Rough Notes – Humanitarianism: threatened or business as usual?

A: Although I agree with the sentiment, I don’t like the question ‘is humanitarianism dead?’ – it is very clearly not, which makes the question basically a rhetorical device. Is it not more accurate (which then ties into your following arguments) to ask whether ‘traditional’ humanitarianism is becoming obsolete, or whether the seismic shifts in how humanitarian action is implemented demands a similar change to how humanitarianism is understood?

B: This raises another pertinent question – is humanitarianism a singular theory? Or are there numerous different types of humanitarianism? Rather than ‘traditional’ humanitarianism, I think the distinction is between the theory of humanitarianism and the interpretation of that theory in the practice. The theory is what some call ‘Dunantist’ humanitarianism. The idea that there are 7 core priniples that are universal. The question about the ‘death of humanitarianism’ is actually a question about whether or not the thoery of humanitarianism and it’s core principles are still applicable, relevant and universal in today’s world.

A: To play devils advocate: you argue that humanitarianism as a theory should be considered organic, and that practical or conceptual shifts do not threaten its existence. But are these challenges not exactly existential?- at what point does a thing move so far from its original conception that it is no longer recognisable? Many external and internal changes (politicisation and criminalisation of aid, the stabilisation agenda, intrusion of private sector etc) create situations that are in direct contradiction with original humanitarian principles- hence the arguments for their obsolescence.

B: What I’m arguing is that we need to respond to the external and internal changes you list by adapting the theory so that it’s implementation can respond to these changes. However, there may come a point where the theory can no longer stretch to respond to changes and stay true to itself. The universalism of humanitarianism has always been questioned. But now its also being questioned whether the theory is implementable. This questions the very validity and premises of the argument. That’s why this blog is just part of a much larger debate, that is already taking place in many corners of the world. I hope that aid leap can be part of it.

A: The issue itself is vast – so a good start! However, I think these discussions have been ongoing throughout the history of humanitarianism and are gaining in intensity as the humanitarian sector itself is growing at such a rapid pace (more people invested = more people talking). I would be particularly interested to ask what all this navel gazing achieves in a practical sense.

B: Every time I’ve heard the question raised recently its been in relation to operational problems.

C: Why would this not be ‘the right moment’? If we’re responding to a perceived threat, then that seems a very good reason to have these discussions- which surely are valuable at any time?

B: They are valuable at any time, so long as they don’t get in the way of operations!

Some comments from twitter:

@RedR_UK_Voice I think we feel its dead because those of us in “Developed” countries r having less influence an more Gov. + local NGO’s in charge

@AidWorkerJesus Humanitarianism has died. Humanitarianism is risen. Humanitarianism will come again

Humanitarianism: threatened or business as usual?

Earlier this week, Duncan Green wrote about the discussions at a recent Oxfam away day with the organisation’s humanitarian directors: With a serious emergency response occurring, with the on-going troubles in Syria and its neighbouring countries, and with the numerous debates around the post 2015 framework, it’s a challenging time to stop and reflect. Yet it is important.

Having recently been involved in several such meetings, some of the issues that Green highlighted have been on my mind for a few months now. One in particular, is the question of whether humanitarianism is dead? There is no one simple answer, and the answer is very dependent on your perspective. Are you asking this question from Slim’s Oxford Institute or from a rural base in CAR? Are you sat in the Ivory Towers in NYC or the regional hub of an INGO in Nairobi? Have you just got your first job as a nurse in a supplementary feeding clinic in your home town?FA

UN OCHA in New York has been hosting debates on this issue around the construction of the agenda for the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit. The ideas behind the Summit are framed around a need for humanitarianism to respond to new circumstances by defending its home territory. These debates have included a wide range of ideas, including the re-writing of the fundamental principles of humanitarian aid, a restructuring of the system and the more common place ‘better utilisation of technology’. Aid effectiveness is one of the four key pillars that the Summit intends to address. Some would argue that this requires not just improved practice, but also focused advocacy and policy. Oxfam and Duncan emphasise the latter.

The gradient of improvement in technological and sectoral expertise in humanitarian assistance is much steeper than the gradient for the improvement of policy achievements. Nonetheless, key moments have shown that the policy/advocacy role may be better played by local or regional organisations. For instance, without ASEAN, access to affected areas in Myanmar following Cyclone Nargis in 2008 would have been restricted for longer, if not indefinitely. Are international humanitarians the right people for these jobs: first response, delivery of aid and campaigning? If the answer is no and local or national organisations may be better placed, does this infer the death of humanitarianism, or just a need for adaptation and a new emphasis for funding mechanisms?

Personally, following the observation of all these different discussions, I see a threat to the theory of humanitarianism as we currently understand it, but not a threat to its existence. Theories and ism’s need to evolve with the world in which they are applied. Communism is different today to how it was first outlined by Marx and Engel in 1848. Humanitarianism shouldn’t be any different.

In practical terms, the response to the Haiyan typhoon in the Philippines shows that its (good ol’) business as usual. There will always be the need for humanitarian relief. Disasters, whether natural or man-made, will always occur and they become crises when the authorities or state can’t prepare or respond adequately. In these circumstances, the affected individuals have a need for external assistance.

This is just the start of a very deep debate. There are plenty of arguments for and against that need to be considered. Are we even right to think that now is the moment for these discussions to take place? Are we just responding to a perceived threat to a sector we love by new actors? The future of humanitarianism and its relevance today is a complex problem. Let’s continue the debate.

Why the private sector shouldn’t deliver aid

Delivering development and humanitarian projects is a big business, and a very profitable one. DFID will spend well over a billion pounds through the private sector in 2013-14, about 11% of its budget. This blog argues that using the private sector to deliver aid exacerbates some of the worst aspects of the development sector, leading to short-term, unaccountable aid projects.

Private sector contractors are typically selected through an open tender; competitors bid to win a contract, demonstrating that they can deliver quality outputs at the lowest possible price. Motivated by profit and drawing upon private sector expertise, contractors could be more efficient than NGOs, more reliable than local partners, and cheaper than direct delivery by DFID. It’s a seductive logic, and something we’re all familiar with; I go to the burger joint down the road because it sells the tastiest burgers at the lowest price.

However, open tenders encourage the winners to deliver aid in the worst possible way. Businesses typically win contracts for five years or less, and so have an incentive to focus on the short term. Cynically put, their economic interest is served by perpetuating the situation which they benefit from, rather than building local capacity or handing over to local partners.

Moreover, the accountability of private sector contractors is exclusively to their funder. There is no incentive to involve local communities in their work, which slows programmes down and costs money. Effective monitoring and evaluation can be deprioritised; why spend money on something which might make you look bad?

Of course, you could level similar accusations against other methods of delivering aid. In particular, NGOs are also dependent on funders, and tender for bids. Perhaps NGOs have a moderate countervailing force; they’re generally set up with an explicit social rather than financial purpose, which can affect the incentives that the staff work under. At some level, most senior managers in NGOs are required to care about more than burn rates and deadlines. In private sector contractors, by contrast, directors are often not from the development sector, and will have no institutional incentive beyond profit (even if they do have individual beliefs or desires to help). (See the comments below for more discussion on this.)

A lot of the current problems in development and humanitarian work come from misaligned incentives. The people who deliver aid have little incentive to think about the long term, to listen to or involve the people who they are delivering aid to, or effectively monitor and evaluate programmes. The only way the sector will improve is if donors think harder about how to improve these incentives, perhaps through longer-term partnerships with organisations sharing the same aims. Spending more and more money through tenders to the private sector is a big step in the wrong direction.


By ‘private sector contractors’ we mean operators that are primarily driven by a financial imperative. This doesn’t necessarily include all those working in the private sector – though if they’re not primarily driven by financial imperatives then I would view them more as NGOs.

This certainly isn’t an argument against engaging with the private sector. The private sector is a key source of income and employment, and a more functional private sector in developing countries (including increased access to multinational firms, I think) should be a key aim of development projects. That’s a very different case from saying that the private sector should be a significant deliverer of aid.

Finally, as you can probably tell, I am quite short of ideas for ways that donors and governments could genuinely align incentives so that deliverers of development aid are not encouraged to focus on short-term, unaccountable projects. Ideas welcome in comments!

Hearing Is Not Listening

“We’re fooling ourselves if we think they are listening”, the Feminist Task Force on the post-2015 process tweeted on 23rd September, ahead of the United Nations General Assembly.


The extensive consultations leading up to the General Assembly allowed for women and girls’ voices to be ‘heard’. But heard is not listened to, as Theo Sowa, chief executive of the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF), knows. She says: “The U.N. has tried to reach people but it’s the usual suspects and large NGOs who are given a voice.”

The rhetoric on women’s empowerment has never been glossier. Everyone is now in favour of women’s rights, everyone will adopt gender mainstreaming into their processes, everyone would like to measure the participation of women vis-à-vis men.

Empowerment used to have a radical meaning. It used to mean change from the bottom-up, change that required actual shifts in power. But as Sharah Razavi from the UN Research Institute on Social Development points out, the term ‘empowerment’ can be understood very differently depending on who said it. Terms can be appropriated by the international community and voided of their radical content. Empowerment used to be a synonym of emancipation , used almost interchangeably by the UN in the early days of talk of gender and the 1993 Vienna conference on Human Rights. Today, I see empowerment is becoming a synonym of the ‘participation’. Participation is of course understood and being allowed to speak within existing structures and ‘enabled’ to raise a hand in within existing power relations.

What is the problem with the cooptation of a term by one powerful community that lacks radical vision? One consequence is in the imagination of development alternatives. When we have no word to mean actual shifts in power, our collective ability to imagine those shifts in power is diminished.

The post-2015 process is lacking in creativity, lacking in vision to devise an alternate economic system which inherently supports a decent life for all. We talk in glossy terms, using emotional imaginary and the seductive language of “partnership” to designate the relationship between a CSO working at provincial level in the Democratic Republic of Congo and an oil extraction multinational with shareholders to please.

This language is deceptive for those interested in real shifts in power structures.

Let’s seriously consider how women are faring. The Millennium Development Goal 5 on reducing maternal deaths by three quarters is not on the track to being met. This is arguably one of the easiest MDGs to meet: the causes of maternal death are well known, prevention methods are widely understood, and 60% of maternal deaths are concentrated in just 10 countries. Compare that with MDGs on “halving extreme poverty” or “developing a global partnership”. MDG 5 should be easy. But the investments required are not being made. At Muskoka in 2009, G8 leaders renewed their commitment to MDG 5. However, when investment falls short, and in 2013 progress towards MDG 5 is labelled as “alarming” by the UN, the glossy rhetoric of “gender empowerment” can only ring false.

In terms of financing, AWID’s recent report “Watering the leaves, starving the roots” shows that financing for women’s organisation is not shaping up to the rhetoric on the importance of women in development processes. Will aid seriously start flowing towards women, as Justine Greening announced how important the theme is to the future of UK aid? Will philanthropists like the David and Lucille Packard Foundation be the ones who make the difference in funding for women?

The true empowerment of women will take radical transformation: both at the level of financial flows to civil society and women’s organisations, and at the level of development vision. We need to halt the empty rhetoric before we lose sight of what words are supposed to mean. And it will take more than speaking up to be heard. It takes bravery to turn up to a development seminar, and, facing the barrage of smiles and nods at the mention of ‘gender empowerment’, make a radical statement that participation is not empowerment. But as much as the development community lacks many resources, I still want to believe that courage is not one of them.

Enjoyed the blog? Please leave a comment below – and see our internal discussions and debates on it at the rough notes