Humanitarian action in a changing landscape: fit for purpose?

This op-ed by ICRC Director-General Yves Daccord was originally published on February 4th by




For more than a year now, the spiralling armed conflict in Syria and its devastating impact on people in and beyond the country has dominated the international spotlight, with still no end to the suffering in sight. While there are many other internecine conflicts causing immeasurable suffering, far from the media's gaze, the situation in Syria encapsulates some of the key challenges facing humanitarian actors today.

The widening gap between humanitarian needs and the ability to deliver an effective response is one such challenge. On the one hand, the needs of people affected by armed conflict and violence are growing in scope and complexity, compounded by the worsening global financial and economic crisis. Poverty and hardship have effectively become more entrenched and chronic than ever, just as dwindling resources are putting governments (and humanitarian organisations) under unprecedented pressure. On the other hand, constraints to humanitarian access - be they military or political in nature - are making it increasingly difficult to address those needs. Syria is just one dramatic example, where the civilian population across the entire country is suffering the consequences of the intensifying fighting, yet the response of humanitarian organisations - facing major political and security constraints - falls dramatically short of the needs of the population.

While the decreasing proximity of humanitarian organisations to the people they claim to help is partly due to security constraints, and partly due to national sovereignty concerns and host government control of aid, there is another major reason. This is the deliberate choice of most UN agencies and many large international NGOs to effectively outsource their response - and the risks associated with it - to local partners. As the chain from donor to UN agency to international NGO to local partner and eventually to beneficiary becomes longer and longer - with the monitoring challenging this entails - this raises important questions about the efficiency and effectiveness of the overall response, especially about who has final accountability for ensuring this. It also means that a first-hand perspective of the real needs and resilience of beneficiaries is lost.

Another key challenge, and a prominent feature of today's humanitarian landscape, is the increasing decentralisation and fragmentation of humanitarian response, further fuelling the sometimes rampant competition between actors . This trend has rendered traditional coordination mechanisms all but obsolete, replacing them more and more with local, flexible arrangements tailored to a specific context. While this is largely welcome - and the diversity among emerging humanitarian actors should be embraced - the challenge in such a crowded environment is to clearly distinguish and separate principled humanitarian action from pure relief assistance. Whereas the latter may have military, political or economic objectives underpinning it, the former must always be based purely on actual needs. Blurring of the lines between the two ultimately complicates or hinders impartial humanitarian access to people on both sides of a conflict for all actors. To this end, the principles of humanity and impartiality must be the minimum common denominator among all humanitarian actors, regardless of their particular mandate or approach.

Principled humanitarian action is nothing more than an empty mantra unless it is translated into a meaningful response on the ground. Humanitarian organizations, including the ICRC, need to carry out an honest self-appraisal of their capacities and limitations, with a real commitment to match fine words and good intentions with effective action. Effective and meaningful coordination must be based more on genuine transparency and accountability than on ever-more refined mechanisms and procedures of coordination. We must all be realistic and unambiguous about our available capacities in situations of emergency, including about where we have humanitarian access and where we do not, and about where we implement activities ourselves and to what extent we work through implementing partners. In the case where we delegate activities to partners, to what extent do we monitor these activities? Are we effectively outsourcing risks that we are unwilling to take ourselves? How do we assess needs? To what extent, if any, do we integrate beneficiaries into our action?

For the ICRC, there is clear recognition of the need to better connect with other responses - through operational partnerships within and beyond the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. The need to build a broader support base through engagement with more diverse stakeholders is essential to strengthen the acceptance, perception and relevance of humanitarian aid. Failure to do so will create a risk of being marginalised by the state, military forces, civil societies or faith-based organisations. Lack of acceptance could also have negative repercussions on the security of staff in the field.

There is also a need to invest more in our workforce, and the way in which we manage, support and retain our staff. Striking the right balance of diversity, developing leadership and striving for the highest professional standards are crucial in a workforce that is increasingly required to respond in highly complex and demanding contexts.

The overriding challenge is to keep pace with changing humanitarian landscape at a time when humanitarian needs are so vast and so complex, yet the resources to address them are so constrained. The pressure to "get it right" in terms of coherent, effective humanitarian response is acute. This is the time for humanitarian actors to cement their common ground, to make the most of their differences, and move forward with a genuine commitment to filling the gaps and avoiding duplications of humanitarian aid; a genuine commitment to effective action rather than words; and to make a real difference for people affected by ongoing and emerging humanitarian crises. Only then will humanitarian aid be fit for purpose in a tumultuous environment with evermore complex needs.