Megatrends and the Future of Humanitarian Action

Note: This article is part of the International Review of the Red Cross edition “

The Future of Humanitarian Action


Humanitarian actors are better at responding to crises than at preventing or preparing for them. Preparing for the crises of the future means not only developing more efficient relief delivery mechanisms and protection strategies, but also analyzing the political and economic context that will shape the nature of future challenges. Over the past twenty-five years, the international humanitarian system has gone through major changes as a result of crises such as the Kobe earthquake, conflicts in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Somalia, the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the war in Afghanistan, the Indian Ocean tsunami, the famine and conflict in Darfur, the earthquake in Haiti, and hundreds of smaller emergencies. Indeed, the system has dramatically improved in responding to crises quickly, effectively and professionally. Humanitarians have become much better at responding to emergencies and lives have been saved because of those changes.

Nonetheless, in the past few years, the humanitarian system has come under enormous stress in responding to new mega crises, which have occured on top of a growing number of protracted crises.

Nonetheless, in the past few years, the humanitarian system has come under enormous stress in responding to new mega-crises, which have occurred on top of a growing number of protracted crises. For example, international organizations have found it easier to raise funds for a high-visibility emergency, such as the Haitian earthquake, than for refugees streaming out of Côte d’Ivoire, or internally displaced persons (IDPs) living for years in Iraqi cities or for decades in Colombian ones. The system is already stretched, but it is likely to experience additional stress in the coming decades. This article reviews six megatrends likely to shape the future context of humanitarian response over the next twenty-five years and draws out their implications for future humanitarian work. These are not new trends. Indeed, with the exception of technology and science, all of them were highlighted twenty-five years ago by the United Nation’s Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future. Even today’s prediction of the increase in sudden-onset natural disasters was foreshadowed in this 1987 report, although the links with climate change were not at that time so definitively drawn. In the past couple of years, there has been growing interest in looking at the implications of global trends on future humanitarian action, which is itself a recognition that the humanitarian system must change to meet future challenges.

Predicting the future is particularly difficult in an era of rapid technological development. Who could have imagined twenty-five years ago the role of social media in the popular uprisings known as the Arab Spring? Or the collaborative mapping of earthquake damage in Haiti, carried out not by professional humanitarians but by individuals sitting at computers far from the earthquake’s epicentre? It is also difficult to predict a truly catastrophic event, such as a global pandemic, a nuclear war, or even collision with an asteroid. Few in the humanitarian community are considering such possibilities but, as the concluding section of this article suggests, it behoves them to do so.

The six megatrends analyzed here are:

  1. demographic trends: more people, older people, more urbanization;
  2. technology and science: rapid change;
  3. economic trends: uneven growth, increasing inequality;
  4. political power: changing global patterns, changing domestic determinants;
  5. climate change: more disasters; and
  6. conflict: prolonged, simmering, and increasingly urban.

 Download » (PDF)