The humanitarian system has developed to respond to geographically contained and separate crises that are usually a long-haul flight from the centres of power and wealth that sustain it.
But that is no longer how crises work.
If you didn’t believe in systemic crises before, hopefully you do now – because like the COVID-19 virus, crises have jumped the species barrier and we don’t know how to contain them. The humanitarian system isn’t broken, or broke. But it is hopelessly ill prepared for our times, out of ideas, and running out of time.
The COVID-19 pandemic provides a text-book example of systemic risk, where shocks are transmitted through the networks and systems that our global economy depends on. The cascading consequences are hard to predict, leaving policymakers aghast and adrift as they weigh decisions with little foresight of the trade-offs and their unintended repercussions.
The legacies of the pandemic are expected to be wide-ranging and profound, including tipping a further 150 million people into extreme poverty by 2021, and leaving us in a more unequal and politically unstable world.
Systemic risk is increasingly likely in a highly integrated global economy, which is undermining its own foundations, degrading ecosystems and driving flat-out towards climate breakdown. The most vulnerable and marginalised people will fare worst in this scenario. Humanitarian support and protection will be needed like never before. And already, even in a good year, we struggle to meet the needs of people trapped in chronic crises.
How did we get here?
The humanitarian system has a major problem with change. Culturally, humanitarians enthusiastically self-critique and genuinely want to do better, and yet change is frustratingly incremental. Our difficulty with change isn’t at the level of individuals however, it's hard-wired into the system.
We operate in a closed system, starved of ideas. Humanitarians aren’t accountable to their primary client group – there is no meaningful feedback loop – and this robs the system of ideas and of stimulus for change. The humanitarian system itself also has a serious diversity problem. Not only is this a social justice issue, it's also bad for business. Giving voice to those who already think like us makes it almost impossible to “think outside the discourse” and locks us into an unending loop of recycled ideas and confirmation bias.
The first step is admitting we have a problem. If we accept that we struggle with change, and that we lack ideas, vision, and allies, it becomes easier to accept help and to have frank conversations.
We have chosen to dodge politics, self-censor, and focus on technical solutions. Humanitarians have become very comfortable claiming neutrality. While the numbers of people in crises mounted, we comforted ourselves with fantasies of “ending needs” and building “resilience” at individual and community level, while avoiding politics and the changing face of conflict, and ignoring climate breakdown. We are all, however, trapped in an exploitative and destructive system racing to the bottom and the solutions will not be found in technical fixes.
It's no one’s job to think on behalf of the system. Most humanitarian organisations are specialised. Reform priorities therefore tend to be parochial, linked to thematic or organisational concerns. Meanwhile, it’s no one’s job to think or advocate on a system-wide basis. There’s no global-level surveillance and analysis of risk and of our collective preparedness. Our big opportunity to reflect at a collective level, at the World Humanitarian Summit, left some of the biggest questions – including duplication and competition between UN agencies, and how to achieve sustainable and adequate funding – off the table or unanswered.
So what do we do?
If we are going to break out of our disappointing default – incremental change – we will need to address some of the constraints outlined here. The first step is admitting we have a problem. If we accept that we struggle with change, and that we lack ideas, vision, and allies, it becomes easier to accept help and to have frank conversations.
Open up the system to new ideas and challenge. We need to provide meaningful opportunities for people affected by crises, as well as actors on the margins of the system, to shape change processes. We need to stop self-censoring and rejecting or denying uncomfortable narratives. And we need to create space for – and support – those willing to challenge the status quo within our institutions.
Ditch the crowd-sourced and consensus-based processes. We don’t need to wait for the traditional leaders of the system. Ad hoc coalitions of motivated disruptors should be encouraged and given space. For specific problems, the formal system can appoint independent groups that draw on disciplines and expertise outside the sector – like the global preparedness monitoring board – who can ask difficult questions and deliver uncomfortable findings and recommendations with some authority and independence.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also made clear that we need states to respond to major public health and economic crises, and we should be investing far more in government-led crisis management and response. This implies a changing role – or redundancy – for some international humanitarian actors.
Be willing to think through the impossible. This is an inauspicious time for agreeing collective action and achieving support for global public goods. But crises also offer opportunities for radical rethinking. When those moments arrive, best be armed with solutions. Right now, the international humanitarian system should be thinking through what sorts and scales of crises it should be preparing for, and what role it wants to play. We should also be thinking about what institutions, technical functions, multilateral agreements, and laws we will need to protect people from future crises – including rights and protections for those migrating from places that are no-longer habitable due to climate breakdown.
Re-evaluate what it means to be a humanitarian. The formal international humanitarian system does not have a monopoly on humanitarianism. Nor does it necessarily have the right tools and approaches to be effective in contemporary crises. Increasingly, much of the delivery side of humanitarian action is being taken care of by local civil society actors, the private sector, and through digital payment systems. The COVID-19 pandemic has also made clear that we need states to respond to major public health and economic crises, and we should be investing far more in government-led crisis management and response. This implies a changing role – or redundancy – for some international humanitarian actors. Some could re-orient from “neutral and impartial” service providers towards being allies and advocates for the most marginalised and at-risk groups.
Be prepared to challenge the purpose of aid. The international development and humanitarian systems developed specialised institutions and commitments to address the symptoms of growing risk, vulnerability, marginalisation, and exclusion. But the logic of international development still relies on reproducing the same destructive economic model that drives inequality, environmental destruction, and climate breakdown. Aid is a precious and powerful resource for influencing norms and behaviour, providing global public goods, and protecting the most vulnerable. But following the same logic that got us here won’t end needs. This should be our moment to constructively challenge the purpose and models of aid. We need to devise something better.
Poole is the co-author of Make or Break: The Implications of COVID-19 for Crisis Financing and The Future of Crisis Financing: A Call to Action.