Rethinking Humanitarianism: Welcome to the debate

Join the conversation about the future of aid.

(Matthew Waring/Unsplash)

At the start of 2020 when we set out to look at the past, present, and future of humanitarianism, we had no idea how much the world would change in the months that followed — and how timely the subject would become. 

This year, The New Humanitarian marks 25 years of journalism from the heart of crises. Just the time, we thought, to look back on the world’s response to crises over the last quarter century: Had aid delivered on its promises? And what lessons could we draw for the future? We dubbed the series Rethinking Humanitarianism and set out to explore these questions. 

But then a global pandemic shook the entire world. It overwhelmed healthcare systems, even in developed countries. And it dramatically challenged the way aid is delivered, from funding models hard hit by a global recession to international aid operations severely disrupted by travel restrictions.  

If that wasn’t enough, a resurgent #BlackLivesMatter movement in the wake of the police killing of an unarmed Black man in the US led to another moment of reckoning for the aid sector. Humanitarians began asking:  To what extent are we equipped to deal with these kinds of deeply rooted injustices? Is it even the role of humanitarians to relieve suffering in “the West”? Does racism exist within the humanitarian aid sector? And perhaps more fundamentally: To what extent is the sector part of — or even propping up — a world order that, for many, is designed to keep power and resources in the hands of some people and countries while keeping others poor and powerless? 

Suddenly, Rethinking Humanitarianism had become an urgent priority. 

And humanitarian response — a topic that may once have been considered the purview of a niche aid industry — was quickly becoming of interest to the wider world as crisis and vulnerability came to the doorsteps of even the most privileged. 

Explore the series

In some ways, the world’s response to crises has evolved significantly in the 25 years that The New Humanitarian has been reporting on the sector. 

Founded by the United Nations in 1995 as IRIN (Integrated Regional Information Networks), our newsroom emerged from the ashes of the Rwandan genocide. 

Since then, the field of humanitarian assistance has professionalised and become more coordinated. There are standards and trainings, and aid workers no longer hop on the backs of trucks with rebels. 

But in some ways, crisis response hasn’t changed at all. It remains predominantly Western-dominated in its orientation, charity-driven in its business model, and technocratic in its approach. 

Perhaps more importantly, it may no longer be the right solution. Yes, humanitarians are saving lives. But suffering continues around the world at a level of magnitude that seems disproportionate to all the time, money, and effort that goes into emergency aid. 

The scale of the need today is such that humanitarianism, in its current form, will never be enough.

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So, if the goal of the humanitarian endeavour is to alleviate human suffering, are there now more effective ways of focusing that energy? 

Following our spin-off from the UN, we rebranded IRIN News to The New Humanitarian in a bid to explore what humanitarianism means in this day and age. 

Twenty-five years on from the Rwandan genocide, this series will do just that.  

We will explore the reforms that emerged from past turning points in the industry – and why they didn’t have the transformative impact intended. We’ll look at how the humanitarian sector has changed — in its size, scale, and focus but also in its imagery, its jargon, and its jobs. We’ll look at some of the personalities and innovations that have shaped crisis response over the last quarter century. And we’ll explore emerging forms of humanitarianism — from the efforts of Google and China; to mutual aid and the work of diaspora communities; to cruise ships delivering hot meals in a disaster.  

Finally, we will invite your reflections on the future of international solidarity — through analysis, commentaries, and events

We hope you’ll take part in the dialogue as we gather and exchange ideas over the course of the year. To contribute to our Rethinking Humanitarian series, send ideas to [email protected] or tweet @newhumanitarian with the hashtag #RethinkingHumanitarianism.

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