A longer version of this piece was originally published by The New Humanitarian as part of their Rethinking Humanitarianism series.

The novel coronavirus has shut down numerous countries, including Switzerland, where I live. It has also brought about important questions regarding the aid sector: what would the international aid community, long used to parachuting into a disaster, even be able to do now that the world had essentially shut down? 

As the global reach of the virus was becoming clear in late March and early April, humanitarians were trying to figure out what we could do, bracing for the impact the disease might have on some of the world’s most vulnerable places: refugee camps from Bangladesh to Greece; countries experiencing hunger and poverty amidst ongoing conflict, like Yemen and Mali; nations only starting to pull themselves out of conflict, like Sudan and Somalia. Wealthy countries with powerful states and strong health systems, like China and France, struggled to handle the virus; weaker countries were sure to suffer worse. The aid sector is now working to address these impacts with a $10 billion plan for 63 countries – the largest single appeal in the UN’s history – to support programmes from health and sanitation to supplementary feeding and nutrition, mental health, and the prevention of sexual violence. 

A slew of existential questions for the aid sector are being raised by the “new normal” of COVID-19 – overwhelmed healthcare systems, grounded planes, crushed economies, and forced changes to the very way we all live and work. 

The aid industry, as we know it today, was shaped by this common collective experience of war. Though groups like the Red Cross had been around since the mid-19th century, that moment saw the dawn of organisations dedicated to solving global problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian nature. Independent and neutral institutions would go into a troubled country, ideally with skilled professionals, and not only bring shelter and deliver food, but offer solace – humanitarians were the ones who would sit down with people, have tea, help. 

The means by which the system has gone about achieving its goals – premised largely on using Western- and Northern-dominated institutions to dictate how poorer countries solve their problems – have been objectionable to many. Voices are now being raised within the aid sector and beyond, amplifying those objections, revolting against top-down power structures and demanding change. At the same time, the coronavirus pandemic has flipped aid’s business model – deploying hundreds of outside experts to move in and assist – on its head. 

Does this moment demand a new conception of “aid” altogether? And can the industry finally acknowledge that while the premise upon which it was founded remains noble and necessary, the structure itself risks being rendered obsolete? 

‘Crises are moments of change’

The aid sector confronting these questions is not only very aware of its past failures but has made countless reforms and grand promises to correct and improve itself. 

“Crises are moments of change,” Alice Obrecht, the head of research and impact for ALNAP, says. “They make it impossible to act in the way you were acting before.” To understand where we might go from here, a look back at how the aid sector has changed over the past 25 years is helpful: from the Rwanda genocide in 1994 to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami; from September 11th 2001 to 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, and then the 2015 surge of refugees across the Mediterranean, humanitarianism has helped pick up the pieces and allowed people to restart their lives. 

Each event revealed flaws in aid’s methods but also inspired its evolution: increased professionalisation and accountability; better coordination of aid groups large and small; adjustments to new security restrictions brought about in a world changed by 9/11; alienation born of bureaucratisation; hypocrisy exposed by working inside richer donor countries that fund much of aid around the globe; and recognising the arrogance of its very presence in places capable of making decisions about their own fates. What was once a ragtag, loosely organised group of small organisations bound by a charitable ethos is now a sprawling multi-billion-dollar industry of highly skilled professionals who are so reflexively self-critical that they often lament their own identity and purpose. 

The soul-searching feels more urgent this time, though. COVID-19, as Guterres suggested, represents another historical turning point for the humanitarian sector. If World War II brought us the United Nations, what will coronavirus – and the subsequent social unrest – bring? 

1994 – Rwanda genocide: A push toward professionalism

During the Rwandan genocide, the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) was one of the only humanitarian organisations to stay in the country. ICRC’s team, assisted by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), oversaw a surgical ward in Kigali that tried to “put the pieces of people brought in by wheelbarrow back together”, says Daniel Augstburger, head of the ICRC. 

Rwanda was a watershed moment for the humanitarian sector. The UN peacekeeping force and the political powers that controlled it would be widely criticised for standing by as 800,000 people were systematically slaughtered by their countrymen in the space of 100 days. But the subsequent failures in providing assistance once the bloodshed came to an end were what rocked the humanitarian community.

In the aftermath, over one million Hutus, fearing retribution from the now Tutsi leadership, fled to neighbouring Goma, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). The humanitarians – members of NGOs and UN agencies – rushed in to provide assistance, but the complexity and sheer scale of the refugee influx soon overwhelmed the sector. Within months, overcrowded camps set up on volcanic rock that limited the ability to drill latrines, coupled with poor water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities resulted in a mass cholera outbreak that killed tens of thousands of people. 

At the same time, UN member states were unwilling to provide peacekeeping troops to ensure security inside the refugee camps where genocidaires – still armed and killing – were embedded alongside women and children, who accounted for 80 percent of the camp residents. The camps effectively became a staging ground for militias to regroup, and aid was inadvertently redirected to the perpetrators of the genocide. Aid workers didn’t understand the contextual particulars, or, even worse, willfully ignored them. Coupled with insufficient training in cholera case management, the aid community sustained a second catastrophe on its watch.

The genocide and subsequent failures of the aid sector prompted the Danish government, along with others, to commission an evaluation unprecedented in its scale – all told costing $1.7 million — known as the Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda (JEEAR). The findings were blistering, with the aid sector accused of poor coordination; low accountability to genocide survivors; and lack of preparation. 

Rachel Scott, senior policy and partnerships adviser with United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), reflecting on one of her first jobs in aid, says, “We didn’t understand ‘do no harm’ back then,” referring to the medical Hippocratic oath, which is applied to the humanitarian sector. “I have to cringe at some of the things that did do harm,” she says, like distributing powdered milk to mothers without ensuring there was clean water or first promoting breast-feeding.

As the evaluation laid out, damage at the hands of unqualified aid workers could be – and indeed was – done. The findings prompted a surge of introspection and a shift towards compliance to higher professional standards, a better-skilled workforce, and greater accountability to affected people. The subsequent years birthed the hallmarks of standards and accountability in the sector, most notably The Sphere Standards – set of minimum standards for everything from how much water people should receive per day, to how much space should be left between shelters; the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP, now part of the Core Humanitarian Standard); and ALNAP. 

Aid was no longer seen as something done just out of altruism. Rwanda revealed that the stakes were too high, and if the sector was going to go in to save lives and reduce suffering, it had better have some basic standards of professionalism: public health experts, trained water engineers, experienced logisticians. The 1990s spawned new university programmes, graduate degrees, and training courses, educating an army of aspiring aid workers who would receive the technical expertise required to fulfill people’s rights to receive humanitarian assistance. It wouldn’t be long before those professionals, and the standards the sector had worked so hard to foment, would be put to the test.

2004 – Indian Ocean tsunami: Some change, less improvement

In late December 2004, an earthquake off the coast of Indonesia triggered tsunami waves that reached at least 13 countries around the Indian Ocean. With no early warning system in place, roughly 230,000 people were killed, making it one of the deadliest disasters in history. 

The event triggered an outpouring of generosity not only from the aid sector but from the entire world. A record-setting $6.25 billion was donated to a central UN relief fund, by an unprecedented number of countries. 

But when aid evaluations were published in 2006, the findings were damning. Many expats had little relevant experience to address the highly complex social structures in the region, the findings signalled; worse, many had done their work poorly. An underestimation of local capacities and a tendency to brush locals aside entirely was found to be widespread. 

A formal Humanitarian Response Review of the global humanitarian system was initiated by the under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, resulting in new humanitarian reforms that, along with other changes in financing and leadership, delivered the cluster approach: the coordination architecture that still remains today. The system was meant to ensure that the five child protection centres that I encountered sitting on top of each other were spaced according to need, not according to convenience or where the cameras would be rolling. There was to be consistency and predictability in how responses were carried out and a designated agency to lead each sectoral response – health, water, shelter, etc. “These reforms really made a difference,” recalls UNDP’s Scott. “That was a ground-breaking moment.”

While promising, the reforms put in place at humanitarian outposts across the world came with a downside: more bureaucracy. One aid worker who was tasked in 2005 with bringing the cluster directives to life in Kinshasa, Congo, jokingly recalls how this so-called coordination system was explained to him: “I was told, ‘It’s not about more meetings, it’s about better meetings.’”

At the same time that aid was becoming more professionalized, a new global war was making it impossible for international humanitarians to even access many of the people most in need. 

2001 – 9/11: Outsourcing risk

September 11th 2001 and the so-called war on terror that followed – first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq – changed the world’s outlook on aid. The all-consuming nature of the conflict especially meant that so many Western-oriented institutions abroad could be perceived as part of the US combat missions. Then, in late October, Colin Powell, at the time US secretary of state, addressed a group of NGO leaders and referred to them as “force multipliers for us… such an important part of our combat team”: foot soldiers in the effort to win hearts and minds. 

Decades of hallowed neutrality were forever damaged. “The difference between the mandates of the military and humanitarians was once clear,” says Augstburger, formerly with ICRC. “Then the military became involved in humanitarian operations, and we were perceived as an extension of the military. You saw an exponential increase in aid worker attacks and targeting as a result.” 

Three years later, after five of its staff were ambushed and killed in the northwestern province of Badghis, MSF announced it would be pulling out of Afghanistan after 24 years, in part because “providing aid is no longer seen as an impartial and neutral act, endangering the lives of humanitarian volunteers and jeopardising the aid to people in need”. Many aid outfits stayed on though, not only accepting funding from governments leading the so-called war on terror but relying on it. 

In August 2003, nearly two years after 9/11, the Canal Hotel – the UN headquarters in Iraq – was bombed. At least 22 people were killed, including UN envoy Sérgio Vieira de Mello. “Baghdad was the realisation that we were all targets,” says Tamburini, former Action Against Hunger CEO.

Agencies began investing in balancing both their safety and effectiveness. “Before, the security officer made sure the fire extinguisher worked before he went on annual leave,” says Kevin Kennedy, former head of the UN Department of Safety and Security. “Today, he needs to know the entire political, social, and security landscape of the country. And he needs to be committed to ‘stay and deliver’.”

The reforms were indeed important but, as Tamburini explains, “it’s a massive distraction from work – the funds, time, and focus.” Suddenly, aid workers were living behind triple-canopied barbed wire compounds and driving in armoured vehicles, being trained on hibernation and evacuation procedures, being briefed daily on the security analysis. 

Tamburini disagrees with the unethical calculation many organisations often make when attempting to reduce their own risk, which he characterises as unfairly suggesting, “We need to do this project. It’s unsafe for me, but it’s ok for you.” But, as he implies, it wasn’t “ok” for local organisations: risks to these national outfits and staff rose exponentially. By ceding frontline tasks to these outfits, international aid workers could maintain operations, but it became harder to know what was really happening in the places humanitarians cared about.

2015 – Mediterranean migrant surge: Glaring hypocrisy

While the largely European-based international community was trying to help elsewhere, the fallout from some crises was turning up on its very doorstep. In the summer of 2015, the West was confronted with the human consequences of ongoing wars and economic collapse in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Northern Africa. With now easier and cheaper routes through the Balkans and an open door policy by Germany, one million people showed up on European shores and demanded entry, many travelling by foot and desperate to reach asylum in northern or western Europe. 

The aid sector was forced to adapt to an entirely new set of circumstances and rules. Agencies found themselves recalling staff overseas to tend to needs in their own countries. A mobile population further challenged the sector: aid groups would typically provide camp residents enough food to last for a few weeks, until the next distribution. But in these circumstances, large sacks of rice and big tins of oil weren’t going to be very useful. People needed small items they could carry with them on their journeys – energy bars and biscuits – similar to the cups of water you’d see given out along the sidelines of marathons. 

A lack of cross-border coordination further complicated things. Every time someone crossed a border, they would be handed a relief package by a well-intentioned aid group. Without a system to track what had been distributed at the last border, though, some people had 12 toothbrushes by the time they reached Germany. 

The aid sector had grown accustomed to working according to its own set of rules in most crisis settings. In high-income countries, bypassing the state and its institutions wasn’t going to work. The situation and its response revealed hypocrisies on all levels: aid groups that shied away from calling out poor practices by their European donors and the supposedly principled and upstanding states themselves that failed to uphold the rights they were so committed to promoting overseas. No longer could a European country wag its finger at a South Sudan for violating human rights, when all over the continent, children were being detained, families were kept separated, and migrants were forced to sleep in some of the most derelict and dangerous camps I had seen in my career. These were intentional deterrence policies – as migrants were constantly using social media to communicate with their loved ones back at home, the Europeans seemed to be making sure the message got through loud and clear: don’t come.

The behaviour of Western donor nations toward crises taking place in their territory highlighted an unpleasant reality that recipient nations likely always knew: they were happy to virtuously spend billions on vulnerable people as long as they could micromanage those crises within other nations’ borders. As Donald Trump campaigned on a promise of a wall, and European states threw up borders and turned away migrant boats, it seemed that most rich nations were happy to insulate themselves from the problems facing humans all around them – economic inequality, war, and immeasurable suffering — problems they themselves either had a hand in creating or had perpetuated through an absence of political action. 

In April 2016, the pope, standing on the shores of Greece – where 50,000 asylum seekers were left stranded in detention camps after the EU enacted a deal with Turkey to curb the large numbers of refugees arriving in Europe – denounced what he saw it for: the “globalisation of indifference”.

2016 – A changed world — and a system no longer fit to save it

What had become clear was that the formal aid sector wasn’t evolving quickly enough to keep up with the global problems it was called upon to help solve. Every time the sector had adapted to be ready to meet the requirements of the next big crisis, by the time that crisis actually arrived, the world had changed, the context was different, and the expectations were higher. 

In 2016, after years of preparatory consultations, 9,000 participants – including 55 heads of state and hundreds of representatives from civil society groups, NGOs, the private sector, and academia – came together in Istanbul for two days of meetings and discussions to reimagine aid at the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS). Then UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon framed the focus of the gathering with a new document: an “Agenda for Humanity” that outlined “core responsibilities” of the aid sector that were in need of considerable action and change. 

Among them was a recognised need to give greater control to local groups that were already doing much of the work and taking the brunt of the risk but were given neither credit nor direct funding to do so.

But by the time of the Istanbul gathering, one major positive shift had taken place. Relief in the form of cash was growing in popularity, having a transformational if not threatening effect on the sector’s business model. By replacing jerry cans, or water containers – which people didn’t necessarily need or want, and which were shipped from a warehouse in Denmark – with cash, aid recipients could make their own choices about what they needed now and what would help them rebuild their lives. Needs were not uniform, and cash allowed people to decide on their own how best to meet them. 

For a sector that clung to control and was structured around direct assistance delivery, it raised one very large question: If people could just buy what they needed, what role would there be for us?

Key humanitarian groups involved in the 2016 Istanbul gathering picked up many of the “core responsibilities” and turned them into their own agendas, framed as a Grand Bargain between donors and implementers. The goal was to incentivise key changes, with an emphasis on “localisation”. Many who were involved in that gathering and the commitments that came out of it are today dismayed at how little the results lived up to the vision, some calling the exercise more ideology than reality.

At a minimum, the Grand Bargain was an acknowledgement that major change was needed, especially to ensure that a more locally led response would meet the next global crisis, which, as it turned out, would be the coronavirus pandemic.

2020 – COVID-19: Forcing change

“The pandemic will change everything, and is forcing a ‘new normal’” says Dr. Nilab Mobarez, secretary-general of the Afghan Red Crescent. She is concerned about many things – how children will be educated if they can’t go to school, how healthcare can be provided in areas where access is limited due to the ongoing war. “Will there be a total collapse of institutions in Afghanistan where a harsh recession is expected?” she worries. “We have to resist, and define new and practical ways that help locals build resilience to get out of this disaster.”

In other places, COVID-19 has forced the aid system to accept localisation. On 6 April, Cyclone Harold, the first Category 5 storm to make landfall since the pandemic started, hit the tiny Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, affecting nearly 160,000 of the country’s 300,000 residents. The island had successfully insulated itself from the pandemic, with no cases recorded. Before the storm, officials there insisted on a three-day quarantine of any relief supplies and banned foreign aid workers from entering the country. As the storm struck, the international community bit its nails on the sidelines.

Perhaps one of the most significant effects of all the changes over all these years – the professionalization, the bureaucratisation, the lower risk tolerance – was potentially unintended: the sector was brought further from affected people, the people it was meant to serve. But eventually, in a way, that became the new goal: aid organisations would help create enough resilience within countries that they could then leave, and the next time the storm hit – as in Vanuatu – people in-country could rally together to take care of themselves.

The new working arrangements of COVID-19 suggest that these shifts may have already started. A senior UN official told me he recently surveyed his staff about their job effectiveness while telecommuting during lockdown. He was surprised to find that despite not being able to physically meet refugees, his staff felt they could still do their work effectively – tens of thousands of families were still able to receive assistance, including emergency cash. What the situation seemed to reveal is that not only had seeing affected people – talking with them and listening to them – lost importance to some, but that staff were mostly behind their laptops anyway. Only some functions and services require face-to-face contact, usually best done by local providers – making it even harder to justify the presence of internationals. 

COVID-19 may be exposing the moment when the large international groups have finally, perhaps by necessity, worked themselves out of jobs or repurposed themselves into new ones. For some crises, will anyone even notice that the big international outfits, or their staff, don’t show up or sit down for the cups of tea? Once their presence isn’t missed, will the sector be able to accept that?

The elephant in the room no more: Power

Around the world, the pandemic has revealed and exacerbated existing inequalities. The #BlackLivesMatter movement has forced a global reckoning with systemic racism and power imbalances, and the humanitarian sector is not immune to these larger movements. 

The problem with aid is the same problem the world faces in so many ways: the global economic and political systems, and therefore also the humanitarian system, are controlled by the wealthiest, most powerful countries. Despite good intentions and repeated commitments to be more accountable, share decision-making, and cede control, inertia has prevailed. 

But maybe the expectations of the system are unrealistic for its current configuration. Aid was never set up to be anything other than a supply-driven model where rich gives to poor, rich knows what’s best for poor, rich saves poor. As Donini of United Against Inhumanity notes, none of this has changed since World War II. “The triad of [Western] donors and UN agencies and NGOs still sets the stage and the terms,” he says.

Aid delivered by neighbours; local communities, mosques, and churches; local governments; diaspora remittances; volunteers; and all sorts of others dwarfs that provided by the international sector, yet it is rarely acknowledged as formal aid. “At the end of Ramadan, each Muslim, including children, is required to give two-and-a half kilos of food to the poor each day,” Maalim reminds me. “That’s more than the entire food distribution of WFP [World Food Programme]. But there’s no recognition.” 

For a long time, there was a sense that wealthy nations were immune to, or had successfully shielded themselves from, the horrors that befell other, less prosperous countries. If COVID-19 has reminded us of anything, it’s that powerful Western countries are not only as vulnerable to catastrophe as any others, but that they are often ill-equipped and incompetent in dealing with them. As the world collectively experiences a crisis on a scale not seen since World War II, this shared fate may inspire us all to think and feel differently about the present and the future. As Yasser Saad, senior change management advisor for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, says: “Our perspectives are more sensitive than usual. There’s a sense of an open wound in people’s hearts.”

Mobarez, of the Afghan Red Crescent, points to an outpouring of generosity, spurred by the global reach of the disease: “Everyone is attacked by the same enemy of COVID. The whole world is suffering. If you look at our COVID hospital, which will open next week, it’s very humble, but we want to create the capacity and infrastructure to treat people who will come, for free.” 

The financial and technical support – from her colleagues across the Red Cross Red Crescent movement, from diaspora groups, friends near and far, has come readily. “In the face of adversity, we see flourishing solidarity. When I ask, they say ‘I will’.” she continues. 

Perhaps this common emotional experience is what’s needed to commit to the kind of radical change the sector has so far been incapable of adopting. Some remain sceptical. “The bureaucracy has developed a rigidity to shocks,” says Maalim. “I’ve gone through famine and war and crisis, and the system hasn’t changed much aside from some iterations to make it more ‘politically correct’. ” 

But others, like Aarathi Krishnan, a strategic foresight consultant who recently supported the Red Cross Red Crescent movement’s global strategy process, say now is the time. “It may require more uncomfortable conversations about what types of aid are now needed and whose vision of aid will prevail,” she says. “But we are at a crossroads. For all these discussions on what is the ‘new normal’, this is the opportunity to reframe ourselves. If we don’t do it now,” Krishnan warns, “no other reform agenda will matter.”

As fresh ideas on reimagining aid swirl through Zoom meetings and online conversations, webinars and op-eds, blog posts and tweets, the moment is filled with thrilling potential. Although the “test” that Guterres was referring to back in April was most likely whether the world could handle the more tangible challenges of COVID-19, humanitarians have the opportunity to seize the challenge another way – as a chance to reshape the current multilateral system, perhaps even from the bottom up. It may no longer be a choice.



Banner image by Milan Degraeve, courtesy of Unsplash.




Jessica Alexander is a humanitarian aid professional with 15 years experience in operations, evaluation and policy. Her career includes global deployments spanning Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. She has conducted large scale evaluations, assessments and policy research for the UN, Red Cross and various NGOs on a range of humanitarian issues including: child protection, shelter, emergency education, coordination, accountability and humanitarian effectiveness.
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