The Past, Present and Future of Humanitarianism

The first speaker in this session began by observing that the notion of ‘humanitarianism’ had meant different things to different people at different times. Most recent narratives of the issue accord a central place to the Red Cross movement, and many discussions of the concept revolve around the humanitarian principles associated with and promoted by that movement.

Since the ICIHI undertook its work 30 years ago, the speaker pointed out, there has been an enormous expansion in the discourse on humanitarianism. What is striking about the Commission’s final report, ‘Winning the human race’, is how little jargon it contains and how non-technocratic it is when compared to more recent literature. The report also adopts a strikingly broad understanding of the concept of humanitarianism and addresses a broad range of issues, going well beyond those of international humanitarian law and the provision of emergency relief.

In many respects, the speaker suggested, the key humanitarian issues are longstanding and recurrent ones, revolving around questions related to who should be prioritized in the provision of assistance, how access can be gained to those in need, and how organizations engaged in humanitarian action should relate to political and military actors. But those questions get asked in different ways, and the answers proposed to them are very much shaped by their era.

The speaker suggested that one word to emerge strongly from previous sessions of the conference was been that of ‘crisis’. We had heard, for example, about a ‘crisis of compliance’, a ‘protection crisis’, a ‘refugee crisis’ and a ‘crisis of humanitarianism’ itself. Significantly, however, we had not been talking about a crisis of nuclear proliferation and arms control, an issue that was high on the agenda of the Commission at the time it sat.

Turning to a second speaker, the chair asked whether, as many commentators have suggested, the humanitarian sector is ‘broken’. Is such a gloomy analysis justified, and if so, can that sector be fixed?

Responding to that question, the speaker suggested that the humanitarian sector is facing many challenges, some of them longstanding and others relatively new. Those challenges derive in large part from the contradictions of the context in which we work. The world is more developed and wealthy than it has ever been, and yet its natural environment has become ever more degraded. The world’s economy is growing, and yet humanitarian resources are seriously constrained. Opportunity has been globalized in many respects, but so too has vulnerability. These conditions have generated a great deal of turbulence and volatility for the humanitarian sector at both the policy and operational levels.

The speaker went on to suggest that the humanitarian sector cannot be described as being ‘broken’, because it has responded to new challenges. The sector has expanded exponentially, has become more diverse in character and more professional in its approach. At the same time, the sector’s growth has not matched the demands made upon it. It remains top-down and technically obsessed. And it has to function in a context where global governance is failing, especially in relation to the maintenance of international peace and security.

The speaker went on to suggest that the humanitarian sector is not satisfying its key stakeholders. Those engaged in the implementation of humanitarian operations are preoccupied by the limited resources available. Those who are trying to coordinate the sector are disturbed by the duplication and waste generated by the self-interest of individual agencies. Actors based in the Global South, the ‘the invisible workhorses’ of the sector, feel squeezed, sidestepped and exploited. Most importantly, those who receive assistance regard the sector as opaque, unpredictable and difficult to navigate. They feel either ignored or over-consulted, but never genuinely listened to.

Looking to the future, the chair asked whether the political context of humanitarian action will inevitably become more difficult in the years to come. Can we expect to encounter more populism, more nationalism, more inequality and more people claiming that we have to look after the people at home rather than supporting those who are in need in other parts of the world?

The next speaker did not share such pessimism, arguing that democratic political systems had proved beyond all doubt their superiority in meeting the needs, demands and aspirations of their citizens. Even so, such societies often found it difficult to express support for policies intended to lead to the redistribution of resources from wealthier to poorer countries and individuals. These objectives will not be attained unless civil society plays a leading role in making the case for a more equitable sharing of resources, income and assets at the national and international levels.

Concluding the discussion, a final speaker asked “where is the human voice in our discussion of humanitarian issues?” They pointed out that there appears to be a growing fixation within the sector on numbers, data, analysis and analytics. “But is this not distancing the humanitarian community from the very people that it is claiming to serve. Why is their voice missing?”