The humanitarian system is caring for more people in more parts of the world than ever before. Partly in response to this, the sector has grown exponentially and is, in many ways, very crowded. But despite this huge growth, the sector has continued to find it difficult to keep up with fast moving crises and improve the responses and systems in place. Of course it should be mentioned that it is not only the sector that has grown, there are now more protracted crises than at any other time in history. The nature of these crises has also changed with a number of state and non-state actors embroiled in some way. This means that situations are constantly changing and have more variables than ever before. This has made it more complicated for humanitarian organisations to respond quickly and effectively.
Debates have also risen regarding the humanitarian sector’s perceived failure to secure adequate humanitarian access and delivery in conflict zones such as Syria and Yemen, and advocate for the international community legal obligations on the conduct of war. Annual appeals for funding continue to run short and forced displacement is increasing.
In light of so many challenges, how can humanitarian actors move forward and adapt positively to the change and growth?
Firstly, what NGOs and other humanitarian actors are expected to respond to has changed whilst political and practical circumstances has made their ability to respond more difficult. Organisations have to be realistic in responding to people’s needs and manage expectations of what they can and cannot do. By doing this and leaving the space for relevant actors to fill gaps where needed, the sector may be more successful in addressing the diverse and complex needs of communities in crisis.
As previously mentioned, the sector had gotten more crowded but not only with more NGOs. There are now multiple actors, including corporations and other private organisations, laying claim to a humanitarian cause. The use of ‘humanitarian’ as a one size fits all term muddies the water for neutral and independent actors.
This could mean that we need to rethink traditional definitions of ‘humanitarian’ (as neutral and independent work to alleviate suffering) to something that acknowledges the different types of relief which exist and the different actors capable of delivering this relief. This would also mean that the sector would move forward from an idea that only humanitarians can provide effective relief and acknowledge that actors-from development to private companies to religious organisations-can be equally legitimate when responding to crises. The ability to effectively address people’s needs, not the actor’s ideology, would dictate approaches to crisis response. More coordination not less is needed with different actors.
The sector is growing and changing fast. It has already gone through enormous changes in each decade regarding the philosophies by which they work (ideas of ownership for example). Traditional actors should continue to adapt and not resist the change and challenges that growth brings.
Author: Laramie Shubber
Laramie Shubber is Director’s Assistant at Trust and coordinates media.