The end of the 'humanitarian' enterprise?

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The UN Security Council was recently told: 

We stand at a critical point in history. Already at the beginning of the year we are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the UN. 

If we need a political solution to address this situation, if could be that the humanitarian enterprise is dead. Political will is thin on the ground, with a trend towards isolationism and reduction of aid budgets.

The international humanitarian system is failing those it seeks to assist, and with 20 million experiencing famine today, that number is too large to ignore.

Opening Comments From Chairs

Why is there a lack humanitarian action when and where it is most needed?

We already know needs are at record levels, but the humanitarian response effort remains consistently under-resourced and at times, highly politicised. The recent prioritisation of defence spending for some of the world’s wealthiest nations, with foreign aid one of its biggest causalities, will lead to humanitarian crises to further worsen.

But is the tradition way of responding going to save lives anyway? It’s almost 12 months since the inaugural World Humanitarian Summit.  One of the key questions from the WHS is how does the humanitarian community make the Grand Bargain a reality? The Grand Bargain’s purpose is to leverage off the diverse expertise and experience of the global humanitarian community so we can anticipate and prepare for a crisis. The Grand Bargain’s core is the need to ‘work together efficiently, transparently and harmoniously with new and existing partners...’ so we can deliver assistance and protection to the world’s most vulnerable. Is this possible to achieve if the worlds super powers are continuing to ignore the necessity of foreign aid and working collaboratively to achieve global peace and security?

Take the United States. President Trump has announced his budget push to increase military spending by $US54billion ($70 billion). This would see a 9% increase in military spending from last fiscal year of $US584 billion ($759 billion). The increase in military spending would result in substantial cuts to foreign aid. As predicted, international development is not a high priority for the Trump administration. However, the cuts of foreign aid will make America unsafe. Investing in foreign aid helps tackle the injustice and poverty that drives extremism and conflict - the same extremism and conflict on which Trump wants to spend $US603billion.

Yemen is now classified the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with the country on the verge of famine, yet it never even makes the nightly news. With children starving to death, and 7 million people requiring emergency food assistance, Australia does not allocate any of its foreign aid budget to Yemen. South Sudan, Somalia, and north-eastern Nigeria are also experiencing famines. The Australian Government recently announced $20 million in assistance for the famine crises, yet Yemen is still excluded, with the funding allocated to South Sudan and Somalia. Australia recently cut their contribution to the World Food Program by $7million. Australia’s 2016-2017 aid budget is currently $3.83 billion, the least generous in its history.

With global tensions high, Australia is continuing to undermine moves towards a treaty that would ban nuclear weapons. In October 2016, Australia voted against the treaty, the aim of which is to prohibit nuclear weapons that will eventually lead to their elimination. The reason? Australia believes disarmament can only occur after it has happened – disarmament can only occur when the threat of nuclear weapons no longer exists. Australia is waiting for a perfect world. Australia will not be present at the global summit in March, with commentators accusing Australia of taking orders from Trump.

The above identifies a twin challenge. There is an assault on humanitarian values, and a reduced confidence in crisis prevention and response. More than ever, there is a need for an unprecedented alliance between humanitarian minded governments and NGOs (both national and international), and the Red Cross/Red Crescent to assert the importance of basic humanitarian values. It is a time to put aside institutional imperatives to assert basic values. If there is not widespread acceptance and embrace of these basic values then there is little likelihood of the necessary change occurring.

There are possibilities inherent in having a UN Secretary-General with extensive first-hand experience of humanitarian need and of the humanitarian system with all its strengths and weaknesses.  There are things that can be done which can improve the quality of humanitarian response and hence indirectly enhance confidence in such response. A key example is the call for localisation of aid. A localised approach will result in increased strength and capacity of local actors and increased sustainability of development activities. Local organisations and communities are best placed to respond quickly and effectively to a disaster. Localisation is an opportunity to improve the understanding of, and support for, principled humanitarian action when responding to a humanitarian crisis.

Can the Grand Bargain become a meaningful mechanism to foster confidence in humanitarian response?   Or is a more comprehensive transformation of the system needed? 


Comprehensive transformation vs tinkering at the edges


There is no denying the 'humanitarian' enterprise is at a crossroads.

As the forum chairs have so eloquently reminded us, the issues are both urgent and multifaceted: the decline of foreign aid budgets, the rise of defence budgets, the unwillingness of the nuclear armed states and their allies to take part in the current negotiations to ban nuclear wepons, and a general failure to prevent, anticipate and adequately respond to humanitarian emergencies. 

Before we can suggest possible remedies, it seems to me, we need to diagnose the nature of our ailment. Where does the problem lie? With political leaders? Our political and legal institutions? Our media? Multilateral agencies? Or, the community at large? I would be particularly interested if the forum chairs and panellists could share their insights on this question.

The second and related question is this: which stakeholders have strategic leverage? If humanitarian values are under attack, who might be able to take the kinds of initative that could in due course reverse the current tide?

I realise that these are extremely challenging, perhaps unanswerable questions. But to pose them is to begin the demanding task of reimagining and gradually reshaping the future.

The nature of our ailment


Thanks to the forum chairs for setting this scene and for Joseph for the challenging question.

The problem is of course a suite of problems, after all, humanitarian action encompasses a diversity of roles and contexts.

Perhaps one of those problems is a tendency to see humanitarian action as a unitary endeavor. Indeed the previous Secretary General arguably did just that in his Agenda for Humanity manifesto where development objectives targeting the SDGs were recast as encompassing humanitarian action in a declaration of the end of development/humanitarian distinction. Now we are all working to End Need.

This perspective downplays the critical and distinct role of principled emergency humanitarian action (which got just two lines in the Agenda). Given the current huge numbers of people suffering the consequences of conflict related humanitarian emergencies, this normative shift is a dangerous move. A dogmatic focus on localisation- in so far as it undermines the training and deployment of neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian actors - is just one misstep this shift can bring.

Surely part of the answer is recognising the distinction between Ending Need objecives and emergency relief objectives, and committing to ensuring both parts of the humanitarian equation are understood and resourced?

Broke or broken?


As both Joseph and Jon point out these are incredibly complex questions. The current environment is the confluence of many factors, which makes identifying solutions to the problems very difficult.

The decline in many country’s foreign aid budgets is an interesting point. Despite the largest amount of funding raised in history, this covered less than half the funding requirement (as articulated in global humanitarian appeal in 2015). The argument goes that the ‘system’, therefore, is being placed under enormous strain and is not able (or designed) to adequately respond.

This is due in part to the enormous suffering caused by multiple large-scale and protracted conflicts, but also due to humanitarian action moving beyond its traditionally perceived short-term, live-saving activities. Also just allocating more money – which is unlikely in the near future – is not going to fix the problem. In the lead up to the WHS there was a debate about whether the system was broke or broken. It is arguably a bit of both. But fixing the ‘system’ requires addressing the underlying issues. But underlying these are interests. And many stakeholders have multiple and conflict interests that make reform a complex process. ‘Fixing’ the system will mean challenging many of these vested interests – including our own.

From frameworks to practice


Thank you for this very important and challenging question and for the opportunity to contribute. I agree with the points made by both Jon and Sam.

Given the complexity of this question and issue it is hard to know where to start.

I agree that vetted interests and turfing are key underlying roots of the problem with the system. And as traditional donor funding becomes even scarcer with political will shifting, I think we can estimate that these problems will be even further exacerbated.

Another deep-rooted problem is unwillingness to reform. We have endless standards, guidelines, security council resolutions, conventions, commitments, agendas, etc. But still human rights violations continue to happen and continue to be overlooked or even perpetrated by humanitarian actors. Protection and gender gaps remain large in humanitarian action - across all stages of the humanitarian response cycle. For me a key part of any reform and solution would be for gender equality and human rights to be at the centre of humanitarian action in practice (not only in normative frameworks). There needs to be much greater investments in programmes, initiatives and exepertise addressing gender aspects of humanitarian action, including preparedness and recovery, to close the current humanitarian gender financing gap. This was unfortunately not highlighted strongly enough in the Grand Bargain commitments so it may be challenging to see it translated into action.

Ending need. From a post-developmentalist/post-colonial perspective, even within the development industry ending need altogether has never been the goal. However, I definitely think the move to focus more on conflict-prevention, DRR, resilience and recovery – factors preventing humanitarian crises to happen in the first place are critical and this is where financing and investment should be prioritized. There needs to be much more linkage between DRR, development and humanitarian actors, systems and plans – just like there needs to be alignment between the WHS agenda for humanity, the Sendai framework for DRR and the SDGs.

I agree on the need for apolitical humanitarian responders in order to promote and uphold the humanitarian principles. But this is not only (or not always) achieved through international surge deployment – internationals also have their baggage of vetted interests and bias (including gender or cultural bias and insensitivities). The localization agenda is very important I think and it is good to see that the Grand Bargain has this as a key priority. The ultimate aim should be to have national and local ownership, capacities, systems, institutions, etc in place to no longer rely on international assistance to ensure peaceful and resilient societies. Local organisations, including CSOs and local NGOs are the most knowledgeable on the local needs, concerns and capacities to prepare, respond, cope and recover. Local groups who focus on particular groups of disadvantaged peoples, including women, persons with disabilities, youth and adolescents, etc, will be the best at ensuring their specific needs, concerns and demands are heard and addressed.

However, as the world is becoming ever more globalized and interconnected and as humanitarian crises are increasing - with the devastating impacts of climate change and its related disasters, as well as political conflict and violence, refugee movements etc accelerating – perhaps the role of multilateral or international organisations is becoming ever more important. These are all global crises of global concern – the richer countries especially have the responsibility to act for humanity (and to reallocate resources to finance humanity), as the main contributers to climate change, geopolitical instability, conflict and war, causing disproportionate and unethical impacts on the poorer and less powerful countries and those most disadvantaged within those countries. A global geopolitical and climate injustice. Indeed if we were to truly end need we would have to end this global injustice and the systems that reproduce it. The problems lie much beyond reforming the humanitarian industry.

Yet either way humanitarian reform is definitely needed and a step in the right direction. The WHS Agenda for Humanity provides a good recipe for that and the Grand Bargain needs to be fully aligned with these commitments. The next step will be how to make it a reality in practice given the status quo of vetted interests, turfing and lack of political will.



Excellent thoughts here - and not easy answers.  I wanted to pick up on the theme of localisation.  While is seems that everyone is on board with this in theory and it's the buzz word of the day, I don't see real committment to this way of working.  And there is a school of thinking that as localisation threatens the status quo that NGOs  are not walking the talk as it threatens their very existence. I have seen too many panel discussings recently on localisation that don't have any of the voices respresentated that are proclaimed to be important.  As I was asked recently "How do we let go?" - localisation is not business as usual.  It is not employing more national staff in international organsiations. It's not just shifting around pots of money.  I am unconvinced of the sector's committment to this area. (Controversial I know!!)

Towards a fundamentalist reform agenda


Our chairs and panellists have neatly outlined many of the challenges facing the humanitarian “enterprise” of today. In particular, as Jon notes, humanitarianism has become all-but inseparable from a peace, security, development, and human rights agenda -- and this was exacerbated by the WHS. The humanitarian enterprise has thus become a catch-all for the world’s ailments. And it is failing.

Perhaps then, in sharp contrast to Maria’s proposal, today’s ontological crisis is a chance to redefine humanitarianism in a way that rejects the holistic aspirations of the past quarter of a century. Of course, the vested interests to which Sam refers pose enormous obstacles to this somewhat-naïve and idealistic fundamentalist reform agenda. Nevertheless, at its heart humanitarianism has more in common with the emergency room doctor than the oncologist. Perhaps then, humanitarians need to reassert their limited role as providers of succour to the war and disaster-affected, rather than the bringers of peace and justice and prosperity to all.



Certainly linking humanitarian action with disaster risk reduction, and with a particular emphasis on emergency preparedness, seems to be the most beneficial and logical approach, especially for the Asia-Pacific region with its vast and diverse types of natural disasters and effects of climate change. We recognize the importance of shifting funds and technical resources to benefit those first responders and to allow local CSO/NGOs the capacity to respond, recover, and mitigate when facing disasters.

I do, however, appreciate the point made by Jon on how localization focus can undermine training and deployment of neutral, impartial, and independent humanitarian actors. I also appreciate the point made by Marie on the abundance of guidelines, tools, and materials on humanitarian action. The challenge, in my view, is how to focus on localization and ensure that CSOs and local government actors (incl response machinery) are capacitated to take a bigger ownership of response, but to do it in a way that follows rights-based principles. The devil is in the details; I wonder where the line is drawn.

It is unclear if much of the theorizing, tool development, and modalities and mechanisms to ensure gender responsive (or even transformative) human rights based approaches are actually trickling down to those responsible for “localization.” The experience we have had, in the beginning, is that local actors did not share the same focus on gender or rights-based initiatives, at least in the way that we have centered our focus. How can we ensure that future localized efforts are rights-based, with the intention to reach the most vulnerable and prevent future human-rights issues? However, how do we know that a future local response is based on rights principles, reaching the most vulnerable etc? We want the local actors to shape the response and approach to response but we also want them to adhere to basic rights principles. Some may say DRR is the answer here, or linking DRR into development programs.

Urgently needed: cross-sectoral collaboration


Our chairs' call for "an unprecedented alliance between humanitarian minded governments and NGOs (both national and international), and the Red Cross/Red Crescent to assert the importance of basic humanitarian values" points towards one of the most fundamental issues facing the humanitarian enterprise - and its a political one.

No longer can unilateral action by even the most powerful states effectively address the humanitarian challenges we face. Yet, electoral realities limit political responsibility to domestic constituents. As a result, instead of increasing humanitarian funding at a time of unprecedented need, we are seeing government's turn inwards. A corresponding dilemma exists at the international level, giving rise to a key global humanitarian governance challenge: how do current international institutions created and controlled by sovereign states overcome the national interests of their members to respond decisively to the humanitarian threats we face in a globalised world?

I think the answer will, in part, require political and civil society leaders to do a much better job of explaining to skeptical electorates how the world has irrevocably changed and why erecting walls (metaphorical and real) between ourselves and the world's humanitarian challenges will not succeed. Too seldom have we been able to engage effectively with those whose prospects have been undermined by globalisation and convince them that its more important than ever for countries to stay engaged with the world.

I would also go further than suggested by our chairs and argue that to be successful, its not just governments and civil society that need to come together but also the private sector. For example, I was delighted recently to see Pearson's CEO, John Fallon, call for business leaders to take a much more active role in solving the global refugee crisis (

The voice of unexpected advocates, such as business leaders, can be very powerful. We also need more 'boundary riders', people who have worked across multiple sectors and who can assist to identify the opportunities where cross-sectoral collaboration can achieve significant breakthroughs in addressing humanitarian challenges. Governments, business and civil society need to become far better at appreciating and leveraging what each can bring to the table and boundary riders can play a key role in facilitating this.

Humanitarian access under fire


At what point did the UN and the Security Council stop investing in peacekeeping operations?
It seems as if governments have rejected the concept of Peacekeeping and invested in either private contractors and or their own national military spending to deliver humanitarian assistance. Some of the global famine crises have not been climate induced. Some famines have been a result of protracted conflict. Humanitarian aid in some locations can only be delivered under ceasefire agreements which are extremely short term and at the extreme risk to aid workers. While some countries who are signatories to the Geneva Convention have committed millions to various famine crises - at what stage does the issue of safe and humanitarian access become a condition for states (who are both signatories to the Geneva Convention and beneficiaries of aid, ) are required to uphold a duty of care? There needs to be more than one pathway to hold such states accountable as localisation (a potentially sustainable option) cannot be seen as a quick fix or the only solution.

How much is too much?


So, as we awake to more reports of the use of chemical weapons and the flouting of IHL, where to from here?  Where was, or is, the red line? What are the consequences of crossing it? Even though the UN Security Council will hold an emergency meeting tomorrow, what can we hope for?  Is UN reform at the central of delivering better humanitarian action?  Expanding UNSC membership? Or is this all the illusive political will that seems to be the missing in action....

Back to the future?


At the beginning of this forum the chairs posed the difficult and important question: why is there a lack of humanitarian action when it is most needed? In considering this question we need to keep in mind the fact that as Sarah noted the budget for humanitarian assistance has never been higher, peaking at on humanitarian at $24.5 billion in 2015. In recent decades we have also seen a burgeoning of humanitarian organizations, institutions and, guidelines. In some respects one could argue the humanitarian system has never been stronger, yet the system is falling short in meeting humanitarian needs. What this suggests is an explosion of need beyond the capacity of the system to cope. Perhaps the question we face then is not so much why is there a lack of humanitarian action? But are why current humanitarian responses inadequate to meet humanitarian needs? The excellent contributions to the forum have already canvased many of the issues I think are important. I’d like to make some brief observation in regards to just a few of these.
As has been noted by the chairs in recent years we have seen a retraction of support for foreign aid as a number of states question obligations to ’distant strangers’. Indeed in recent years those fleeing crisis have increasingly been perceived as a threat. I agree with Paul that CSOs and NGOs have a critical role in revealing the suffering of others and making the case for why we should care and act to try and alleviate this suffering. Convincing not only publics but also convincing political leaders to show leadership on this issue is incredibly important. What about leaders in other sectors? Paul has reminded us of the growing role of the private sector in humanitarian action. The heightened awareness of good corporate ethics is important here and has valuable potential to draw other stakeholders into the sector. It is also potentially controversial given a fear of the private sector using humanitarian engagement to pursue broader corporate goals.
The discussion in the forum not surprisingly has also returned to the perennial dilemma: should humanitarian actors see their role as primarily delivering emergency life-saving assistance, or should they also be engaged in longer term transformative projects, such as conflict resolutions development? This issue was a crucial part of the ‘new humanitarianism’ debate of the early 2000s with arguments for greater cohesion between peacebuilding, development and humanitarian action. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, led to some circumspection about integration and cohesion due to the ways in which alignment with broader political and strategic mandates was seen as compromising humanitarian principle of independence, impartiality and neutrality and, through this, access to those in need. In addition there are powerful argument that can still be made that humanitarian actors have neither there resources nor necessarily the skills base to undertake complex conflict resolution or development tasks. Here Ashley and others are perhaps correct in saying that part of the problem of the humanitarian system today the problem of overstretch. Yet at the same time humanitarian crises are undoubtedly bound to issues of poverty and conflict. Is it even feasible to draw a hard and fast line between them in practice on the ground? How, for instance, do we draw a line by relief and development? As successive famine crises in the Horn of Africa have demonstrated famine is inextricably related to protracted food security issues that need to be dealt with through resolving issues of poverty, development and conflict. Building systems that align relief with longer term efforts to transform the conditions that give rise to humanitarian crises without compromising the distinctive priorities and imperatives of humanitarian action is the task that continues to face us. Those issues however cannot be resolved by humanitarian actors. Never has Sagato Ogato’s comment been truer: there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems.
Another important issue that has been raised in the forum is the significance of local and national actors. The role of local and national agencies is of course nothing new; however it may also be true to say that it is really only in recent years that the formal system has begun to recognise or at least acknowledge their significance and considered how their actions can be integrated into a broader conception of the humanitarian system. A feature of the WHS and the 2016 ODI HPG “Time to let go” the acknowledgment that the humanitarian system comprises of a broad range of actors, including actors from the global South and within affected communities. Indeed some have gone so far as to argue there is not one but multiple humanitarian systems. The challenge we need to address is how these different actors can best work together. There are undoubtedly power imbalances between these different actors. One of these is of resources. According to GHA in 2015 of the funds delivered to NGOS for humanitarian assistance in 2015, only 3% went to Southern international NGOs and 0.2 % to local NGOs while a whopping 76.3% was delivered through international NGOs. But other forms of power imbalances are also evident in other areas. Who sets the terms of engagement and who identifies what the principles and priorities are? To what extent do local actors or the increasingly significant range of Southern, non-Western or faith based actors have the opportunity to voice their understanding of these? How do different interpretations of humanitarian priorities and values affect practices of humanitarianism? These issues become particularly sensitive when we consider issues such as the role of human rights promotion in humanitarian action. This may be controversial to say, but the term ’localization’ disturbs me a bit since it has an overtone of bringing ”them” into “our” world rather than of “us” building the humanitarian system together.
My last point (and my apologies for going on so long) relates to something just touched upon in the last few posts; this is the growing and seriously disturbing challenges we are witnessing to international humanitarian law. The laws of war and protection of civilians are a foundational element of the international humanitarian system. In recent years we have seen these increasingly flaunted. This has been in the use of torture on detainees, the use of siege tactics in conflict and prevention of humanitarian assistance reaching civilians in need, the targeting of medical convoys and hospitals, and the targeting of civilians with weapons such as barrel bombs and tragically this week chemical weapons. In some cases we are seeing these crimes being perpetrated but states, the actors that form the backbone of our institutions of international humanitarian law. But also very worrying is the rise of non-state actors who demonstrate no respect for IHL conventions; consider ISIS use of civilians as human shields and their mining of villages. This trend I find incredibly disturbing: are we seeing the normalising of practices that fly in the face of hard won progress in the area of IHL, and if so, what are the implications for norms such as the Protection of Civilians in war? This for me one of the most serious challenges we face in the humanitarian system today.



Thanks to those panellists who have contributed their thoughts on how best to respond to the dire humanitarian challenges the global community faces. As we said in our initial posting never has there been such a mismatch between need and response.

Since this discussion started the situation in Syria has become even more severe. And the weaknesses of global governance have become even more apparent. Jacinta’s reminder of Ogata’s wise observation that there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems is timely.

This discussion has demonstrated the urgent need for an open discussion on the nature of the crisis we face and on the ways that collectively we can improve both the quality and level of response. This requires all of us being open as to who should be involved in such discussions– and we take keenly Paul’s reminder of the actual and potential role of the private sector. There is also a need to bottom out our understandings and consequences of approaches and collective commitments, such as the agreed focus on localisation.

We will explore ways to take this discussion further. Literally lives depend on it.

Thank you again.

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