The mounting call for a humanitarian revolution

A confluence of factors has pushed humanitarian needs to a level surpassing what was seen at the end of World War II. But in a report given exclusively to the Monitor, aid experts say the know-how is in place to build a 21st-century response system.

Mulugeta Ayene/AP
A man carries animal feed distributed under a European Union (EU) funded project in the Sitti Zone of Ethiopia, on April 8, near the border with Somalia. The EU aid addresses people affected by a worsening humanitarian and drought situation in Ethiopia.

The remarkable strides over the past two decades in reducing global poverty and hunger and expanding education and prosperity are in jeopardy as a result of a set of humanitarian crises. These surpass in size and complexity those the world confronted at the end of World War II.

But as the international community prepares to convene a first-ever summit next month, aid experts assert in a just-released report that the tools and know-how exist to meet the challenge.

The challenges are indeed unprecedented in their combination. They include longer and more destructive conflicts, higher mobility as a record number of displaced seek refuge farther from home, and increasingly intense and damaging natural disasters, the report’s contributors say.

But the authors of the report, to which the Monitor was given exclusive advance access, point to opportunities to apply some of the same innovations that allowed for impressive global development gains since 2000:

  • Greater involvement of local actors in meeting their own needs.
  • Private-sector participation.
  • Emphasizing crisis prevention where before crisis response sufficed.
  • Steady streams of funding.

Such steps, the report’s authors say, can and must be used to build a humanitarian assistance system for the 21st century.

“We know how to do this,” says Rick Leach, president and CEO of World Food Program USA, one of seven humanitarian relief organizations that together authored the new report, “A World at Risk.”

“We’re not saying the current humanitarian system is broken, but what we are saying is that we need to adapt it to make it work better to meet today’s needs,” he says. “And we’ve learned some important lessons that can be applied to deliver a more effective system for this new situation.”

To give just one example, if people are going to be displaced for a decade or more, they have to be able to work – something host countries are understandably uneasy about as they focus on their own populations. That, Mr. Leach says, is an area where the private sector can play a role.  

What won’t work, other contributors to the report add, is sticking with the old pattern of begging the world’s wealthy to open their hearts and wallets at periodic crisis-specific donors’ conferences, and then sending in outside experts to try to make things better.

“We can no longer do the usual of responding to a crisis that is already before us by calling a big conference to collect pledges of funding and then having the international community swoop in to save the day,” says Shannon Scribner, who heads the humanitarian policy team at Oxfam America in Washington. “It’s really an ’80s approach that is no longer working today.”

Much has been written about a global humanitarian crisis affecting numbers of people not seen in seven decades. The globe now counts more than 60 million refugees and internally displaced – nearly doubling over the decade since the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated a total of 34.2 million in 2006. Numbers have soared partly due to intensifying storms such as typhoons.

The average length of a refugee’s displacement now stands at a record 17 years – up from about nine years in 1993, according to the UNHCR. That means, for example, that an infant arriving at a refugee camp is now likely to grow and become an adult outside her home country.

More broadly, the venues of humanitarian need in some cases encompass whole nations that are wracked by conflict, and where the spillover effect leads to heightened instability in neighboring countries as well. A number of those regionalized conflicts are in Africa.

But it’s the collapse of the Middle East into conflict, in particular, that has contributed to a sense that this humanitarian crisis requires a new response. Frontline countries not directly involved in conflict – such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey – are wobbling under the impact of unprecedented refugee populations, while Western Europe has also been shaken by the arrival of millions more displaced people to its shores.

Leach says it was a 2014 conversation with the late Sandy Berger, who served as national security adviser to President Clinton, that got him thinking about a new approach to humanitarian assistance.

“Sandy was probably one of the first people who really understood the magnitude of this crisis,” he says. He recalls that as he laid out the statistics on refugees and the unprecedented number of years they remained displaced, “Sandy said, ‘If this is the ‘new normal,’ what do we need to do about this?’ ”

Leach says that threat of an unacceptable “new normal” is part of what is galvanizing the humanitarian advocacy community and some international leaders – next month’s World Humanitarian Summit is a project of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon – to push for a humanitarian assistance system that matches the needs of the 21st century.

Other aid experts agree that an explosion of need – and frankly, the unsettling impact of millions of refugees reaching Europe – has underscored that the status quo is unacceptable.

“The humanitarian system we have in place worked remarkably well for half a century, but the size and duration of the crisis today is demonstrating loud and clear that we aren’t solving problems, all we’re doing is pulling the humanitarian lever,” says Nancy Lindborg, president and CEO of the US Institute of Peace, a federal institution set up by Congress to advance conflict prevention and resolution. “You can apply Band-Aids and feed people forever, but we’ve learned that doesn’t do much to address the protracted crises that have us in the situation we’re facing today.”

Ms. Lindborg, whose organization also contributed to the “World at Risk” report, says that a more efficient – and dependable – system for funding global humanitarian needs must be taken up at the humanitarian summit and figure more prominently on the global agenda. An estimated $15 billion gap this year between need and delivered assistance underscores the urgency of developing a funding system that gets beyond the emergency donor conference and uncertain annual budgets, she says.

But beyond funding issues, the organizations that prepared “A World at Risk” agree that a humanitarian system tailored to meet the challenges of the 21st century will have to incorporate some key steps, including:

  • Closer coordination and integration of emergency assistance and development policies. With displaced families on average spending well over a decade outside their home country, food and shelter are no longer enough: education, employment, and social cohesion are essential to a longer term humanitarian vision.
  • More consistent involvement of local actors. These range from local humanitarian workers who know the communities they are serving to local farmers and businesses to provide food and services. Local providers can often get aid to remote areas that outsiders can’t easily reach. And while food aid brought in by international organizations can disrupt local economies, relying on local farmers and businesses like local supermarkets to feed refugee populations can boost local economies and increase local acceptance of refugee populations.
  • Opening up to private-sector expertise and largesse. Humanitarian assistance has for decades been largely the domain of wealthy countries, international institutions, and nongovernmental organizations that spent the money and did the work. But that’s changing. Mastercard developed a debit card system for Syrian refugees in Jordan and other countries that allows refugee families to access a monthly stipend. UPS has worked with WFP and other organizations to improve aid delivery and plan overall logistics for humanitarian interventions. And the Dutch company DSM, which specializes in advanced nutritional research and related materials development, has designed micronutrients for specific emergency needs and special packaging to extend the shelf life of vital products.

All of these ideas will figure on the agenda when world leaders meet in Istanbul in late May to consider steps toward a more effective humanitarian system. No one expects an outcome that addresses acute needs overnight.

But participants in the report say they are counting on the humanitarian summit to begin laying the groundwork for a system that doesn’t just meet rising needs, but addresses root causes. (One prediction in “World at Risk” hints at the challenge: By 2030, two-thirds of the world’s poor will live in countries considered “fragile” – raising concerns about continued instability and conflict.)

“I don’t think there’ll be a thunderclap in Istanbul, and suddenly everything is changed and the world has a humanitarian system that meets today’s needs,” says USIP’s Lindborg. “But I do think we’re going in with the ideas and the experience with what works that can open the door to something that does a better job of addressing what’s ahead of us.”

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