Moving on from 2020, what does a humanitarian reset look like?


Like all areas of industry, the humanitarian sector has faced profound challenges due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Our traditional business models have been upended by: 

  • Restrictions on movement, social contact, and gatherings. 

  • The centrality of national governments as the de facto coordinators, leaders and instigators of crisis response. 

  • The integration of crisis responses within wider economic, political and security agendas. 

  • Challenges in fragile and conflict-affected states where healthcare systems were already at breaking point. 

Many operations continued, albeit with adaptations. But, with a few exceptions, humanitarians have failed to respond meaningfully to the wider societal fractures exposed by the pandemic. For example, Covid-19 has exacerbated many social, political and economic frailties and tensions, particularly around race. While many humanitarian organisations see this as a strategic inflection point for the sector, meaningful action has been scarce.  

Similarly, the pandemic’s global nature has created a living lab of experimentation, with the potential to learn from anywhere. However, humanitarian actors have not played a significant role in identifying or brokering such lessons. 

Last, but not least, the considerable growth in voluntarism and mutual aid has not been mirrored in aid flows, and resources have not empowered well-placed local responders. Just 0.1% of total funding reported for the Covid-19 response has gone directly to national and local NGOs. 

Despite the pandemic and its related challenges, humanitarian actors arguably have been most concerned about shoring up existing status, resources and control. Rather than grasping the pandemic as a moment to transform our way of working, the attitude has prevailed that ‘We will change what we have to, when we have to’.  

Sustained and meaningful change will take greater willingness on the part of international actors to give up power and status in favour of those living and working closest to crises, more trust in and respect for diversity, and greater levels of honesty, humility and empathy. Above all, it will demand vision and creativity, to re-imagine how the sector might work if it was shaped by a more collective and collaborative spirit. 

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