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Yves Daccord at TEDxHelvetia 2012 Yves Daccord at TEDxHelvetia 2012 Photo credit: Oliver O'Hanlon

From coordination to collaboration: the future of humanitarian action?

by Yves Daccord
19 January 2015

Humanitarian action as we know it is facing the most challenging test of our time. The catastrophic humanitarian situation in Syria – that has spread well beyond national borders – continues unabated while a political solution remains elusive. Beyond the Middle East, the sheer scale of humanitarian needs in a number of concurrent, complex crises – South Sudan, Central African Republic, Afghanistan, Ukraine, to name but a few – is unprecedented.

The onus, naturally, is on those who carry arms and those who back them to stop the bloodshed and establish the foundations for lasting peace. The common violation of even the most fundamental rules of international humanitarian law by parties to armed conflict is an overriding problem. But as long as the requisite political will is lacking, it will continue to fall to humanitarians, local and international, to alleviate the suffering – a job which is becoming increasingly hard to fulfil. The magnitude of needs combined with the constraints imposed on donors by the continuing global economic and financial crisis is one reason. Money, however, is not the only factor. Clearly, the performance of a largely malfunctioning humanitarian “system” cannot be excused simply by the intransigence of those who start (and prolong) wars, or by financial constraints.

The very contradiction in the term “humanitarian system” points to one of its main weaknesses. Difficulties in humanitarian coordination, including competition between various actors, have increased as the aid industry has grown exponentially over the past two decades, giving rise at times to contradictory strategies and discrepancies in aid delivery. Efforts at reform have at best had mixed results, epitomised in some respects by the chaotic international response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. In highly politicised and complex situations of armed conflict, the challenges to effective humanitarian response and coordination are even greater – not because of the overwhelming number of organisations on the ground as in Haiti, but often because of their absence. Lack of access and lack of security – among a host of deliberate constraints imposed by parties to conflict on humanitarian actors – are among the factors that have made many organisations increasingly risk-averse, outsourcing their response to local proxies and forgoing proximity with beneficiaries.

While like-minded humanitarian organisations that are actually present and active in the field have naturally always tried to coordinate and complement each other’s activities, aiming for the best possible response to the needs in a particular context, prescribed models or mechanisms of coordination have generally not worked. Consensus among humanitarian organisations on how to improve the “system” – including on how it should be coordinated – is in short supply.

That is why, as we try to anticipate the evermore complex challenges of tomorrow and talk about reform, we need more than ever to seek answers beyond the humanitarian sector itself. We need to be more robust and more imaginative in seeking collaboration and strategic partnerships with increasingly diverse stakeholders. Reaching out to the private sector may be nothing new, but we urgently need to better harness its wealth of innovate ideas, expertise and resources. This will not only give us useful perspectives on key future trends, but also help us find practical solutions to better communicate with and empower the people we are trying to help, to ensure proximity to them and to respond as effectively as possible to their diverse needs.

There is ample common ground on which to build. Both the humanitarian and business sectors are concerned, one way or another, with the cost of armed conflict or disasters occurring in far-flung parts of the world – be it human, financial or capital – the causes and the consequences of which are becoming increasingly transnational and complex. Just as the humanitarian consequences are immense, so too are the adverse effects on business operations and investment. There seems to be widespread and growing apprehension that no-one is fully immune to crises with increasingly global dimensions.

Both are concerned with delivering quality services (or products) that are also relevant and effective. Reputation is vital. In order to achieve this, both need to have a recognised and trusted “brand” and continuously prove their worth to increasingly discerning “clients”. Even in the humanitarian world, competitiveness is spurred by beneficiaries having improved access to information and communication technologies and being able to better evaluate, compare and ultimately rank the “performance” of various organisations. Furthermore, humanitarian organisations and businesses both need to manage risks. Both are only as good as the quality and professionalism of their own staff, so need to invest wisely in them, and nurture and manage them accordingly. Strong, imaginative and adaptable leadership is equally crucial to both.

In all these areas, ethical business practice can be invaluable in informing and enhancing principled humanitarian action. Building relationships on shared core values and a desire to improve the lives of the world’s most needy people – joining forces to develop innovative approaches to humanitarian action – will moreover benefit all sides.

The crucial question of how to better collaborate and co-create humanitarian solutions with the private sector among various other stakeholders, including beneficiaries themselves, is one that will dominate in a number of key fora in the coming months and beyond. It is a key priority for the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR), meeting in Geneva in January. The question will be most certainly be a cross-cutting one at the 32nd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, also in Geneva in December, and in 2016 at the World Humanitarian Summit. Given the enormity and complexity of the humanitarian needs in crises around the world today, the need to find the right answers is no less than vital.

Yves Daccord is the Director General of the International Committee of the Red Cross and chair of the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response

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