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In today's evermore complex, fragmented and intractable situations of armed conflict – Syria, Iraq, Libya, South Sudan, Central African Republic and Ukraine, to name but a few – the gap between the overwhelming needs of those affected by the fighting and the ability of humanitarian organisations to respond effectively appears bigger than perhaps ever before.
Many humanitarian organisations are conspicuous by their absence from conflict zones, seemingly impotent in the face of rampant insecurity and lack of access, blocked by States and often a bewildering array of non-State armed groups, some of which resort to extreme levels of violence. Even the most fundamental rules of international humanitarian law are routinely violated, mostly with impunity. At the same time, the "do no harm" principle once espoused by humanitarian actors to mitigate any inadvertent negative consequences of their presence – such as relief assistance fuelling war economies – seems to have been replaced by one of "take no risk". More and more, humanitarian organisations are deliberately choosing to outsource their response (and the risk that goes with it) to local implementers, retaining little or no control over the disbursement of aid and no proximity to the people they are trying to help.
Despite large volumes of humanitarian aid funding on a global level, this is concentrated both geopolitically and in terms of sector, most of it in food aid. This means that the diverse needs and vulnerabilities of people particularly in neglected or protracted crises remain largely unmet. Bureaucratic systems and processes risk eclipsing the needs of the very people who are meant to be at the centre of humanitarian response.
This has provoked some sharp criticism – and often rightly so – against the workings of the international humanitarian "system" (a misnomer if there ever was one, implying as it does interconnected parts functioning together as a whole). Challenges have come not only from writers, academics and some aid agencies themselves, but increasingly from non-western donors and recipient States, as well as emerging non-State groups, that may not necessarily adhere to "traditional" humanitarian norms and practices. Some even suggest that in today's global environment, neutral, independent and impartial humanitarian action is not just in crisis, but no longer exists. The "end of humanitarianism" has once again become the gloomy catchphrase of doomsters of the aid world.
This resurgence of what seems to be a cyclical argument certainly overstates the problem, even if the crisis underpinning it has never fully gone away. From the Biafran war in the 1960s to the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath, followed by the Balkan wars in the 1990s, criticism of international humanitarian action in armed conflicts goes back decades. The role of and interference by States, the politicisation of aid and the exploitation of humanitarian agencies – as well as the unprincipled and unprofessional behaviour of the latter – is nothing new.
That said, the gravity of the current crisis must not be underestimated. The deficiencies of international humanitarian response are now magnified even further by the pressures of a particularly turbulent and fast-changing global environment. It is abundantly clear that simply relying on "business as usual" is not sufficient to respond to today's humanitarian challenges. Bolder, more innovative ways must be found to respond in a relevant way to the greatest number of people, as rapidly and efficiently as possible.
At stake for humanitarian actors such as the ICRC is the ability to deliver humanitarian response that respects the fundamental principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence. This is critical in terms of gaining the widest possible acceptance by all stakeholders, and thereby to gaining safe access to populations in need of protection and assistance. Achieving this, however, requires being smarter and more creative in a number of domains.
One of the most crucial – and most testing – of these domains is how we seek to meet the growing expectations of the people we are trying to help and ultimately ensure our accountability to them. As beneficiaries have increasing access to information and communication technologies and can better evaluate, compare and ultimately rank the "performance" of various humanitarian actors, the more the latter will have to prove their worth and earn their reputation through relevant, effective action. Winning trust and acceptance through physical proximity to the beneficiaries is, for the ICRC, an indispensable part of this. Embracing the opportunities – and managing the risks – posed by new technologies is likewise essential, and if done smartly could certainly enhance rather than weaken a principled approach.
Another key area that requires more "thinking out of the box" is how we reach out and connect to increasingly diverse stakeholders, to which ones and why. Beyond governments and partner organisations, we must engage better with private corporations, civil society organisations, academic and policy centres and many more. The aim is to forge mutually beneficial relationships built on acceptance and trust, and to collaborate in the development of innovative approaches to humanitarian action.
A third fundamental area that needs some radical rethinking is how we invest in our own people – our main asset and the key to being able to secure acceptance and support. Capitalising on their skills, experience and diversity – be they internationally or locally hired – is more important than ever, as is ensuring the highest standards of professionalism in terms of performance and accountability. This requires a bold new approach to people management – the way in which we employ and deploy our staff – and ensuring that they are supported with the right information, tools and systems.
Humanitarianism – and more specifically international humanitarian response – may always have been in some form of crisis, but this time it may really be make or break. In these particularly turbulent and complex times, humanitarian actors need to be much more innovative and resourceful, less dogmatic and insular, yet adhere more tenaciously than ever to the principle of impartiality, at a minimum, if they are to remain relevant. The beneficiaries of humanitarian action will demand nothing less. Failure to rise to this challenge may well signal the end of humanitarianism, with a potentially catastrophic human cost.
Yves Daccord is director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)