Humanitarian action is the answer to fewer and fewer of today’s humanitarian crises

March 14, 2023

Damian Lilly

Flood view of Khairpur Nathan Shah, Mado, Faridabad, Mehar and other cities of Sindh covered with flood water in 2022

This is not an article about why there are only political solutions to humanitarian problems – no-one would dispute this. The point made here is more parochial: the comparative advantage of humanitarian assistance (at least how it is currently conceived) to address many of the world’s humanitarian crises is diminishing.

As the scale and scope of humanitarian crises are expanding, the suitability of humanitarian action as the right kind of response to them is declining. At the beginning of this year the United Nations (UN) appealed for a record $51.5 billion to meet the needs of 339 million people – a figure that has already proved to be an underestimate with the Turkish earthquake response. Global humanitarian funding requirements are rising inexorably and are likely to surpass $100 billion by 2027.

Added to the scale is the widening scope of crises. Armed conflict remains the main driver of humanitarian needs. As we are increasingly reminded, the climate crisis is a humanitarian crisis. The Covid-19 pandemic put health emergencies centre stage for humanitarian actors for a while. And political instability and economic collapse are also now seen as causing humanitarian problems, as events in Sri Lanka and Lebanon have shown.

However, just because humanitarian crises are growing in scale and scope it does not mean that international humanitarian assistance is necessarily the right kind of help needed for affected countries. The traditional model of humanitarian response is large international agencies scaling up the sectoral assistance they provide directly to affected populations; this is increasingly ill-suited to many of today’s crises.

It is not just a case of the humanitarian system being broken, but rather that international humanitarian assistance might not necessarily be the best way of responding to these situations. It is perhaps time to accept this.

When is humanitarian assistance not the answer?

In the first instance it is debatable whether many crises today should be labelled as ‘humanitarian’. While political crisis in Sri Lanka last year made a third of the population (6.3 million people) food insecure, it may not have been helpful to characterise it as a humanitarian emergency. Not only were the causes of the crisis structural, but the remedy required needed to be systemic. Consequently, the humanitarian sector found itself stuck between large-scale economic recovery, which international financial institutions were better suited to address, and small-scale community assistance better left to local groups to carry out.

Similarly, there are no clear rules about when a health emergency becomes a humanitarian crisis. The Covid-19 pandemic was unquestionably a global crisis, but was it helpful to launch a global humanitarian plan to address it? The scourge of malaria might equally justify such a response, but it has not been dealt with in the same way.

These are just two examples of how the definition of humanitarian crises has expanded, but also become more blurred, which has drawn into question the appropriateness of humanitarian action as the right response.

The magnitude of many of today’s crises is also now dwarfing the response capacity of even the multi-billion-dollar humanitarian sector. Pakistan’s floods last summer affected 33 million people in a matter of days, leaving 8 million of them homeless. The international community recently pledged $9 billion to help the country recover. The $297 million initially requested by humanitarian actors looked modest in comparison, far less than the $3 billion in humanitarian contributions provided in 2010 when Pakistan experienced a similar flood emergency.

The enormity of the Ukraine crisis has presented similar challenges with aid agencies struggling to absorb the vast sums of funding available. For example, Oxfam UK recently chose not to take all the funding provided to it through the UK’s private fundraising network, the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC).

When there is a functioning government able to provide services at scale to affected populations, it doesn’t make sense to establish a parallel humanitarian architecture. Debt relief by the World Bank proved to be the quickest way to assist the Pakistani authorities in helping their people. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the humanitarian cluster system was not activated for the flood response.

In many emergencies development actors have an increasingly important role to play and can react in ways that humanitarian actors cannot. It is not just that the World Bank is investing more in fragile countries, but it is also increasing its funding to humanitarian organisations. In 2022, the World Food Programme received $100 million from the World Bank for its food assistance and cash transfer programme in Sudan alone.

Humanitarian aid and development cooperation are becoming far more difficult to distinguish, at least in terms of the problems they respond to. It is not inconceivable that the World Bank will become one of the most important funders for humanitarian actors in the future.

The humanitarian system has always only ever been one source of support for people in crisis, varying significantly from one context to the next. By recent estimates humanitarian aid accounted for 46% of aid flows to Yemen in 2019, compared to just 1% in Bangladesh.

The realities presented above are not new, but they are becoming more pronounced. Paradoxically, at a time when humanitarian needs are at their highest level, the suitability of humanitarian assistance to address them appears to be declining. It is perhaps no coincidence that the humanitarian funding gap has grown in recent years, with appeals receiving only 53% of requirements in 2021 compared to 64% in 2019. Where international humanitarian assistance is most necessary needs rethinking in order to remain effective.

How should the humanitarian system respond?

To begin with there should be an honest discussion about what constitutes a humanitarian crisis and acknowledgement that the humanitarian sector is embroiled in a case of ‘mission creep’. While the contours of what might be defined a humanitarian crisis have always been vague it should be questioned whether, for example, a political crisis or health emergencies should so readily be characterised as such.

There also needs to be a far clearer sense of where humanitarian organisations’ added value lies. For example, it would be impossible for aid agencies to ignore the climate crisis, which has serious humanitarian consequences. But humanitarian actors are only ever likely to play a small, niche role in mitigating the climate emergency. Rather than racing to address every new challenge, agencies would be better placed to focus on where and how they demonstrably can have most impact in different types of crisis compared to other actors.

There is no doubt that the humanitarian system has been slow to adapt to remain effective in today’s crises. It clearly needs to embark on more deep-seated reforms to maintain its relevance. The current system-wide review of the humanitarian response to internal displacement provides the opportunity for a more fundamental assessment of what is not working. The starting point should be that there are no standardised approaches to the multitude of different humanitarian crises occurring today, and the humanitarian system needs to be more adaptable.

If other actors are playing a more critical role in crisis response, humanitarian actors also need to enhance their collaboration with them. The humanitarian–development–peace nexus approach requires far more radical changes to the aid system, if it is to be successfully implemented. These changes include: inter-agency humanitarian and development plans being combined to provide a holistic approach to crisis response; donors consolidating their humanitarian and development funding streams; and the UN’s humanitarian and development coordination offices becoming more aligned.

The humanitarian landscape is constantly evolving, but the assumption that this requires more international humanitarian assistance should be questioned. While counter-intuitive, the blurring scope of humanitarian action needs more attention. Humanitarian actors need to acknowledge that they might not necessarily have the answer – this is the first step to increasing their own relevance in such circumstances.


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