In just a few years from now, the face of international humanitarian action as we know it will be irrevocably transformed. People and communities affected by crisis – informed, connected and empowered through easy access to technology – will choose from increasingly diverse sources of aid, be they public or private, local or international, while the aid industry risks becoming precisely that: a large-scale business. The role of “traditional” humanitarian actors – beyond helping to facilitate this inexorable power shift – will be limited to pockets of “off grid” situations of protracted conflict and extreme violence, where access will be a prevailing challenge.
This vision of the future emerged from the discussions of a group of leaders from the humanitarian, business and academic worlds at a meeting of the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR) in Geneva in January. While there was unanimity that this redress of power in favour of crisis-affected people and populations must be embraced as a positive trend, it does have major implications for humanitarian organisations such as the ICRC. Even as we remain fully engaged in the here and now of our daily business, all humanitarian actors must do some honest soul searching on how we see our future role in humanitarian responses and how best to prepare for this changing reality.
But why this shift and why the apparent sudden urgency to face up to it? One major reason is of course the speed of the digital communication revolution. Since the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, when new media and communications technology were used in unprecedented ways to help the recovery effort, this domain has continued to evolve rapidly. There are now numerous examples of two-way communication mechanisms between aid agencies and beneficiaries, as well as feedback and accountability mechanisms, with many innovative uses of mobile phones, text messaging, social media and other new technologies.
Yet the shift is moving well beyond what has been initiated and controlled by humanitarian organisations. Even though humanitarians have acknowledged the importance of involving beneficiaries in the response to crisis for almost two decades now – and the concept has been institutionalised in countless resolutions, aid policies, codes of conduct and standards – practice on the ground has been inconsistent at best, with generally more rhetorical than real results. This is partly due to some genuine constraints, particularly in complex and fragmented situations of armed conflict where access and actual presence are problematic. It is also due in some cases to the perceived condescension of humanitarian actors, whose efforts to engage beneficiaries have been marked by donor-appeasing tokenism, and to services that lack quality and relevance. As a result, connected, tech-savvy and emboldened beneficiaries – or rather, consumers – will increasingly take matters into their own hands. Choosing the best service provider will be their prerogative.
Crisis-affected “consumers” will not only be able to better compare and publicly rate the performance of various humanitarian actors (with a Trip Advisor-style system), but may bypass them altogether. It is increasingly likely that they will try to access funds directly, for example through crowdfunding, giving them more control over the response. These consumers – at least those who are easily reachable in “straightforward” crises – will be attractive targets for non-humanitarian actors who will vie for their custom, offering services based on sound business models and risk benefit analysis. Risk management and insurance will feature more prominently in preparedness, planning and financing of disaster response. Quality of service and customer satisfaction will be critical. Even in complex situations of armed conflict, where other service providers may find it too risky and unattractive to venture and where humanitarian organisations may still play an important role, affected people are likely to demand increased levels of involvement in decisions concerning them. In such situations, accessing humanitarian services will remain an overriding challenge, not least since many organisations have become increasingly risk-averse and remote.
The overriding test for humanitarian organisations in light of this sea change is to remain relevant and effective to our increasingly discerning beneficiaries: the people we aim to protect and assist. In an environment where trust is a rare commodity, this means continuously proving our worth and living up to our promises. It means demonstrating the application of humanitarian principles on the ground. For the ICRC, maintaining physical proximity with those we aim to help is an essential part of this – not least because we believe that beneficiaries see this as a valuable asset too. It also means embracing change and ultimately being ready to cede decision making powers to those directly affected by crisis. It is they who will choose who they want to help them, imposing their own terms and conditions.
To this end, we need to better harness the enormous opportunities posed by new technologies; to continuously look for new ways to better communicate with and empower the people at the centre of our response, while managing the risks associated with data protection and privacy. We also need to be much smarter in how we connect to increasingly diverse stakeholders and potential partners – including private corporations, civil society organisations, academic and policy centres and many more – with the aim of co-creating innovative approaches to humanitarian action. This requires better understanding the politics not just of the shifting relations between beneficiaries and humanitarian actors, but between beneficiaries, States and non-State armed groups.
Humanitarian organisations must change with the times – which are changing with unprecedented speed – no matter how challenging, even if it means being relegated to the sidelines. After almost two decades of beneficiary “consultation”, “accountability”, “participation” and “empowerment”, perhaps the time is finally near for rhetoric to become a more meaningful reality. As humanitarians, we can only welcome and support this change.
Yves Daccord is director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and chair of the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR), Geneva.