Humanitarian Principles / Beyazıt Hall

While there’s consensus that the humanitarian system is under stress, successive waves of reform over the past couple of decades have failed. Five years after a laundry list of changes were agreed upon at the World Humanitarian Summit, the 2020 report on the Grand Bargain from the U.K.-registered Overseas Development Institute (ODI) underscores the “failure to address long-standing challenges that have inhibited positive change.” (See Nick van Praag article on the need for community participation and credible information).

Central to this failure is a tendency to veer from one initiative to another on an ever-changing fix list, with aid executives solemnly debating what is needed to get their house in order without questioning whether that house is fit for purpose. The result is that the top-down supply chains and unequal relations that characterise humanitarian action remain firmly in place.

New refugees from the Central African Republic. Can international humanitarian aid really reform itself? (Photo: UNHCR)

Diversity: not enough to change the colonial character of humanitarian action

Since the summer of 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement has galvanized thinking about racial and social justice; now the humanitarian sector is going through its own BLM moment.

The focus is on diversifying representation in aid agencies and decentralizing the centres of humanitarian influence. Greater diversity in staff and governance is vital and decongesting humanitarian hubs like Geneva may have merit. But then what? Is it fair to expect a slightly more diverse, geographically spread leadership to overcome the ‘us and them’ colonial character of humanitarian action built up by their predecessors?

Cash assistance could act as a reset button by putting money — and the control that comes with it — directly in the hands of affected people. But it has yet to realize its potential for changing the system because the growing market for cash provision has been cornered by a subset of aid agencies determined to maintain their sway.

Localization of aid provision also gets a lot of airtime. Its focus, though, is on a marginal shift in responsibility for the supply of humanitarian services from international players to local ones. The debate is silent on what kind of support is relevant and, above all, who gets to decide. The idea of localization being managed and slowly rolled out by a coalition of willing international behemoths does not inspire confidence that it will shift the needle on systemic change any time soon.

Helping vulnerable populations in Guatemala. (Photo: WFP)

Humanitarian reform: time for an upgrade

With humanitarian reform stuck in a rut, why not set aside over-determined approaches and, instead, foster change organically, by responding to the pressures of the people the system is supposed to serve? Greater accountability to affected people is not new. As a theme among many, though, it has not exerted its full potential as a driver of change.

It’s time to upgrade an approach that currently promotes window dressing — by setting up helplines and providing basic information to affected people — and overlooks the essentials: empowerment and agency. If humanitarian donors take their lead from what affected people have to say, the invisible hand will eventually get a grip, driving humanitarian programming that better responds to needs on the ground and leads to superior outcomes.

Albert Einstein had an unflattering definition of people who do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. Decades of humanitarian reform initiatives have failed to deliver real change. Better to let go of prescriptive approaches and really listen to crisis-affected people, allowing bottom-up pressures to pave the way to transformation.

Nick van Praag, formerly of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the World Bank, is director of Ground Truth Solutions, an international non-governmental organization based in Vienna. It seeks to provide the humanitarian sector with tools to systematically listen, learn, and respond to the views of affected people.

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