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Sahal Gure Mohamed, 62, texts on his mobile phone while waiting in line at dawn to register at Ifo refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Sahal Gure Mohamed, 62, texts on his mobile phone while waiting in line at dawn to register at Ifo refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Photo credit: Internews Europe

Future humanitarian action: a new balance of risk?

by Yves Daccord
18 January 2016

A new approach to risk in favour of crisis-affected people

Humanitarians have been doing a lot of soul-searching lately – and a certain amount of handwringing. Practitioners, policy-makers and academics alike are worried about the future of humanitarian response and whether or not it will be fit for purpose in a dramatically changing landscape.

The debate has revolved largely around questions of money, principles, institutional reform, the balance of power between international and local actors, and humanitarian access. Yet a crucial factor underlying all of these issues demands much closer attention: how to better balance risk and opportunity in favour of crisis-affected people.

International humanitarian organisations must demonstrate their relevance and adapt to an ever more complex and demanding humanitarian landscape – or be totally marginalised. Faced with uncertainty, leaders at the helm of organisations will need to take bold – and sometimes uncomfortable – decisions, especially in regards to risk.

New approaches to managing and balancing risks will be a central theme of discussions in various humanitarian fora over the coming months. These include the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response meeting in Geneva in January and the World Humanitarian Summit to be held in Istanbul in May.

The global impact of the migrant crisis presses the need for solutions

Multiple, simultaneous, protracted armed conflicts and violence – increasingly concentrated in urban areas – are creating humanitarian needs on an epic scale. Compounding challenges come in the form of failing infrastructure and public services, chronic hardship, poverty and massive displacement.

Migration is set to be a defining feature of the 21st century, with people fleeing violence, economic hardship, climate change, food scarcity or – increasingly – a combination of all of these. The Sahel – where millions of people are suffering the effects of armed conflict in northern Mali and Libya, exacerbated by severe food crisis and environmental pressures – is just one region where the convergence of these trends is increasingly apparent. The pressures on receiving countries will rise accordingly. With this comes a widespread apprehension that no-one is fully immune to the effects of wars and disasters, even if they are happening on the other side of the world.

The impact of the “migrant crisis” in Europe has been significant – even though it is only part of a much bigger phenomenon, and even though neighbours of the countries of origin are far more affected. The arrival of massive numbers of migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers, on Europe’s borders brought the reality of what has been happening in Syria, Afghanistan and other conflict-affected countries into the very heart of the continent, sparking a new crisis. The need for a sustained and principled humanitarian response in migrants’ countries of origin, as well as along migration routes, suddenly appeared all the more urgent. Finding peaceful solutions to today’s decimating wars also became a more pressing concern.

Today’s migrants are anything but “passive victims”

The “migrant crisis” in Europe reveals a great deal about people’s coping mechanisms, resilience and self-reliance. Today’s migrants defy being categorised as “beneficiaries” and “passive victims”, even while fleeing war or disaster. While many are too weak and vulnerable to make the dangerous (and expensive) journey from war zones, the current exodus shows that there are many others who are no longer willing or able to wait for help to come to them. Instead, they will risk everything to reach safety and security.

Flight and migration are usually desperate measures of last resort that require a great deal of courage and resilience. The images of refugees navigating their way across Europe and communicating with their families by smartphones provide a glimpse of what the future holds: one in which well-informed, tech-empowered “beneficiaries” lead the way. At the same time, the humanitarian response offered in receiving countries by civil society, faith-based groups, volunteers and the public-at-large regularly eclipsed the often-fragmented and divided efforts of the formal system.

Innovating to better engage with partners – new and old alike

As humanitarian organisations and their leaders strive to remain relevant and effective in this dramatically changing environment, carrying out “business as usual” is clearly not an option. We need to be smarter and more innovative in a number of domains. All of the decisions ahead will require both understanding the risks involved – which may relate to safety and security, protection, trust and reputation to name but a few – and making courageous choices to balance them differently in favour of crisis-affected people.

These courageous choices should include: harnessing the enormous opportunities posed by new technologies; communicating with and empowering the people at the centre of humanitarian response in new ways; and connecting with increasingly varied stakeholders. On the last point, humanitarians should pursue partnerships with the private sector, civil society, development actors and the full range of “local” actors who contribute to a broad and diverse ecosystem of humanitarian action.

Successfully making these choices will involve challenging our assumptions and asking tough questions about our organisational models and the way in which we work. We need to honestly ask ourselves where we have humanitarian access and where we do not; where we implement activities ourselves and to what extent we work through implementing partners; and whether we are effectively outsourcing risks that we are unwilling to take ourselves.

Transformative leadership will recognise crisis-affected people as the drivers of change

Scrutiny by, and accountability to, people and communities affected by crisis will increasingly be the driving force behind these changes. Crisis-affected individuals will determine which services are required and who is best placed to provide them, depending on their own assessments of quality and relevance to the context in question. Relevance may also be tested with regards to actual physical presence – the human factor – whether it be to vulnerable people and communities living on the edges of society in middle or higher income countries, or to those in “off-grid,” constrained and complex situations of armed conflict or extreme violence. In contexts where access is a prevailing challenge, a direct and radically principled approach, entailing close proximity to affected people, is particularly invaluable.

Transformational change will need to be driven by strong, imaginative and smart leaders, who have the courage and flexibility to make and learn from mistakes, who invest wisely in staff and are ready to make the necessary structural and organisational changes. Striking a better balance between risk and opportunity will be central to these endeavours, and essential if we are to make a real difference for people affected by conflict and disasters.

Yves Daccord is the director general of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and chair of the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR). He tweets as @YDaccordICRC.

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