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 / November 5, 2019 / Leave a comment
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…