The decades since the end of the Second World War have seen a significant expansion in the number, type and size of humanitarian organisations and a proliferation of players laying claim to the humanitarian cause. In part as a result, the humanitarian system is saving more lives, caring for more wounded and feeding more hungry people in more places than we could have conceived of even a generation ago. Yet despite this progress, the humanitarian system is struggling to keep pace with the growing demands of more frequent and more enduring humanitarian crises and the changing nature of conflict. “Non-system” actors—militaries, the private sector, diaspora groups, local NGOs, new or rising donors, regional organisations—are increasingly entering the humanitarian space, and new tech- nologies are changing the way assistance is organised and delivered, and the relationship between aid givers and aid recipients.
As the mismatch between aspiration and achievable results grows, the humanitarian architecture and tools are increasingly being called into question as the right way to address the multi-faceted needs in many of today’s emergencies. Despite a decade of system-wide reforms, the sector still falls short in the world’s most enduring crises, and and perceptions of humanitarian work suggest that the formal, Western “system” is not doing a good job in the eyes of the people it aims to help. Past responses to changing circumstances and acknowledged problems in humanitarian assistance have tended to be piece-meal and uneven, tweaking the current system rather than challenging the underlying structures and assumptions on which it operates. Given the challenges the system faces, incremental reform may no longer be enough.

Understanding why the formal humanitarian system is organised and managed as it is requires an understand- ing of its historical evolution, from its roots in the mid-nineteenth century to its institutional growth in the years after the end of the First and, especially, Second World Wars, and its continued evolution and expansion with the end of the Cold War and the emergence of a multipolar world. Born during the age of European colonialism and maturing in a period of unprecedented US power and reach, the formal system of UN agencies, the Red Cross Movement and the large international NGOs is the outcome, not of an inevitable and ineluctable process, but of a particular period of Western economic and political hegemony. It is, in other words, contingent on the circumstances that created it, and as such neither monolithic nor immutable. Nor does it represent the humanitarian impulse tout court: other traditions and cultures express very similar—and frequently very ancient— ideas, even if the particular trajectories these parallel narratives have followed mean that humanitarianism has taken many different forms over time. As such, humanitarian actors habitually labelled “new” may in fact have histories as long as or longer than their Western coun- terparts. They may also not subscribe to the historically evolved norms and principles that underpin Western humanitarianism.

For some, the humanitarian princi- ples of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence are universally applicable, regardless of context or culture. But like the organisations that claim adherence to them, they were established at a particular historical juncture: they are not necessarily innate or intrinsic to humanitarianism, and for actors outside the tradition that created them they may represent a Western ethos they question or reject, and may not speak to the type of “humanitarianism” they wish to espouse. Adding to this tension has been a push for greater coherence and complementarity between humanitarian and aid interventions to meet development, security and peace objectives and link emergency relief to other forms of intervention. While for some this search for coherence challenges humanitarian principles by subsuming humanitarian action under political and security objectives, the vast majority of humanitarian organisations accept a wider interpretation of their life-saving remit that includes addressing the causes of crises, as well as their effects.

In practice, humanitarian principles often sit uneasily with the reality of crisis situations and require trade-offs in their use. They also sit uneasily with the reality that most organisations engaged in humanitarian assistance, the so-called multi-mandate organisations, both UN agencies and NGOs, combine their humanitarian work with development and human rights or conflict-resolution work. To be effective, crisis response requires differentiated approaches, ranging from those based on a narrow interpretation of what constitutes humanitarian action and humanitarian actors to those based on a more expansive, flexible and coordinated form of relief. It also requires greater honesty about the way the sector frames its intentions, greater transparency about the way
it conducts its operations and greater openness to other actors within the humanitarian space.

Despite evidence that local actors and organisations are driving response in many areas, the formal humanitarian system has failed to connect meaningfully with national and local institutions and groups. As currently structured,
the incentives for such engagement do not exist: the sector’s power dynamics, culture, financing and incentive structures create compelling reasons to remain closed and centralised and averse to innovation, learning and transforma- tion. This creates unhelpful rivalries and inefficiencies within the formal sector, and erects high barriers—financial, cultural and regulatory—that stand in the way of more constructive and fruitful engagement between those within and outside the current formal system.

Aid theorists point to a persistent performance gap as long as the system remains centralised and bureaucratic, the relationships between donor and implementer, aid provider and recipient remain controlling and asymmetrical, and partnerships and interactions remain transactional and competitive, rather than reciprocal and collective. What is less clear, however, is what a more inclusive, diverse and distributed sector would actually look like, and how precisely it can be achieved.

Acknowledging that there is no single response model would be a significant step towards engaging a wider and more diverse set of actors in crisis response. These would in turn act in a complementary fashion on the basis of their respective operational abilities and the relevance of their activities in relation to the situation on the ground, without being asked to aspire to a more restrictive form of humanitarianism that does not conform to their beliefs or op- erational models. Effectively addressing people’s needs—not ideology—should dictate operational approaches and tools. Accepting that different forms of humanitarianism co-exist would go a long way towards removing the ideological blockages that prevent skilled and capable responders, whether international, governmental or local, from working more cohesively, and with the full capacity, skills and resources, to meet people’s needs. Driven by this understanding, the next era of humanitarian action must find more commonality than distinction in approaches to the way the human impacts of crises are addressed. This includes:

Letting go of power and control.

A more modern humanitarian action requires letting go of power and control by the formal Western-inspired system and reorienting the sector’s view outwards. It should ask, not “what can I give?” but “what support can I provide?” Rather than reforming mandates, this requires mindset change and the development of a more diversified model that accepts greater local autonomy and cedes power and resources to structures and actors currently at the margins of the formal system. This also requires
a commitment by UN agencies and large, multi-mandate NGOs to embrace difficult changes in the approach and architecture under which the sector currently operates.

Redefining success.

Ensuring the depth and perma- nence of future reforms means changing the prevailing humanitarian culture and incentives that work against evolution and change, and redefining success so that the longer-term incentives for mutual cooperation in the interest of crisis-affected people outweigh the short-term incentives to compete for resources and visibility. At the heart of the matter are the financial incentives set by the sector’s core and emerging do- nors, which currently drive competition among its key players and enable
a powerful few to dominate.

Remaking humanitarian action.

Finally, redefining humanitarian action requires acknowledging the specificity of different spheres and approaches, implementing more devel- opmental or solidarist responses where appropriate, while safeguarding independent and neutral humanitarian action in a limited number of situations where it is essential. This would not make one form of humanitarian action less valuable or legitimate than another, but it does require that aid organisations be explicit and upfront about the nature of their aspirations, objectives and operational frameworks, and transparent about delivery lines and methods. Acknowledging that there
is no single response model would facilitate the engagement of a wider and more diverse set of actors in crisis response, without asking them to aspire to a more restrictive form of humanitarianism that does not conform to their beliefs or operational models.

Sara Pantuliano is an internationally recognized scholar on conflict, peacebuilding, and humanitarian issues. She is the Chief Executive at Overseas Development Institute (ODI), the Editor-in-Chief of Disasters journal, Vice-Chair of the Board of Muslim Aid and a Trustee of The New Humanitarian. Sara has served on a range of executive and advisory boards, including SOS Sahel and Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre. This text is an excerpt from the Humanitarian Policy Group, “Time To Let Go,” originally published in April 2016;