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The future of aid

From Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad to UN refugee agency chief Filippo Grandi, new visions of the humanitarianism of tomorrow.

A drone carrying a first aid package Andy Dean Photography/Shutterstock


The future of aid

From Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad to UN refugee agency chief Filippo Grandi, new visions of the humanitarianism of tomorrow.


Rethinking Humanitarianism can feel like an abstract and even overwhelming undertaking. To help break it down, The New Humanitarian reached out to leaders across and beyond the aid sector – from policy-makers to people with lived experience – to crystallise some visions for the future.

Their ideas coalesced around five broad themes: preventing conflict, mutual and activist aid, decolonising aid, shrinking the scope of the aid sector, and anticipating crises.

Taken together, these ideas paint a picture of areas central to the humanitarian action of the future. Each week, until early December, we’ll be adding new submissions, so stay tuned for more visions of tomorrow’s aid landscape.


Mutual and activist aid

The future of aid is ...

... African innovation

“We don’t want a piece of the pie anymore. We want to make the pie.”

Muthoni Wanyeki, Regional Director for Africa, Open Society Foundations

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Multilateralism is unravelling before our very eyes, with the response to COVID-19 only the latest example: the individual country scramble for testing equipment, personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators, oxygen; the tales of diversions and hijacks of supply planes; the attacks on the World Health Organization – the latest convenient proxy for American blame-gaming; the angry responses from China, recovered enough from its early bad behaviour to fashion its non-mea culpa into representation as a responsible global player.

Meanwhile, Africa’s poor majority has struggled under the pressures of COVID-19. While the larger supermarket chains switched to online orders for the middle- and upper-classes, a woman boiled stones for her children. That’s what no daily income and the disruption of supply to local food markets means. Small-scale farmers who used to earn enough to cater for their families’ needs fell off the cliff, separating the lower middle-class from the impoverished. They never asked for anything from the state. They didn’t hold their breath. But, they are desperate. So many of us – desperate.

We Africans need to build our own future

Yes, there were international solidarity flights, bringing in additional healthcare workers, the equipment needed to respond. But the exodus was out, not in. Western diplomatic missions sent discrete messages to their expatriate citizens about flights leaving, despite the ban on all except cargo flights. Chinese expatriates also left – despite their own diplomatic missions’ exhortations. They wanted to get their healthcare back at home, not in the continent in which they made their living.

Truth be told, all of that is a good thing. Because it’s time we move away from depending on international solidarity and a crumbling world order. We Africans need to build our own future instead.

Local innovation is filling the void left by the international community

Today’s desperation is being met by fellow citizens. Local innovation is filling the void left by the international community in the wake of the pandemic: the individuals who set up cash transfer programmes for fellow citizens; the adopt-a-family initiatives; the neighbourhood collections. This comes on top of the many informal social protection mechanisms that have always existed, and even despite shrinkage in diaspora remittances.

The creativity, innovation, research and development, and manufacturing pivots are also local: cheap testing and vaccine research under the African research university alliances; PPE from self-help groups and local clothing manufacturers; ventilator designs from the young bright things keeping themselves busy while universities are closed.

That’s humanitarianism’s future. We don’t want a piece of the pie anymore. We want to make the pie. When we do, we’ll be ready to (re-)create a real multilateral order.

... Redefining collective security as solidarity

“We – people, countries – do not have to abandon our personal or national security interests, but our interconnectivity demands solidarity.”

Dr. Joanne Liu, former International President, Médecins Sans Frontières

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There was a time when international solidarity was the norm. Recall the 1980s, when conflicts and disasters prompted Live Aid fundraising concerts. But in recent years, as threats have become ubiquitous – terrorism, the climate urgency, pandemics – responses to crises have been shaped through the lens of security. And, by default, this obsession with security has eroded solidarity.

Whereas it still played a part, political calculus was less imbued in the predominant “do good” solidarity model of the 1980s. Today, aid is mobilised when it serves political or national security agendas of powerful states.

COVID-19 has shaken up this dynamic in both good and bad ways.

On the one hand, global shortages of goods such as protective equipment, ventilators, and vaccines under development have resulted in predatory behaviour and a new and ugly give-and-take dynamic. On the other, in some instances, the pandemic has swapped the roles of giver and receiver nations. G8 nations found themselves on the receiving end of aid, exemplifying the complex interconnectivity and interdependence of the current globalised world order.

When we are all vulnerable, making each of us healthier and safer depends on making all of us healthier and safer. One person does not exist alone, without others. We – people, countries – do not have to abandon our personal or national security interests, but our interconnectivity demands solidarity, even from a purely self-interested point of view. We haven’t yet had the wisdom to act this way, but we can’t escape the reality that security depends on solidarity. We now have the opportunity to redefine our collective security in a post COVID-19 era.

... Aid recipient unions and citizens’ assemblies

“The aid sector can only truly change if the people it intends to benefit get organised to challenge aid institutions.”

Arbie Baguios, Founder, Aid Re-imagined

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Think about some of the biggest social changes achieved in the last century: safe and dignified labour, women’s suffrage, civil rights, LGBTQ+ acceptance. None of these occurred out of the goodness of those in power. They were, in large part, seized and won by an organised group of people who pried the moral arc of the universe out of the hands of the powerful and bent it towards justice.

This is how change happens. That is, when those disadvantaged in the status quo unite to obtain what political economists Daron Acemoğlu and James Robinson call de facto power to challenge those who have de jure or formal power (e.g., from elites or elected politicians).

Past changes have been overly reliant on internal reformers in positions of power

Change cannot happen without many different types of ‘change agents’ – from reformers working from the inside to activists holding others accountable.

But changes in aid to date have been overly reliant on internal reformers in positions of power: quality standards that are self-imposed and self-verified by big international NGOs; donor pressure to tackle sexual exploitation and abuse; and, more recently, a proposal to establish an aid ombudsman.

We’ve tried other things that haven’t worked either. Self-policing by INGOs – through internal reviews or committees – is falling short. Top-down pressure from donors (like new clauses to contracts) are fast to create bureaucracy but slow to deliver reforms. And market-oriented solutions that treat aid recipients like clients don’t work when the clients have no “purchasing power”.

Aid will only change when people at the receiving end challenge aid institutions

Change in aid has relied far too heavily on internal levers. However, external pressures are necessary, too. But those who truly have a stake – people and communities who receive aid – are marginalised. It is only when they obtain de facto power that the balance can be tipped.

In other words, the aid sector will only truly change when the people it seeks to serve organise to challenge aid institutions.

Aid recipients’ unions and citizens’ assemblies are two ways of doing this.

Unions have given us things like a ban on child labour, workplace safety, holidays, and the minimum wage. Renters’ unions in major cities around the world are fighting against exploitative landlords. Charity workers in the UK have a union, and international aid workers are attempting to set one up. Even refugee workers in Kenya, frustrated by the terms and conditions of their NGO employers, have formed their own union, to negotiate better conditions.

Aid workers can similarly unionise to make demands of a sector that has failed to deliver on their promises for so long. Organising as a union is challenging as it is. For aid recipients – residing in different contexts, served by different NGOs, and with diverse demands – it can be doubly difficult.

One idea to overcome this is to more proactively support this endeavour: I can imagine an entity like Organisers Without Borders whose aim is to mobilise aid recipients for a broad but common cause (demand better services from INGOs). During a crisis, while INGOs coordinate in clusters, an Organisers Without Borders could bring together aid recipient stakeholders to demand high-quality assistance as well as accountability.

No high-level public body is comprised of just ordinary people

Citizens’ assemblies provide another path forward. Often appointed by government, citizens’ assemblies are bodies of ordinary citizens, randomly selected, with a mandate to deliberate and make decisions on important societal issues. Composed of a cross-section of a particular society, they provide a diversity of perspectives, have the public’s interest at heart, are not swayed by politics or the need for re-election, and engage in healthy debate in problem solving. One hundred ordinary people can make better decisions for society than 100 graduates of elite institutions. Currently, no high-level body in the public realm is composed of just ordinary people.

While the concept has been around for decades, citizens’ assemblies have recently borne fruit. In the 1990s, a citizen’s assembly in Texas led more renewable energy projects to be accepted by both the public and electricity companies; and, in 2016, recommendations by a citizen’s assembly helped the Irish people accept abortion and gay marriage. Today, citizens’ assemblies are becoming popular, particularly in the fight for climate justice. In the UK, for example, a Climate Assembly made up of 108 randomly selected individuals will advise the government on how to reach the country’s net-zero emissions target.

So in addition to – or perhaps even instead of – an ombudsman, the UN and other international NGOs could also form an “aid recipient assembly” mandated to set policies and make decisions for the aid sector, and then hold it accountable.

Beyond internal reform, change is only made possible if there are also external pressures. Aid must be radically re-imagined towards truly benefitting the people it intends to serve. Aid recipient unions and assemblies can get us there.

... Helping people reach aid when aid can’t reach people

“In protracted conflicts where access is constrained, the thinking has become less about how to get aid agencies in, and more about how to support local communities to get the resources they need.”

Abby Stoddard, Partner at Humanitarian Outcomes and author of Necessary Risks: Professional Humanitarianism and Violence Against Aid Workers

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Many of today’s humanitarian emergencies are protracted civil conflicts in which humanitarians can face not only targeted violence from insurgents but also interference or outright obstruction from host governments.

In some of the most difficult operating environments, like northeast Nigeria, aid cannot get into much of the territory, and the places where people are most in need have the fewest aid agencies operating.

Aid organisations have adapted to higher levels of insecurity over the past decades by investing in security risk management systems, working increasingly through local partners, and by finding ways to negotiate with armed groups that are more proactive and pragmatic. Yet the presence of humanitarians in war zones still falls far short of the needs: agencies tend to cluster in safer, more accessible areas, with few incentives to expand their reach.

In navigating the tension between the humanitarian imperative to respond and the duty of care to their staff and partners, aid agencies often find themselves at the limits of what their traditional models can achieve.

The doors out of the humanitarian access trap don’t open from the inside

More cash/mobile money transfers will doubtless be a part of the solution, but these will not work in cases where there are no functioning markets within a safe distance. A meaningful solution to the access gap requires dramatic innovation and a wholly different operational approach. Truly disruptive transformations, by definition, are an abrupt departure from the current ways of working in the sector.

Some innovative thinking is converging around the idea of supporting people to access critical resources themselves, rather than relying on aid workers to access them. In other words, in protracted conflicts where access is constrained, the thinking has become less about how to get aid agencies in, and more about how to support local communities to get the resources they need through self-sustaining networks.

The doors out of the humanitarian access trap don’t open from the inside. In Central African Republic, where extreme insecurity and poor roads make it difficult for aid groups to reach people in need – and doubly dangerous for people to travel outside of their immediate locality – some humanitarians have begun to support community-led collaboration platforms. These decentralised platforms are unique to each location, consisting of community leaders, local businesses, and civil society groups, as well as any aid agencies in the area. International agencies do not lead these bodies – instead their role is to provide the impetus and help to mobilise funding for them.

This way of working – borrowed from the development sphere – is an emerging adaptation in protracted crisis settings known as the “territorial approach”. It is the opposite of the supply-driven humanitarian response model, whereby international aid organisations decide what programming they will provide and coordinate it among themselves.

For it to work, international groups must take a back seat to community leaders, cooperate with a much wider range of entities, and their donors must afford them the flexibility to do so. Ultimately, the problem is not so much humanitarian access as humanitarian coverage. We must stop accepting patchy and skewed coverage of humanitarian needs in today’s chronic conflicts as inevitable and work towards meaningful solutions.

… Networked Humanitarianism

“We should understand humanitarian action as a network of relations, rather than a series of transactions.”

Paul Currion, Independent Consultant, and former Chief Operating Officer of Disberse Ltd

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We live in the Network Society.

Information technologies – the computer on your desk, or the phone in your pocket – connected through the internet have changed the ways we live. In the Network Society, information flows are as important as financial flows, circulating between nodes in a network rather than transmitted down through a hierarchy. Think of the way information spreads on your social media – not broadcast by a central authority, but shared between friends and colleagues.

Despite these changes, the business model of humanitarian aid has changed little: financial resources flow from the top down through a hierarchy from “donor” to “beneficiary”, and whoever decides how to allocate those resources holds the power in the system. Although aid organisations claim to serve the interests of aid recipients, in the end they serve the interests of the donor, which undermines attempts at localisation and hinders real accountability.

Relationships made possible through technology

The humanitarian community has not been able to create a Network Humanitarianism fit for a Network Society.

What might Network Humanitarianism look like? We all tend to focus on new technology, but what’s more important are the new institutions, relationships, and behaviours made possible by that technology. The starting point is simple: We should understand humanitarian action as a network of relations, rather than a series of transactions.

I went into the details of what this could mean in my 2018 report on Network Humanitarianism for the Overseas Development Institute; only a few aid organisations embrace these approaches, such as Translators without Borders, who use distributed networks of community translators to support crisis messaging.

While the aid industry lags behind, however, communities are using networked approaches to help themselves. In my ODI report I point to the Daryeel initiative in Somaliland, or to the grassroots responses to the 2015-2016 migration surge in Europe – networks of small groups that I call “modules”, collaborating across organisational lines, rather than lumbering “mammoths” of the aid industry who were slow to respond.

Similar improvisation and collaboration could be seen during the Arab Spring. During the Tahrir Square protests, a field hospital was set up but struggled to provision itself; the Twitter account @TahrirSupplies was able not just to supply the hospital via donations of small items like bandages, but to crowdfund over $40,000 for specialist equipment in less than five hours.

This is not my vision for the future of humanitarianism, but a description of what is already happening; not necessarily better or worse, but definitely different. You can feel the changes in your own life in business, politics and culture, as networks become an increasingly significant form of collective action. The question is whether the traditional aid industry will embrace these new ways of working – or risk becoming obsolete in the face of new actors.


Decolonising aid

The future of aid is ...

... Decolonising aid, one small step at a time

“We don’t need to wait for a systemic overhaul to start doing better.”

Danny Sriskandarajah, CEO, Oxfam GB

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One of the books written about Oxfam’s history mentions trying to find more ‘Indigenous agencies’ to channel assistance during the 1966 famine in Bihar, India. Localisation, it seems, has been a long-standing aspiration of the humanitarian sector.

Resources still flow through complex and top-down chains

Many of us felt 2016 was a turning point, with localisation under the spotlight at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, and in the ‘Grand Bargain’ package of aid reforms. There has been progress since, through mechanisms like the Charter 4 Change pledge on locally-led response. But resources in the sector still flow through complex, top-down chains.

The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the essential role of bottom-up responses, with lockdown restrictions impeding external interventions. But at its heart, truly transformative locally-led action is about shifting power, supporting communities to drive sustainable change themselves.

Movements like Black Lives Matter are a powerful reminder of the need to confront racism and power imbalances that are embedded into systems and institutions. For the aid sector, that means rethinking traditional notions of wealthy ‘donors’ helping poor ‘beneficiaries’ that perpetuate narratives rooted in colonialism, and replacing them with models that connect people everywhere united by their outrage at poverty and injustice.

Shifting power will take determined efforts from all of us

Meaningfully shifting resources and power will take explicit, determined efforts from all of us – international NGOs, governments, UN agencies, and donors. Central to this is what the Grand Bargain called a “participation revolution”, so the people receiving aid are involved in making the decisions that affect them. While the current model may hinder reform by creating incentives that reinforce the status quo, we don’t need to wait for a systemic overhaul to start doing better.

Within Oxfam, this includes a commitment to be feminist and anti-racist in all we do. We want to consciously confront – not inadvertently reinforce – power imbalances between north and south, black and white, and men and women. Tackling sexual abuse, which is often fuelled by power imbalances, is absolutely key to this, as we’re acutely aware.

It includes investing in local humanitarian leadership and scaling up a “responsive listening” pilot to ensure we are more accountable to communities. We want to reshape our global model to become a more diverse network, and a better ally to the partners, communities, and movements that make up the social fabric in the countries where we work. We will work in fewer countries, enabling us to invest more, and to transfer more resources to partners to help strengthen local action.

Help build from below, but also beyond borders

For us, this cannot be just about international NGOs creating new local entities and saying “job done”. I believe that a large organisation like Oxfam is at its best when it can help build from below, but also beyond borders; using its resources and expertise to support communities to drive lasting progress themselves, and using its voice and reach to drive global change. I hope that in 25 years the aid sector will have evolved into something radically different, a more diffuse social justice network in which all actors – Northern and Southern, big and small – play a more meaningful and equal role in working towards a better future.

For more on Danny Sriskandarajah’s views on the future of aid, listen to the first episode of the Rethinking Humanitarianism podcast.

... Recognising indigenous humanitarianism

“Nothing needs ‘localising’. It already exists.”

Themrise Khan, Independent Researcher and Policy Analyst

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Current rhetoric on the role of the global humanitarian industry calls for power to shift from global to “local”. But the repeated use of “localisation” in the current humanitarian aid discourse demeans those who have been working within and for their own countries for decades. Nothing needs “localising”. It already exists.

Humanitarianism is a part of the contextual fabric of all countries

The international humanitarian system continually fails to accept that humanitarianism is a part of the contextual fabric of all countries. It has existed alongside philanthropic, religious, ethnic, and even class lines for generations. It does not need a Sphere Standard or a cluster approach to be successful.

Local organisations are first on the scene of any crisis. They are trusted, familiar, and well-connected. These organisations, many of them community-based groups, do not depend on the arrival of external assistance before responding to a crisis. Their response is immediate and independent of external assistance. They continue to serve the needs of affected communities long after international organisations have departed.

The history of humanitarianism has existed long before the international aid sector

Pakistan’s Edhi Foundation, the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka, the Syrian NGO Alliance, and Somali Humanitarian and Development Action are all organisations that have emerged directly from the communities they serve and who are permanently embedded within them. Yet, the international humanitarian community is more interested in its own visibility during a crisis, for example distributing (branded) food packages to the affected, without acknowledging the history of humanitarianism that has existed much before its arrival.

A future humanitarian system will be led by actors indigenous to the region or community in crisis, while everyone else follows. Indigenous does not mean the local arm of an international NGO; it means values which are historically rooted in the country of origin and its people, such as philanthropy and volunteerism. These values must be acknowledged by the external system prior to its entry.

International aid agencies will then ask these indigenous groups: “What do you need from us?” and “How can we help you?” They will observe over time who these indigenous players are – and where and how they operate – instead of duplicating efforts simply for their own prominence.

The future of humanitarian aid must be embedded in and guided by the indigenously created organisations whose priorities are with their people, rather than be subservient to a multilateral humanitarian system whose priorities are dictated by global political forces.

... Flipping financial accountability to the community

“Previous NGOs behaved with us as if they were teaching 3rd graders dictation. Now, it is like we form our own grammar rules.”

Mai Jarrar, Women's Development Program Director, YMCA East Jerusalem

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Often, the international community funds humanitarian and development projects that do not align with the needs, realities, or priorities of their constituencies. Whereas real strength is found in the hands of crisis-affected communities, time and again international aid organisations and donors (intentionally or not) promote a dependency culture. They may distract or distort communities' capacities and strengths by thinking they know better, or by failing to recognise that no one standard response fits all.

In 2015, the YMCA in East Jerusalem had a chance to try something many of us had wanted to do for a long time: let community members lead in every aspect of a “project cycle”. Were we nervous? Yes. Did we and the donors fear this could go really wrong? Yes – of course. Letting go is scary.

But we went ahead and tested a new programme we call a “survivor and community-led crisis response”. The approach allows community groups, with support and guidance from the YMCA, to assess their own challenges, capacities, priorities, and opportunities, and to implement activities of their own choice with cash grants of up to $5,000.

The programme has flipped financial accountability from being upward to the donor, to being to the community itself. And it has worked. All income, expenses, in-kind contributions, and activities are posted to a public community Facebook group, so that those executing the project are accountable to their own people. Communities are so motivated that they often top up grants with voluntary work, cash, or in-kind materials. Women have improved their bargaining power and are taking new leading roles. Community members are able to negotiate with the private sector, challenging their social responsibility towards Palesitnian people to secure lower prices.

Being accountable to each other and building a chain of trust

These results and the associated experience of activism, voluntarism, real ownership, pride, and dignity are a highlight of my professional life. A woman from a small Bedouin community summed up her experience: “Previous NGOs behaved with us as if they were teaching 3rd graders dictation. Now, it is like we... form our own grammar rules”.

The new realities brought on by COVID-19 where neither local nor international NGOs are able to access communities directly, enhance our confidence in our approach, and strengthen our vision of change.This change doesn't come about through conferences or any “Grand Bargains” promising commitments to “localisation” or “participation”. It comes from being accountable to each other, and from building a chain of ongoing trust between activists, communities, and NGOs – as well as donors.

During recent discussions with community members in Gaza, one participant put it very clearly: “Our problem is that the NGOs who write the proposals always want to please the donor, even if they are wrong. It is time to change this.”

The approach has worked repeatedly now, not only in East Jerusalem but through other organisations working in Gaza, Haiti, Kenya, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Sudan. For me, the real question now is: What is holding back others from trying this?


Shrinking the scope of the aid sector

The future of aid is ...

... Commercially sustainable solutions

“Mistrust and battles for branding should not dictate how we serve.”

Tara Nathan, Executive Vice President of Digital Solutions for Development at Mastercard

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Crises today – and undoubtedly in the future – are protracted and recurring, whether forced displacement, natural disasters, or conflict. Still, we react, instead of planning as a collective to deploy our core strengths.

The system prioritises what is most convenient for entrenched players

The current humanitarian system is all too focused on the “type” of organisation providing assistance, instead of its capabilities. This is, frankly, a distraction and signals that the system prioritises what is most convenient for entrenched, established players. In the space of cash transfers or shelter construction or sanitation, the private sector is very likely best suited to manage the intervention end-to-end, and yet these companies are often relegated to supplier or vendor status. The impetus is for a short-term fix, not long-term durability.

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the world and forced us to acknowledge that our current modes of engagement are inadequate. We should seize this moment and upend our institutions in a bid for increased preparedness and fit-for-purpose response in the future.

Making ‘mandates’ irrelevant.

A future humanitarian system would make the concept of “mandate” irrelevant. It would instead privilege experience and expertise in addressing the tasks at hand. Mistrust or battles for branding would not dictate how we serve.

When an emergency hits, we should refrain from categorising it. By labelling it “food security” or “displacement”, we lose sight of the multi-faceted nature of crises. Food security is tied to agricultural practices, which are connected to environmental degradation and so on. Labelling an emergency “food security” can trigger experts in ready-to-eat meal distribution when the actual need could be for farmers to access markets and fair prices to boost production. Categorising an emergency at the outset over-simplifies the challenge and discourages human-centered, needs-based service delivery. Through technology, we can instead empower communities to outline their needs themselves.

Equipped with these demands, any organisation or company – so long as it demonstrated a track record of success and upheld principles of mutual accountability – can engage. The result is a much more efficient response, one that considers both the short- and long-term. Strategic humanitarian response allows for more deliberate interactions, even joint planning, with development organisations.

A future humanitarian system would design the policy, legal, and financing mechanisms to allow for multi-year investment in durable, resilient infrastructure.

Companies and humanitarians complementing each other

With these operational pieces in place, companies and humanitarian agencies could implement side by side, each to their talents: local communities and NGOs defining needs; international NGOs activating global resources and networks; governments providing blueprints for sustainability; companies leading solution innovation. Together, we could save innumerable sums and countless lives.

Take the example of just one intervention in one refugee and host community in northern Uganda. A private company took over water management from an international NGO to provide a long-term, green solution, which was preferred by residents and was estimated to bring a 90 percent cost saving over the traditional humanitarian fix.

What if all companies shifted from cheque writing to developing commercially sustainable solutions that improved the lives of the vulnerable? And what if humanitarian agencies made space for them to do so? We have the right actors, we have the right expertise, we have the resources. Will we embrace our diversity and pave the way for change?

... Fewer international NGOs

“‘Big Aid’ continues to myopically focus on organisations and brands as opposed to the delivery of outcomes.”

Simon O’Connell, former Executive Director of Mercy Corps Europe

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In the aid world, hundreds of international NGOs with very similar (albeit perhaps increasingly robust) technical skills and capacities work to help people in crisis – they hand out similar hygiene kits and run similar community engagement programmes, and similarly seek to fight for the rights of the marginalised. As well-intentioned as this may be, it results in unnecessary competition for increasingly constrained resources, and all too often, to the under-resourcing or crowding out of local groups. As aid budgets come under more and more pressure, mergers and more comprehensive collaboration among international humanitarian organisations will be critical if responses are to find the necessary efficiencies to meet these rising humanitarian needs – needs that will only become more extensive in the wake of COVID-19.

The leaders of international NGOs and UN organisations often get stuck on a fixation with finances and financial size. “Big Aid” continues to myopically focus on organisations and brands as opposed to the delivery of outcomes. I’ve seen this up close in having largely failed in my attempts to initiate mergers and promote consolidation over my years at Mercy Corps.

The pandemic presents both the need and opportunity to break down some of the siloes and short-sightedness that exist in the way NGOs operate, to reduce the emphasis on entities and institutions, and to accelerate the shift of focus towards more streamlined, outcomes-oriented collaborations.

In addition to efficiencies, power would be relinquished

By consolidating international NGOs at the global level and establishing better collaboration models at country and programme levels, less money would be consumed covering the costs of each NGO’s management, administrative, and support costs. Based on my own calculations in just one crisis in one country, the savings generated from two international NGOs operating within one structure could be upwards of $500,000 per year. In addition to generating efficiencies, power would in turn be relinquished and space and resources freed up for local and national NGOs, who are invariably better placed to deliver.

I see this being achieved through five concrete steps:

Firstly, donors should issue ‘A Call for Consolidation’: a funding initiative to incentivise consolidation. By providing a pot of funding that NGOs are only eligible for if they merge, donors would see millions of dollars freed up and available for additional humanitarian interventions. Such an initiative needs to provide enough incentive for individual NGOs that they would be willing to embrace the levels of short-term disruption necessary.

Secondly, we will only secure meaningful efficiencies when the true costs of operating an NGO are seen and understood. With myriad funding sources, differing NGO structures, and nuances around what constitutes direct and indirect costs (it doesn’t make any sense that donor contributions to indirect costs vary by more than 20 percent, and that NGOs are expected to absorb the shortfalls when institutional donors don’t cover the full cost of operating), there’s still way too much obfuscation and opaqueness around the real costs of delivering aid. Mechanisms that force heightened financial transparency should be established by those providing the funding.

Delineated definitions of private and humanitarian sectors are inadequate

Thirdly, businesses should be looked to as an integral component of the humanitarian system. Delineated definitions of ‘private sector’ or ‘humanitarian sector’ are invariably inadequate. Building on consolidation between NGOs, initiatives should be established within country- and sector-level coordination structures that enable cross-sector collaboration, reducing the need for so many international NGOs. Donors and host country governments can both better enable and insist upon this.

Fourthly, establish a revised ‘Risk Framework’, which enables NGOs to share resources (people, systems, funding), co-deliver, and collaborate without being exposed to prohibitive penalties if contexts change and expectations and targets are revised. Sharing resources in new, more comprehensive ways, and therefore any subsequent successes and failings that arise, comes with the requirement for risks to be assessed and distributed differently. A greater willingness to absorb risk by donors, along with understanding, acceptance of and openness to failure – in addition to the transparency point above – is essential if NGOs are to collaborate more robustly.

Honest and deliberate transfer of power

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, NGOs should establish ‘Power Transfer Metrics’, demonstrating measurable and unambiguous intent to acknowledge the role power plays in the aid sector, whilst giving a push to donors to similarly embrace a commitment to relinquish it. With governmental donors less willing to adopt an agenda and follow through on commitments made to cede power, philanthropic institutions have a significant leadership role to play here. Being honest, deliberate, and open to measurable accountability around transferring power (individually and institutionally) would inherently result in a reduction in iNGOs and, in turn, a more equitable distribution of power.

With large-scale humanitarian assistance more in need now than ever before, now is the moment for the humanitarian community to embrace the opportunity to work together more efficiently and effectively.

... Allowing cash programming to be truly transformative

“As long as we only use cash within existing systems, it will function as just another thing we deliver – a ‘cashified’ version of jerry cans and blankets.”

Sophie Tholstrup, Policy Coordinator, Cash Learning Partnership (CaLP)

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The growth of cash assistance, from scattered pilots in the early 2000s to more than $5 billion in 2019, is one of the most significant changes in humanitarian action over the past two decades. Giving people cash instead of goods enables recipients to decide what they need, supports local economies, and is more efficient.

Cash is unique because it shifts decision-making power from aid agencies and donors to crisis-affected people themselves. Evidence shows people make smart choices, and that individual and geographic variation in spending is significant. Traditional aid allocations are often badly out of sync with recipients’ own preferences. Unsurprisingly, people also strongly prefer receiving cash to other types of assistance.

Who is aid is for? And who are humanitarian actors accountable to?

The rapid increase in the use of cash has made it the star performer of the Grand Bargain set of aid reform commitments, but its more challenging implications remain out of reach.

Cash is fundamentally disruptive to the ways we work, shifting power and choice from humanitarian actors to the people they serve. The use of cash will continue to increase, but as long as we only use it within existing systems (in which we’ve heavily invested and on which jobs and incomes depend), without allowing it to shake up the siloed ways we work, it will function as just another thing we deliver – a “cashified” version of jerry cans and blankets.

For cash to fulfil its promise, we need a fundamental shift in the way we think about who aid is for, and who humanitarian actors are accountable to. Rather than delivering in ways that work for our systems, we need to flip the ways we currently work. This should start with spending more time and resources understanding what people need and prefer, and co-designing responses with them accordingly. This means spending less time controlling the ways in which cash is delivered, branded, and earmarked.

Giving cash works and people prefer it, and the simple idea of giving people the means to choose without conditions seems far from radical. But doing this at scale changes everything: the function of humanitarian actors; the systems and processes we use to design assistance; and – most critically – the role of the people we serve in humanitarian action. Only when that happens will the use of cash as aid be truly transformative.

... Less is more

“We should scale back humanitarianism by rescoping the purpose of aid and by reinforcing the most effective operations – the delivery of short-term assistance and protection in emergency situations.”

Marc DuBois, Independent Analyst/Consultant, Senior Fellow at SOAS, University of London

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There are many ways to design humanitarian aid that improve on current practice. We typically think of this as progress. Yet in its preoccupation with doing things the right way, the humanitarian sector has blinded itself to doing the right things. Technically proficient, humanitarian action today is ineffective, unsustainable, ever-expanding, and self-aggrandising.

The future of aid thus requires rethinking the annual chorus of “More aid! Better aid!” Here is the new (little t) truth: less is more.

Humanitarians have shifted their goals from triage and relief to “ending need”, from filling gaps to the surrogate provision of internationalist global welfare. They have shifted the field of play from temporal emergency (an exceptional period of urgent need) to perpetual programming in protracted crisis. This effectively (mis)uses band-aids to cover over entrenched socio-political and economic destruction.

Aid’s flawed ideology

If this unfitting response were simply unfitting, we might justifiably shrug our shoulders.

Rather, the sector’s siloed, authorising, universalist ideology builds upon three flaws: a racialised lens in which certain states are evil and incompetent, their people helpless victims in need of being saved; a failure to listen to people in crisis, who instead of handouts over years and years would prefer economic betterment, political stability, and the dignity of self-reliance; an exceptionalism that erases the intertwined histories of the humanitarian sector and the profound injustices and inequalities to which it responds.

We should scale back humanitarianism by rescoping the purpose of aid, and by reinforcing the most effective operations: the delivery of short-term assistance and protection in emergency situations.

This rethink requires the humanitarian deployment in protracted crises to step back, un-occupying the space in which others – those with the responsibility, the expertise, and the right (i.e. states, development actors, local civil society) – can step forward to build (over time) a peaceful and stable society. Their society. International humanitarian action should join these society-wide approaches when invited, refusing to become the defining response paradigm of the crisis or the excuse for political disengagement. It must demonstrate the humility called for by the direct negative consequences of its actions, because the lustre of saving lives also erodes people’s dignity, undermines the social contract, and spreads a sense of societal inferiority.

Less is more means placing humanitarian ethics above technocratic effectiveness. This rethink calls for a reappreciation of the core principle of humanity, developing operations that reflect people’s agency and power to control the crisis response as inalienable elements of their dignity. To operate without this, is to operate with inadequate respect for the principle of humanity, and hence to fail a core definitional element of what it means to be humanitarian in the first place.

… Place-based economies

“Think enterprise with training wheels.”

Tahir Zaman, Deputy Director of the Sussex Centre for Migration Research (SCMR), University of Sussex

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Displaced people are often relegated to the margins of the humanitarian marketplace; designated the role of passive beneficiaries. Too often, the humanitarian economy revolves around providing goods and services for the displaced person. Put simply, they are made consumer or end-user.

Such characterisations ossify displaced people, closing off opportunities for self-transformation. A new approach is needed that elevates the dignity of displacement-affected people, one whereby they become the producers of the goods and services required. We need to put the development of these local place-based economies of displacement-affected people (both hosts and guests) at the heart of humanitarian enterprise.

Moving away from the care and maintenance model

This calls for a reorienting of the relationship between those affected and the formal humanitarian actors. The goal is to move away from a care and maintenance model – wherein the humanitarian sector endlessly toils to raise ever-scarcer funds in response to displacement emergencies that become protracted crises – and towards the creation of an economy that works from within for displacement-affected communities.

Can we flip the relationship between humanitarian actors and displacement-affected communities so the former become consumers of goods and services provided by the latter?

Changing the way aid groups go about their procurement would be one way to make this happen, scrutinising supply chains to identify items suitable for local production. Aid agencies typically procure on lowest cost, but in certain circumstances can adapt their processes to benefit local producers. This has been shown to work in development contexts by WFP through its purchase for progress programme (P4P).

Competing in the marketplace and reducing dependency

The humanitarian sector should also take on more of an enabling role in establishing community investment funds (CIFs) and worker-owned cooperatives (WOCs) – a proven model of success in the context of dispossession, disenfranchisement, and dislocation in the Global North. The funds should flow to the cooperatives, serving as conduits for resources that meet the specific procurement needs of aid agencies and INGOs – coming from traditional donors, foundations, diasporas, venture philanthropists, and other humanitarian actors. In effect, donors invest in an alternative enterprise infrastructure that can compete with the existing private sector, from whom INGOs and aid agencies are already procuring.

Think enterprise with training wheels – WOCs are given the freedom to learn and adapt to the demands of the marketplace. Over an agreed period, they are given the security of a steady cash flow as well as the time to develop products that can be competitive in the market.

These cooperatives can foster joint economic relationships through shared livelihoods and investment in displacement-affected communities. This experience would also help mitigate tensions between host communities and displaced people by creating jobs, developing skills, and expanding the space for mutual aid practices – reducing aid dependency.


Preventing conflict

The future of aid is ...

... Building and sustaining peace

“Humanitarian action can only ever be a partial response in the face of the scale and complexity of forced displacement today.”

Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees

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Humanitarian action has saved millions of lives, has helped alleviate the burden on countries and communities hosting refugees, and has helped secure protection for those who need it. And yet, the major crises of the last decade – in Myanmar, Syria, South Sudan, the Lake Chad and Sahel regions, in Venezuela, and elsewhere – have revealed that humanitarian action can only ever be a partial response in the face of the scale and complexity of forced displacement today.

New challenges to international solidarity

We have entered a complex and uncertain era, in which the vision of international solidarity and responsibility-sharing that inspired the global protection regime will face many new challenges. In the Global Compact on Refugees, a framework for predictable and equitable responsibility-sharing of refugees, we now finally have important tools and approaches that can help restore that vision and translate it into action. We have already seen much greater involvement in the refugee response from not only traditional humanitarian actors, but also development actors such as the World Bank, other regional development banks and international financial institutions, as well as from the private sector. The result is that the forcibly displaced and their host communities have better access to services and opportunities to improve their lives.

Transformation through political solutions

This does not diminish, however, the critical role of humanitarians. Humanitarian aid will continue to be a necessity for the forcibly displaced, but real transformation will only be achieved through political solutions to the crises that drive refugee flows.

Recent negative trends in international cooperation and solidarity, including the weak response to date to the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, are not encouraging.

Looking ahead, the prospects of securing solutions to displacement on a meaningful scale remain challenging. While aid helps alleviate suffering, no amount of humanitarian assistance can resolve the plight of those forced into exile. Solutions to displacement fundamentally depend on successful conflict resolution and investments in sustaining and building peace – and on the ability of states to find the unity of purpose to cooperate to this end.

While I recognise that this is difficult, it is not impossible. For example, Sudanese and South Sudanese leaders have recently taken significant steps towards peace. The international community must now do all that it can to support those willing to take risks for peace, and in so doing create opportunities for solutions for nearly seven million refugees and internally displaced people throughout the region.

... Accountability for war crimes

“We now have the legal precedent to take conflict-related sexual violence seriously and to prosecute it.”

Nadia Murad, Nobel Peace Prize winner

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Conflict-related sexual violence (CSVR) has been ongoing throughout history. All over the world, women have been and are still seen as objects. And, as objects, they are used by men as weapons of war.

Women and girls are ultimately without rights

Just as women were subjected to CSVR during the Yugoslav wars and Rwandan genocide, women are still subjected to CSVR today, as Yazidi women were when the so-called Islamic State invaded northern Iraq in 2014. Without justice and accountability for war crimes like CSVR, we are accepting that women and girls are ultimately without rights and anything can be done to them.

Until the latter half of the twentieth century, gender crimes were generally categorised as both domestic/private issues and necessary outcomes of war. The codification of gender crimes did not take place until the 1990s when the Rwandan and Yugoslav tribunals and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court finally acknowledged gender crimes as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

Hold the perpetrators accountable

We now have the legal precedent to take conflict-related sexual violence seriously and to prosecute it, but still see a lack of willingness from the international community to hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes. IS perpetrators who committed horrific acts of sexual violence against Yazidi women and girls have yet to be held accountable. Countries like the Netherlands, France, and Germany are pursuing cases against IS militants. But many other states continue to abdicate responsibility for their nationals. States need to ensure that these militants are charged with international crimes that reflect the gravity of their conduct.

Survivors and women globally continue to tell their stories to fight against this inaction. But we also need to redefine the role of women in society and promote gender equality throughout our education systems globally. We hope that our fight will shift the priorities of the international community and put an end to CSVR through holding perpetrators accountable and signalling an end to impunity.

... Acting on the early warning signs of mass atrocities

“We need more support from the United Nations to monitor, report, identify, and address early warning signs of the recruitment and use of children as soldiers.”

Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, Force Commander of UN Peacekeeping Mission in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide

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From the introduction of General Roméo Dallaire’s book, Shake Hands With the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, when he encounters a young boy outside of Kigali in May 1994.

“I made my way to him as slowly and quietly as I could and… carried him out of the hut... This child was alive yet terribly hungry, beautiful but covered in dirt, bewildered but not fearful. I made up my mind: this boy would be the fourth child in the Dallaire family. I couldn’t save Rwanda, but I could save this child... That dream was abruptly destroyed when the young soldier, fast as a wolf, yanked the child from my arms and carried him directly into the bush. Whatever happened to that beautiful child? Did he make it to an orphanage deep behind the RPF lines? Did he survive the following battles? Is he dead or is he now a child soldier himself, caught in the seemingly endless conflict that plagues his homeland?”

Twenty-five years ago, the world had been wholly unprepared to intervene and prevent a genocide in Rwanda. Internationally, we failed to recognise the early warning signs that should have raised multiple alarm bells of the impending bloodshed. Even more problematic, when we finally recognised the signs, we did not have the political will to intervene.

Following the blood and the horror of those 100 days, the overriding image seared in my mind was a warning of a crime against humanity so perverse it was almost unthinkable to me: The recruitment and use of a child as a soldier.

I have ceaseless memories of children used by adults to commit the most horrific atrocities, to instil total fear and the complete breakdown of community cohesion. The total lack of preparedness by UN peacekeeping missions to deal with this reality prompted me to dedicate myself to the study of this abhorrent phenomenon. I made it my mission to find practical and innovative solutions to ending even the thought of recruiting and using children to commit the crimes of unscrupulous adults in conflicts around the globe.

The recruitment of child soldiers is a reliable early warning sign to mass atrocities

Since that time, I founded the Dallaire Institute for Children, Peace, and Security. Through our work, we have come to understand that the recruitment and use of children as soldiers is a reliable early warning sign to mass atrocities.

This is why, in 2017, the Institute and the Government of Canada co-created the Vancouver Principles on Peacekeeping and the Prevention of the Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers. They provide a set of political commitments covering all stages of a conflict cycle, which dozens of countries have endorsed. But there is still a long way to go to ensure those who monitor early warning signs and seek to prevent genocide recognise the link between child soldiers and mass atrocities.

We need more support from the United Nations to monitor, report, identify, and address early warning signs of the recruitment and use of children as soldiers, and to articulate the links to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Now is the time for policy makers to recognise that our failure to protect children will lead to our continued failure to achieve sustainable peace and security.


Anticipating crises

The future of aid is ...

... A humanitarian embrace of preparedness

“Humanitarian aid needs to rapidly evolve, moving away from a short-term focus on immediate responses to supporting preparations to protect populations against so-called ‘slow onset’ disasters.”

Doreen deBrum, Marshall Islands Ambassador to Switzerland and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva

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In 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica were melting seven times faster than had been predicted. To those of us living in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, where our highest point of elevation is barely one metre above sea level, the news was alarming. Already, sea surges have eroded our coastlines, destroyed our homes, and displaced more than five percent of our population. Sea water has started to contaminate our freshwater resources and our already limited arable land.

Rising sea levels is an emergency upon us

While rising sea levels may be considered a “slow-onset disaster” to others, for us in the Marshall Islands, the emergency is already upon us. Even where the pace of such disasters may be “slow”, it is increasing. We should be preparing for them now.

Yet the current humanitarian system remains focused on crisis response rather than preparedness. The cost of delay or inaction will be devastating: Migration and conflicts will increase; disasters will become so intense that they will dwarf our attempted responses and reverse development gains. In 2015, Typhoon Nangka cost my country more than three percent of GDP in a single night.

We can’t do this alone

Our government is currently hard at work on our National Adaptation Plan (NAP), which we consider our survival strategy. The plan identifies our vulnerabilities to climate change, assesses options for adaptation activities, and aims to enhance the resilience of the people of the Marshall Islands. The Paris Agreement on climate change stipulates that all countries should finalise their National Adaptation Plans this year. But the resourcing required to provide our people with a pathway to survival greatly surpasses our national budget. We can’t do this alone.

Humanitarian aid needs to rapidly evolve, moving away from a short-term focus on immediate responses to supporting preparations to protect populations against so-called “slow onset” disasters, like sea level rise, desertification, and biodiversity loss.

We need a drastic re-alignment of global financial flows to ensure that adequate funding is made more easily available to prepare for these crises. Humanitarian and development aid must be more coordinated and compatible with a future in which all states must adapt to the effects of climate change – and some of us must do so urgently.

As the effects of the climate crisis grow, it is increasingly critical that the humanitarian aid and development communities listen to voices from the front line of the climate crisis. The National Adaptation Plan is being driven by consultations that identify locally-led solutions, driven by the real needs of a population before a known crisis hits.

Humanitarians have been some of the most powerful advocates of the climate emergency. Now it is time they embrace preparedness and adaptation as part of their role.

... System change for climate change

“If we are to avoid being overwhelmed by the crises bearing down on us, we need to transform our approach to change.”

Paul Knox Clarke, Principal, Climate and Humanitarian Crisis Initiative

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We are staring down the barrel of the 21st century. Climate change and environmental degradation have made huge and unprecedented humanitarian crises all but inevitable. To respond to these crises, humanitarian organisations will need massive transformations. They will need strategies, skills, and operational approaches for crises, such as wildfires and heatwaves, that many have not addressed before. They will need changes in structures and relationships to improve their response to crises in the Global North, while simultaneously increasing funds and resources for huge crises in the Global South. They will need resilient localised supply and staffing structures, and flexibility to work as part of broad and changing alliances of responders across countries and emergency types.

The system has many strengths; change isn’t one of them

While the humanitarian response system has many strengths, change isn’t one of them. Despite 30 years of earnest discussion about participation, localisation, preparedness, and relief-development linkages, very little real, transformative change has been achieved. This can’t go on. Humanitarians urgently need to think about both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of the change we need to make to meet the impending climate crisis.

The first step is to reconsider our priorities and rationale for change, recognising that the humanitarian system is a small part of something much, much bigger than itself. Conversations about humanitarian improvement have often been inward-looking and repetitive, focusing on – and conducted by – the same small set of actors, as if the UN and NGOs somehow 'own' all things humanitarian. This has never been true, and it is even less the case in the responses we have seen around mass migration and COVID-19 – and that we will see, in countries rich and poor, as a result of climate-induced crises. So humanitarian change efforts should be part of larger initiatives and should focus on how we can contribute, with flexibility and humility, to whole-of-society responses to a broad range of crises around the world.

Nobody ever made things different by doing them the same

As humanitarian organisations make these changes, we should also think critically about how change actually happens in organisations. Nobody ever made things different by doing them the same. Managing organisational change using the same familiar project management approaches actually makes change less likely to happen, because it reinforces existing ways of working, and so strengthens the status quo. The change process should look and feel new: It should reflect the future we are bringing into being, not recreate the past we are trying to leave.

We should also design our changes by building on what works. Look for the – often small and overlooked – examples of where the change is already happening, and amplify them. Successful grassroots experiences are more likely to work ‘at scale’ than untried visions of change dreamed up in a meeting room in Geneva and never yet implemented.

The medium of change is people

Finally, we should remember that the medium of change is people. If a new strategy, structure, or process works, it is because people have changed their behaviour to make it work. It may seem obvious, but the notion is often strangely absent from humanitarian change programmes. Any change process should expect resistance, take it seriously, and devote time and resources to addressing it. Successful change allows people to help create their future; it doesn‘t 'roll change out’ or ask them to ‘buy in’.

If we are to play our part in the 21st century, and if we are to avoid being overwhelmed by the crises bearing down on us, we need to transform our approach to change.

... Anticipatory humanitarian action

“Knowing a disaster is about to strike or a crisis is imminent causes a moral imperative to act.”

Sibylle Katharina Sorg, Director General for Crisis Prevention, Stabilisation, Peacebuilding and Humanitarian Assistance, German Federal Foreign Office

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Humanitarian needs continue to increase worldwide. So does our understanding of risk and our ability to predict humanitarian impacts.

Anticipatory humanitarian action can save lives. The increased availability of data and forecasting information comes with a responsibility: Knowing a disaster is about to strike or a crisis is imminent causes a moral imperative to act. Using the window of opportunity after the forecast and ahead of the disaster can prevent or mitigate humanitarian impacts before they become more devastating and costly. Thus, anticipatory action is more effective, cheaper, and more dignified than a purely reactive approach.

For example, when a cyclone is about to make landfall, shelters can be prepared and the evacuation of those at risk can be supported. Ahead of a drought, herders can receive fodder and vaccines to save their livestock, while farmers can receive drought-resistant seeds. In many cases, a cash payout before a disaster helps local communities to prepare.

Though anticipatory approaches are not meant to stand alone or work as a silver bullet, in concert with disaster risk reduction, preparedness, and response they provide a very powerful tool – a game changer in the future of humanitarian aid.

To enable anticipatory action, we need three things: firstly, a model or decision-making mechanism that uses data and forecasting information to trigger early action. Secondly, we need to agree on which forms of early action work best and who will implement what. Both triggers and actions are highly contextual. And to be relevant, anticipatory action needs to put people first, by including communities in understanding risk, by setting locally relevant thresholds, and by mutually deciding on the most appropriate early actions. Thirdly, triggers and actions need to be linked to pre-agreed financing.

For many years now, we have supported the development of those elements, together with our partners. As of today, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, humanitarian UN agencies, and humanitarian NGOs are piloting anticipatory approaches in more than 60 countries. We have supported the integration of anticipatory financing in pooled funds like the Central Emergency Response Fund, the IFRC’s Disaster Relief Emergency Fund, and the START Fund because we believe it crucial to firmly embed this principle throughout the humanitarian system.

Significant progress has been made. But to make the humanitarian system truly anticipatory and to mainstream today’s achievements, we need to scale it up: We need more and better anticipatory action, increased geographical reach, and a wider range of hazards anticipated (including, for example, disease outbreaks or situations of conflict). We need to strengthen partnership across sectors and disciplines – with the “champions” as well as those new to this field. And we will need honest, evidence-based learning using existing pilots to improve and adapt. This will not be easy. Actually, it will be hard work. But it can be transformative.

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