The Future of Humanitarian Action

The Changing Condition
Climate change will lead to more environmentally triggered disasters. Factory farming, coupled with climate change, may cause present-day animal diseases to “jump” to human populations. The bottom line: we will see more, not fewer, major disasters in the future.

While humanitarian action and international disaster response have long traditions in terms of the actions of the International Red Cross and 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 World War 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, the 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 future.

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.

Globalization
The happenstance of globalization: information technology, trade, travel, and culture are creating a world which, left to its own devices, will accentuate extremes of wealth and poverty, rights and oppression, health and disease. Humanitarianism has the potential to be an important, albeit localized, counteraction to this process.

Four interconnected processes, which have come to be associated with globalization, will affect the course of disasters and humanitarian action: 1. The tacit assumption amongst rich and economically powerful nations that a mix of representative government, free market economies, and reformed state structures is the norm for the future. As state apparatus shrink in the social welfare fields— 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 solutions. 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 humanitarians. 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 The received wisdom is that most humanitarian action nowadays is carried out by the large, transnational NGO’s (in which for this purpose we include the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement). This process of “going global” has many implications for humanitarian action. It has 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.

Humanitarian agencies are going global, but are they creating an inclusive global community that makes the most of diversity, or an exclusive, Northernstyled club?

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 There is increasing evidence that what distresses local communities most about the present way that humanitarian agencies work is not their perceived Westernism and tacit support for globalization, the 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

“We’ve always done it this way” is the certain road to extinction. Learning, adaptation, and innovation will be the hallmark of organizations of the future.

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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 whether that change is driven by humanitarian agencies and the vulnerable people they serve, or by donors and the expediencies of realpolitik.

protecting vulnerable communities from violence and fear is going to be a greater, not a lesser, part of humanitarian action in the future. There is an urgent need to push forward the limits of what constitutes viable and effective action in this area and to build the necessary skills and delivery capacity to go along with this, whether that capacity is within 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
The world will need a global humanitarian safety net to parallel the nets for global security, trade, information, etc.

regulations, or the process of popular representation in Sudan than through the trucking of food aid or the driving of vaccination campaigns. This is more than the “cause campaigning” that bolstered 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 USA

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