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Rethinking Humanitarianism | How humanitarianism changed in 2023

From Gaza to climate change – a look at the events that forced the aid sector to rethink humanitarianism in 2023.

Header image for Rethinking Humanitarianism podcast. The background is orange. On the top left we see the banner reading Rethinking Humanitarianism Podcast. On the bottom right we see the black and white portraits of Irwin Loy, Nazanine Moshiri, and Dustin Barter.

From new conflicts in Gaza and Sudan, to flood disasters in Libya and East Africa, to earthquakes in Morocco, Syria, and Türkiye, humanitarian crises around the world drove more than 350 million people to need help in 2023. While funding to address those needs reached record levels, so too did the funding gap. Only a third of the $57 billion that humanitarians appealed for this year was actually received – the largest shortfall in years.

For the last episode of 2023, we reflect on the year that’s been, Rethinking Humanitarianism-style. Which events have forced a rethink in aid? Have any lines been drawn in the sand? And how has 2023 been a turning point in the way aid is delivered?

Co-hosts Heba Aly and Melissa Fundira convene a roundtable for a wide-ranging discussion on everything from humanitarianism’s more prominent role in the climate agenda, to shifting ideologies on neutrality and mutual aid networks, and, of course, funding.

Guests: Nazanine Moshiri, senior analyst (Climate, Environment & Conflict, Africa) at the International Crisis Group; Irwin Loy, senior policy editor at The New Humanitarian; Dustin Barter, senior research fellow at ODI’s Humanitarian Policy Group

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Show notes 

Transcript | How humanitarianism changed in 2023

Martin Griffiths, Global Humanitarian Overview 2023: “This time last year, 274 million people needed humanitarian assistance [...] and for 2023, that number has gone up again, bringing the number of people in need across the globe to 339 million, a figure which is almost unreadable.”

Heba Aly

From new conflicts in Gaza and Sudan, to flooding in Libya and earthquakes in Syria and Turkey, humanitarian crises around the world drove more than 350 million people to need help in 2023 – even more than the figure estimated at the start of the year.

Melissa Fundira

While funding to address those needs reached record levels, so too did the funding gap. Only one-third of the $57 billion dollars humanitarians appealed for was actually received. That’s the largest funding shortfall in years.

Heba Aly

These are just some of this year’s headlines as 2023 comes to a close. But seeing as this podcast is about how to rethink humanitarianism, we figured we’d take a look at which events this past year have forced a rethink in aid and how humanitarian response has changed most significantly in 2023. Have any lines been drawn in the sand? And how has 2023 been a turning point in the way aid is delivered, if at all? 

From Geneva, Switzerland, I’m Heba Aly.

Melissa Fundira

And from Toronto, Canada, I’m Melissa Fundira.

This is Rethinking Humanitarianism, a podcast about the future of aid in a world of rising crisis.

Melissa Fundira

So, Heba, we're just a few weeks out from the end of the year. And looking back at what the year in humanitarian needs looked like, here are some of the things that have really stood out. This has been the deadliest year for civilians in nearly 20 years. Sudan and Gaza are two of the major conflicts that have really caused these numbers to spike. More than 12,000 people have been killed in Sudan since April, and it's still facing the largest displacement crisis in the world – 6.6 million people displaced. It's a staggering number. And in Gaza, more than 18,000 people have been killed, just since the seventh of October. And of the 2.3 million people who live in the Gaza Strip, 85% of them have been displaced. Again, incredibly staggering numbers. And then, of course, climate change continues to be a major driver of humanitarian need. By the end of this year, it's expected to be the hottest year on record. And I'm pretty sure that there's no listener who hasn't experienced some form of climate-related destruction in their region, from cyclones and hurricanes to droughts and floods, wildfires, you name it. And then, of course, there are the economic drivers of humanitarian need, which have exacerbated crises in countries like Afghanistan and Venezuela. 

Heba Aly

And I think it's exactly because of this grim picture that you've just laid out, that we spend so much time on the podcast exploring new ideas to address humanitarian crises, and the sector is always full of them. This year was no exception. The Grand Bargain, this infamous package of aid reforms was renewed in a new form. [UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs] Martin Griffiths rolled out his new so-called Flagship Initiative that aims to empower country-level humanitarian leadership and make aid less bureaucratic. Nothing like a top-down reform process to do that. But we've also seen a number of bolder and more ambitious ideas for how to make countries better able to deal with crises when they do hit. We saw [the] “loss and damage” fund really gain steam in climate negotiations. We've seen momentum for an initiative that's being pushed by the Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, to reform international financial institutions and make it easier for countries hit by climate crisis to access financing at fairer rates. So there has been some movement, and since this podcast is in the business of rethinking humanitarianism, we wanted to drill down on that. What's actually changed this year, for better or for worse. 

Melissa Fundira

And we wanted to hear from as many people as possible. So we sent out a call-out asking this question. If you didn't see this call out, dear listener, that's probably because you don't follow us on social media. And I think it would be a very good New Year's resolution to do so. So look for The New Humanitarian on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram. And a big thank you to those of you who did answer that call-out, and you'll be hearing some of those answers throughout the episode.

Heba Aly

Today, we’re joined by three guests to discuss the year that has been. Nazanine Moshiri is a senior analyst for Climate, Environment & Conflict, and Africa for the International Crisis Group. She joins us from Nairobi. Welcome, Nazanine. 

Nazanine Moshiri 

Thank you so much for having me.

Melissa Fundira

Irwin Loy is the senior policy editor for The New Humanitarian. He is also one of the hosts of The New Humanitarian’s new podcast, What’s Unsaid, which is amazing and you should listen to it. It’s a bi-weekly podcast that explores the open secrets and uncomfortable truths that often surround the world’s conflicts and disasters. Irwin joins us today from Geneva. Welcome, Irwin.

Irwin Loy

Hi, thanks for having me.

Heba Aly

And Dustin Barter is a senior research fellow at ODI’s Humanitarian Policy Group. His work specialises in humanitarian system reform. Dustin joins us from Melbourne, hopefully with lots of coffee on hand. Welcome, Dustin.

Dustin Barter  

Thanks, great to be here.

Melissa Fundira 

So as it happens, we're recording this roundtable on the very last day of COP 28. This year, humanitarianism was placed pretty firmly in the climate agenda. This was the very first time that a COP summit dedicated an entire day to humanitarian action. Nazanine, you just came back from Dubai, where the summit was held. What was your main takeaway from 2023 when it comes to the intersection of climate change and humanitarianism, and what outcomes from COP will most likely change the way that aid is delivered moving forward?

Nazanine Moshiri 

So when I was there, I was there for the Peace, Relief, and Recovery Day on December 3rd. And there was a lot of enthusiasm, I have to say, around the fact that it was on the main agenda for the first time at a COP. And also because there was the approval and operationalisation of the oss and Damage Fund, which is supposed to support countries, including those experiencing conflicts, that are suffering harm due to climate change. That happened during the opening session of COP, so on the first day. And just more generally, the feeling you've got at this COP in particular was there was an understanding that around half of the most climate vulnerable countries – and many of them were there, of course, at COP with big delegations, particularly countries from Africa – hey are also grappling with conflict too. And also, speaking to humanitarians on the ground, there was a real feeling that many of the issues around fundraising that humanitarians are having – where fundraising has really fallen short – we also see that climate financing is falling short, as well. And I think, generally, you know, at Crisis Group and other people I've spoken to, what we're saying is that we don't think that increased funding alone is going to prevent further instability or protect countries that are suffering from political strife or war, and also the impact of climate change, but funding for climate adaptation and resilience is the best hope we have for warding off some of the most dismal potential outcomes. And there was a real sense that a lot of us were on the same page about that at COP 28. And of course, there was a declaration that was signed, where a lot of organisations, countries – including China, including the US – signed this declaration on peace, and also some multilateral organisations, banks, etc., and NGOs such as ourselves, signed the [Climate, Relief, Recovery and Peace Declaration]. It's not legally binding, but we see it as a beginning. We see it as something that potentially puts this right front and centre on the agenda at COP, and hopefully at future COPs, too.

Melissa Fundira 

The sense is that this is the first time that COP is focusing on conflict-affected countries. There seems to be some enthusiasm around this declaration, as you mentioned. So how significant is that this conversation around the intersection between climate and conflict has become so much more mainstream this year?

Nazanine Moshiri 

It is pretty significant. We have found it quite difficult for those people who are pushing for these kinds of indirect links to be more on the agenda. We found it quite hard to find a space for our thinking, because, obviously the obvious place would be the UN Security Council, which deals with matters of peace and security. But as you know, a few years ago, a resolution, which was put forward by Ireland, failed at the Security Council. So yes, we were pushing for this kind of recognition at COP. There's a sense that far more obviously needs to be done, and particularly on the climate financing side. But again, it's a start. It's on the agenda now.

Melissa Fundira

Now that it's being spoken about it's on the agenda, how hopeful are you that this is actually going to translate into some action? Do you think it'll actually have an impact on aid delivery?

Nazanine Moshiri 

These are two very separate things, right? Because obviously, aid delivery is looking more at emergencies, and more immediate needs. Whereas what we're talking about is climate financing, which is looking at building climate resilience, which is more akin to development. There should be a bridge between what's happening now and the increased volatility that we're seeing in terms of climate climate effects, which are impacting countries that are at conflict as well. I don't think it's any coincidence there that climate fragility and conflict often go hand in hand in many countries. In the Horn of Africa, for example, in Somalia, also elsewhere in Afghanistan, and South Sudan, too, which has endured devastating floods. Perhaps there needs to be a bridge. And perhaps, yes, the humanitarian world could help bridge that funding gap. I.e. if the humanitarians, in terms of their interventions, are thinking in a more long climate-sensitive lines when they're carrying out programming, etc., and also conflicts as well. So, as I said, I think it's a beginning. Obviously, it's just a declaration, it's not legally binding. But hopefully it could lead to more work on the ground.

Irwin  

For me, what I'm watching is the approach to climate finance. These are very high-level decisions, but for humanitarians, I think it represents a balance that they have to strike, and I don't think they've understood that or come to a decision collectively on what that actually means. So for example, when they're talking about adaptation finance and how that will actually trickle down to countries experiencing conflict who have not seen enough, nearly enough, adaptation finance. And if we're talking about humanitarians being through with the Triple Nexus, quote, unquote, where humanitarians and development actors are more joined up, if humanitarians are a little bit more responsible for working it into their programmes, then are they the ones that are chasing the climate finance? Generally speaking, the humanitarian sector as a whole has been saying “No,” climate finance should be separate from the funds that we’re looking for. But in practice, when you have individual aid groups in a very constrained environment needing lots of funding, there will be those funding opportunities. And many humanitarian [and] development actors are already chasing climate finance. So I think there's a choice that they'll face in the coming months about what to do about this money, and can they actually just leave it on the table. 

Heba Aly  

And especially if , Nazanine, if you're saying that the climate community is feeling – I got the sense – almost threatened by humanitarians trying to eat up the money, and the humanitarians are thinking that this is a new source of funding that they'll be able to access to do the work in these areas, that there might be a bit of tension and negotiation that needs to happen there.

Nazanine Moshiri 

Absolutely, there is a bit of tension there, I have to say. There were a lot of humanitarian agency heads at COP 28. But when you speak to climate campaigners who have been pushing for a Loss and Damage Fund for more than 20 years, they feel that there's just too much going on at COP now. Too many events, too many thematic days. They really wanted the focus to be on the creation of a Loss and Damage Fund, which was created and there are still a lot of issues around it, as we know, because it's going to be hosted by the World Bank. And also the funding is nowhere near the levels needed. Although some countries have made substantial pledges. But also, the promises that were made to developing countries, $100 billion a year, still have not been fulfilled. So I think we're about $86 billion a year from the latest OECD figures. So, yes, there is a tension there and I felt it when I was at COP. 

Dustin Barter 

With climate finance, it’s is obviously excellent to be pursuing, but it kind of needs to go hand in hand also with debt relief. If we look at Pakistan and Somalia as indicative countries, Somalia has been going through the debt relief process over many, many years for approximately $4.6 billion USD in terms of debt relief, which that cripples the country from being able to build up governance, build up the role of the state, responding to humanitarian crises, responding to conflict. And so even for a country like Somalia, yes, enhancing and improving climate finance is very helpful, but you also need to look at the structural barriers, such as persistent debt from predatory lending, from times of crisis that were not of the country’s making necessarily. And this is not just Somalia, but also Pakistan, across many countries in the Global South, you have this structural barrier of debt that’s lingering over and really exacerbated by COVID. So, yeah, climate finance is excellent, but what about these deeper structures that kind of limit the ability for a country to govern effectively, and whether countries see accelerating debt relief, not just for a country here and a country there, but accelerating the process for a lot of countries. I think it’s a more systemic way to addressing it hand in hand with climate finance, rather than just having the two working against each other.

Melissa Fundira 

If memory serves right, this time, last year, at COP 27, one of the big conversations was around the Bridgetown Agenda, which was pushed by Barbados Prime Minister Mia Motley, which addressed just that, Dustin: How to actually address the debt ratio issue that climate-affected countries are facing, despite not having contributed to the climate crisis. Is that a conversation that's continued in 2023?

Dustin Barter 

I haven't seen that much on debt relief. It has the occasional flash in the pan when Bono speaks up about it, but then otherwise not really continuing in the way it should be. And when we link it with climate, it's like Pakistan, you had mass flooding very recently and has exacerbated debt impacts, and all the recovery costs there. And again, I don't think it's been as comprehensively or coherently linked to the broader issues around climate change. I think that discussion needs to go a lot further. A lot of countries and creditors that aren’t just bilateral are really dragging their feet on debt relief across many settings, for no particularly good reason except wanting to maintain that debt in various forms. 

Heba Aly 

And interestingly, last year, Martin Griffiths really made a thing of debt relief, and I think put it on the agenda in ways that it hadn't really been in the humanitarian sector. So the fact that that hasn't then kind of built up momentum in this direction is an interesting takeaway.

Marc DuBois, voice note: “Hello, my name is Marc DuBois. I’m an independent humanitarian consultant and I’m a senior fellow at SOAS, University of London. 2023 was another year where humanitarians faced really hard, really gut-wrenching decisions. I think it might be the year in which humanitarians finally recognise that what makes these decisions so difficult is that there are competing moral values, that there are ethical principles at stake and even ethical dilemmas where there's no right choice. For a while now, there's been work on humanitarian ethics. You have Hugo Slim's great book from 2015, and a lot of research showing just how important systematic ethical thinking is to humanitarian action. And, at the same time, I don't think there's been much uptake, especially on the operational side. And right around mid-year, Humanitarian Outcomes released its report on some of the ethical dilemmas in Afghanistan. And I think the way in which that made the problem so much more concrete, I hope and I think that there's a little bit more buy-in, and just a recognition that organisations are going to have to approach their decision-making much more systematically through an ethical lens, and if they're going to need guidance and support in doing that. Let's see. I think the two key questions are going to be: how to actually implement that in a way that's helpful in real-time operations; and secondly, the deeper question, and that is why, why are ethics missing from humanitarian action?

Melissa Fundira 

I'd like to move on to a different topic. And I think we can't talk about 2023, without talking about Gaza, of course. It's raised all kinds of questions about how humanitarianism is practised. I think we'll look back on Gaza as one of those moments where perhaps the sector's trajectory was changed quite significantly. And Irwin, just last week, you launched a new newsletter for The New Humanitarian called Inklings. Shameless plug. And in it, you talk about the “Gaza effect”. What do you mean by that?

Irwin 

Thank you for that plug. I think it's obvious that Gaza matters to everyday people who work within the sector, more so than a lot of crises. I think everyone has an opinion on Gaza, even if they're not personally affected, much more so than, say, a crisis like Myanmar, which has been, in some form or another, seeing humanitarian emergencies for decades. But I think a lot of humanitarians can't find Myanmar on a map, and don't realise that it's the same country as Burma. So with Gaza, it feels like everyone has an opinion, and so you see these really intense discussions inside aid organisations, obviously. Early on, it brought up a lot of, I think, a renewed focus on the sort of power imbalances between local aid workers and international staff when it comes to safety and priorities. It's brought on a lot of questions about neutrality, or humanitarian principles in general. With the focus on UN leaders such as Catherine Russell, or Cindy McCain at WFP, who have faced a bit of criticism from their own staff about their political allegiances, it's no secret that they have personal ties to the American establishment. But if that's how UN seats are traded among Western powers, then that should be no surprise. But perhaps that's just more reason to reexamine how seats are allocated or traded really. And when it comes to humanitarian principles, it feels like it's more of a mainstream legitimate discussion, because it's happening in an emergency where everyone has an opinion about [it], as opposed to Myanmar where I think civil society groups, as Dustin knows, have been trying to get this on the agenda for years. But I think people roll their eyes whenever they publish, for example, an op-ed in The New Humanitarian about how the international perspectives on aid in Myanmar really have to change. But now that it's happening in Gaza, and these same discussions are taking place, I think there's maybe a bit more openness to it. And I'm interested to see how that could play out in the coming weeks.

Heba Aly  

Dustin on that question of neutrality, you wrote a piece for The New Humanitarian drawing those parallels between Gaza and Myanmar and arguing for humanitarian resistance, as you call it. What's changed, to your mind, this year when it comes to the adherence or the need for, or perceived need for adherence, to the principle of neutrality? Do you think this is a line in the sand? 

Dustin Barter 

100%. I think it's been an issue for longer than just the past year as well. Whether it's been the Syria crisis, or Myanmar for years and decades. Sudan as well, particularly this year, with the emergency response rooms are a strong example. And yeah, I feel there's a lot of space to really shift the conversation, but also just look at the severe lack of respect for international humanitarian law, human rights law across so many crises across the world. And this kind of illusion of holding to neutrality makes a certain humanitarian actor more morally righteous or better at delivering a response is just incorrect, and serves negative purposes as well in a lot of contexts. In Myanmar, I think that's a context I know relatively well, we see international humanitarian actors have really lost a lot of their legitimacy across much of the population and have extremely limited access because they're only able to operate in certain areas where you have this oppressive military regime. So, why are we kind of holding on to this idea of neutrality when we're facing such horrific acts, whether it's in Gaza, Syria, Sudan, Myanmar, and many other contexts? And so I feel there's a space for it now, whether it's rethinking humanitarianism, or really revolutionising and bringing it up to a bit more of the current context. I agree there's a space for neutrality, particularly around ICRC, for exampleif you want to access prisoners in detention and things like that, but I I think that's been extrapolated too far, and kind of quietened down a lot of organisations that really have important things to say. And there's also this element: if you are humanitarian actors operating in these really fraught contexts, you also have a position and leverage to be able to use that position to speak to global audiences and influence those audiences. So staying quiet is just horrible. 

Heba Aly 

You talked about IHL, and I think the other takeaway from Gaza is that it's been another nail in the coffin of international humanitarian law in the sense that there are so many overt violations of IHL going unpunished. Nazanine, I wonder what your sense is of the impact of that? We see this time and again in many conflicts. Does this change things in any particular way?

Nazanine Moshiri 

One of the takeaways I have of what's going on in Gaza, is its impact on the reputation of the UN. Particularly we've seen the UN Secretary-General taking the extraordinary step and invoking Article 99 of the UN Charter, which basically allows him to advise the Security Council, grave changes to international peace and security. Of course, you know, he has been calling for an immediate ceasefire, right, as have many of us, including Crisis Group. And there's been a lot of pressure on the UN, and a lot of criticism of the UN as well. But the fact is that it's going to be the UN that will be needed to pick up the humanitarian pieces in Gaza. So we've kind of never needed the UN more than now. In terms of neutrality, and I've been looking at this issue for a while now, particularly in the context of the Horn where I work, and I have to say, it is really, really difficult times where neutrality is being questioned more and more. And often, particularly in the context of Somalia, where we saw the country was almost heading towards famine, it was averted, mainly because of the great work that humanitarian organisations were doing. And staying neutral is often not possible when you have to provide life-saving services, and keep these humanitarian corridors open. Often, humanitarian workers can’t avoid working with multiple groups involved in conflicts to save lives. Just recently, we had this horrific attack on an ICRC humanitarian convoy in Khartoum on the 10th of December. It was evacuating civilians from the area, and it's part of a disturbing trend. Of course it's nothing new, but it is an increasing trend where we are seeing attacks on aid convoys, humanitarian workers. We're seeing tensions, even, against the ICRC which is viewed as a neutral and impartial actor. And these attacks are continuing to occur and even escalate in some cases. So these are really, really very, very difficult times.

Dustin Barter 

You mentioned we're maybe more reliant on the UN than ever, in particular in relation to Gaza. But also, the flip side of that is, whether it's in Gaza, or Myanmar, or many other contexts when there are times of relative stability, are we not using that to really strengthen and work with and support extensively, local, domestic, national humanitarian systems and actors that in the case of Myanmar, in the case of Gaza, are highly active and have a lot of presence in communities. So yes, maybe there's a reliance now, but that's because we've backed ourselves into that corner in terms of relative stability. And how can we use times of relative stability – or times of crisis – to really shift away from this idea that the UN can be this last resort, and ultimately has the scale? How can we create the scale with local , and domestic, and national humanitarian systems?

Nazanine Moshiri 

I totally agree with you. I think there has to be more investment. Obviously, Gaza is a very difficult and unique case. But what I was talking about was that, we've seen the horrific damage in Gaza. We've seen the devastation across the country. And also, we know that we have a huge displaced population. And it's going to take more than just the UN. Of course, it's going to take local partners, it's going to take regional countries, it's going to take a lot. Everyone com[ing] together to help the Palestinian people. The UN can't do it alone. No one can do it alone. The UN is still going to have to play an important role. There's no doubt about that.

Bashair Ahmed, voice note: Hi, this is Bashair Ahmed from Shabaka. The traditional humanitarian sector needs to acknowledge and collaborate with the broader ecosystem of actors, such as mutual aid groups, diaspora, and migrant humanitarians. These actors have the capacity, legitimacy, and agility to respond effectively and efficiently to the changing realities on the ground. However, risk-averse donors, UN, and INGOs are not prepared yet. Many prefer to keep hold of the purse tightly, even though they know they can’t provide or deliver this humanitarian assistance. For example, in Sudan, many of them remain largely missing in action in terms of responding to the crisis there. And even if they have the budgets, they cannot spend it efficiently, necessarily. So I think there's a lot to be taken into consideration on that. 

Melissa Fundira

Dustin, to pick up on your point here about shifting from perhaps a “UN first” or “international organisation first” model, towards supporting locally-led efforts, in talking to probably about a dozen people about this episode on this question about how humanitarian aid and response has changed most significantly in 2023, I don't think anything was mentioned more than the increasingly key role that mutual aid networks have played in humanitarian response in 2023. You mentioned the emergency response rooms in Sudan. Another shameless plug, we did an episode on that with someone from an emergency response room and an OCHA humanitarian officer. You also argue that outside of just Sudan, locally-led efforts and response is something that's increased quite effectively in Myanmar in 2023. How so?

Dustin Barter  

Yeah, I think the international system is extremely constrained in Myanmar. It was over the past decade plus, and those restrictions have just increased. So you've seen a lot of grassroots networks really reactivated since immediately after the coup in 2021. They've just gone from strength to strength, working across the country in many, quite amazing, ways. And there has been some minor donor movement in providing some direct funding to some of these actors. And then you've seen it's basically a networks of networks model, because I agree there's this kind of challenge of like, how do you scale things? And Nazanine is totally correct, there are huge amounts of need across many different contexts. But also, I think we can fall into this trap of like, oh, civil society –or the state for that matter – in a lot of Global South or crisis-affected countries, can't absorb funding or the support that needs to be delivered to address the various needs. But, Myanmar is quite an amazing template of just this network upon network upon network, working across different ethnic administered areas, through military-controlled areas, and really been able to reach a lot of these communities with it can even be small, like micro-based grants or emergency funds on all different levels. And so how can you kind of replicate this network of network place? And over the past few years since the coup, Myanmar has really formed some excellent civil society leaders [that] are not particularly visible. And this is part of the difficulty, is that they're doing excellent work, [but] because of the sensitivities, they don't really want to be visible doing that work, because it's insecure to do so. And so the best work doesn't get seen. But they're really able to absorb a lot of funding, or absorb much much more funding, and kind of create this replicating model that reaches the most hard-to-reach places. But nobody really hears about it in the international system, because it doesn't reach any kind of news, but is quite profound.

Heba Aly 

That said, I do think one of the things that has changed this year is this concept of mutual aid, which I think in the humanitarian sector, we first started hearing about in the context of the refugee response in Europe. And at that time, it felt like a very isolated situation that needed an exceptional kind of solution. Now it feels like it's become a thing that is a long-term presence, or that is seen as part of the ecosystem and that the formal sector needs to engage with it. So I think that's been a change from the way mutual aid has been referred to in the past.

Irwin 

I agree with, say, for example, Sudan, the emergency rooms are really interesting, really unique. And I think what's changed is that the international sector wants to engage, and is engaging. But are they doing that because they don't have their own access? And when they get access, are they just going to go back to the usual ways of working? And I think it's a danger, in that even in Sudan, [where] the emergency room committees are not NGOs in the traditional way that local NGOs would identify and be set up, but in order to engage with the international community and access funding, they're speaking the language of the international community, and sort of on the surface at least, replicating those models more and more. So I'm just wondering if, over the long term, this is a flash in the pan as far as the international interest is concerned. And when they get access, again, things go back to normal? Or do they view them as an extension? Do they become, in marketing materials, our partners, that kind of thing, even though they are anything but? So that's my question about mutual aid groups. I see them as quite unique, and the international community's engagement with them is very unique. But where does it all lead to? Does it actually just lead to being absorbed into the same system?

Heba Aly  

But I think the difference is that now, you know, you've got Myanmar, you've got Sudan, you've got Gaza. So it's no longer that the constraints on access is the exception. It's increasingly becoming the rule. And thus, to my mind, mutual aid increasingly becomes the norm. But yes, to be seen, I suppose.

Dustin Barter  

How much of the idea of mutual aid also just ties back to neoliberal evisceration of the state by World Bank and IMF reform structural adjustment programmes over decades. So the idea of mutual aid, I think it's excellent, obviously, but then how much is that just replacing the state that has been eviscerated. And how can we also look at – and this is what ODI is really trying to research over the next coming years, our own plug – is where does the state fit into this? Yes, not in a context like Myanmar, where the pseudo-state of the military is oppressive, but also after you've had decades of reducing the state, where can the state kind of get back in and mutual aid isn't just replacing the state but can work towards having this kind of systemic approach to building resilience, building crisis response, etc.

Heba Aly 

And we are seeing in more and more contexts, also the state wanting more control over humanitarian response. And even with the earthquake in Morocco, the state being much more present – and forceful, I think – in determining what kind of aid it receives and doesn't receive. So that, I think, is another shift to keep an eye on and, potentially, that the sector is going to have to engage with a bit more intentionally.

Melissa Fundira 

To your point, Dustin, I think, even in the actual political philosophy of what mutual aid is, I don't think it's so much just plugging holes, but also modelling how a future state can actually run itself. It seems whether it's Sudan or Myanmar, that a lot of change is happening outside of the international aid system, perhaps more than inside of it. And I wonder if 2023 is a year in which the international humanitarian system is prepared to support locally-led efforts versus perhaps being at the centre of humanitarian [response], the nucleus of humanitarian response? Is this a more systemic shift, basically, in the culture of how the aid sector sees itself?

Irwin 

I wouldn't necessarily see it as a shift to local response, because they've been talking about this for years. And if it would have happened, it should have happened by now, I suppose. But what I do see, which is related, is the sector more and more acknowledging that it is not the answer for everything.  This week, the UN released its Global Humanitarian Overview, which is a bird's eye view of what aid will cost, or what the sector claims it will cost in the next year. And it's slightly less than what it was last year. [It’s] the first time it's gone down in years. But throughout the report, and through the talking notes from Martin Griffiths around it, it's about, well, the humanitarian sector can't do all of this. We can't step in for development actors, we can't be expected to do more with less. They have to, in some ways, do less with less. There's fewer people targeted, they're much more focused on life-saving needs. I think there was one part where Martin Griffiths is talking specifically about [how] development actors have to do their part, which is a message from humanitarians that humanitarians have been saying this whole time. So as part of that, I think there is that recognition that okay, well, maybe it's not all up to us as a humanitarian aid sector. So if they can acknowledge that so keenly here, and to be sure it's a message to the donors who are funding them less. But I think they can also recognise that a lot of that being not up to us – us being the international humanitarian aid sector – means that it's also up to grassroots groups and the organic aid that already exists on the ground.

Heba Aly 

I remember, after COVID, somebody saying humanitarian solutions represent a sliver of what the world needs right now. It needs economic support, it needs debt relief – as you were talking about earlier, Dustin – it needs welfare systems, and that the humanitarians are a bit player in all this. And that recognition existed at the time, but it didn't actually translate into a different way of being for humanitarians. So I think this latest humanitarian appeal is the first time we've actually seen humanitarians say, as a result of this recognition that we are a bit player, we're going to scale down rather than continue to scale up. So that's really interesting.  

Nazanine Moshiri 

One thing I'm hearing a lot of is not just, as we've just heard, that humanitarians are being forced to do less with a lot less. But also, what I'm hearing increasingly is that particularly donors are asking for a lot more accountability, as well. Just in the past year, we've had several aid scandals in Somalia and Ethiopia. This has had a big impact, I would say, on the feeling that there has to be a lot more accountability now, particularly because of these tough financial times. And I just wonder, when we're talking about community-based mutual aid groups, of course, they’re playing a really important role, particularly in Sudan, and we know we've seen mutual aid in the context of Somalia as well, particularly when there are droughts, and communities coming together to help each other and volunteers too. But again, when we're thinking about accountability, and maybe partnering with these mutual aid organisations and groups and communities, I just wonder whether this feeling of accountability and the fears over corruption, etc. will have an impact on that. I'm not sure, I'm just putting that question out there. But just wondering whether this will hinder this kind of partnership mentality.

Heba Aly 

Shameless plug alert. We just did, on our other podcast that Irwin co-hosts, What's Unsaid, an episode on this topic, no?

Irwin Loy

It's great that you brought that up. I think that it goes to this issue of trust. At the UN General Assembly this year, rebuilding trust in the international system was one of the big themes. But I think it goes, for the actual international humanitarian system, it goes beyond that. I think there's an erosion of trust within the system, and chief among them are staff and donors. Donors do not trust traditional international aid groups to be careful with their money. And I think you see evidence of that in high earmarking of funds. IOM, something like 97% of their funding is earmarked for specific projects. There's no leeway for them to shift when big crises hit. You see that in anti-corruption initiatives they're being forced to take on. WFP has had scandals. UNHCR is proposing a new anti-corruption initiative. And all this talk of efficiency. The Global Humanitarian Overview is a message to donors. It's not a message to the public. It's a fundraising message to donors that “you can trust us with this money”, because they realise, right now, they're not being trusted. So that is an issue for local groups, because if donors can't trust the international system, then it's going to be even harder to trust local groups they do not know and have not trusted for years, in effect. But I see it as an opportunity for people outside the traditional systems – philanthropy groups, private sector middlemen coming up who are specialised in vetting – I can see that taking on a more prominent role. We've seen that in Ukraine. I think there's just an opportunity for all these people who we don't think of as being part of the, quote unquote, international aid sector to be part of it.

Nazanine Moshiri 

I was really surprised when the EU temporarily suspended funding for the World Food Programme in Somalia, during what was the height of the droughts. And when the WFP is already struggling to feed people pouring into the camps, but also, obviously, to reach those people in harder areas controlled by Al Shabaab. And then they temporarily suspended funding. So you can just see that it’s more than accountability, they're actually doing something about this as well, the donors. It's going to become very, very difficult to basically, as you say, to rebuild that kind of trust.

Heba Aly 

The other thing that I think this points to in terms of trends – and this isn't new, but I think it has increased this year as a result of the scandals you talked about, Nazanine, but also as a result of Gaza – is this kind of gap between what's best to do in terms of humanitarian principles, and then the political imperatives. So cutting off funding, which I think most humanitarians would argue isn't actually in the interest of humanitarian principles, but is a response to needing to appease the public for politicians who have a hard line on value for money. We see it in terms of where money is going, and again, this year was a year in which one crisis kind of overshadows all the others, and where funding is directed in order to kind of solve political problems rather than because that's where the need is greatest. And then I think we see it in the growing gap between technocrats who are trying to hold the line on applying humanitarian principles and their own politicians. And Gaza has certainly been divisive in that regard too where the humanitarians have a very different point of view from their own foreign ministers or others on how best to approach the situation. So I think overall, this kind of politicisation of aid and when that comes into conflict with humanitarian principles has been on display once again in 2023.

Dustin Barter 

There's been this kind of decades of economic growth-focused economic development – “that will bring peace, that will bring stability” – without dealing with political issues. And that's not just Gaza. Obviously, that's a very poignant example. But then, across Myanmar, across Cambodia, across many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, there's such a focus on economic development at the expense of political issues. So I would almost call for aid as a broader concept to be re-politicised and look at how do we address these deep, persistent political challenges.

Heba Aly  

Afghanistan is another you could add to that list. 

Irwin  

When it comes to funding and politicisation of aid, with Gaza, I think independence is really in question for anyone operating. So if all your major donors are supporting one side, I think the veneer of independence really starts to wear a little thin. And it's [something] everyone already knows, but I think it's just because with the focus on Gaza, it's become clear. On Rethinking [Humanitarianism], the podcast in the past years has really looked at different ways of funding the system. So in the same way that internal questions about Gaza are sort of maybe opening the door to a more serious conversation about principles like neutrality, does Gaza spark a new urgency to sort of revamp how the humanitarian system itself is funded? And some of these outlandish ideas that Oxfam and others have proposed in past years, where people go “Oh, yeah, that's that's a nice idea, great”, maybe it pushes others to think about it a little bit more seriously. If you can say that you truly are independent, because you do not take money from certain governments, then does that not make your job easier?

Dave Hartman, voice note: Hello, this is Dave Hartman. I'm the senior manager for flexport.org. In 2023, flexport.org supported NGOs in shipping aid to 70 countries, including Ukraine, Sudan, Lebanon, Ethiopia, and Syria. When we think of aid delivery, we think of it in the most literal sense – the delivery of aid cargo like NFIs or WASH items, food aid, shelter kits, whatever it may be, to those in need. And, as I'm sure all the listeners know, in 2023 it felt like we had a new disaster every single day. So we saw many organisations that have traditionally focused on development activities, shift into emergency response to address the growing need for humanitarian aid, and as a response as well to pressure from their donors to get involved in these new crises. But the pace of new disasters makes it particularly difficult to anticipate where the next one will be and to build out those partnerships in advance. This is forcing organisations to build out these new partnerships to supplement their capabilities on the fly. We work with more than 100 nonprofit partners, and we've seen firsthand a misalignment between organisations that have cargo and organisations that have staff on the ground and can implement a response and get items to those in need. Basically, there's a mismatch between supply and demand. We expect the trend to continue as we see both development and humanitarian response organisations with severely strained budgets, given both just the donor environments and the number of disasters that we have globally. So continuing to build strong partnerships and robust networks will be critical for humanitarian aid work. 

Melissa Fundira 

Gaza, 2023 in general, has sparked a lot of debate about what has changed or needs to change in the sector. But to be fair, there are a few things that I think people in the sector like to discuss more than what needs to change. And as you mentioned, we've been talking about how to rethink the sector on this podcast alone for four seasons now. But was 2023 particularly different, do you think, in terms of events that have led us to rethink how the sector does its job? Is there anything special about 2023? Or is this just another year-end conversation about what has and hasn't happened and what we're hoping for the next year?

Nazanine Moshiri 

For me, anyway, working based in Nairobi and working for a long time on Africa, I feel like there is far more recognition from the humanitarian agencies about the connections between various climate shocks, conflict, displacement, food and security, across the region. This interconnectedness is coming up a lot more. And also, because of Ukraine, and because of vulnerabilities of local international supply chains, and how interconnected we are in terms of food security. For me it's positive that we're making these connections, but it's not enough. We need to then do something with these connections. And we need to be working closer together. And as you said, humanitarian development needs to be working hand in hand to fill some of these gaps. Somebody's gotta fill it.

Irwin 

What I find interesting is the internal dynamics within aid organisations. You can talk about high-level policy all you want, we all know that things change quite slowly. But it feels different with some of the internal dynamics. And so I wonder if that in itself is a small catalyst for change, even just a little bit. Not everyone, and probably not any UN agency, but perhaps there are some bigger aid groups who shift the way they do things, or at least realise that their staff actually do have an opinion. Because I do think there is a bit of a divide in how – well there's a very big divide – in how international aid staff might see things such as the principles versus various local aid staff in different countries, different organisations. And I think Gaza exposes some of that. And I'm interested to see how that plays out in shifting the way humanitarian organisations, not necessarily change, but view change. And how they view the possibility of changing, that things don't have to be the exact way they've always been, because right now that's causing problems internally. So what are other ways to do things differently?

Heba Aly 

And it feels like that mirrors a broader shift in the world and in geopolitics with the Global South rising, to use that term that everyone hates in the context of Africa rising. But, that we're seeing the centre of power shifting, within aid organisations they’re certainly shifting. 

Dustin Barter 

Yeah, I think there's huge repercussions. And I think the US and a lot of allies who are getting basically blindly behind supporting genocide, there is a real lack of recognising what the impact that has at a global level. And the repercussions are immense that what legitimacy Western states had is really coming crashing down even further. And yeah, I don't like to talk necessarily of the rise of particular countries, but you see some excellent leadership from maybe unexpected places such as Malaysia, Indonesia, really coming forth with quite principled and strong positions on Myanmar, on Gaza. And I think that is exciting in terms of this broader shifting of power and shifting of narratives, and that's kind of a bit hopeful. And I was also, last week, speaking with some state humanitarian actors from the Philippines, and just their describing of their whole humanitarian architecture: domestic funding, how they have different funds for different stages of the response and early recovery. It was just beautifully outlaid by these Philippine government staff. The Philippines doesn't get much attention in the news anymore, because it's so effectively dealing with its typhoon after typhoon. So I think there [are] potential shifts, not just from different countries contributing towards narratives, but also countries showing actually, we can do a humanitarian response much better without international actors coming in and imposing, whether it's certain values or certain ways of doing things. And that's exciting on many levels.

Melissa Fundira 

This last question is for all of you. We've just discussed 2023. We're a couple of weeks away from 2024. What do you all think that the most urgent rethink of humanitarianism will be for 2024? 

Irwin 

I think everything revolves around money. It's not going to happen on the first of January, but over the medium term, where does that money come from? How much do things actually cost? Do you even need to be there? Is it you that has to be doing it? And are you gonna put your logo on it anyways? I think those are all questions that the humanitarian sector should and can ask and can make some changes on.

Dustin Barter 

I'll be a bit boring, maybe coming out of a development studies PhD, but I'd say tax. Tax is really critical to funding, whether it's the Western donor countries, which ideally we get away from that, but then across the Global South, across crisis-affected countries. Taxing wealth, taxing extraction, taxing inequalities, addressing inequalities – that's where humanitarian crises need to be addressed.

Heba Aly 

And there's been some movement on that front in terms of a push for tax reform. So maybe some good news on the horizon.

Nazanine Moshiri

Yeah, I mean, for me, obviously, looking at this from a climate and conflict point of view, I think it's going to be really important how aid agencies are going to deal with this kind of cycle of climate shocks, drought and flooding, coupled with conflicts. And will the Loss and Damage Fund that was agreed to at COP 28 be able to fill some of the gaps in terms of responding to these kinds of disasters. Particularly important for countries like Somalia. But on the other hand, despite the strong effects of climate change in Kenya, for example, Kenya is classified according to this fund, as a lower middle-income economy, which could potentially discredit them from qualifying for funds. Similarly for other countries affected like Zimbabwe as well, which is going through a drought. So just dealing with climate action, and trying to deal with disaster risks, assistance, and then also climate rehabilitation, etc., and reconstruction after these kinds of disasters that we see, I think that's going to be a big, big question mark for me for 2024.

Heba Aly  

Well, quite a year, both in terms of mega crises, like Gaza, but also in terms of how we're also in terms of some of those real shifts we've been discussing. So, thank you Irwin, Dustin, Nazanine, for helping us make sense of the past 12 months and look forward to the year ahead. It's great to have you on the show.

Melissa Fundira

Nazanine Moshiri is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Climate, Environment & Conflict, and Africa. Irwin Loy is The New Humanitarian’s senior policy editor. And Dustin Barter is a senior research fellow at the Humanitarian Policy Group.

Heba Aly

We’re keen to hear your thoughts on these topics. What were your main takeaways from 2023? How should we think about aid and humanitarian response differently in 2024? Are there ways humanitarianism is already being thought about or practised differently that you’d like us to explore on this podcast? You know how to reach us: [email protected].

Rethinking Humanitarianism will be back in January. In the meantime, look out for our Editor’s Picks of top stories from the past year, as well as our annual and much-anticipated list of top trends driving humanitarian crises. You’ll find all that on our website TheNewHumanitarian.org.

Melissa Fundira

And today we’ll leave you with one last voice note. This one from Elias Sagmeister. He is an independent consultant and non-resident fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute. And for Elias, 2023 was yet another year of the humanitarian sector painting a bleak picture of the world – a picture that he argues is inaccurate. For 2024, Elias lays out a more optimistic vision of a sector that celebrates the advancements it’s made in reducing human suffering, and more accurately measures needs moving forward. 

Heba Aly

This podcast is a production of The New Humanitarian.

This episode was hosted by me, Heba Aly, and my partner in crime Melissa Fundira.

Melissa also produced and edited the episode.

Original music by Whitney Patterson, and sound engineering by Nick Tuttle.

Melissa Fundira

Thank you for listening to Rethinking Humanitarianism. See you in the New Year!

Elias Sagmeister, voice note: In 2022, the UN-led appeal described the situation of escalating needs and funding requirements as unprecedented, at record levels, and skyrocketing. For 2023, the same words applied. Martin Griffiths himself called it a déjà vu all over again, and predicted it will be déjà vu all over again this time next year as well. Well, he was right. Again, the 2024 appeal paints a dire picture and uses much of the same hyperbole. This is at odds with the development of the world over the past decades. Despite the dramatic current disasters and an increase in state-based wars, the world has seen darker times. More people used to die from natural disasters, not less. More people used to live in poverty and hunger, not less. And yes, attacks on aid workers are at an all-time high, but surely this needs to be put into perspective with the ever-growing number of aid workers. The aid sector has never been better resourced. It has grown over 80% in the past six years alone. It has professionalised and has achieved a lot, and it deserves credit for its contribution to some of the more positive trends we're seeing. I hope that for the future, we will find better ways of assessing needs at the global level and communicating them more honestly. And with luck, 2024 just might bring us a step closer to a realistic narrative about the world, the humanitarian achievements and ambitions, rather than the same doomsday déjà vu all over again.

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