts in highly industrialised countries like Ukraine pose significant risks to the environment, even long after the fighting actually ends, according to panellists from the Ukraine Environment Study Group.

While any compromising of nuclear sites like Chernobyl could have potentially catastrophic consequences, Russian attacks have already destroyed power plants, chemical facilities, warehouses, and food factories across Ukraine.

Ukrainians can expect to see decreases in their water infrastructure, damage to their protected natural lands, and a worsening in air quality, to name just a few of the likely environmental impacts of the conflict.

Aside from the long legacy of unexploded ordnance and debris, the environmental dangers of demolition are multiplied in conflicts in highly industrialised countries due to the close proximity of fighting to urban and residential neighbourhoods. And while there may be an opportunity to rebuild a “greener” Ukraine, attendees were pessimistic that environmentalism would be top of mind when the time comes for reconstruction.

Accountability, again

“Putting people at the centre”, engaging with affected communities, the “participation revolution”: the lingo may change, but accountability to affected people – known as AAP – has been a staple of humanitarian policy for decades.

HNPW dedicated four sessions to discussing the issue – a month after a group of prominent UN bodies and NGOs issued a new statement of principles intended to guide humanitarian action regarding AAP.

“If we compare [to] previous years, there is definitely progress,” said Ayesha Hassan, associate regional director for Community World Service Asia. “However… there is a long way to go. An effort is still needed to have – and to support – more localised response.”

According to Mark Cutts, the UN’s deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syrian crisis, steps are afoot in parts of Syria: more local actors are part of aid decision-making bodies; meetings are held in both English and Arabic; efforts are made to engage people at every level, including people with disabilities, in discussions; and more women are taking the lead of local organisations and making up the UN staff. 

“We are definitely not doing enough,” Cutts acknowledged, noting: “If we could focus much more on issues of gender equality, we would find ourselves much closer to these communities.”

Cutts also reiterated a common critique of the aid system as being topdown and supply-driven. He noted that organisations need to change their culture and that they need to bring more humility to their work. 

Embracing innovation

Innovation and research are central to positive change, but the humanitarian sector doesn’t even know how much it’s actually spending on them, according to Jess Camburn, head of Elrha

“If we can’t tell how much we’re spending, it says something about how much we’re really willing to take seriously our… investment to improvement,” Camburn told an Elrha-organised event. “Maybe we’re a system that is even not able or not willing to embrace change.”

Elrha launched an initiative called the Global Prioritisation Exercise (GPE) in April to reveal investment trends and identify priority areas for new investment. 

While investment in innovation and research may be risky to donors, Kaia Bilton, senior adviser at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the donor community needs to be more accepting and tolerant of those risks.

“Maybe we’re a system that is even not able or not willing to embrace change.”

And control over these investments shouldn’t stay in the hands of those furthest removed from the needs on the ground. Samer Jabbour, professor of public health practice at the American University of Beirut, called for a shift in funding to support locally led research and innovation – what he called “research in, as opposed to research on”.

Another panel, organised by the Humanitarian Innovation Programme, delved into innovative business models for the aid sector – everything from asset-based loans for farmers, to a recycling plant for refugee camps in Algeria, to financing mechanisms using the carbon market to invest in cooking programmes and reforestation. Although such innovative practices remain small-scale – if sustainable, they could be one way to chip away at the growing funding gap for the aid sector. 

Early warning

Anticipatory action has gained prominence in the aid discourse, despite the insufficient funding directed towards it. Early warning, part of the broader agenda for aid to be more anticipatory, can have significant benefits for communities on the front lines of crisis. “We know it saves people’s lives, it protects livelihood assets,” Dan Maxwell, of Tufts University and part of the Famine Review Committee for the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, said at a panel organised by REACH.

Yet often, he explained, the humanitarian system struggles to put early warning information to good use, finding itself catching up with a crisis that is already taking shape. “We don’t act; we wait until an actual famine is declared before the response is anything at scale.” 

Acting early will not only save lives, but also money – or so the argument goes. While the lifesaving case is clear, research is more patchy when it comes to demonstrating financial benefits. And it’s a hard sell to pull money from an already underfunded crisis appeal, to prevent the next one. “We need to think about alternative funding mechanisms for anticipatory action, rather than drawing from the same pot,” Maxwell noted. 

There’s a degree of risk tolerance that groups also need to be comfortable with. The further ahead the information is, the more lead time communities and aid responders have to prepare; but there’s often more uncertainty about its accuracy. Finding the sweet spot where information is timely but also affords enough certainty to warrant decisions can be a challenge, according to Lena Weingärtner, research associate at the Global Risks and Resilience Programme of the Overseas Development Institute.

With all the sophisticated information systems, high-tech forecasting models, dashboards, and frameworks, aid workers may overlook the importance of qualitative information. In-depth conversations with those affected can help aid workers understand how and when people make decisions during an evolving crisis, and what information sources they trust, Weingärtner noted. “There may be high-quality forecasts, but if people don’t trust it, they won't use it to make decisions,” she added. 

Misinformation: COVID and Ukraine 

Wading through the morass of COVID-19-related information, misinformation, and disinformation (remember the advice to inject chlorine?) hasn’t been an easy task for anyone. 

“COVID was a foreign language for all of us. Social distancing wasn’t in my vocabulary before 2020,” Ellie Kemp, head of research and evidence and advocacy at CLEAR Global, said at a session organised by the H2H Network. This and other concepts surrounding the pandemic weren’t easy to communicate in humanitarian and other vulnerable settings. 

To break through the noise and reach people with accurate information, humanitarians needed to be plugged into the trusted channels that people are already using – places they trust and which are familiar, Irene Scott from Internews noted. 

But humanitarians also need to let go: There’s a reluctance to hand over messaging to trusted local communicators, be it religious leaders or local information providers who may tweak the messaging to be more culturally relevant. “It’s not just the fact-checking [of information],” one audience member from Internews noted. “It’s also the reality-checking.” 

The infodemic was a hot topic at another session organised by the CDAC Network, in which The New Humanitarian took part. Some of those lessons are playing out in Ukraine, where humanitarians are struggling to stay on top of the information needs of people on the move. But refugees aren’t waiting for the aid system to set up a hotline or a feedback mechanism; they’re using the channels they have, digitally connecting and finding solutions themselves. 

The climate crisis 

The latest UN experts’ assessment of the impacts of climate change – known as the IPCC report – for the first time directly and urgently spoke to the humanitarian implications. Panellists at a session hosted by the NGO consortium ICVA agreed: Humanitarians have a concrete role to play as part of the solution to the climate crisis. 

And they’re stepping up. A year after the Red Cross Movement’s Climate Charter was opened for signature, 230 organisations have joined – ranging from small local NGOs to UN organisations and NGO networks. Member states are signing onto their own declaration on climate change, adopted by the EU Foreign Affairs Council in March. The next and harder part, according to Catherine-Lune Grayson of the ICRC, which co-founded the charter, is setting targets and developing plans to meet them. 

While formal organisations are readying themselves with action plans, don’t overlook what local communities are doing for themselves, said Suranjana Gupta, special adviser on community resilience at the Huairou Commission. A women-led social movement of grassroots groups around the world. 

“We [the international community] are continually caught up measuring what we do for vulnerable communities. We are constantly counting our own contributions. There is a blind spot around what communities are doing on their own,” she said.

Meanwhile, the private sector is also playing a significant role. The Connecting Business initiative – set up by the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA; and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) – works to involve private sector neworks in humanitarian response, and showcased a few of them in their session.

Jemilah Mahmood, formerly the head of the World Humanitarian Summit, and recently appointed executive director of the Sunway Center for Planetary Health, noted that political leaders have so far been unable to fulfil their promises on climate action. In the meantime, “businesses are adapting to the new climate emergency – to make sure they're able to stay in business”. 

Patricia Mallam, vice chair of the Fiji Business Disaster Resilience Council, noted the importance of partnership when it comes to adapting to climate change. “The climate emergency does not discriminate – it’s not just a threat for the government or humanitarians, it's an all of society threat.” 

Children are particularly at risk, and are already severely impacted by climate change and environmental degradation, according to Richard Wecker, global coordinator of business and community resilience at UNICEF. “The private sector has a unique and critical role to play in scaling up the innovative solutions that exist or are on the horizon – and redirecting financial services to tackle this issue,” he said.

Additional reporting by Heba Aly.

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