Humanitarian reform must be a collective endeavour

19 August 2018 Paul Murphy Humanitarian reform must be a collective endeavour

Whether you come from a humanitarian, peacebuilding or development perspective, we all share a common preoccupation: how to alleviate the suffering and insecurity of people living in the midst of chronic instability and violent conflict.

The humanitarian system is acutely aware of this challenge. In 2017, conflict was the main driver behind most of the humanitarian crises in the world. Crises are becoming increasingly protracted; almost three-quarters of all humanitarian aid goes to people who have been affected by crises for 8 years or more.  Equally, many development professionals recognise that progressing the Sustainable Development Goals hangs on working better in fragile contexts.

Despite this common challenge, reform efforts across the aid system are fragmented. We seem to be reforming within our respective ‘sectoral’ silos, too often ignoring the need for changes that cut across the system and require us to work in new, more holistic ways. For World Humanitarian Day I’d like to talk briefly about humanitarian reform, although the challenges and questions posed are equally relevant to those in peacebuilding and development.

System-wide shifts

It is no secret that the humanitarian system is in crisis. This reflects a broader crisis in our ability to manage the complexities of modern conflicts. Two years ago, there were welcome signals towards reform. At the World Humanitarian Summit, many of the biggest players in international aid committed themselves to implementing a new Agenda for Humanity: a five-point plan to transform how the humanitarian system works to more effectively alleviate the suffering and insecurity of people caught in crises.

Since the summit, the humanitarian community has launched numerous efforts to test ways of responding more effectively in conflict settings. Saferworld is part of several of these. For example, we work with the START Network to identify ways of strengthening the long-term resilience of communities at every stage of a crisis. We also support humanitarians working in large-scale, protracted crises in South Sudan, Syria and Yemen, to make their work more sensitive to conflict.  

But, many of these initiatives are evolving at the margins. The reforms don’t add up into coherent organisation or system-wide shifts. Too often, under the intense pressure in which humanitarians operate, and in the absence of structural reforms and altered organisational incentives, they revert to ‘business as usual’.

Fundamentally, reforms are likely to fall short of the aspirations of the Agenda for Humanity because they don’t go far enough in understanding and accounting for the underlying conflict context. Our work in Syria, Lebanon, and Nepal, for example, shows clearly how humanitarian action has too often exacerbated conflicts and missed opportunities to contribute to sustainable peace.

I believe we all have a role to play in marshalling the system-wide changes necessary if vulnerable people are to have the opportunity to drive the decisions that allow them to live lives free from hunger, insecurity and conflict. 

A community-led approach

To launch Saferworld’s blog series on conflict sensitive humanitarian action, I’d like to set out three insights that strike me as particularly important. These are drawn from my own and Saferworld’s history of working in conflict settings.

First, people facing crisis face multiple needs simultaneously – they need, food, shelter, healthcare and security simultaneously – but the crisis response system is broken down by what we do, and organised by how we organise resources. When we fragment the inter-connected needs and challenges that vulnerable people endure, we undermine our capacity to support them to shape their own survival and recovery. When we enable communities to lead recovery efforts, supporting them in the choices they make, we begin to see what a less fragmented and more comprehensive response strategy looks like. 

Second, whilst there is currently a lot of emphasis on ‘localisation’, I am not convinced there is a shared understanding of what this means in conflict settings. These contexts are complex; they involve many different groups and interests, and they change rapidly. The windows of opportunity to address humanitarian, peacebuilding and development needs open and close fast. The most effective way to manage these risks and opportunities is by putting power and resources in the hands of people who understand their context and want to improve their own conditions. Localisation requires a radical shift in who delivers and controls aid, at what level, and it requires partnership with diverse peacebuilding and development specialists.

Third, as a humanitarian and a peacebuilder, I have spent much of my life witnessing first-hand the shortcomings of our collective efforts. The policies, practices, structures and cultures of our respective organisations are more entrenched than we acknowledge. To really change course, humanitarian reforms must profoundly disrupt the current set-up. To me, this means we need to think carefully about how we operationalise, and balance the sometimes competing needs of the humanitarian principles – humanity, impartiality, independence and neutrality.

Translating the Agenda for Humanity into action requires us to devolve power away from global capitals, and ensure it is in the hands of vulnerable people. This requires us to place equality and solidarity at the heart of our decision making processes, and remove the notion of ‘charity’. Putting communities in the driving seat brings back their dignity in the midst of crisis. It also opens space for meaningful dialogue between humanitarians and vulnerable people on addressing needs; improves accountability; and crucially, shifts the power dynamic that is perpetuated by perceptions of international humanitarianism being the ‘rescuers’ of vulnerable communities.

Whatever the best way is of capturing and expressing these principles, it may help us conceptualise a more holistic understanding of humanitarian crisis response, and open up a deeper debate around how we face up to the changes critical for realising the spirit, not just the letter, of the Agenda for Humanity.    

This blog is the first in a series produced by Saferworld on the theme: towards a devolved and conflict sensitive humanitarian system. Please email humanitarian@saferworld.org.uk to receive the blog series direct to your inbox. We also welcome guest blogs that respond to the series theme.

Photo credit: UN humanitarian chief visits Myanmar (UN photo library).