Responding to chaos: The world’s beleaguered humanitarian community

The effects of a world in chaos on the people of our planet are overwhelming the international humanitarian system. As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres recently said, “Today’s humanitarian emergencies are beyond anything we have experienced in living memory.”

Almost every major war in 2014 had higher casualties than in 2013. Half of Syria’s population has been displaced and the war rages on with no end in sight even as countries hosting Syrian refugees are reaching the breaking point. Two million Iraqis were displaced last year—coming on top of at least a million displaced only a few years ago. There are dire warnings of famine in South Sudan. Genocide, or something close to it, has taken place in the Central African Republic. Sixty thousand Central American children turned up on U.S. borders last summer, fleeing deadly criminal violence. Boko Haram is wreaking havoc in Nigeria as displaced Nigerians pour over borders into neighboring countries. Conflict in Yemen is escalating. And there’s uncertainty in Afghanistan, continued chaos in Libya, Tunisia, Burma/Myanmar, the Sahel, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia—the list goes on and on. All told, more people are displaced by conflict now (more than 50 million and rising) than at any time since World War II. 

As the chaos continues, more and more of the humanitarian community is bogged down in protracted situations—in providing care and maintenance to those affected by decades of conflict—further decreasing their ability to respond to new crises. The United Nations’ (U.N.) 2015 humanitarian appeal is for $16 billion—up from $7 billion just four years ago. And it’s not enough. The average period people are displaced is now close to 20 years—up from an average of “only” nine years in the early 1990s. At the same time, the impact of climate change is increasing the intensity, severity, and unpredictability of sudden-onset disasters. Poor, marginal, and conflict-affected communities are most vulnerable to these disasters.

Leaders of the humanitarian community—bilateral donors, U.N. agencies, major international nongovernmental organizations (NGO)—are stretched thin trying to respond to too many crises and find it difficult to step back and look at big-picture ways for improving the system. 

For this reason, preparations are well underway for a World Humanitarian Summit, called by the U.N. secretary general to “find new ways to tackle humanitarian needs in our fast-changing world.”  Regional consultations have been held, thousands of people have offered suggestions via online consultation platforms, and plans are being finalized for the Summit itself to take place in May 2016. So far, it seems that many of the issues being raised are not new, but the Summit does offer the opportunity to make suggestions for changing the system.

Given the enormity of human need and the discussions taking place around the Summit, here are four suggestions about what needs to be done.

  1. Resolve protracted displacement. When there is no political solution and conflicts continue, refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) cannot return to their communities. Host governments and U.N. agencies are left with the task of providing for them for years and too often, for decades. New and creative thinking is needed to address the problem of protracted displacement. The international community has done this in the past as evidenced by comprehensive solutions to long-standing displacement in Indochina and Central America, but we haven’t seen those comprehensive approaches to the crises of today. Elsewhere, I have called for bold approaches. For example, perhaps it’s time for a U.N. decision to limit humanitarian action to a certain number of years after which time development actors would be responsible for finding solutions for displaced people. Or, since the relief-to-development gap has been evident for at least 25 years, perhaps we should create a new international agency to focus on transitions. Or perhaps it’s time to provide a financial incentive for host governments to allow long-time refugees to work and to integrate into the countries where they have been living for years. 
  2. Enlarge the present humanitarian system by recognizing the contributions of new actors. In the discussions taking place around the World Humanitarian Summit, there are many calls for engaging the private sector, but we also need to look at how the contributions of local groups—often disdained by traditional humanitarians—can be used. Diaspora groups are doing incredible work in the Syrian context, but often operate in the margins of coordination mechanisms. Creative work is needed to sort out partnerships within the NGO community and between NGOs and intergovernmental actors. Regional organizations have begun to play more assertive roles in disaster risk management—how can they be supported to play more active roles in both resolving the conflicts that cause humanitarian crises and meeting humanitarian needs?
  3. Continue to emphasize resilience in devising humanitarian response. I confess that I have not been a big supporter of resilience programming in the past because it seems like an abdication of international responsibility. But the reality is that the international humanitarian community cannot help everyone in need. Resilience is also more difficult when it comes to protection and security, but the fact is that communities have developed ways of protecting themselves when the internationals are not present and this should be recognized and supported. 
  4. Recognize the limits of innovation. Some of the new technologies being used in the humanitarian sector are wonderful—debit cards to provide cash-based assistance, retina scans to eliminate fraud, SMS messages to provide accurate data on protection problems, among others. (My own particular dream is for a “Yelp for humanitarians” where people receiving assistance can rate aid providers.) But technological innovation in itself doesn’t deal with the thorniest, usually political, issues facing humanitarian work. Coming up with innovative architectural designs for post-disaster housing doesn’t deal with the incredibly complex issues of land tenure. Nor do technological innovations deal with access to those in conflict areas, security for humanitarian workers, or restrictions caused by anti-terrorism policies.