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Preparing for the future - what does this mean for humanitarian organisations?

A reflection from Gareth Owen, Humanitarian Director at Save the Children UK, on the state of humanitarian action moving forward.


Time to read: 5 minutes

The question I get asked the most these days in in response to a shifting global landscape is ‘how must humanitarians adapt?’ 

The honest answer is: I don’t think we entirely know yet. As Alan Bennett says in the Play The History Boys, ‘there is no period so remote as the recent past’ – the point being it is still too soon to place recent momentous events in historical context. 

 But it seems fairly certain that we are at the end of the two-decades long period of expansive humanitarianism that marked the start of the twenty first century.  

If true, diminishing financial resources will likely herald a return to a more humble and basic understanding of the primary humanitarian task – saving lives. A task that seems increasingly urgent today. 

The root of humanitarianism is a revulsion at human suffering. Inhuman horrors should deepen our humanity, not numb us to it, and always trigger us to act despite the many challenges, obstacles and risks. 

So, our first instinct must always be the same – humanity, humanity, humanity. As Phillipe Gaillard, Head of ICRC Delegation in Rwanda in 1994, said, humanitarian action is about ‘injecting a measure of humanity into situations that should not exist.’ 

Current events in Gaza, Ukraine and elsewhere starkly demonstrate the limits of classical humanitarian philosophy, its perils and paradoxes; and inherent hypocrisy. The humanitarian ‘bandaid’ temporarily stems the bleeding but it can never be a substitute for the justice that might eventually heal the wound.  

Adherence to the core principles is an operational method of gaining access to those who need our help, but we don't hide behind them. We don't bring principles down as shutters to create a fantasy bubble that distances us from the pain-filled real world.  

We have to contend with reality, not avoid the truth, as to do that would be to inflict another form of injustice.   

As Antonio Donini points out in The Golden Fleece, his 2012 book on the history of the manipulation of humanitarian aid  by powerful states – ‘current global trends and forces that generate a need for humanitarian action can be neither redirected nor significantly contained by the humanitarian enterprise itself.’ In other words, power will always act to defend its strategic interests. But I agree with Donini when he says this does not mean that humanitarians are  less committed to a more compassionate, just and secure world.  

Rather that they have become very disenchanted – as Dr Simon Western has described it - with the inadequacies of the current, Western dominated system, which seems very stuck and rather immune to change.   

Organisations are becoming more realistic and more aware as they contend with rapid change and the current global landscape is reminding humanitarian organisations that their first obligation is always to be effective in saving and protecting lives that are in imminent danger, and not to subordinate that imperative to protecting other institutional interests.

Ultimately it comes down to the subjective practice of acquired wisdom and the constant  navigation of difficult dilemmas - a fraught process in today’s world. It takes serious moral courage.  

We have to think seriously about the structural limitations of the current dominant humanitarian model because it isn’t working as intended – one long lifetime since the end of the Second World War, humanity seems to have collectively forgotten why we came to together to create an apparatus of international humanitarian diplomacy that was intended to rid future generations of the scourge of warfare.  

Can we reclaim the humanitarian soul that seems to have been lost? I think we have to believe it is possible. The belief that human life has universal value and has the right to be sustained in dignity must always be worth championing.  

At its heart then, humanitarian action is about hope and human connection and finding ways to turn that into purposeful action. 

All the hypocrisy and double standards doesn’t mean that we should give up on hope, but I do think it means we need to actively decouple the totality of global humanitarian effort from the limiting institutional forms that dominate the endeavour. What gets in-grained in institutions tends to grind on ad infinitum  and I’m afraid at the moment that is a culture of risk aversion and compliance obsession, which is really the defensive bureaucratization of fear, shame and guilt. Hardly the most creative and inspirational version of events. 

The dominant organisations will need to reform and evolve to be less dominant – and some, like Save the Children are genuinely up for going down that route – but it will take considerable time for the system to truly change and it may not even work. 

Meanwhile, in addition we should celebrate the logic of creation and build new endeavours that might eventually take over, looking beyond the conventional space  to seek out new partnerships and develop broad alliances well beyond the institutional norms.  And I can personally testify that it is possible. 

It has been a great source of personal joy to have had such comprehensive strategic permission from board level down to attempt this both / and approach in  my time as Humanitarian Director at Save the Children. It has allowed us to incubate not just the HLA, but also Elrha, the Start Network, the CCD and of late the Alameda Institute. But that is just the beginning as far as I am concerned. 

I’m not sure we need to wait for any more external stimulus to start to think more radically about change. We must think differently about the future of humanitarian action and to look to inspire a new consciousness among a new generation of humanitarian leaders. 

A new world order is emerging but it has not fully arrived yet and so we find ourselves between paradigms and looking for alternative models.  

I think this can be a very creative space if we allow ourselves to embrace the search and not constantly resort to the tired logic of reform. 

Awareness is the key – we are in radical times and that demands bold new ideas, a different leadership mindset and a much more soulful way of connecting to each other as humans.  

We need to take inspiration from unusual sources, go on tangential journeys of discovery, look to the creative arts where the human soul runs more freely than inside the traditional institutions and the control and risk obsessed major state donors. 

If you show up with a humanitarian heart and a curious, compassionate and courageous mind I don’t think you can go too far wrong.