In his magnum opus “Empire of Humanity,” Michael Barnett traces the history and the evolution of the tenets of humanitarian work to the Italian village of Solferino, the site of a brutal contest between French and Austro-Hungarian troops in 1859.In the ashes of that war, the young Henri Dunant
founded the International Committee of the Red Cross
, which cleared the way for the signing of the Geneva Conventions, the treaties and protocols that established the standards of international law for humanitarian treatment in war. In each of the humanitarian crises that followed, the global humanitarian system came under severe pressure to evolve in order to respond to changing contexts, and learn from its mistakes. There were junctures in history, which were epochal in defining the sort of humanitarian system that we know now. In 1967, the outnumbered, poorly-led and ill-equipped Christian Igbos of Biafra seceded from the Muslim-led majority of the Federation of Nigeria. From the outset, the war appeared to be lopsided in favor of the well-armed and well-experienced national forces of Nigeria.But international sympathy towards the Igbos dragged the war out for almost three years, during which more than a million people perished, many of them children who died of starvation.
Many accounts accuse humanitarian organizations of contributing to prolonging a lopsided war by inadvertently abetting the belligerents, and by being ill-prepared to respond to the crisis.For many international NGOs founded after World War II, Biafra was the crucible moment in defining the kind of organizational capacities needed to mount an effective relief effort.Ever-growing humanitarian needs
In succeeding years, as humanitarian responders braved the perils of complex emergencies that ranged from natural disasters to conflicts, epidemics and famine, they were met with some of the most constricting trammels that have to do with the organizational, the operational, and the contextual. In 2005, governments and international agencies came up with what came to be known as the Hyogo Framework for Action, which puts the emphasis on: first, ensuring that disaster risk reduction is a national and local priority with a strong institutional basis for implementation; second, identifying, assessing and monitoring disaster risks and enhancing early warning; third, building a culture of safety and resilience at all levels through knowledge, innovation and education; fourth, reducing the underlying risk factors; and, finally, strengthening disaster preparedness for effective response at all levels.In no small way, the lessons of the past shaped what was to be a crucial document in the conduct of emergency response — the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability of 2014, which was signed in December 2014 in Copenhagen, Denmark.These standards put people affected by the crisis at the center of humanitarian action, and set out the voluntary and measurable standards for principled, accountable and high-quality humanitarian aid. By 2013, the number of humanitarian crises had doubled on what there were a few decades before from 200 to 400 per year. By 2016, conflicts such as those in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and South Sudan had reached new record highs in terms of forced displacement (65 million people), while disasters caused by natural hazards had affected 89 million people.Recent United Nations estimates reveal that climate-related disasters alone are happening at a rate of one per week; and, unlike cyclones Idai and Kenneth in Mozambique and the drought in India, many have been happening without media attention.Nearly 132 million people across the world will need humanitarian assistance in 2019; and to do so will probably require US$25 billion, according to the United Nations.What must change
As the need for humanitarian action grows, the ability of the humanitarian sector to fulfil these needs is under great pressure.Given geo-political, demographic, and environmental trends, one can surmise that this gap can only get wider in the decades to come.We are still so far from where we need to be. As successive State of the Humanitarian System reports show, over the past two decades, issues of sufficiency, effectiveness, relevance, and appropriateness have nagged the humanitarian sector. Although coordination has slightly improved, efficiency in terms of time and money saved have not. Overcoming these challenges requires the sector to revisit the way it works, which has become well entrenched.Three changes need to happen. First, from a constellation of states, donors and international organizations that revolve around the U.N., the humanitarian community must rethink its actions, its traditional structures of coordination, cooperation, and funding. We need to allow new actors to sit at the high tables, and imbue debates with fresh thinking.Second, we must veer away from a hierarchical, top-down approach and increasingly see the problems from the ground up, keeping in sight the importance of local actors. For example, in the recent Ebola
epidemic and extreme drought in Africa, we saw the remarkable human toll, which was alleviated in no small way by community health workers, village elders and teachers — yet we hardly ever see them, much less hear their views, on the news.This was also true in the case of local organizations in Myanmar that had been assisting the internally displaced people of Kachin
for six months before the U.N. was allowed access. Lastly, we need to reinvent the way we raise funds for humanitarian efforts and the way we allocate the funds raised.Most non-traditional donors are still visibly absent from existing global donor co-ordination forums although their share in funding has increased over the last few years. Private sources have increasingly accounted for a growing share of NGOs’ humanitarian income; yet, only during the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit did we see the spotlight beamed on them.In that momentous occasion, Ban Ki-moon exhorted the humanitarian sectors to go "as local as possible and only international as necessary."But response has been somewhat tepid, as direct funding to local and national responders only grew by less than one percent by 2017, making the target of the Grand Bargain signatories to channel 25 percent of funding to local actors by 2020 almost impossible.The future is here and now
The good news is that there are organizations willing to fill the localization and innovation void. The Margaret A. Cargill Foundation, for instance, has carved a niche in the sector by supporting local organizations that are responding to underserved and forgotten crises, and helping them prepare for future catastrophes.The IKEA Foundation, working with academic institutions like Australia Deakin University, has chosen to invest in the continuing education of humanitarian leaders. Over the past few years, I have also had the privilege of working with specialists of big corporations like VISA and AXA XL to find solutions to some of the intractable pre-existing vulnerabilities that affect poor communities.Our hope is a future where humanitarian needs become more manageable by addressing the development issues that make the poor vulnerable and hamper their ability to cope.Indeed, the journey that started from the roads of Solferino has been long and arduous. Millions of lives have been saved, but sometimes at huge costs to those who responded to the humanitarian imperative.Countless others have been brought back to the path of peace, recovery, and, development. Yet the better world for everyone is still far from reach. The landscape from the time Dunant found his epiphany has changed remarkably.The new landscape is still foggy; but as it begins to clear up, the humanitarian community is confronted with new, exciting opportunities as well as difficult choices down the road. Whatever it becomes will be shaped by the kind of choices that we make right now.Dante Dalabajan is a senior manager at Oxfam in the Philippines. He holds a graduate degree in Public Administration at Holy Trinity University, and a postgraduate diploma at Australia Deakin University’s Center for Humanitarian Leadership. The opinions he expresses in this article are solely his own.
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