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Opinion | Imagine a humanitarian system based on humans

We did, helped by ‘design thinking’

(Ewan McIntosh)

This month, UN delegates will gather once again in New York to discuss an international humanitarian system that lacks the resources and political support to deal with its problems. They’ll talk about huge changes in the kinds of crises and the needs of the people at the centre of them. They’ll debate declining respect for humanitarian law and aid operations. Then, as it does every year, the Economic and Social Council will make promises it’s unlikely to keep, and the underlying problems will remain.


So then, what would it take to really overhaul the humanitarian system so it can better respond to the scale and needs of current crises? What if we looked at the system from the perspective of the people it is intended to help, and re-thought it from there?


My colleagues at the Overseas Development Institute and I, plus professionals from within and outside the sector, decided to find out and launched our two-year research project, Constructive Deconstruction.


We didn’t want to use the usual analytical tools; after calling out others for not letting go of closely held power and beliefs, we wanted to practise what we preach. So we turned to ‘design thinking’, which uses human experience to develop solutions to complex problems. It has been embraced by governments, businesses, and academics as a way to bring empathy to products, services, and systems design.


When we applied it to the humanitarian sector and judged problems from the perspective of its ‘users’ – whether a refugee, a municipal mayor, a donor, a country director from an international organisation, or a volunteer – politics, mandates, and processes faded from view. They were replaced by compassion, ingenuity, and good sense. We concluded that, ahead of redesigning any of the system’s components, it was important to shake the foundations upon which it was built. 


The ideas we arrived at won’t fix the humanitarian system. But they point to strategic shifts we need to start making now. It’s time to disrupt and transform the outdated assumptions, incentive structures, and power relations at the heart of the sector.  


Begin with a back-to-basics approach to humanitarian work. This envisions humanitarian action as a smaller, narrower endeavour informed solely and directly by the views and needs of crisis-affected people. The focus is on responding to urgent needs and saving and protecting lives, while recognising that this is but one part of the larger aid landscape.


Second, operate through the networks that people already use to connect, communicate, and self-organise. In place of a humanitarian ‘system’ that is hierarchical, bureaucratic, and market-led, we propose one powered by technology and anchored in more direct contact between those who need and those who can help.


Finally, move away from an extractive, charity-based form of humanitarian action to a humanitarian social economy – one where affected people form part of the means of production, and humanitarian organisations support business cooperatives to advance economic opportunity, skills development, and entrepreneurship.


Putting our ideas to work


In recent years, we’ve heard countless calls to change the way we work. But what does this mean in practice? 


We must think differently: reinterpreting the humanitarian ethos as one of solidarity, empathy, and human connection. Incentives should be based on self-determination and self-reliance, supported by accountability mechanisms that strengthen the links between aid and the people who receive it.


We must operate differently: reimagining international aid organisations as enablers of local responses; cultivators of talent; incubators of organisations; and partners for governments, the Red Cross/Crescent societies, and local organisations. A highly tuned global cadre of experts should be maintained, to respond in situations requiring specialised technical expertise or significant scale, and to conflicts where violations of humanitarian law require an external response.


We must fund differently: incentivising organisations to be smaller and more agile, differentiated by technical expertise, and operating and collaborating on the basis of core competency. They must be willing to stand back when their support is not needed. Donor funding should depend less on domestic politics and be more resistant to manipulation, perhaps through mandatory UN dues or an independently managed public-private fund.


We must collaborate differently: working in a more modular and time-bound way and coordinating around specific problems rather than mandates. Subcontracting should be replaced with direct engagement between those who have the goods, skills, proximity, and time, and those who need their help. Peer accountability, direct feedback, and access to information must be stressed, while reviving the old idea of a humanitarian ombudsman. A proposal that emerged from our project, called ReliefWatch, could allow recipients to rate the aid they’re getting and lodge complaints.


Finally, we must behave differently: building an organisational culture where the primacy of operations replaces the primacy of headquarters – one that fosters an openness to working with others, as well as an accessibility and attractiveness to partners. In other words: fewer meetings, conferences, or forums convened about people who are not present or represented; more meetings in local languages and extensive translation; more partnerships with local organisations and staff; and basic knowledge tests before international staff are deployed.


Is there any point in retrofitting a system that wasn’t designed in the first place? Change is elusive. It’s not fully within our power; it’s political, and we have little influence on politics or government interests.


That’s all true. So let’s take a lesson from nature and use our findings to help the system evolve by changing the ways we work. A leopard cannot change its spots – they are a product of its environment and allow it to survive and thrive. But, change the leopard’s environment – change the trees – and the spots will, over time, adapt to better serve the animal in those changed surroundings.


The humanitarian sector is similarly constrained; it’s not the product of design, but it has evolved from the values, histories, and lived experiences of the institutions and people that are part of it. So let’s not focus on changing the institutions, mandates, and tools of the humanitarian system – as we have for decades. Now is the time to change our approach, our work, our behaviour and compel the system to adjust and adapt so it not only survives, but it thrives.


For more on the Constructive Deconstruction project, listen to the podcast series.

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