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A new humanitarianism for the modern age

New players are leveraging solidarity, technology and private money to change the future of emergency aid. Will the entrenched system resist these changes or make space for others?

By Heba Aly  

A new approach to aid is needed. Photo: PA

Four years ago, I interviewed the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Stephen O’Brien, then in charge of a multi-million-dollar process to reform the way emergency aid was delivered. It was the run-up to the UN’s first ever World Humanitarian Summit, aimed at transforming the lives of those most affected by crises.

I asked O’Brien, a former British politician, about his vision for how the international emergency aid apparatus should evolve to better respond to a changing landscape, in which the traditional system was struggling to cope with rising needs and in which the UN was losing its role as the primary custodian of humanitarian response.

“The premise of your question actually is not correct,” he told me. “The UN doesn’t have to change.”

The interview would go on to trigger protests by many donor countries, frustrated at the UN’s reluctance to meet demands for reform, and reinforced my own perception that despite some good intentions, this mammoth aid machinery is largely unable to address its fundamental flaws: it is expensive, inefficient, unaccountable, and with power concentrated in the hands of the few, far from the communities most affected.

Despite the time, attention and money invested in the World Humanitarian Summit, progress towards the key goals of devolving power and money to local responders, taking a longer-term view to crisis response, and involving the people affected by crises have been slow and inconsistent. What’s more, few within the system have acknowledged the power dynamics blocking real change.

Mainstream humanitarian aid—the $29bn in annual funding provided by a few key governments and channelled through a hegemony of UN agencies and international NGOs—is entrenched.

But a new wave of players in humanitarian response—we call them “new humanitarians”—is emerging. From the private sector to citizen volunteers, they are challenging the means, methods and motivations behind humanitarian response and showing hints of a more pluralistic future.

Leveraging solidarity, social media, technology and new money, they have demanded a seat at the table and a voice in the conversation.

Take Jerome Jarré, a young Vine and Snapchat celebrity, who decided to use his influence for good and started “Love Army,” a movement that raised more than $2m in 48 hours to respond to the threat of famine in Somalia.  He derides UN agencies for being too removed from the people they are meant to help, calling their heavy branding in crisis zones “disgusting” (for their part, more mature aid organisations see the likes of Jarré as amateurs who lack the principles and professionalism of a sector decades in the making).

Or take the World Bank’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation, which now channels 40 per cent of its investments to least developed countries and fragile states. Or the response to Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas, in which tens of thousands of hot meals were prepared by cruise ships and a celebrity chef. Or the dozens of micro-NGOs in Venezuela that took on the role of the state providing medical care in Venezuela when international aid agencies were not allowed in.

In many ways, humanitarianism has been democratised. It is no longer the exclusive domain of governments and the UN—nor is it only about disaster relief and aid delivery.

We at The New Humanitarian have been chronicling what humanitarianism means in the modern era—and the sector’s fraught transition towards addressing root causes instead of providing band-aid solutions; building the capacity of local responders instead of delivering one-year projects year after year; and making space for others who may have more money, capacity and, yes, even soul for the job.

Tara Nathan, executive vice president at Mastercard, who heads a team charged with creating solutions for people in developing countries and crisis zones, has often heard the traditional critique against the private sector, which similarly points to a lack of humanitarian principles guiding its involvement. But she is tired of having to justify her presence in this space: “I would love to see a world where we all just consider ourselves humanitarians.”

These insurgents are already transforming the way the world responds to crises. The question is whether the traditional players work with or against them.

Read the rest of the pieces from our special Future of Aid report here

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