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The Future of

Humanitarian Action
The Changing Condition
Climate change will lead to more While humanitarian action and international disaster response have
environmentally triggered long traditions in terms of the actions of the International Red Cross
disasters. Factory farming, and Red Crescent and a number of Christian charitable organizations
coupled with climate change, may (and of course, the coping mechanisms of societies and communities),
cause present-day animal humanitarianism in its present form really dates from the end of World
diseases to “jump” to human War II. The construction of the notion of an international community of
populations. The bottom line: we humanitarian actors (UN agencies, Red Cross/Crescent, and NGOs)
will see more, not fewer, major grew alongside the development of the United Nations system, the
disasters in the future. Bretton Woods institutions, and the retreating of the European imperial
powers and was reinforced with the ending of the Cold War.

Today’s world is being reshaped rapidly, and the post-WWII construct

feels increasingly uncomfortable as the best and most effective way of
alleviating suffering in acute crises. Today’s world is being shaped by
four trend-blocks, all of which affect humanitarian action and its

Environmental Change
Climate change—mostly manmade but also natural—is driving a rise in
sea levels around the world, rapidly altering patterns of rainfall leading
to drought in previously water-secure areas and increasing flooding in
previously controlled flood plains. As research on climate change and
its consequences moves forward, scientists are able to make more
accurate and more localized predictions. We know now for instance
that predictions of accelerated glacial melt in the Himalayas suggest
that over the next generation, two rivers—the Ganges and the
Brahmaputra, which spawned and sustained some of the world’s
greatest civilizations and which today are the lifeblood of tens of
millions in India ad Bangladesh—may dry up, seasonally if not
permanently. New research published in the summer of 2006 shows
how a global warming of as little as 2°C will lead to significant changes
in forest cover in Amazonia, increases in wildfires in the semi-arid
regions of the world, and more intense droughts in West Africa.

In many regions, the nature of the environment (weather patterns and

land cover) is changing more rapidly than do the society and the
economics of the peoples that rely on them for survival and prosperity.
This mismatch between the environment and adaptation will lead to
more failures of local economies and security regimes. Different climate
models predict different degrees of change, but they all point in the
same direction. We are thus likely to see:

• More and greater annual and storm-surge flooding of the most

populous deltas around the world.

• The failure of rivers fed by glacial melt waters.

• More communities heading towards famine and political instability

as they fail to adapt quickly enough to changing environments.

• More people on the move, internally and across boarders, as they

seek livelihoods away from stressed areas.

• More perceived threats to security as a result of these movements.

The happenstance of globalization: Four interconnected processes, which have come to be associated with
information technology, trade, travel, globalization, will affect the course of disasters and humanitarian
and culture are creating a world which, action:
left to its own devices, will accentuate
extremes of wealth and poverty, rights 1. The tacit assumption amongst rich and economically powerful
and oppression, health and disease. nations that a mix of representative government, free market
Humanitarianism has the potential to economies, and reformed state structures is the norm for the
be an important, albeit localized, future. As state apparatus shrink in the social welfare fields—
counteraction to this process. education, healthcare, pension support—they grow in the security
fields, meaning more militarization of societies and stronger police
and judicial apparatus. As well as speaking to the politics of aid,
this also speaks to the economics: how is humanitarian action
funded—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 the
above changes have created, there is a growing assertion of
alternative ethnic- and religious-based values and forms of

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governance. This is manifest mostly today in the rise of militant
Islam and other forms of fundamentalism.

3. Global trade is increasingly interconnected—and not only the trade

for energy and primary resources to feed the hungry beast of
consumerism. The prosperity of pastoralist communities in
Southern Ethiopia is as dependent upon the interpretation of WTO
trade regulations for Ethiopian meat products as it is upon fodder
and water availability. Local problems may increasingly need global

4. There are qualitative changes in our ability to communicate, share,

and generate knowledge globally, brought about by the Internet and
broadband connectivity. This is a tremendous driver of a more level
playing field—a flatter world—for those who are connected, but for
those who aren’t, the digital divide renders them less than
spectators. In a very real sense they fall off the map.

All four of these processes march forward. None of them are inherently
bad or good, but each of them, if left to its own devices, will tend to
differentiate, creating bi-polar worlds of connected and disconnected,
economically advantaged and exploited, democratically represented and
disenfranchised, “them” and “us.” Local and national economies have
always created their chronically poor and politically marginalized
groups. Now, left to their own devices, global processes that are not
informed by human rights and values of equity have the ability to
create a global class of dispossessed. These processes play out in
today’s and tomorrow’s disaster environments, making the crises less
severe where managed, more severe where not managed.

In addition, the confluence of changing environments with high human

population densities in our cities and coastal areas and high animal
densities in our factory farms, fed by globalization, is likely to lead to
shifting disease patterns and “jumps” of previous animal diseases (HIV
in the 1950s, perhaps bird flu in the coming years). Changing disease
patterns are also being driven by increased drug resistance, as well as
increased human international travel and commodity shipping.
Historically, the most dramatic resurgences and emergences in human
and animal diseases have been associated with conflict. Tackling more
severe and new epidemics may be a key challenge for health systems

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 centered
around GWOT and the promotion of the “liberal peace”. The current “us

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vs. them” discourse vis-à-vis Iran is very reminiscent of Cold War days,
as is our inability to “see” the world from the perspective of countries
and groups who do not subscribe to the northern/western values and
ethos. So too is the militarization of international relations with world
ordering objectives—Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon. Over the next
generation we may well see China and Russia enter the fray in a much
more active fashion. In this context, the promotion of democracy,
human rights, and all sorts of other values held as “universal” will
become more and more suspect in large swaths of the world beyond the
protected western perimeter. Democracy itself—and humanitarian
action as fundamentally an avatar of western democratic discourse—
might well assume increasingly authoritarian connotations. The
combination of militarization, securitization, and the struggle for
resources—oil and water to name but two—could lead to a very volatile
future indeed.

Finally, these processes have facilitated a fourth trend. . . .

Transnational Action
Humanitarian agencies are going global, The received wisdom is that most humanitarian action nowadays is
but are they creating an inclusive global carried out by the large, transnational NGO’s (in which for this purpose
community that makes the most of we include the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement). This process of
diversity, or an exclusive, Northern- “going global” has many implications for humanitarian action. It has
styled club? business implications in terms of the efficiency and effectiveness of
such agencies. It has political implications in terms of the perceived
alignment of such entities (almost entirely Western in their origins)
with the processes of economic and political globalization mentioned
above. It has social implications in terms of this “imposed” external
assistance versus locally or regionally derived assistance: from the local
community, the local church/mosque, the municipality and the
diaspora. In parallel, there are now new choices for those who see a
value in humanitarian work, using state military to carry out relief as
an explicit extension of national or foreign policy, or absorbing the
provision of life-saving and other social services within radical political
movements to bolster street (and international) credibility. The likes of
Hezbollah, Hamas, or the Tamil Tigers strengthen their political
agendas through their effective community services. Many of our tacit
assumptions about who is best placed to respond to major disasters
and crises may be challenged over the coming years.

Necessary Change
If the paragraphs above describe the likely future environment for
humanitarian action and disaster response, what then are the
consequences of these trends? We offer seven areas where we believe
change will be needed.

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Do It Better, Cheaper, Faster
Just as the computer, the car, or even that most ancient of tools, the
knife, continues to evolve to meet today’s needs and take advantage of
today’s knowledge and technology, so too will the processes of
delivering humanitarian assistance. Ways of providing water in
emergencies, of preventing epidemics, of constructing suitable
emergency shelter, of organizing aid must be such that assistance can
be supplied rapidly and accurately. Regardless of the models proposed
for the future, these processes will always be there, fine-tuning
humanitarian tools to technology and environment of the day.

Do It Competently and Responsibly

“We’ve always done it this way” is the There is increasing evidence that what distresses local communities
certain road to extinction. Learning, most about the present way that humanitarian agencies work is not
adaptation, and innovation will be the their perceived Westernism and tacit support for globalization, the
hallmark of organizations of the future. Global War on Terror, Occidentalism, or however we label it, but rather
their failure to deliver. Crisis-affected households and communities in a
range of countries surveyed by the Feinstein International Center yearn
for assistance that is appropriate to their needs, that is delivered in a
way that respects their culture and norms, and that is timely and is
accountable. Humanitarian agencies are expected to behave as
professionals, providing consistent quality and relevant service and
actively seeking to be accountable to their clients.

Two key challenges emerge. First, how can agencies match global
standards with the nuance of local culture, norms, needs, and
opportunities? Second, how can agencies, acting in emergencies,
become sufficiently accountable to the affected communities such that
accountability is no longer perceived as a contentious or problematic
issue by the agencies, their funders, and their beneficiaries?

Do It Flexibly
As humanitarian agencies have grown in size and complexity, there is
growing evidence that they have become less flexible and less adaptive
in their programming. Standardized planning and reporting systems
combined with donor pressure always to show positive results
persuade agencies to use “tried and tested” solutions. Yet all the
evidence suggests that adaptation to the locale and flexibility to adapt
over time are critical to the success of future humanitarian
programming. Overcoming organizational inertia, maximizing learning,
and encouraging innovation will be as important to the future of
humanitarianism as they are to today’s corporate sector.

Do It Two-Handedly—Assistance and Protection

Most research, skills development, and funding in the humanitarian
world focuses on material assistance. Most angst and hand-wringing

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focuses on protection. Protecting people from violence and fear has
always been a part of humanitarianism—on paper—but because it is
more difficult, more political, and less measurable, in practice it has
often been ignored, seen as “someone else’s problem,” or relegated to a
lobbying rather than action agenda. All of the trends above suggest that
Change will happen; the real issue is protecting vulnerable communities from violence and fear is going to be
whether that change is driven by a greater, not a lesser, part of humanitarian action in the future. There
humanitarian agencies and the is an urgent need to push forward the limits of what constitutes viable
vulnerable people they serve, or by and effective action in this area and to build the necessary skills and
donors and the expediencies of delivery capacity to go along with this, whether that capacity is within
realpolitik. the traditional humanitarian structures, or in some new, entity focused
on the protection of victims.

Do It Diversely
Humanitarians believe their ideas and principles are universal—and
there is substantive evidence to support this—but from this they
construct a global humanitarian community by inviting others to join
them, and this essentially means inviting others to join a Northern
club. Research over the past few years has shown that there is a great
diversity of organizations and approaches being used to provide relief
from suffering and violence in extreme situations. Small Islamic
solidarity groups funded from Yemen and working with clan leaders in
Somalia are providing health and education services. Local
municipalities working with corporations are providing flood relief and
disaster preparedness in the Philippines. The Darfur diaspora is
sending remittances directly back to needy women heading
households. All of these are essentially humanitarian in motivation and
character. A key challenge for the international humanitarian
community is to grow by embracing this diversity, yet retaining its
fundamental principles, rather than by expecting all newcomers to
conform to today’s Northern model.

Do It Globally
There are very few “quick in, quick out” humanitarian actions these
days. Saving lives and livelihoods requires action to address proximate
causes of suffering and impoverishment. Not all of these causes, or
their fixes, are local. In Darfur today issues around the protection of
IDP’s and other vulnerable groups and the delivery of food and water
may require local solutions, but they also require the informing of, and
shaping of, the Darfur peace process if next year’s crisis is to be
averted. They require the adaptation of the politics and economy of the
cattle marketing system in Sudan if Darfurians are to get fair and
sustainable prices for their cattle. They may require the alteration of
trans-national corporation standards if Sudan is to make the most of
cattle and meat exporting opportunities. Thus, humanitarians in the

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future can no longer be content with local humanitarian action—it is
necessary but not sufficient. More lives and livelihoods may be saved or
restored through changing Western government policy, WTO
regulations, or the process of popular representation in Sudan than
The world will need a global humanitarian
through the trucking of food aid or the driving of vaccination
safety net to parallel the nets for global
campaigns. This is more than the “cause campaigning” that bolstered
security, trade, information, etc.
NGO’s reputations in the 80s and 90s. It suggests a much more
intensive, involved, informed, and often quieter process of working at
whichever level works best to find and move the levers of change, a
methodology which challenges the notion that all which is
humanitarian should exhibit neutrality.

Do It Sustainably and Consistently

Most of the action points above could be taken on board by an
individual agency. This last one is about the collective. In a globalizing
world where states are retreating from providing a comprehensive
welfare net for their citizens, we need to build an appropriate 21st
century global safety net, to sit alongside the global trading nets and
the global information nets. The present “international humanitarian
community” is an unplanned agglomeration of disparate parts evolving
out of the Western post-WWII consensus. It is time to move on, time for
the greater diversity of humanitarian actors to act with more
coherence, time for individual agencies to trump agency growth with
contribution to the common good. Just as a country’s emergency
medical service is a coherent but small part of the national safety net,
so too should humanitarianism play its part internationally. Nobody
knows what this global humane, if not humanitarian, enterprise will
look like, but we do know that those who are victims of conflict,
repressive regimes, major natural disasters, creeping accumulative
disasters, and collapsed economies desperately need a consistent
global ally, a voice, assistance, and protection. Building this
sustainable, global, diverse, service-driven infrastructure, and being
clear about humanitarianism’s role in it, is possibly the biggest
challenge humanitarians can choose to face today.

Peter Walker
Medford, Massachusetts

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