Jeff Delgado, USA

This piece is contributed by Nick van Praag, a humanitarian specialist and director of Keystone’s Ground Truth programme.

A slew of statistics released this week by UNHCR points to a rising tide of human misery as the number of refugees and displaced people continues its upward trajectory. But, as Jeff Crisp of Refugees International points out, the latest numbers beg as many questions as they answer. They are hard to verify, often out of date, and they ignore the millions of people displaced by natural disasters.

Understanding the scale of the challenge is of course important but the imperfections in the data could lead a skeptic to conclude that population statistics are part of a shock and awe approach to humanitarian measurement that is about as useful as body counts in the Vietnam war.

The bigger problem is that the focus on the size of different cohorts of displaced people – from refugees to internally displaced and protracted ‘caseloads’ – obscures the fact that behind the rounded-up numbers are millions of individuals whose direct experience of displacement should be tapped rather than reduced to confusingly differentiated masses yearning for the support of the humanitarian community.

While some still cling to the big numbers, the message from the front lines is that this needs to change. Talking at the UN’s annual humanitarian meeting in New York this week, Nigel Fisher, the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syrian emergency, called for an approach that replaces the prevailing notion of charity with a service culture that treats uprooted people not as the passive (read grateful) recipients of aid but as individuals who contribute a lot more to their own relief than most people are aware — and want more say in how they get back on their feet.

One of the most insistent proponents of this kind of thinking is IRC president David Miliband. His call for fresh thinking on humanitarian action focuses on both the architecture of the system as a whole and, equally important, on testing new approaches. The best way to create the relevance and quality that’s needed is to make sure programs include the perspective of the affected people.

Ultimately system change will only come if we consistently treat displaced people as individual human beings rather than a tide of aggregated humanity.

Nick van Praag directs the Ground Truth programme and leads Keystone’s work in the humanitarian space with the support of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the IKEA Foundation and the Conrad Hilton Foundation.