Responding to Changing Needs: Can the humanitarian sector adapt to the "new normal"?

17 December 2014

CAR, Syria, Iraq and South Sudan, Gaza, Ebola… For some time now, humanitarians have been talking about the 'new normal': a more vulnerable, unpredictable world, more prone to shocks and crises. We will probably look back at 2014 as the year this stopped being new, and became all too normal.

At the Montreux XIII Retreat earlier this month the discussions resonated around this ‘new normal’. Heads of several major international humanitarian organisations as well as senior officials from peace-building, development and the private sector met to explore ‘game changers’ in humanitarian aid, to develop radical and innovative ideas for changing the way the sector works, all to better save lives and protect livelihoods.

We were commissioned to write the discussion paper for Montreux, which proved a fascinating and stimulating exercise. We found that though the drivers of humanitarian needs have changed considerably, and the sector has grown, the emphasis within the sector has been on incremental rather than transformational improvements.

At the heart of our paper ‘Responding to changing needs?’ was our framing of four distinct models of humanitarian responses – or as we referred to them, the four ‘C’s. From our perspective, the humanitarian system needs to deliver each of these models – and others that may arise – when and where they are needed, and as well as possible.

  • the Comprehensive model: here humanitarians attempt to strategically and operationally substitute for the domestic response because of the inability of governments and local actors – a good example is the Haiti Earthquake response
  • the Constrained model: here humanitarians are severely limited by domestic actors, government and others, who may be creating the crisis and / or actively restricting the delivery of aid – Syria is perhaps the most pertinent example
  • the Cooperative model: here humanitarians need to work in close collaboration with domestic national and civil society actors - the Philippines and Indonesia are good examples
  • the Consultative model: here humanitarians fill gaps in nationally-managed responses, typically in developed countries. Good examples are the Japanese tsunami of 2011, or the Sichuan Earthquake in 2008

The key purpose of game-changing improvements should be to make the system more open, more flexible to deliver these diverse models and therefore better adapted to different contexts. More details of this model can be found in the presentation below.

Making improvements to humanitarian practice: from better operations to a better system

What can we say about how these models work in practice? The picture is rather uneven. The international humanitarian system tends to operate as a rather blunt instrument, typically working to apply the comprehensive model in all contexts. The reality, however, is that different crises demand different ways of working, and the sector as a result is often found wanting. Humanitarian aid is not well suited to the fragmented and diverse landscape in which it finds itself.

This was brought into stark relief by Sharon Agduma of the Philippines Government’s Mission to the United Nations who spoke in Montreux about how the international response to Typhoon Haiyan was welcome at first (when a comprehensive model was needed), but in the recovery phase was found to be poorly adapted to work through local structures (when there was a need for a more cooperative model).

So, how can we tackle this problem? As we argued in the paper, the international humanitarian system isn’t broken, but it is under considerable strain. The positive news is that there was a good sense of how to strengthen responses, by thinking through each of the four ‘C’s in turn:

  • In relation to comprehensive responses, which will no doubt continue to be required in many settings, the sector must get better at the things it has long been pushed to do: pay attention to context, be more coordinated and less wasteful, be accountable to and shaped by recipients, and be connected to the longer term perspective.
  • In constrained settings, the sector needs to think and act politically, both in relation to the crisis context, and the actions of the wider international community. It needs to be more realistic about what it, as a relatively small player, can actually do in settings where humanitarianism is actively and purposefully limited by much more powerful actors. And more concerted action would also help here – in such settings the sector must try to be united even if it is not uniform.
  • In the collaborative settings, the sector needs to get much better at getting out of the way, of working in partnership, of being a facilitator rather than a deliverer of assistance. This will require modifications in the structure of aid arrangements, and a more open attitude to working with different actors, new principles, new boundaries, new values, and ways of working. It means moving from humanitarian assistance to humanitarian cooperation.
  • And in the consultative responses, the humanitarian sector might do best by responding wherever possible to the stated needs, and learning as much as possible from the work of national responses in developed countries, and cross-fertilise lessons for the international community.

These examples illustrate that it is possible to bring about better operational responses - and indeed we heard examples of all of these types of changes at Montreux.

However, it proved a much harder proposition to discuss these sorts of practical solutions at the level of the overall system. When we attempted to do so, we were left with more questions than answers.

How can we make the system more flexible and better adapted to these different contexts? What would a better system, that enabled these four models (and more) to be deployed as necessary, actually look like? Would it even be one system? 

Are we even the right people to think about this, or should we be bringing new and different actors to challenge and push us into new ways of thinking?

Watch this space…

What seemed clear is that for truly game-changing improvements, we need to be able to continue these discussions, because a day and a half is simply not long enough to get to grips with such far-reaching questions. Fortunately, the conversation doesn’t end there. Montreux XIII forms part of an ongoing dialogue, which will be taking more shape and substance over the coming months, with several meetings related to the WHS process including a major Global Forum in June 2015.

Many of us believe that ‘business as usual’ will not be sufficient for the international humanitarian community to adapt to the changing landscape in which we find ourselves. But changing from business as usual will not be easy and it will require all of our collective energy and creativity to rise to the challenge. 

Whether we are up to this challenge still remains to be seen.