Skip to main content

Time to let go: Remaking humanitarian action for the modern era

Throughout its history, the humanitarian sector has innovated, evolved and adapted to the complex challenges that have confronted it. This evolution has, however, been uneven. While there are myriad examples of significant and positive changes in approach, programming, partnerships and tools through individual initiatives and often on the ground, this progress has not been matched by the requisite changes at the systemic level: within the institutions, governance and financial structures and power relations that underpin the sector’s operations and culture. Enduring tensions within the ‘system’ – between people and institutions, voluntarism and enterprise, norms and practice, diversity and control – have prevented the conversion of the commitment and ingenuity of humanitarians into wider effectiveness. An inability to embrace the diversity of values, individuals and organisations involved in humanitarian work has failed to unlock the human and financial resources within them. This has resulted in uneven performance, both within crisis countries and globally (ALNAP, 2015).

At the same time, external changes – the evolving character of conflict and the changing nature of climate risk, the rise of ‘new’ or ‘different’ actors and the emergence of new forms of assistance and protection – are challenging the internal workings of the humanitarian ‘system’ by calling into question its assumptions and culture. Whether welcome or viewed as threatening, thought to be genuinely new or an extension of patterns and trends long under way, the concepts and practices that have underpinned the humanitarian system for decades are no longer as dominant or relevant as they were. And despite improvements in the sector’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances – market-based programming and cash assistance, national-level protection regimes, the significant contributions of diaspora communities in complex crises and the increased interest and role of regional organisations in crisis response – the formal system faces a crisis of legitimacy, capacity and means, blocked by significant and enduring flaws that prevent it from being effective. As variations in approaches to humanitarian assistance become more visible with the rise of new global and domestic actors, the formal sector’s resistance to accepting and embracing more diverse forms of humanitarianism risks rendering its norms and institutions irrelevant.