Randolph Kent is director of the Humanitarian Futures Programme at King’s College, London. The opinions expressed are his own.
A paradox: a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true.
In the evolving world of humanitarian action, there is a paradox too rarely noticed by the expanding numbers of humanitarian professionals – namely, that the more professional humanitarian actors (business, the military and scientists) become, the more detached they are from the very people for whom their skills and expertise are intended.
In the aftermath of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, the voice of one man wading waste deep down a flooded street in New Orleans seemed to say it all: “It just don’t seem like experts like talking to the poor.”
More recently the Haitian earthquake response and recovery programmes demonstrated how the voice of locals, those who understand their own communities in so many ways far better than well intentioned outsiders are ignored.
In Haiti, according to recent evaluations, international assistance providers all too often ignored the fact that there were not only locals who had a clear idea about what was needed, but also locals who had the sorts of medical, nursing and nutrition background so essential for an effective response.
The importance of engaging with the vulnerable and affected is by no means a new theme for the humanitarian sector. It is reflected in initiatives from Mary Anderson’s do no harm principle to the listening project. Yet, there is an emerging dilemma, and it stems in no small part from efforts to be more professional and to engage with other professions.
The emerging reality is that as the types, dimensions and dynamics of humanitarian crises increase exponentially, it is more and more evident that crisis prevention, preparedness and response will require far greater capacities and competencies.
Scientific and technological understanding will be essential to anticipate future threats as well as to address them. Operational, logistics and management capacities that far transcend present levels of humanitarian organisations’ capabilities will be vital to deal with catastrophes that occur simultaneously or sequentially; and, new forms and means of collaboration – on-line and off-line -- will further transform the boundaries of the humanitarian sector.
All of these new and essential ways to meet the humanitarian challenges of the future will transform the way humanitarian action is undertaken. Languages from diverse disciplines will become part of the “humanitarian lingo,” and cybernetic and other high tech innovations will become a kind of “humanitarian norm.”
But the paradox is that as all this takes place in the name of being more effective humanitarian actors, the interest in and ability to engage with the vulnerable and affected become a seemingly less relevant proposition.
As a former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Health, Roz Lasker, observed, “Experts in emergency preparedness for example have focused a lot of attention on working with actors in the commercial, scientific and military sectors and with government agencies at multiple levels.
The general public, however – those they want to protect – have not been involved in developing plans. This creates serious problems because those most vulnerable in emergencies have critically-needed knowledge that no one else has.”
This does not mean that there are not methods and tools to ensure effective involvement by those who are actual or potential crisis victims. The first essential step is to move beyond the expert’s frame of reference, and listen to how the vulnerable would plan for dealing with threats.