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ISTANBUL, TURKEY - 23 MAY 2016: General View of the High-Level Leaders’ Roundtable on “Investing in Humanity” within the World Humanitarian Summit. ISTANBUL, TURKEY - 23 MAY 2016: General View of the High-Level Leaders’ Roundtable on “Investing in Humanity” within the World Humanitarian Summit. Photo credit: OCHA / Berk Ozkan

The case for letting go of humanitarian reform

by Nick van Praag
10 February 2021

For all the earnest talk about reforming the humanitarian system, there is little to show for it. This collective inaction problem is entrenched but there is a pathway to change – if we are prepared to adopt a less prescriptive approach.

While there’s consensus that the humanitarian system is under stress, successive waves of reform over the past couple of decades have failed. Five years after a laundry list of changes were agreed upon at the World Humanitarian Summit, ODI’s 2020 report on the Grand Bargain underscores the ‘failure to address long-standing challenges that have inhibited positive change’.

Central to this failure is a tendency to veer from one initiative to another on an ever-changing fix list, with aid executives solemnly debating what is needed to get their house in order without questioning whether that house is fit for purpose. The result is that the top-down supply chains and unequal relations that characterise humanitarian action remain firmly in place.

Since the summer of 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement has galvanised thinking about racial and social justice; now the humanitarian sector is going through its own BLM moment. The focus is on diversifying representation in aid agencies and decentralising the centres of humanitarian influence. Greater diversity in staff and governance is vital and decongesting humanitarian hubs like Geneva may have merit. But then what? Is it fair to expect a slightly more diverse, geographically spread leadership to overcome the ‘us and them’ colonial character of humanitarian action built up by their predecessors?

Cash assistance could act as a reset button by putting money – and the control that comes with it – directly in the hands of affected people. But it has yet to realise its potential for changing the system because the growing market for cash provision has been cornered by a subset of aid agencies determined to maintain their sway.

Localisation of aid provision also gets a lot of airtime. Its focus, though, is on a marginal shift in responsibility for the supply of humanitarian services from international players to local ones. The debate is silent on what kind of support is relevant and, above all, who gets to decide. The idea of localisation being managed and slowly rolled out by a coalition of willing international behemoths does not inspire confidence that it will shift the needle on systemic change any time soon.

With humanitarian reform stuck in a rut, why not set aside over-determined approaches and, instead, foster change organically, by responding to the pressures of the people the system is supposed to serve? Greater accountability to affected people is not new. As a theme among many, though, it has not exerted its full potential as a driver of change. It’s time to upgrade an approach that currently promotes window dressing – by setting up helplines and providing basic information to affected people – and overlooks the essentials: empowerment and agency. If humanitarian donors take their lead from what affected people have to say, the invisible hand will eventually get a grip, driving humanitarian programming that better responds to needs on the ground and leads to superior outcomes.

Albert Einstein had an unflattering definition of people who do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. Decades of humanitarian reform initiatives have failed to deliver real change. Better to let go of prescriptive approaches and really listen to crisis-affected people, allowing bottom-up pressures to pave the way to transformation.

Nick van Praag is the Founder and Director of Ground Truth Solutions.

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