The Consortium of British Humanitarian Agencies (CBHA) has rebranded as the Start Network. Several (I think four) new INGOs have joined and the focus is no longer just British aid agencies. On Tuesday (10 December) at a launch event the topic of discussion was the future of NGOs (#futureofngos trended for a while). In order to answer this question we have to first grapple with the future of humanitarianism. As mentioned in an earlier post, Humanitarianism: threatened or business as usual, we hinted at the importance of this question: asking if humanitarianism was dead?
As part of the launch Dr Randolph Kent, the Director of the Humanitarian Futures Programme at Kings College London, presented the ideas behind a recent joint paper called The Future of NGOs in the Humanitarian Sector.
The second interesting collaboration that the Start Network had recently initiated was with a new organisation called FutureScaper. FutureScaper was set up by Noah Raford and Nathen Koren whilst studying at MIT. The concept behind the company is crowd sourced scenario planning. In plain English, I think this means asking lots of people their opinion on an issue through surveys and social media and getting an overview of opinion including proposed solutions to specific issues, for almost $0.
On behalf of the Start Network they had asked 152 humanitarians from around the globe what they thought the future of NGOs was in this sector. The answers were presented in a whizzy Prezzi which either intentionally or unintentionally clearly showed the technological divide between the humanitarian and the entrepreneurial sector. Can we turn this oil tanker round with the existing drivers? The conclusions were not surprising and during the Q&A a member of the audience suggested it was describing today and not tomorrow. Later on twitter someone (Linda Poteat of ECB) suggested it was actually describing the situation in Somalia 20 years ago. But the interesting piece was the picture of the future that was described and the subsequent recommendations.
The findings were:
- Aid will be more heavily politicised
- Crises will be longer and more drawn out
- NGOs would no longer be perceived as neutral
- Physical access would increasingly be denied to INGOs
- Aid workers, particularly expats, would be increasingly targeted
- Demonstrating the impact of aid would be more difficult
- Donors’ confidence in INGOs would decrease.
This would mean:
- A decrease in the resources available to and legitimacy of NGOs
- A need for NGOs to rely on volunteers and/or locals.
The recommendations extrapolated from this were, for INGOs to:
- Be more participatory
- Broaden their portfolio and use pre-staging of equipment, staff and training
- Improve their ability to coordinate and work remotely.
The picture presented was of two types of humanitarians: the special forces and the professional amateur local civil defence groups. In some places, it could be argued this is already the case. In fact, in certain areas of the Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda affected areas of the Philippines, there is clear evidence that some communities were prepared and able to cope/respond due to the capacity and understanding of community based organisations.
Christina Bennett (ex UN) asked where the NGOs sat on this spectrum. The panellists didn’t respond. I don’t think this picture is of a spectrum. It’s two distinct groups and the bit in the middle is the State or authorities, potentially the military and maybe even the private sector. But government, military and private sector can, and should, be represented in both groups too.
This is just one answer to the question ‘what is the future of humanitarianism’? The debate continues today (12 December) in New York at the Humanitarian Symposium organised by UN OCHA. Follow #aid2025 on twitter for details of the discussion and keep linking to #futureofngos.
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