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Humanitarian sector needs a radical rethink

Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 25 Jan 2012 17:09 GMT
Author: Randolph Kent, Humanitarian Futures Programme
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Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Randolph Kent is director of the Humanitarian Futures Programme at King’s College, London. The opinions expressed are his own.

AlertNet’s poll is timely and important. It clearly shows a recognition that the types, dimensions and frequency of crises are increasing and that there is a need for change and reform to meet these growing demands.  From adopting private sector perspectives, to recognising the importance of risk reduction; from increasing agency efficiencies to more effective community engagement – these are all vital priorities to deal with complex humanitarian futures.  

However, what the poll also reveals, is that very few organisations truly recognise the scale of the changes required. Radical transformations are needed and the ‘traditional humanitarian community’ – the United Nations, bilateral and Western non-governmental agencies – may no longer be at the centre of this change. There is no indication from the poll results that the respondents appreciate the fundamental shifts taking place or the growing political centrality of humanitarian crises. From Burma to China, Nigeria to Kenya, governments in some of the most vulnerable regions of the world are becoming increasingly reluctant to have traditional humanitarian actors behave as they’ve done in the past – the well-intentioned interventions, “boots on the ground”, efforts. As countries look first to their own capacities, then to their neighbours and regional allies, international action through cluster systems and similar mechanisms outside the control of national governments will increasingly be resisted.

For traditional humanitarian organisations to have a relevant future in this new configuration, they will have to spend more time listening and understanding local needs, conditions and concerns – not only about local vulnerability but also about the needs of national authorities to be firmly in control when dealing with crises.

Increasingly, regional organisations and their member states look to a wide range of actors, from national corporations, the military, diaspora groups and emerging virtual networks to provide the capacity, innovation and innovative practices to plan and prepare for risk and effectively respond to threats.  For the traditional humanitarian sector, that means that they will need to negotiate new partnerships. They will need to shed many of their views and prejudices about engaging with non-traditional actors, such as militaries and non-state actors, and concentrate more on how to identify comparative advantage and ‘value-added’ when it comes to both responding to crises and in promoting resilience and risk reduction to reduce vulnerability.

These issues should be at the centre of the discussion about the changing nature of humanitarian action. For the United Nations in particular, the key issue may not necessarily be about increasing efficiencies, but rather, about giving the UN a role commensurate with the challenges of the future.  As national governments increasingly take responsibility for preparing for and responding to disasters and coordinating humanitarian action, the UN will be expected to move from its focus on operational delivery and develop a role which reinforces its unique value – as a monitor that gives detailed, cross-sectional analyses of vulnerability around the world; as a key catalyst bringing together science and technology to identify innovations and innovative practices to promote resilience;  and as a global advocate and ‘partnership broker’, drawing on international expertise to improve the effectiveness of relief operations  worldwide.

For more, see AlertNet's special report on humanitarian aid:

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