Humanitarian Response: Evolution or Revolution?

Dale Buscher is senior director for programs at the Women’s Refugee Commission, where he leads the organization’s work on refugee livelihoods, youth, adolescent girls, gender, and disabilities.

Dale Buscher
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Some 68.5 million people are currently displaced by conflict and crisis: war, persecution, and human rights abuses. Sixty percent of them are living in urban areas rather than the camps we all visualize and assume all refugees live in. And 85 percent are hosted by less developed countries, where the per capita income is less than $5,000. In other words, they are hosted in the very countries least able to provide for them—or even for their own citizens, for that matter. On average, these populations are displaced for 20 years, a generation. The humanitarian aid given to provide for these populations is now in excess of $25 billion a year and, even with that, it’s barely able to meet the most basic of their survival needs. 

Taken together, these statistics paint a bleak picture. The world has changed. Conflicts continue with no end in sight. Think of Somalia, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria. People don’t return home—at least not quickly. They’re fleeing in ever larger numbers: five million Syrians into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt; a million Rohingya from Myanmar into Bangladesh; three million and counting from Venezuela, spreading out across 16 countries in South and Central America and the Caribbean. Clearly, our traditional supply-driven, emergency response of food aid, cash, tents, and blankets is inadequate and unsustainable with populations this large, displaced for this long, in some of the world’s poorest nations—countries like Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, Chad, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh. In short, the combination of these factors means that we need to completely rethink how we do humanitarian response. 

Historically, in every new large-scale emergency, international agencies like the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) rush in, set up shop, solicit funding from primarily Western governments, and begin the business of “helping.” Lives are saved. People are fed. Children are vaccinated. Eventually, schools open. Health clinics start providing more than immediate life-saving assistance. The situation becomes a “managed emergency,” and then and there it often stalls. As the UN Emergency Response Coordinator recently stated, “In Darfur, we’ve done a one-year emergency response fifteen times.” As the situation becomes increasingly protracted, donors begin to lose interest, the media attention dries up, and, as a result, the large international NGOs begin packing up and moving on to the next emergency. The money follows the media attention, and the international NGOs follow the money. Without huge amounts of private donations, it is the only way such NGOs can survive and sustain their organizations. 

This model is expensive, and it is unsustainable. Yes, lives are saved, but little is fixed. Almost nothing is solved. Humanitarians are, as has been stated by researchers and academics, in the business of “administering misery.” We keep people alive, but we don’t restore dignity, we don’t give them hope, we seldom open doors to long-term opportunities. 

How do we going about changing this? How do we begin to work differently? First, let’s stop doing “for people” and start doing “with people,” and by this, I mean with those directly affected by the crisis and conflict. We need to couple our emergency response needs assessments, which can incentivize vulnerability—that is, the more vulnerable you make yourself appear, the more likely it is someone will help you—with strengths assessments, which early on identify the skills, expertise, and experience that exist within the displaced population. We need to identify the doctors, the nurses, the midwives, the teachers, the engineers, the farmers, and the childcare providers, and tap those skills to help shape and lead the response. 

Several years ago, I was leading an assessment on urban refugees in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Sitting around a table with some 20 refugees originating from Mogadishu, Somalia, I asked them to introduce themselves and explain a little about who they were. One after another they said their names and added “and back home I was a doctor,” “I was a teacher,” “I was a nurse.” 

The most interesting part of that conversation was what they then said: “No one has ever asked us that before. No one asked about what we did and what we know. We want to use those skills. We want to help our own community.” As disheartening as those remarks were, more distressing was the fact that at that point, they had been, on average, displaced in Addis Ababa for 10 years. 

So, to start changing the humanitarian system, first we need to start using refugees’ existing capacities to drive the response and solutions. They should lead and be in the driver’s seat, with international NGOs and UN agencies in the backseat, serving as conduits to resources and providers of technical assistance. This will require a completely new model of working. No more big-footprint international operations, but rather small, lean support teams—something far more cost effective, with responses that will be more culturally and contextually appropriate, and far more sustainable. Those displaced by the crises will be using their skills, building their skills, and transferring their skills to their community members and their children, and maintaining and strengthening those skills for use when they are able to return home and rebuild their communities and lives. 

Second, we can change the system by promoting refugee livelihoods and self-reliance early, everywhere, and with everyone. Historically, in the early weeks and months of emergency response, we provide “life-saving” and “care and maintenance” support to the displaced—this can be in the form of food aid, payment of health costs, shelter support, and cash assistance. These types of support can continue for weeks, months, or even years. Given the length of displacement and its increasingly urban nature, we need instead to focus on employment and entrepreneurship opportunities from the start. The sooner we help refugee households get back on their own two feet and able to buy their own food, pay for their own health care costs, and pay their own rent, the sooner we can stop providing Band-Aid assistance, which is both costly and untenable. 

This means facilitating access to the local job market. It means supporting the development of refugee businesses. It means advocating for an enabling host government policy environment. Yes, in many countries, refugees do not have the right to work, but everywhere refugees are working—even if relegated to the informal economy where, in many places, the majority of local citizens also work. We need to assist refugees to avail themselves of whatever opportunities are allowed, and push for ever more rights and access. When refugees work, everyone benefits—local economies grow, employment opportunities for host country nationals begin to expand, and, if allowed to work in the formal economy, the tax base also grows. Most importantly, refugees’ dignity, choice, and potential for better futures are also restored. 

Third, to change the system, we need to tap into the way the world has changed. Technology has revolutionized our lives, but it hasn’t yet revolutionized the humanitarian response. It has facilitated the rapid expansion of cash transfers, as mobile technology has made transfers possible virtually everywhere, but it hasn’t yet led to the longer-term, sustainable changes needed. So, what else should we be doing now? A few possibilities spring to mind. We should create digital IDs for refugees that can facilitate access to services and follow them anywhere, using blockchain technology to prevent identity theft. We can facilitate refugees’ access to free online university courses, such as massive open online courses (MOOCs) like edX, to expand their knowledge and skills. And we can expand outsourcing of income-generation opportunities, especially for refugees in remote locations and in places where women’s access to the public sphere is limited by cultural norms or safety issues. Such jobs might include coding, IT support, and working in call centers. Some of these things are already being done by Techfugees and Refugees{code}. Those programs need to be expanded—especially in the less-developed countries where most refugees are hosted. 

Furthermore, we should use social media platforms to get information directly into the hands of refugees, via the channels they are already using. For example, we can share and disseminate information about their rights in the host country, such as registration processes, available services, information on the asylum application process, where to report protection concerns, and so on. We should also change how we serve refugees. Why can’t doctors in North America and Europe, for example, diagnose and provide treatment options for refugees over the web? Why can’t we connect employers located anywhere in the world with potential employees, for instance help them find refugees in Uganda or Kenya or Bangladesh who possess the requisite skills for jobs in North America, Europe, and Australasia? 

Finally, in our rapidly changing world, we need to continually assess how evolving technology can be used to make humanitarian response more effective and more efficient, as well as assess how that technology could be used to improve the lives of refugees. What is the potential of 5G mobile service in these contexts, for example? How might that technology allow humanitarians to work smarter? How might it impact refugees’ daily lives? What about other forms of artificial intelligence? What about robotics? We are on the verge of the next development and economic revolution. We need to make sure those left furthest behind—including refugees— benefit, and that the technology helps us level the playing field, expand opportunities, and contribute to the transformation of the humanitarian system. 

Humanitarian response has evolved over the years, from handouts and simple charity to one focused on addressing needs identified by the populations. It’s time for the next evolution, from working with those affected by crises to working for them, and letting them lead. It’s time for humanitarians to get out of the driver’s seat.