Covid-19 futures in humanitarian action

September 29, 2020
Urvashi Aneja and Marc DuBois

For many, the coronavirus pandemic’s novelty, deadliness and potential persistence mean we are facing a new ‘historical divide’ of BC and AC – before and after Covid-19. Reviewing scores of blogs, articles and reports as part of the MSF Reflection and Analysis Network, we found considerable evidence that the humanitarian sector (if not the world) sees itself as poised at just such a critical juncture – yet little agreement as to the direction of travel (more/less authoritarian, more/less interconnected, more/less green, more/less local). Still more pressure to change comes from the anti-racism movement, bringing powerful calls for a sectoral decolonisation.

Given this attention on Covid-19 and calls for the transformation of power dynamics within the aid arena, we identified several key issues, themes and challenges that we think need to be addressed in the months to come.

The human touch. Or not?

Over the past 20 years, a number of critics of aid have challenged the way technology, securitisation (i.e. ‘bunkerisation’), tight budgets, HQ centralisation and other forces have combined to push humanitarians ever further away from the people and communities they intend to serve. Given movement restrictions and the reduced international presence in many countries due to Covid-19, the pandemic has been accelerating the uptake of humanitarian programming by national and local NGOs, or national and local staff of international NGOs. Within the context of ‘localisation’, the outbreak is being widely seen as forcing international humanitarian agencies to allow local agencies into the front yard.

The positive impact on localisation, however, may be undermined by the second way Covid-19 is acting as an accelerator – the increased use of individualised technology, often health-related, to manage the crisis. Will coronavirus tracking apps in humanitarian contexts pave the way for mobile health technologies?

Direct action through mobile technology would allow international agencies to maintain or reseize control over operations that ‘risk’ being or have been ‘lost’ to localisation. This technology thus benefits INGOs that are socially and geographically distanced from the services they deliver, but proximate to and networked with the purveyors of the technology. Aid delivery through an app allows for an escape from INGOs’ doomed role as expensive brokers between Western donors and local ‘partners’. Technology will increasingly act as the new intermediary, allowing ‘direct’ interaction with populations in crisis and patients. Superficially, this seems no different from the video healthcare consultations we are growing used to in the West.

Yet, this technological disengagement raises a question central to humanitarian ethics: is healthcare still humanitarian if, by design, there is no human proximity? No human-to-human relationship, but rather a mediated, therapeutic one? Is healthcare not different from humanitarian healthcare? Even if highly accurate, are machines and algorithms humanitarian? Is the pandemic allowing the bedfellows of authoritarian rule and big tech to ensure that we bypass that question? What of the operationalisation of humanitarian principles in a context where any local footprint is replaced by virtual contact?

Networked humanitarianism?

Though often ignored in the way we think about humanitarian action, there is nothing new about the way people and communities have organised to respond to crisis in the absence of government or other services. The pandemic has given rise to extraordinary caregiving, mutual aid, neighbourhood solidarity and other forms of citizen or collective action. This suggests the further development of the citizen volunteer as a first and frontline responder. This notably intersects with widespread action against social injustice, as sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement. What will happen to this local civic action as the pandemic ages (or dies off)? Can ‘local citizen initiatives’ sustain their momentum after the immediate crisis subsides, and can grassroots networks ‘build broader reform coalitions around national political debates’?

Pressing further, two related phenomena seem interesting. First, the novelty of Covid-19 means that the response begins with a generic playbook, but without an authoritative response manual that descends via experts from Geneva and New York. This produces both a greater need and more space for local innovation and South to South or local to local sharing of experience. As Dr. Mohammad Musa, the executive director of BRAC, puts it: ‘The Global South has great experience on which to draw … Solutions that rise up are better than those that drop down’. Second, there is a considerable likelihood that the Covid-19 response will in some contexts primarily take place not in formal health facilities, but in community- or family-based settings, with informal (at best) carers as opposed to trained healthcare workers.

An obvious conclusion is that the dissemination of information needs to be both scaled up and innovative. Initiatives exist, for example to increase low-cost smartphone ownership and cellular coverage, and the WHO is using WhatsApp to disseminate information. These are positive developments, but they’re still only halfway points on the road to a more functional network humanitarianism. To leverage this opportunity, we need to create the structure upon which a network can develop, where exchanges of information, supplies and so on can enter.  Paul Currion [1] Paul Currion, author of Network Humanitarianism. Email correspondence, 17 July 2020. concludes, ‘This is where international organisations should be looking – really leaning into becoming hubs through which resources can flow more easily – not simply funds but also knowledge’.

Risk awareness

The Covid-19 crisis was not unforeseen, and for years now pandemic flu has been at or near the top of governmental and corporate assessments of risk. Experts have warned that it would come – and they were right. These same experts concluded that, for example, the US, the UK and the Netherlands were the most prepared countries in the world – and they were wrong, and wrong in a way that suggests the need for a new understanding of the factors that create such risk. How have humanitarian health agencies or disaster preparedness specialists discussed and prepared for a pandemic (or if not, why not)? More generally, what does this failure of intelligence reveal about the sector’s understanding of fragility, and hence of emergency preparedness? Given the potential of Covid-19 to collapse health systems, humanitarians might need to reconsider their frameworks for establishing agency-level analysis, preparedness and role.

Adaptability trumps predictability

What does it mean that the experts get it so wrong? It means humanitarians need to think differently about the future. Instead of attempts at predicting the future or developing specific contingency plans for likely outcomes and scenarios, a different approach stresses proactive positioning by developing a capacity to anticipate and adjust to (mitigate or capitalise upon) shifts. For example, spotting trends/changes by establishing a wide network of interactions to monitor and sift information across a diverse network. That advice seems particularly useful in our siloed sector. Additionally, how might we better prepare by exploring multiple desirable futures, and do so through the lens of multiple values? How might we engage different perspectives and design for diversity?

Many of the conversations around the humanitarian sector over the past decades can be characterised as involving wicked problems: interlocking difficulties, without clear boundaries, where addressing one problem can lead to another set of problems. One key effect of the pandemic crisis has been to reveal the level of interdependencies in the world, and hence the complexity of maintaining stability. Finding a resolution to a wicked problem is complex because multiple stakeholders view the problem differently based on value or moral position. Addressing wicked problems is thus often not a question of more or better evidence, but addressing value conflicts in complex and interdependent systems. This crisis underlines the need for investing in systems thinking, which accounts for experiences, beliefs and evidence.

Mentality and mindset

Many futuring exercises are based on identifying and tracing exogenous drivers of change to then consider possible futures. However, the tremendous uncertainty around both pandemic trajectories and related socio-economic trajectories makes it hard to follow such an approach. The futuring literature also suggests that we look to mindsets, and how they influence the change process. Mindsets sit below and inform the structural dynamics and systems that are emerging (see the iceberg model, below). A recent report by Forum for the Future categorises these mindsets:

  • Transform, which sees the crisis as an opportunity to build back better: planetary health is human health, our fates are deeply interconnected, deep change is actually possible, desirable and happening, we cannot go back to ‘before’.
  • Discipline, which attempts to return to a pre-pandemic normal through stricter controls: greater control is required to maintain public health, safety and security and to revitalise growth and global interconnections.
  • Collapse, which sees there is not enough to share: we must retreat to the protection of our own kind, we must prevail over others, others are tainted and going down, them being kept out means more for us.

While these are not the only mindsets we could identify, they provide a framework to think through what changes lie ahead, and which are driven by or responsive to a particular mindset.

Applied to the humanitarian sector, each of these mindsets could point to different outcomes around some of the issues and crossroads typically associated with post-Covid futures. For example, a ‘discipline’ mindset would envision the growing influence of digital technologies for surveillance and control – tracking goes under the skin or becomes biological. It could also point to the rise of populist governments and a decline in liberal democracies. What would such a scenario mean for a humanitarian organisation? Similarly, what would a ‘transform’ mindset mean internally for a humanitarian organisation? In theory, it should improve the likelihood of more decentralised forms of governance, a zero-carbon transition and anti-racist policies. A collapse mindset could lead to a decline in global humanitarian budgets and increasing trade protectionism. How would an agency prepare internally for the impact on funding and supply chains?

The Iceberg model From the Iceberg open access tool
From the Iceberg open access tool

While exogenous drivers of change are unpredictable and uncontrollable, there is an opportunity for leaders and managers within organisations to cultivate particular mindsets that correspond to particular visions of the future. This involves paying attention to mindsets to create opportunity for change. If organisations can identify futures that seem preferable from the perspective of organisation objectives – there is an opportunity to work toward changing organisational mindsets in the present so as to improve chances of moving towards the desired goal.  For example, leaders can demonstrate optimism about the future and regularly emphasise the opportunities likely to arise, which will in turn help shift mindsets and make transformation more likely.


Certainty exists. The international crisis sparked by the Covid-19 pandemic will consolidate and accelerate existing trends, it will stifle and spark, it will present new challenges and it will stress aid agencies in entirely predictable ways. Uncertainty also exists. We can safely predict that major shifts in the economic, political, health and humanitarian spheres will occur, yet we can only guess at what they will be, and where they will lead. This suggests that the more important investment for humanitarian agencies lies in the capacity to shape now how they will function in the future. No humanitarian Nostradamus necessary.

Marc DuBois is an independent humanitarian analyst/consultant based in London, and the former director of MSF-UK. His critical perspectives include a look at the overly siloed humanitarian thinking  and a proposed rethink of humanitarian aid.  Prior to consulting, Marc spent 15 years at Médecins sans Frontières, and is the former Executive Director of MSF-UK/IE. Marc blogs regularly at

Urvashi Aneja is Co-Founder and Director of Tandem Research and Associate Fellow Chatham House


Comments are available for logged in members only.