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The Future of Humanitarian Action

The Future of Humanitarian Action

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Published by: Feinstein International Center on Feb 21, 2008
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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02/14/2011

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The Future of Humanitarian Action
The Changing Condition
While humanitarian action and international disaster response havelong traditions in terms of the actions of the International Red Crossand Red Crescent and a number of Christian charitable organizations(and of course, the coping mechanisms of societies and communities),humanitarianism in its present form really dates from the end of WorldWar II. The construction of the notion of an international community of humanitarian actors (UN agencies, Red Cross/Crescent, and NGOs)grew alongside the development of the United Nations system, theBretton Woods institutions, and the retreating of the European imperialpowers and was reinforced with the ending of the Cold War.
Climate change will lead to moreenvironmentally triggereddisasters. Factory farming,coupled with climate change, maycause present-day animaldiseases to “jump” to humanpopulations. The bottom line: wewill see more, not fewer, majordisasters in the future.
 Today’s world is being reshaped rapidly, and the post-WWII constructfeels increasingly uncomfortable as the best and most effective way of alleviating suffering in acute crises. Today’s world is being shaped byfour trend-blocks, all of which affect humanitarian action and itsfuture.
Environmental Change
Climate change—mostly manmade but also natural—is driving a rise insea levels around the world, rapidly altering patterns of rainfall leadingto drought in previously water-secure areas and increasing flooding inpreviously controlled flood plains. As research on climate change andits consequences moves forward, scientists are able to make moreaccurate and more localized predictions. We know now for instancethat predictions of accelerated glacial melt in the Himalayas suggest
 
 
that over the next generation, two rivers—the Ganges and theBrahmaputra, which spawned and sustained some of the world’sgreatest civilizations and which today are the lifeblood of tens of millions in India ad Bangladesh—may dry up, seasonally if notpermanently. New research published in the summer of 2006 showshow a global warming of as little as 2
°
C will lead to significant changesin forest cover in Amazonia, increases in wildfires in the semi-aridregions of the world, and more intense droughts in West Africa.In many regions, the nature of the environment (weather patterns andland cover) is changing more rapidly than do the society and theeconomics of the peoples that rely on them for survival and prosperity. This mismatch between the environment and adaptation will lead tomore failures of local economies and security regimes. Different climatemodels predict different degrees of change, but they all point in thesame direction. We are thus likely to see:
 
More and greater annual and storm-surge flooding of the mostpopulous deltas around the world.
 
 The failure of rivers fed by glacial melt waters.
 
More communities heading towards famine and political instabilityas they fail to adapt quickly enough to changing environments.
 
More people on the move, internally and across boarders, as theyseek livelihoods away from stressed areas.
 
More perceived threats to security as a result of these movements.
Globalization
Four interconnected processes, which have come to be associated withglobalization, will affect the course of disasters and humanitarianaction:
The happenstance of globalization:information technology, trade, travel,and culture are creating a world which,left to its own devices, will accentuateextremes of wealth and poverty, rightsand oppression, health and disease.Humanitarianism has the potential tobe an important, albeit localized,counteraction to this process.
1.
 
 The tacit assumption amongst rich and economically powerfulnations that a mix of representative government, free marketeconomies, and reformed state structures is the norm for thefuture. As state apparatus shrink in the social welfare fields— education, healthcare, pension support—they grow in the securityfields, meaning more militarization of societies and stronger policeand judicial apparatus. As well as speaking to the politics of aid,this also speaks to the economics: how is humanitarian actionfunded—from the state, from the public, or as a profit line?
2.
 
Partly as a rebuttal of this, but also because of the space that theabove changes have created, there is a growing assertion of alternative ethnic- and religious-based values and forms of 
 
 
governance. This is manifest mostly today in the rise of militantIslam and other forms of fundamentalism.
3.
 
Global trade is increasingly interconnected—and not only the tradefor energy and primary resources to feed the hungry beast of consumerism. The prosperity of pastoralist communities inSouthern Ethiopia is as dependent upon the interpretation of WTOtrade regulations for Ethiopian meat products as it is upon fodderand water availability. Local problems may increasingly need globalsolutions.
4.
 
 There are qualitative changes in our ability to communicate, share,and generate knowledge globally, brought about by the Internet andbroadband connectivity. This is a tremendous driver of a more levelplaying field—a flatter world—for those who are connected, but forthose who aren’t, the digital divide renders them less thanspectators. In a very real sense they fall off the map.All four of these processes march forward. None of them are inherentlybad or good, but each of them, if left to its own devices, will tend todifferentiate, creating bi-polar worlds of connected and disconnected,economically advantaged and exploited, democratically represented anddisenfranchised, “them” and “us.” Local and national economies havealways created their chronically poor and politically marginalizedgroups. Now, left to their own devices, global processes that are notinformed by human rights and values of equity have the ability tocreate a global class of dispossessed. These processes play out intoday’s and tomorrow’s disaster environments, making the crises lesssevere where managed, more severe where not managed.In addition, the confluence of changing environments with high humanpopulation densities in our cities and coastal areas and high animaldensities in our factory farms, fed by globalization, is likely to lead toshifting disease patterns and “jumps” of previous animal diseases (HIVin the 1950s, perhaps bird flu in the coming years). Changing diseasepatterns are also being driven by increased drug resistance, as well asincreased human international travel and commodity shipping.Historically, the most dramatic resurgences and emergences in humanand animal diseases have been associated with conflict. Tackling moresevere and new epidemics may be a key challenge for health systemshumanitarians.
A New Cold War?
With the erosion of multilateralism and the emergence of new poles of power, we may be seeing the emergence of a new Cold War centeredaround GWOT and the promotion of the “liberal peace”. The current “us

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