Community health volunteers with Ebola prevention kits walking through West Point in Monrovia, Liberia. Community health volunteers with Ebola prevention kits walking through West Point in Monrovia, Liberia. Photo credit: © Morgana Wingard/UNDP

The new humanitarian basics

by Marc DuBois
12 July 2018

‘Evolution is cleverer than you are.’ These are the sage words of chemist Leslie Orgel. What he means is that evolution is smarter than any so-called ‘intelligent designer’, and therefore certainly smarter than any self-interested, paternalistic intelligent designer. Or, as Christina Bennett concludes in her framing piece for the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG)’s new series of papers: even though the humanitarian sector agrees that the system is often unfit for purpose, ‘[m]echanistic changes designed to improve processes and tools’ have ‘failed to generate genuine, fundamental reform’.

This is the jumping-off point for Constructive deconstruction, a series of projects unified in the belief that improving humanitarian action requires ‘dismantling what currently exists … and challenging the values, assumptions and incentives’ that underpin the sector. With that in mind, HPG published a trio of think pieces confronting this systemic dysfunction. My contribution, The new humanitarian basics, offers less a blueprint for an alternative humanitarian future than a rethinking of its underlying concepts and drivers. This alternative vision challenges the role humanitarians have carved out for themselves, and calls for a recast system that places the needs of people affected by conflict and disaster at the centre.

As Nan Buzard rightly concludes in the podcast launching the report, there’s not much new in many of these ideas; critics of the architecture and practices of humanitarian action have often called, as I do, for a rescoping of our understanding of crisis, particularly protracted crisis, and of our response to it. Similarly, calls for prioritising the needs of crisis-affected people have become as ubiquitous as they are ineffective. My paper is predicated on the belief that, to move forward, the system must first dismantle the foundations that hold it in place.

At its core, this will require much more restraint in ambition and action than the humanitarian system has hitherto realised. This in turn will require a change in mindset to the point where such restraint is no longer experienced as restraint, but as a norm that replaces the excess of current practice. Excess? The World Humanitarian Summit (WHS)’s call for humanitarian assistance to ‘end need’ is utter folly; rather, humanitarian action should perform a limited role of triage (responding to those most in need), acting as one small helping hand at a time of crisis, when extraordinary circumstances produce urgent needs beyond existing/customary response capacities.

We also need more south-to-north humanitarian action, to dispel the biased, false binary of a developed world of haves responding to the crises of a defective world of have-nots. Why shouldn’t Filipino or Senegalese humanitarian teams descend upon the most powerful nation on Earth to address the pharmacalisation of American childhood? Why shouldn’t that team lobby to establish a new emergency threshold for the percentage of children permitted psychiatric drugs? Or advocate loudly in the media for the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child to carry out inquiries into these grave and systematic violations?

In other words, the paper begins chipping away at a sector that unconsciously defines humanitarian crisis through a skewed lens. It suggests that the core humanitarian principle of humanity offers one way forward because it lays to ruin the humanitarian system’s profoundly paternalistic ‘saviourist’ vision of people in crisis as helpless victims. A sector with such a dehumanising foundation cannot be humanitarian; is not humanitarian.

Further, we need to explore direct measures that transform, not so much humanitarian action, but the lens through which we see it, for example by incorporating the opportunity costs of humanitarian action into our assessments of its effectiveness, or by encouraging a more global and less Western reinterpretation of the humanitarian principles.

In the end, the purpose of The new humanitarian basics is to spark a different conversation among both the sector’s central players and the external/local actors challenging their monopoly. If you want the leopard of the humanitarian sector to change its spots, don’t take aim at the leopard. You have to change the trees. The system is composed of individual aid workers’ prodigious collective intelligence, drive and vision, yet that system steadfastly ‘co-opts their ingenuity to suit its own purposes’. For the humanitarian sector, changing this means changing what’s underneath.

Marc DuBois works as an independent humanitarian analyst and consultant based in London. He previously spent 15 years in various roles with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), most recently as the Executive Director of MSF-UK.  Marc’s blogs can be found at www.humanicontrarian.com and he tweets at @humanicontraria.

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