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Is the Humanitarian Sector Outdated?

By Evie Lunn, on 31 August 2023

Amidst historical levels of displacement and urgent need, the humanitarian sector is struggling to remain afloat. Despite reaching an increasing number of people, the fragmented global aid architecture cannot keep pace with the growing frequency and intensity of suffering globally. Attempts to reform the system have only addressed surface-level issues while leaving fundamental problems unaddressed. Power imbalances, rivalries between organisations, and distorted institutional incentives have remained largely untouched. Is the sector outdated?

In order to survive, humanitarians must find a way to get ahead of the crisis curve and break the cycle. The sector’s challenges and its shortcomings were at the heart of a recent panel discussion at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR) Humanitarian Summit. There is an urgent need for innovative approaches to realign the humanitarian sector with the requirements of the twenty-first century.

Photo image of three people sat behind a table with the UCL banner on. Behind them is a video screen showing an image of themselves next to a livestream image of a fourth person.

In conversation with Professor David Alexander (left), Dr Maria Kett, (middle), Dr James Smith (right), and Stuart Kefford (joining online). Photo by Ilan Kelman

 

Funding and Power

This is a well-recognised issue, with themes of funding and power dynamics underlying much of the discourse. For example, the panellists raised concerns about donor practices, such as hiring supposed ‘third-party’ consultants that lack the impartiality needed to evaluate programs. It is a failure in accountability with no unified system for tracking and evaluating outcomes, with a significant portion of funding absorbed by administrative costs and bureaucracy.

There is a clear discrepancy between investment and impact. One of the reasons for this is that organisations have been known to inflate funding needs to secure resources, aware that they will receive only a fraction of their requests. A vicious cycle is created, where funding needs skyrocket and cash does not flow where it is needed, leading to donor fatigue and a lack of inclination to provide further support. At least 20% of funding for education for Syrian refugees in Lebanon is believed to have been lost due to donors’ preference for funding UN agencies and INGOs over giving directly to local NGOs. Calls have been made for the sector to “let go”: of power and control, of perverse incentives; to let go of divisions and embrace differences.

A Forced Hand

Could modern challenges fast-track the much-needed change? The New Humanitarian recently identified seven policy issues that could help the sector evolve. “The Ukraine Effect” has exposed deep inequalities in the system. A huge amount of money has been injected into the Ukraine response in a very short period of time, overwhelming international agencies. In comparison, other equally pressing remain woefully underfunded. This imbalance is a symptom of a sector that does not know how to communicate or manage its resources effectively. In response to the climate-crisis, eco-friendly shelter materials are now being implemented in refugee camps, climate data is being used to predict humanitarian crises, and drought-resistant seeds are being introduced to help combat famine. Humanitarians are certainly moving in the right direction, but not quite fast enough.

Beyond Funding

Are there other ways to address the issues that do not always come back to finances? An interesting proposal at the Humanitarian Summit advocated for integrating youthful voices into leadership, fostering flexibility and creativity in thinking, and dismantling hierarchical structures that hinder progress. A lack of fresh perspectives and innovative ideas from younger individuals is perpetuating outdated approaches in the humanitarian world. It seems obvious that a new, creative way of thinking is needed to overcome challenges, but the sector remains bent on trying to solve new problems with old solutions. Addressing ingrained thinking patterns within the system is essential for an innovative way forward.

Failure is an essential component of learning. But many decision-makers are understandably reluctant to commit to doing anything differently because of the high-stakes associated with failure in the humanitarian sector. Failure doesn’t just mean pay-cuts and a publicity disaster, but increased death and suffering. Any humanitarian who introduces a novel or untested idea runs the risk of living with real blood on their hands.

The Upshot

Change is possible in the humanitarian sector, but it requires an honest and comprehensive evaluation of the system. In our current climate, the gap between humanitarian needs and available resources demands collective action and commitment. Outdated approaches no longer suffice; innovative and collaborative solutions, combined with long-term planning and community empowerment, are what we need to prioritise if the humanitarian sector is to redeem itself. Aid dependency cycles need to be broken, and the spotlight needs to rest on the root causes perpetuating suffering. This shift will usher in a new era of agile, creative, and unyielding humanitarian action, dedicated to meaningful change in practice, rather than just unfulfilled promises.

It is imperative that we tackle the core issues of power imbalances, institutional incentives, and structural dynamics. The consequence of the humanitarian sector’s outdated infrastructure is a fundamental crisis of legitimacy. Only by addressing these challenges can the sector hope to achieve real change and meet the ever-evolving demands of the modern world.


Watch the full Humanitarian Summit.


Evie Lunn is an Undergraduate student on the Global Humanitarian Studies program at IRDR.

Contact Evie by email here.


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How not to prepare for earthquakes: lessons from history

By Dan Haines, on 16 August 2023

Two devastating earthquakes hit India, Pakistan and Nepal in the 1930s. Can we learn anything from history which will help reduce disaster risk today?

The takeaway: colonial officials kept improvising their response to major earthquakes instead of preparing for future events or building resilience. After independence India, like many other countries, remained focused on response and rehabilitation. Despite legislative and policy changes since the 2000s, more can be done to mainstream disaster risk reduction. Several South Asian organisations are leading the way on this including AIDMI and SEEDS in India; NSET in Nepal; Duryog Nivaran in Sri Lanka. We should support their work.


Map of the Bihar and Quetta earthquakes, indicating approximate locations of most intense damage in British India. Reproduced under a CC-BY license from Haines, D. (2023), Recovering the status quo: tipping points and earthquake aftermaths in colonial India. Disasters. 

The earthquakes struck in 1934 and 1935, when India and today’s Pakistan were still colonised by the UK. The colonial state reacted by organising search and rescue and calling for public donations to relief funds for survivors. It rebuilt roads, railways and telegraph lines.

South Asians mounted their own responses, which both supported and challenged the state’s. By the 1930s the Indian National Congress and a host of other organisations had generated a well-organised mass movement that opposed British rule.

Nationalists started their own relief fund after the 1934 earthquake in Bihar, North India. Colonial officials cooperated with them despite political differences and the worry that nationalists would gain greater public support by doing highly visible relief work. Many other civil society organisations which had less antagonistic relationships with the state also helped survivors.

After the 1935 earthquake at Quetta, Balochistan (now in Pakistan) the colonial government banned nationalists and other volunteers from even travelling to the ruined city. Instead they evacuated 30,000 people – almost the entire civilian population – by rail. Survivors were sent to refugee camps or their ‘home districts’ in Punjab and Sindh.

Nationalists protested against the travel ban and criticised the colonial army’s search and rescue operations. In response the state used repressive legislation to fine newspapers for ‘sowing dissent’.

Nervous of the challenge that nationalists posed to their legitimacy as rulers, British officials kept politics at the forefront of their response to earthquakes. The army worried that ‘the desire to make political capital’ motivated Indians who applied for permission to go to Quetta after the earthquake there. Even in Bihar officials focused on maintaining law and order, making a show of protecting state assets and private property against suspected ‘looters’.

Let’s look beyond politics. The colonial state lacked coherent policies on earthquake management. Search and rescue, relief, and reconstruction efforts were all ad hoc.

The government improvised every time it faced a big earthquake, even though it had had policy frameworks for managing frequent famines and recurrent floods since the nineteenth century: not just in the 1930s, but also after earlier quakes in the 1890s-1900s.

Sound familiar? After independence, India inherited colonial bureaucratic structures. For decades it continued focusing on emergency response and rehabilitation for survivors. That came at the cost of preparing and funding people, institutions and physical infrastructure for future crises.

The Government of India’s own Task Force reported in 2013 that response capacity was good. But major legislative and policy changes of the early 2000s needed better on-the-ground enactment to make holistic risk reduction really effective. State and district level disaster management authorities needed professionalisation and more resources.

The National Disaster Management Plan (2016, revised 2019) still speaks of the need to mainstream disaster risk reduction across sectors and departments.

So – the colonial state’s strengths in response have carried forwards through time, but so has its tendency to improvise during emergencies rather than prepare effectively for the future.

A recent assessment by Indian and UK researchers found that district-level disaster management is still stuck in responsive mode, though with improvements in efficiency.

Many NGOs in South Asia are proactively building resilience and rightly advocating for preparedness. Including AIDMI and SEEDS in India; NSET in Nepal; Duryog Nivaran in Sri Lanka. These organisations are helping regional governments to improve existing approaches and correct colonial missteps.

My lesson from history? We should continue to support their work.

Read my article, just published in Disasters, to learn more about the history and politics of earthquake response in colonial South Asia. No paywall!


Daniel Haines is lecturer in disaster and crisis response at UCL IRDR. He researches historical hazards, dam-building and international river water disputes in South Asia. He tweets at @DanielHaines1.


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