This edition of Humanitarian Exchange features articles on how the humanitarian system can more effectively address and respond to chronic vulnerability, with a focus on Malawi and Niger. Chronic vulnerability refers to an enduring susceptibility to the effects of external shocks on life and livelihoods – a shock that is not acute or transient, but constant and cyclical. In Southern Africa and the Sahel, this vulnerability is shaped by an admixture of problems, including food insecurity, HIV/AIDS, climatic variability, weak governance systems and unremitting poverty. Combined, these factors mean that many households and individuals live permanently on the edge of crisis.

The articles in this issue illustrate how chronic vulnerability challenges the humanitarian system. In particular, it demands better information, so that appropriate responses are developed to mitigate and address the human consequences of emergencies. We have effective early-warning and vulnerability systems, but gaps need to be plugged if chronic vulnerability is not to lead to hidden crises. As one of our contributors argues, information and analysis are not a luxury, but a prerequisite.

In their article, Lisa Arrehag, Alex da Waal and Alan Whiteside revisit the ‘new variant famine’ thesis, and conclude that, in Southern Africa, we are witnessing rural populations being ground down into chronic destitution as HIV/AIDS coincides with drought and a breakdown in governance structures. The article reinforces that the challenge for governmental and non-governmental humanitarian and development agencies is to alleviate the effects of immediate crises, while preventing and better preparing for future ones.

One of the lessons that emerges from the articles published here is that understanding chronic vulnerability and preventing and responding to slow-onset emergencies requires humanitarian and development actors to work together more coherently and collaboratively. This means that agencies, donors and governments need to have a level of flexibility and responsiveness (as well as the political will) to adapt their long-term, developmental policies and interventions in a timely fashion to address immediate crises. At the same time, several authors point out that social protection entitlements and more sophisticated market interventions have a role to play in alleviating and preventing emergencies from occurring.

The first of this issue’s policy and practice articles explores the implications of the international court in Sierra Leone for the relationship between humanitarians and human rights practitioners. The practical issues raised in the article should help agencies reflect upon the implications of international criminal trials for their humanitarian operations. The article by Xavier Crombe from Fondation Médecins Sans Frontières analyses humanitarian action under situations of occupation, and the changing attitude and approach adopted by MSF France.

Other contributors focus on issues of organisational learning and management. Paul Currion reflects on changes in approaches to information management within the humanitarian community since the establishment of the humanitarian information centre in Kosovo in 2001. Nigel Clark argues that it is time for humanitarian agencies to get serious about training managers for emergencies. Other articles discuss disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programming within the context of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Sudan; the peer review process adopted by the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR); and the provision of post-disaster housing in Tamil Nadu.

Issue 33 articles