Experts speak on the future of humanitarian aid

17Nov 2020
The Guardian
Experts speak on the future of humanitarian aid

​​​​​​​From Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad to UN refugee agency chief Filippo Grandi, more than 20 visions of the humanitarianism of tomorrow. Rethinking Humanitarianism can feel like an abstract and even overwhelming undertaking.

To help break it down, The New Humanitarian reached out to leaders across and beyond the aid sector - from policy-makers to people with lived experience - to crystallise some visions for the future.

Their ideas coalesced around five broad themes: preventing conflict, mutual and activist aid, decolonising aid, shrinking the scope of the aid sector, and anticipating crises.

Taken together, these ideas paint a picture of areas central to the humanitarian action of the future. Each week, until early December, we'll be adding new submissions, so stay tuned for more visions of tomorrow's aid landscape.

To share your vision for the future of aid, get in touch here.

Mutual and activist aid

The future of aid is ... African innovation

By Muthoni Wanyeki, regional director for Africa, Open Society Foundations

"We don't want a piece of the pie anymore. We want to make the pie."

Multilateralism is unravelling before our very eyes, with the response to COVID-19 only the latest example: the individual country scramble for testing equipment, personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators, oxygen; the tales of diversions and hijacks of supply planes; the attacks on the World Health Organization - the latest convenient proxy for American blame-gaming; the angry responses from China, recovered enough from its early bad behaviour to fashion its non-mea culpa into representation as a responsible global player.

Meanwhile, Africa's poor majority has struggled under the pressures of COVID-19. While the larger supermarket chains switched to online orders for the middle- and upper-classes, a woman boiled stones for her children. That's what no daily income and the disruption of supply to local food markets means. Small-scale farmers who used to earn enough to cater for their families' needs fell off the cliff, separating the lower middle-class from the impoverished. They never asked for anything from the state. They didn't hold their breath. But, they are desperate. So many of us - desperate.

Yes, there were international solidarity flights, bringing in additional healthcare workers, the equipment needed to respond. But the exodus was out, not in. Western diplomatic missions sent discrete messages to their expatriate citizens about flights leaving, despite the ban on all except cargo flights. Chinese expatriates also left - despite their own diplomatic missions' exhortations. They wanted to get their healthcare back at home, not in the continent in which they made their living.

Truth be told, all of that is a good thing. Because it's time we move away from depending on international solidarity and a crumbling world order. We Africans need to build our own future instead.

Today's desperation is being met by fellow citizens. Local innovation is filling the void left by the international community in the wake of the pandemic: the individuals who set up cash transfer programmes for fellow citizens; the adopt-a-family initiatives; the neighbourhood collections. This comes on top of the many informal social protection mechanisms that have always existed, and even despite shrinkage in diaspora remittances.

The creativity, innovation, research and development, and manufacturing pivots are also local: cheap testing and vaccine research under the African research university alliances; PPE from self-help groups and local clothing manufacturers; ventilator designs from the young bright things keeping themselves busy while universities are closed.

That's humanitarianism's future. We don't want a piece of the pie anymore. We want to make the pie. When we do, we'll be ready to (re-)create a real multilateral order.

Decolonising aid

The future of aid is ... decolonising aid, one small step at a time

By Danny Sriskandarajah, CEO, Oxfam GB

"We don't need to wait for a systemic overhaul to start doing better."

One of the books written about Oxfam's history mentions trying to find more 'Indigenous agencies' to channel assistance during the 1966 famine in Bihar, India. Localisation, it seems, has been a long-standing aspiration of the humanitarian sector.

Many of us felt 2016 was a turning point, with localisation under the spotlight at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, and in the 'Grand Bargain' package of aid reforms. There has been progress since, through mechanisms like the Charter 4 Change pledge on locally-led response. But resources in the sector still flow through complex, top-down chains.

The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the essential role of bottom-up responses, with lockdown restrictions impeding external interventions. But at its heart, truly transformative locally-led action is about shifting power, supporting communities to drive sustainable change themselves.

Movements like Black Lives Matter are a powerful reminder of the need to confront racism and power imbalances that are embedded into systems and institutions. For the aid sector, that means rethinking traditional notions of wealthy 'donors' helping poor 'beneficiaries' that perpetuate narratives rooted in colonialism, and replacing them with models that connect people everywhere united by their outrage at poverty and injustice.

Meaningfully shifting resources and power will take explicit, determined efforts from all of us - international NGOs, governments, UN agencies, and donors. Central to this is what the Grand Bargain called a "participation revolution", so the people receiving aid are involved in making the decisions that affect them. While the current model may hinder reform by creating incentives that reinforce the status quo, we don't need to wait for a systemic overhaul to start doing better.

Within Oxfam, this includes a commitment to be feminist and anti-racist in all we do. We want to consciously confront - not inadvertently reinforce - power imbalances between north and south, black and white, and men and women. Tackling sexual abuse, which is often fuelled by power imbalances, is absolutely key to this, as we're acutely aware.

It includes investing in local humanitarian leadership and scaling up a "responsive listening" pilot to ensure we are more accountable to communities. We want to reshape our global model to become a more diverse network, and a better ally to the partners, communities, and movements that make up the social fabric in the countries where we work. We will work in fewer countries, enabling us to invest more, and to transfer more resources to partners to help strengthen local action.

For us, this cannot be just about international NGOs creating new local entities and saying "job done". I believe that a large organisation like Oxfam is at its best when it can help build from below, but also beyond borders; using its resources and expertise to support communities to drive lasting progress themselves, and using its voice and reach to drive global change. I hope that in 25 years the aid sector will have evolved into something radically different, a more diffuse social justice network in which all actors - Northern and Southern, big and small - play a more meaningful and equal role in working towards a better future.

For more on Danny Sriskandarajah’s views on the future of aid, listen to the first episode of the Rethinking Humanitarianism podcast.

Shrinking the scope of the aid sector

The future of aid is ... commercially sustainable solutions

By Tara Nathan, Executive Vice President of Digital Solutions for Development at Mastercard

"Mistrust and battles for branding should not dictate how we serve."

Crises today - and undoubtedly in the future - are protracted and recurring, whether forced displacement, natural disasters, or conflict. Still, we react, instead of planning as a collective to deploy our core strengths.

The current humanitarian system is all too focused on the "type" of organisation providing assistance, instead of its capabilities. This is, frankly, a distraction and signals that the system prioritises what is most convenient for entrenched, established players. In the space of cash transfers or shelter construction or sanitation, the private sector is very likely best suited to manage the intervention end-to-end, and yet these companies are often relegated to supplier or vendor status. The impetus is for a short-term fix, not long-term durability.

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the world and forced us to acknowledge that our current modes of engagement are inadequate. We should seize this moment and upend our institutions in a bid for increased preparedness and fit-for-purpose response in the future.

A future humanitarian system would make the concept of "mandate" irrelevant. It would instead privilege experience and expertise in addressing the tasks at hand. Mistrust or battles for branding would not dictate how we serve.

When an emergency hits, we should refrain from categorising it. By labelling it "food security" or "displacement", we lose sight of the multi-faceted nature of crises. Food security is tied to agricultural practices, which are connected to environmental degradation and so on. Labelling an emergency "food security" can trigger experts in ready-to-eat meal distribution when the actual need could be for farmers to access markets and fair prices to boost production. Categorising an emergency at the outset over-simplifies the challenge and discourages human-centered, needs-based service delivery. Through technology, we can instead empower communities to outline their needs themselves.

Equipped with these demands, any organisation or company - so long as it demonstrated a track record of success and upheld principles of mutual accountability - can engage. The result is a much more efficient response, one that considers both the short- and long-term. Strategic humanitarian response allows for more deliberate interactions, even joint planning, with development organisations.

A future humanitarian system would design the policy, legal, and financing mechanisms to allow for multi-year investment in durable, resilient infrastructure.

With these operational pieces in place, companies and humanitarian agencies could implement side by side, each to their talents: local communities and NGOs defining needs; international NGOs activating global resources and networks; governments providing blueprints for sustainability; companies leading solution innovation. Together, we could save innumerable sums and countless lives.

Take the example of just one intervention in one refugee and host community in northern Uganda. A private company took over water management from an international NGO to provide a long-term, green solution, which was preferred by residents and was estimated to bring a 90 percent cost saving over the traditional humanitarian fix.

What if all companies shifted from cheque writing to developing commercially sustainable solutions that improved the lives of the vulnerable? And what if humanitarian agencies made space for them to do so? We have the right actors, we have the right expertise, we have the resources. Will we embrace our diversity and pave the way for change?

Preventing conflict

The future of aid is ... building and sustaining peace

By Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees

"Humanitarian action can only ever be a partial response in the face of the scale and complexity of forced displacement today."

Humanitarian action has saved millions of lives, has helped alleviate the burden on countries and communities hosting refugees, and has helped secure protection for those who need it. And yet, the major crises of the last decade - in Myanmar, Syria, South Sudan, the Lake Chad and Sahel regions, in Venezuela, and elsewhere - have revealed that humanitarian action can only ever be a partial response in the face of the scale and complexity of forced displacement today.

We have entered a complex and uncertain era, in which the vision of international solidarity and responsibility-sharing that inspired the global protection regime will face many new challenges. In the Global Compact on Refugees, a framework for predictable and equitable responsibility-sharing of refugees, we now finally have important tools and approaches that can help restore that vision and translate it into action. We have already seen much greater involvement in the refugee response from not only traditional humanitarian actors, but also development actors such as the World Bank, other regional development banks and international financial institutions, as well as from the private sector. The result is that the forcibly displaced and their host communities have better access to services and opportunities to improve their lives.

This does not diminish, however, the critical role of humanitarians. Humanitarian aid will continue to be a necessity for the forcibly displaced, but real transformation will only be achieved through political solutions to the crises that drive refugee flows.

Recent negative trends in international cooperation and solidarity, including the weak response to date to the UN Secretary-General's call for a global ceasefire in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, are not encouraging.

Looking ahead, the prospects of securing solutions to displacement on a meaningful scale remain challenging. While aid helps alleviate suffering, no amount of humanitarian assistance can resolve the plight of those forced into exile. Solutions to displacement fundamentally depend on successful conflict resolution and investments in sustaining and building peace - and on the ability of states to find the unity of purpose to cooperate to this end.

While I recognise that this is difficult, it is not impossible. For example, Sudanese and South Sudanese leaders have recently taken significant steps towards peace. The international community must now do all that it can to support those willing to take risks for peace, and in so doing create opportunities for solutions for nearly seven million refugees and internally displaced people throughout the region.

The future of aid is ... accountability for war crimes

By Nadia Murad, Nobel Peace Prize winner

"We now have the legal precedent to take conflict-related sexual violence seriously and to prosecute it."

Conflict-related sexual violence (CSVR) has been ongoing throughout history. All over the world, women have been and are still seen as objects. And, as objects, they are used by men as weapons of war.

Just as women were subjected to CSVR during the Yugoslav wars and Rwandan genocide, women are still subjected to CSVR today, as Yazidi women were when the so-called Islamic State invaded northern Iraq in 2014. Without justice and accountability for war crimes like CSVR, we are accepting that women and girls are ultimately without rights and anything can be done to them.

Until the latter half of the twentieth century, gender crimes were generally categorised as both domestic/private issues and necessary outcomes of war. The codification of gender crimes did not take place until the 1990s when the Rwandan and Yugoslav tribunals and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court finally acknowledged gender crimes as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

We now have the legal precedent to take conflict-related sexual violence seriously and to prosecute it, but still see a lack of willingness from the international community to hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes. IS perpetrators who committed horrific acts of sexual violence against Yazidi women and girls have yet to be held accountable. Countries like the Netherlands, France, and Germany are pursuing cases against IS militants. But many other states continue to abdicate responsibility for their nationals. States need to ensure that these militants are charged with international crimes that reflect the gravity of their conduct.

Survivors and women globally continue to tell their stories to fight against this inaction. But we also need to redefine the role of women in society and promote gender equality throughout our education systems globally. We hope that our fight will shift the priorities of the international community and put an end to CSVR through holding perpetrators accountable and signalling an end to impunity