Ten Challenges Facing Humanitarians

As I embark on my role as Chair of ALNAP’s Steering Committee, I look forward to dedicating time to reflect on the humanitarian sector: how it can develop, ALNAP’s role in that process, and what we might be able to achieve together.

Across the sector, humanitarian efforts continue to be associated with a sense of frustration about the slow pace of change. Vital transformations are not materialising as quickly as many would like.

In a speech to the Global Forum on Improving Humanitarian Action in the lead-up to the World Humanitarian Summit in June 2015, I outlined ten challenges that were facing humanitarians at the time. Many continue to be relevant today.

We need to collectively review progress, consider what has been achieved, and decide how to deal with the challenges facing all of us.

With that in mind, I’ve revisited my 2015 list and summarised progress – or lack thereof – in each case. I will be thinking about these challenges, along with new ones, as I begin my conversations with ALNAP's members and partners.

Photo credit: Flickr/UNDP Ukraine

  1. Reforming the humanitarian architecture to find better ways to resolve conflicts, provide early warnings, and promote timely action. Given the current circumstances – the war against Ukraine; enduring conflicts in the Middle East, Ethiopia, Congo, and Myanmar; escalating instability in the Sahel; and a continued risk of rising violence in Colombia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere – we must admit that the effectiveness of conflict resolution is deteriorating and that women and children remain especially vulnerable. There has been no significant reform of the humanitarian architecture – including ensuring respect for international humanitarian law, addressing the manner in which needs assessments are undertaken and improving the cluster system – and developments on the humanitarian front remain mixed.

  1. Placing protection at the heart of humanitarian action and holding parties accountable when they violate international humanitarian law. This objective remains out of reach. Numerous conflicts have featured shocking attacks on civilians, arbitrary or unlawful arrests, impediments to freedom of movement, and gender-based violence. During the COVID-19 pandemic, those in need were left behind and were at a disproportionately high risk. Both The State of the Humanitarian System 2022 and the review of the IASC’s implementation of its Protection Policy note systemic problems in the framing and implementation of humanitarian protection work and an urgent need to re-think this issue for both programming and advocacy
  2. Addressing the tension between humanitarian action and counter-terrorism measures. In December 2022 the UN Security Council took a welcome and important step when it adopted a resolution exempting humanitarian aid from all current and future UN sanctions regimes, a step that was hailed by humanitarian organisations. Now we will wait to see how it will be implemented and to what extent it will better support the delivery of assistance to people in relevant affected areas.
  3. The increasing gap between humanitarian needs and available funds. Official humanitarian funding has grown enormously since 2015 but has been significantly outstripped by the increase in people affected by crises. We need to find new ways to leverage alternative sources of support from diaspora populations, religious groups, philanthropists, and private capital. Zakat funds and remittances have increased, but much more effort is needed on humanitarian funding, which remains a minuscule fraction of military expenditure.
  4. Sharing the burden of countries – such as Lebanon, Bangladesh, Turkey and others – that shoulder a disproportionate portion of the huge weight of hosting refugees. Ukraine was deservedly the focus of recent international humanitarian efforts, but this negatively affected the flow of assistance to more enduring conflicts, leading to a more challenging situation for countries shouldering this heavy burden. Adopting the Global Compact on Refugees by the UN in 2018 was an important step. However, as noted by The State of the Humanitarian System 2022, many countries tended to focus on international rather than domestic obligations which may risk undermining the Compact.
  5. Depoliticising humanitarian action. A huge proportion of humanitarian crises have political causes, yet humanitarian response must be apolitical. Polarisation, populism, and anti-refugee or anti-immigration sentiments have made this much more challenging. Ukrainian refugees must be supported, but the way many Western countries reversed their refugee policies spoke volumes about what can be achieved when there is political will. Refugees from other regions who are equally deserving of protection and assistance have not been welcomed in the same way. Humanitarians have a crucial role in pursuing the depoliticisation of humanitarian work in accordance with international humanitarian law.
  6. Localising the humanitarian response. Direct funding to local organisations continues to be extremely low and local actors are still frustrated about the nature of their partnerships with large international agencies. This issue became prominent since the World Humanitarian Summit and continues to be a main area of focus for many humanitarian actors. We need to see how this momentum can be translated into significant progress.
  7. Listening to those receiving humanitarian assistance, particularly to vulnerable groups. More programmes are consulting recipients about their needs; for example, the clear advantages of cash assistance in some circumstances are now widely recognised. Ukraine benefited from the largest humanitarian cash assistance programme in history (around $1.7 billion to 6.3 million people in 2022) and it will be important to learn lessons from this programme. However, while humanitarians have made considerable efforts to improve how they listen, this remains a serious weakness of the system, noted by the outgoing ERC Mark Lowcock and continually reflected in surveys with crisis-affected people carried out by Ground Truth Solutions and ALNAP.
  8. Advancing the humanitarian, peace, and development nexus. The humanitarian and the development sectors have been overwhelmed by the increase in the number of people requiring assistance, driven by conflict and by shocks to global climate, economy, health, and food production. On the humanitarian side, the number of people needing humanitarian assistance grew from an estimated 57.5m people in 2015 to 339m people (projected figure) in 2023. On the development side, the global goal of ending extreme poverty by 2030 is no longer achievable; the largest global food crisis in modern history is unfolding, driven by conflict, climate shocks and the looming threat of global recession; and weak global public health systems have deteriorated because of COVID-19. There is no effective platform bringing the main players in the two sectors together. Without it, it’s improbable that we will make significant progress.
  9. Increasing humanitarian action’s effectiveness and leveraging technology and insights from the private sector. There is strong evidence of progress in effectiveness, and in benefiting from technological advancements and the private sector. The World Food Programme, for example, has been using advanced satellite imagery for years to increase the efficiency of humanitarian response. Private sector innovation has also advanced humanitarian effectiveness. However, with the staggering increase in the scope of needs, progress in this area needs to be much faster.

Other challenges

Of course, other challenges are also evolving.

  • Climate change-related disasters will increase risks and vulnerability worldwide.
  • The increasing use of drones in warfare and the likelihood of the use of information and communications technologies in future conflicts will affect the humanitarian context.
  • Attacks on aid workers are sharply increasing with 95% of the victims being national staff.
  • Forgotten crises are likely to be even more marginalised; and the widespread erosion of democratic norms will affect humanitarian response.

The situation is summed up in The State of the Humanitarian System 2022 which concluded that the very existence of ‘humanitarianism’ that provides essential support to people affected by conflict and disaster is under direct threat.

ALNAP’s value in this urgent conversation lies in its deep reservoir of collective learning, and its unique ability to bring together voices from across the entire sector. As we go forward, I am confident that the network will continue to build an evidence base that humanitarians can use to advocate for change, as well as provide the reflective spaces that will help the humanitarian system to overcome the obstacles that lie in our way.

Of course, ALNAP, like many organisations, is also on a journey toward greater accountability and inclusivity. I am looking forward to working with the Secretariat and the network to ensure that we are evolving and reflecting the needs of the humanitarian sector, including becoming more diverse and inclusive, and working with current and new partners to make sure we are all capturing and sharing learning, and working together across the sector.

I hope that my career focus on peacebuilding can bring useful insights to the discussion and thinking around the future of the humanitarian system in a world with increasing and intensifying conflicts.

Given the developments that we are witnessing today, history will judge all of us. In some challenges, success is imperative; in others, the best endeavour is the most a person can do. My promise is to do my utmost to advance the humanitarian cause to the best of my abilities.