In a season of lists and predictions, many of them dark, it’s easy to forget what underpins much humanitarian work: hope for change.
Long-term change for Yemen
In 2019, I hope to see the international community expand its focus beyond humanitarian aid and think about long-term, sustainable support for Yemen.
Despite billions of dollars made available for humanitarian needs, Yemenis continue to suffer, physically and financially. The situation has been exacerbated by the collapse of the national currency, lack of salaries for civil servants for two and a half years, and misappropriation of aid by some armed groups.
The recent agreement in Stockholm between the Houthis and the Yemeni government is a welcome development. Ensuring operation of the Hodeidah port, where 80 percent of goods enter Yemen, is essential – but aid alone is not enough. The international community must find sustainable ways to help civilians rebuild lives devastated by the conflict.
Kickstarting the economy is a key step. The dedicated young Yemenis behind the Small and Micro Enterprise Promotion Service (SMEPS) of the Social Fund for Development prove progress is possible. By providing small grants to entrepreneurs, including farmers and fishermen, SMEPS has created over 65,000 jobs since 2017, nearly one third to women.
The international community should also focus on promoting governance, rule of law, and professionalising local forces responsible for security in areas where fighting has stopped. This will help create pockets of stability that will increase the demand for peace that Yemenis desperately need.
Power to the people
Huge and exciting changes are taking place in grassroots, people-led movements around the world; this is where I see so much hope for the year ahead. Despite the political environment making life harder for civil society actors across the globe, organic, people-led movements – from Brazil to India, from Pakistan to Senegal – are doing vital work pushing for climate justice, trans rights, women’s rights, and trade justice. It is through these decolonised structures – where power is fluid and shared horizontally – that we are seeing real change. I also see the #AidToo movement gathering pace as more women’s rights activists and grassroots women’s rights defenders from the Global South take their rightful place: centre stage in the movement.
Focus on frontline aid workers
I would like to see an end to several worrying trends. Firstly, privatisation of the work of certain major players, which has fuelled the rise of multinationals with no humanitarian credentials. Such organisations combine access to large budgets with an instinct to reduce costs; their main activity is reporting positively on their work to their paymasters, with no accountability or responsibility towards the humanitarian community, let alone the beneficiaries.
Secondly, the increasingly virtual nature of aid work. The number of humanitarians whose daily round consists of interactions with their various IT devices is growing exponentially. Alas, aid workers who perform a hands-on activity of direct benefit to the beneficiaries – those who get their hands dirty and sometimes have to rough it – are an increasingly rare breed.
Thirdly, I lament the increasing role of the military in aid operations. It is a fallacy that military logistics and security are superior to those developed in the aid sector: the former are giant, unwieldy machines, without the lean flexibility required for rapid, focused response.
My overall hope for the sector next year is a recognition by the donors of the real value of frontline organisations and their people – those whose voices are heard the least in the rarified atmosphere in which strategic decisions that affect the sector are taken. After all, they built it.
Avoid a legitimacy crisis
Humanitarian aid is keeping hope alive in Africa, as the continent continues to be bedeviled with conflicts and natural disasters. Leaving their homes in various parts of the world to help out, aid workers have become targets in Mali, Nigeria, and South Sudan, to mention a few. The humanitarians have also been at the brutal end of the stick at the hand of governments and extremists, who accuse them of lacking accountability, sexual harassment, and not attuning themselves to local context. While the challenge of fundraising and security are real threats, the humanitarian community will have to focus more in 2019 on promoting accountability and exhibiting knowledge of its context to avoid a legitimacy crisis.
We will have to rethink how we intervene in the communities where we operate and recognise that (for example) Iraq, Mali, and Nepal are completely different contexts; we should not transpose wholesome ideas from other parts of the world to the other. In the same vein, we have to consult our audience, the recipients of aid: what are their priorities, how do they want aid to be delivered – cash or food, and what kind of food? Recipients of aid also complain of being treated as victims, and not human beings.
It’s important to address accountability; in the last two years, there have been many allegations of corruption raised on the continent against humanitarians and their staff. Some are contrived. But real or contrived, erring officials who sell or mismanage aid meant for displaced people must be brought to account; IDPs alleging sexual violence committed by aid workers, or aid workers’ complaints against their employers, must get justice.
The use of digital technologies is progressively being incorporated into humanitarian operations, in the search of greater efficiency and effectiveness. But so far NGOs, the European Commission, other donors, UN agencies etc. have largely been doing it on an individual basis.
In 2018, a number of individual initiatives aimed to raise awareness of the opportunities digital technologies can bring to the sector, while also raising awareness of the need to mitigate potential risks.
In 2019, the development of synergies and partnerships involving all possible actors (i.e. donors, humanitarian agencies, academia, private sector, as well as beneficiary communities) is necessary to harness those benefits. Through these partnerships we can:
- Improve humanitarian aid operations by enhancing preparedness, improving needs assessment, and improving the design, monitoring, and implementation of actions.
- Put in place the framework needed to exchange experiences, develop standards, propose guidelines for data protection, share information, increase mutual accountability, implement international humanitarian law in the digital world, and listen more to our beneficiaries.
The challenges we face are considerable, but the realisation and acceptance by all that collective work and partnerships are now necessary in what is a more digitally integrated humanitarian sector would constitute a major step forward.
Plan for the future
2019 should present a platform for the humanitarian sector to prepare for ever more complex and uncertain futures. Transformative change all too often occurs at the brink of chaos. Decision-makers, strategists, policy planners adjust for the evident but all too rarely choose to explore the “what might be’s” – factors that have transformative consequences beyond the immediately obvious. This would seem to be the case for what is generally referred to as “the humanitarian sector” – those institutions and individuals who have roles and responsibilities for preventing, preparing for, and responding to disasters and emergencies.
Given the generally reactive, siloed and ‘standing operating procedure’ inclinations of all too many in the sector, the future will require significantly different approaches to humanitarian action.
These approaches in turn will require humanitarian actors to promote ways to anticipate and adapt to new types of threats and ways to mitigate them. They will reflect new methods for identifying innovation and innovative practices as well as new measures for promoting effective collaboration.
Towards this end, one step would be for the United Nations to use its convening power and its many hubs of expertise to provide a global overview of humanitarian futures – identifying plausible future risks, opportunities to mitigate such risks, and preparatory methods.
Take sexual violence seriously
We end this year with a platform on safeguarding that is starting to be taken seriously, which has increasing gravitas and commitment. In 2019, my hope is that we continue to build on the substantial safeguarding work being done across the globe, particularly by those working on the ground.
(Safeguarding here encompasses both workplace sexual violence for those delivering aid and the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse against our beneficiary populations.)
I hope that we will shift from requiring survivors to raise their voices and reveal their pain, and from focussing on individual organisations, to addressing the reality that safeguarding is a challenge that literally every aid organisation is struggling with. Donors, NGOs, United Nations, local NGOs, contractors, everyone.
Let us recognize that harm happens in the absence of survivors stepping forward, and that creating safe spaces for them to speak should be for their benefit and not to prove to us that their experiences matter. Let us shift prevention from what individuals (women, in particular) should do to stop themselves from being harassed or harmed or violated, to stopping perpetrators altogether. Let 2019 be the year of holding leadership and perpetrators accountable for their actions.
Work on safeguarding is no longer fringe or isolated. We are going beyond the hashtag of #AidToo. This is now all an essential piece of our aid operations and ethos.
Respect for African migrants
My hope is that 2019 will be the year of the African migrant, not just as an abstract object of political debates and the subject of fear-mongering campaigns in Europe, but as a human being worthy of dignity and the humanitarian imperative to protect.
In 2018, European hostility against Africans crossing the Mediterranean reached devastating proportions. In November, MSF’s rescue boat, the Aquarius, was prevented from intervening to help people making the Mediterranean crossing, the culmination of a year of regulatory threats and interference with the rescue programme. Earlier in the year, the Aquarius and other boats were prevented from docking in Spain, Malta, and in Italy as the public policy of European governments veered sharply to the right and away from the humanitarian imperative to protect at all costs.
As a direct consequence, thousands of people are currently trapped in inhumane conditions especially in Libya, double victims of a war that Europe helped to start and of the slow demise of the humanitarian imperative on the high seas. Paradoxically, European governments seem determined to sustain both the conditions that make migration attractive and the dangerous programme to send them back.
2019 should be the year that we refocus on the humanity of African migrants and refugees. I hope for a concerted effort to counteract the politics of fear that is sweeping across Europe and the lack of moral and political clarity within Africa’s political class, and to defend the humanitarian imperative on the high seas.
Return to our roots
My hope is that the humanitarian sector (re)starts considering the forgotten issue of justice. Technocratic approaches have hollowed out contemporary humanitarianism with the danger of removing the very ethos of altruism and the principles that underwrote it historically. Much of today's crises are grounded in injustice and its perpetuation.
Bring back trust
What I look forward to in 2019 is thinking the unthinkable: We must change where the status quo is not ethical, fair, honest and respectful enough. Senior leaders and their teams must think about how they can put values, ethics and people at the centre again, creating an environment that releases our full potential to serve populations in crisis. I am also looking forward to seeing national actors taking their place, confidently leading and fulfilling their full potential to assist and protect populations in their own localities and influencing the international decision-making processes.
I hope there is a real change in attitude and behaviour that leads to a deeper reflection on re-balancing power and some real value-based collaborations. I hope to see the international donors and partners shift the focus from risk and deficit thinking to trust, opportunity, and equitable partnerships to bring a real sea-change in the system.
Ebola, North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo: an outbreak of a dangerous pathogen in a war zone threatens one of the largest countries in sub-Saharan Africa and potentially, other countries in east Africa. More than 500 cases and 300 deaths make it the second worst outbreak of Ebola in human history. In the same year in DRC, there are outbreaks of cholera, monkey pox, malaria, measles, vaccine-derived polio, and rabies. More generally, DRC represents one of the largest and most neglected emergencies in the world, with more than 10 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. But, as dramatic as the needs are, and as clear as the humanitarian imperative is, they are merely a symptom of a fundamental failure of development. DRC is perhaps the prototype of a fragile state caught in a vicious cycle of acute and protracted crises and under-development. As a consequence, every year, more than 300,000 Congolese children under the age of five die of mainly preventable causes.
In fact, fragility, whether across nation states or within their territories, causes acute crisis after acute crisis, is the primary cause of both internal displacement and refugee movement, and fundamentally alters the trajectory of development. It is now arguably the central humanitarian and development issue of our time. So my hope for 2019 is that, as an international community, we will move beyond the rhetoric of “the nexus” and “new ways of working” and once and for all, abandon our humanitarian and development siloes. We need to create a practical instrument for multi-year strategic planning, programming, and financing that prioritises this group of 20 or so countries or settings, which are so central to the achievement of both our Sustainable Development Goals and humanitarian outcomes. Such a mechanism would provide a fulcrum around which peace efforts coalesce, break the vicious cycle of crisis and underdevelopment, rejuvenate the social contract between governments and their citizens, and obtain measurable results on a national scale. Perhaps the most important result will be the restoration of hope for millions of people around the world whose fate and life chances are currently determined by their place of birth.
Time for reflection
In 2019, I hope I will be one among many to take concrete measures to make reflexive monitoring in action a larger part of my daily work. Like many of my colleagues, I work in a complex emergency where extreme humanitarian challenges seem to pile up and refuse to go away. Massive forced migration, the spread of endemic diseases, crisis-level food insecurity and shocking levels of malnutrition come to mind. To tackle the impact of these "wicked problems", some of the strengths of our humanitarian community are its diversity, its constant innovation, and its focus on quick and practical results. We are in constant motion to address humanitarian needs in an ever-changing context. But how often do we grant ourselves the time to reflect and exchange on the specific context of our operations, the relevance of our strategic focus, or the longer-term impact of our short-term activities?
Empower Syria’s women and youth
My hope for 2019 is to witness the sowing of inclusive, empowering seeds of change in Syria. Seeds planted for those groups most marginalised by society. Seeds of peace. I believe there are concrete actions that can be taken by the humanitarian world to build the foundations necessary for a peaceful future. These actions target the two most vulnerable – and yet most powerful – groups in society: namely, women and youth.
A movement towards peace requires that humanitarian actors place women and girls at the heart of all peacebuilding efforts. Ending and preventing violence is rooted in sustainable solutions, and the transformative potential of women’s voices, capacity, and agency are at the core of sustainability. Institutionalising gender equality and advocating for greater representation of women in peace processes at decision-making levels should take precedence in all humanitarian responses.
During times of war, education systems – and therefore children and youth – are often on the front line of violence. Education is central to the social, economic, and political development of every country. And, at the risk of sounding cliché, children are the future. Humanitarian policies need to shift from an aid-based focus – which perpetuates the cycle of dependency – towards sustainable development, beginning with the development of conflict-sensitive education plans and policies.
Address root problems
Every year, Oxford Dictionaries selects a word that reflects the spirit of the times. For 2018, that word was “toxic”, reflecting the deepening divisions within societies as well as in international relations. My wish is that, by the end of 2019, the spirit of the times will be better reflected by the words "back on track” rather than “never again” – the expression we often use after the worst humanitarian tragedies.
After decades of improvement, the last couple of years have seen an increase in conflicts, conflict-related casualties, and civilians killed. Human rights – the best structural prevention for internal and international conflicts – are on the retreat, a result of poorly managed globalisation. An increasing number of authoritarian leaders are demanding more power and fewer human rights for their countries’ citizens. They are weakening multilateralism, human rights, and the rule of law – replacing these with unconstrained national interests, increased xenophobia, and the closing of borders. It is a populistic attempt to extinguish fire by pouring on gasoline. As a result, the risk of atrocity crimes is rising as well.
Instead of treating symptoms, root causes should be addressed. Terrorism will not be defeated by torturing and killing terrorists and retaliating against their supporters, but by nourishing non-discrimination, ending corruption, and establishing the rule of law and human rights for everyone. Migration will not be controlled by barbed wire, police brutality, and walls, but by improving human rights situations and development perspectives in the countries migrants are leaving. Authoritarian leaders will not save their populations from the shortcomings of globalisation: only improving how globalisation is managed will accomplish this.
What is needed is more – not less – global solidarity, multilateralism, and sensitivity to globalisation’s losers. To prevent conflicts and atrocity crimes in 2019, we need more – not fewer – human rights.
Help citizens drive social change
As I move on from my role at CIVICUS to one at Oxfam, I do so with the acute awareness that civic freedoms and civil society are coming under attack all over the world. Yet, I do not look ahead to 2019 with trepidation. In fact, quite the opposite. My time at CIVICUS has made me hopeful.
Hopeful because of the amazing activists I have met around the world who are daring to disrupt and to innovate; to organise and mobilise in new and creative ways to defend civic freedoms, to fight for social justice and equality and to push back against populism.
Hopeful because these activists are fighting, not only to defend the democratic achievements of the past, but to advance the fundamental values of our open societies today and for the future.
Hopeful because, wherever I have been, I have encountered not just frustration with broken politics, but a desire to shape better democracies; to sate an unquenched thirst for participation; to re-imagine democracy for a new age.
Neither the market nor the state alone can mend our social fabric or rebuild our ailing democracies; but it is safe to assume that those civic formations that are already reshaping, reinventing, and renewing themselves will be at the vanguard of driving social change in the 21st century.
I am more convinced than ever that this will be the century of the citizen; a new era in which we are more empowered, more connected, and more equal. The question for all of us in organised, professional, salaried bits of civil society is can we step up to re-imagine the role and value of civil society in this quest.
Fight terrorism, not aid
Apart from ending the armed conflicts that have displaced and imperiled 134 million people in 2018, the thing that governments could do to most benefit humanitarian action would be to agree on a global humanitarian exemption rule.
Humanitarian access has measurably declined in conflicts such as Syria and Afghanistan, and many areas of South Sudan, Somalia, and elsewhere remain unable to obtain vital aid. Yet as donor governments are urging their recipient agencies to do better on access, they are also throwing up new obstacles. The proposed UK travel ban and new USAID counter-terror restrictions are but the latest examples. Sanctions and legal controls are important tools in governments’ security agendas, but when applied in blunt and blanket ways they do more to disincentivise humanitarians than they achieve in containing terrorists. The ambiguous language and severe penalties attached to these instruments have aid groups increasingly deciding that operating in certain areas is not worth the risk. And by effectively criminalising humanitarian aid to these places, these laws produce a pattern of aid coverage that is skewed towards politically favoured areas, violating the core humanitarian principle of impartiality.
It does not have to be this way. The longstanding principle of humanitarian exemptions is rooted in customary international humanitarian law, and has been applied in numerous cases, including Security Council resolutions on Somalia in 2011 and North Korea in 2017, as well as the EU’s 2017 counter-terrorism directive. Rather than case-by-case resolutions, donor governments could use the Good Humanitarian Donorship platform to incubate a global rule that would hold humanitarian actors exempt from all sanctions regimes and “no-contact” rules, and further commit to passing no laws or regulations that would have the effect of reducing or disincentivising humanitarian aid to civilians.
The aftermath of a natural disaster can be frightening. When the spotlight of media attention moves on, survivors can feel abandoned. As I look ahead to 2019 here in Indonesia, my thoughts turn to families in Lombok who experienced a devastating earthquake in August, and thousands of other families who survived an earthquake and tsunami in Central Sulawesi a month later. These back-to-back disasters brought together government, private sector, and non-profit groups to meet immediate needs for relief and to begin planning for recovery.
We can’t neglect the early recovery and reconstruction needs around the city of Palu in Sulawesi and in northwest Lombok. When news interest fades, people’s needs grow as they face the implications of months of disrupted lives and incomes. Families must have jobs and income alongside safe, dignified housing.
We also must continue to invest in preparedness and risk reduction throughout the country, particularly with small, local organisations. Catholic Relief Services has seen these local preparedness efforts pay off over and over again with life-saving impact and good stewardship of resources.
Include more women
The world seems slightly more aware – and a bit more prepared – to prevent and manage emergencies. Yet we do not seem to learn any hard lessons, nor do we seem willing to fundamentally shift the ways in which our world is structured and operates. My wish for 2019 is a stronger feminist analysis and approach to humanitarian disasters. Lest you think that requires rocket science, here’s how to achieve it:
- Listen more to indigenous women and tap into their knowledge and understanding of how we must relate to nature and ecology.
- Practise more ecologically friendly agriculture and land use.
- Accept that climate change is real, listen to those living on the front lines, and provide them with the necessary support to adapt to this reality.
- As humanitarian responders, we need fewer white men in shorts and yellow vests, and more local women and young people. Trust people affected by disasters and let them lead the response.
- Use more women and local leaders as spokespersons when disasters strike.
- Listen to women and girls who have directly experienced sexual and other forms of gender-based violence.
- Be braver in challenging power and privilege and call sexual abuse – and all forms of violence, harassment, and abuse of power – what it is, rather than use the euphemistic term ‘safeguarding’. Instead of thinking that violence against women and girls is a new issue, learn from women’s rights organisations who have been here before us. They have decades of experience, manuals, tools, and people that we can tap into.
Right now, we’re working with contributors on the ground in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries to tell the stories of people enduring and responding to a rapidly evolving humanitarian crisis.
We’re documenting the threats to humanitarian response in the country and providing a platform for those bearing the brunt of the invasion. Our goal is to bring you the truth at a time when disinformation is rampant.
But while much of the world’s focus may be on Ukraine, we are continuing our reporting on myriad other humanitarian disasters – from Haiti to the Sahel to Afghanistan to Myanmar. We’ve been covering humanitarian crises for more than 25 years, and our journalism has always been free, accessible for all, and – most importantly – balanced.
You can support our journalism from just $5 a month, and every contribution will go towards our mission.