top of page

New crises, same approaches. Why aren’t humanitarians evolving?

The International System is always in a constant state of change. New variables have been introduced into the game of International Relations with the appearance and growing influence of new non state actors (mass media, public opinion, NGOs, INGOs) as well as new global crises (climate change, conflict, etc.).

Therefore, there is the expectation that the units inside the system try to adapt or adjust themselves into these new set of dynamics and evolve at the same pace of the International System. The existence of new kinds of threats and challenges implies that there is the need of new kinds of solutions and approaches. Humanitarians should take note on that and find more innovative ways to reach their goals.

New global trends have created obstacles for humanitarians. For instance, the rise of nationalism and populism contributes to the decline relevance of global governance institutions, the ecosystem where humanitarian actors feel more comfortable working in. This situation has led to the politicization of humanitarian crises, increasing mistrust towards some humanitarian actors; providers of aid are regarded as Western intermediaries, rather than as neutral assistance institutions.

These global trends are becoming barriers for humanitarian actors on site operations. In countries such as Afghanistan, aid workers have been targeted for being associated to a country’s foreign policy instead of seeing them as facilitators of assistance for population in need of aid[1]. In Colombia, on the other hand, governments have used Red Cross emblems for political motives, incurring in perfidy and producing a more complex situation for humanitarians in the country[2].

Apart from that, national governments tend to instrumentalize humanitarian crises to pursue their own political interests, hence, they attempt to handle crises with their own institutions instead of working with non-state actors with technical expertise. This represents a major problem because in general, humanitarian organizations’ budget largely relies on states’ funding.

While the number of humanitarian actors decrease in Yemen, which the United Nations has denominated as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, countries involved in the conflict such as Saudi Arabia prefer to allegedly deploy aid with its local institutions and turn a blind eye on the real necessities in the field[3]. Whereas, the role that states have held in the Syrian conflict is a clear proof of how geopolitical interests were prioritized over the real crisis on the field that accounted hundreds of thousands in need of humanitarian aid[4].

Alongside the rise of nationalism, climate change is one of the biggest challenges for the humanitarian system. Studies indicate that climate change has a direct relation with the strength of natural disasters, as well as how often they are going to happen[5]. Thus, this problematic is going to increase resource scarcity, forced migration and armed conflict[6]. Nonetheless, humanitarian organizations lack influence to improve structural vulnerabilities, force political solutions, or/and implement preemptive measures to contain the exacerbation of these crises.

With that being said, the humanitarian system is on the verge of a new crisis. The catastrophic repercussions of conflicts such as the wars in Syria and Yemen, or the imminent climate change threat are calling into question the real capacity of humanitarians to respond to this type of crisis, similar to what happened after the World Wars, the Biafra War and the Rwandan Genocide.

In all these situations, the humanitarian system fell short in creating a plan that could have cushion the enormous impact that these crises had[7]; situations that even ended on genocide. Regrettably, current conflicts are reminding the world about terrible rising statistics where the amount of people in need of humanitarian aid is progressively growing.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) more than two thirds of the Yemeni population needs humanitarian support; a total amount of 24.1 million people[8]. In Addition, Aid workers are being constantly military targeted making humanitarian work in the country even more challenging[9].

What it is worrisome is that this is not an issue that just came out of the blue surprising everybody. Back in the 80s, Ulrich Beck was writing about a concept where matters like the increasement of more complex conflicts, natural disasters and technological accidents like Chernobyl, placed the world in a risk society. During the 90’s, the international system seemed aware of risk and the necessity to coexist with it [10]. However, in the humanitarian sector there was not any future thinking to actually coexist with it or diminish the expected damages.

After 9/11, the attention was turned towards the war against terror, and the humanitarian agenda was securitized. Back then, even the most optimistic analyses previewed a turbulent world with more people in need of aid because of conflicts, natural disasters, etc [11]. Yet, the humanitarian system was incapable of building a strategy to face the upcoming challenges and in 2019, the situation seems the same.

These matters raise the need to rethink the way in which humanitarian organizations plan their work but also the necessity to rethink the whole humanitarian system. Most of the actions coming from humanitarian players consist on having resources and once an emergency happens, those resources are deployed to alleviate said crisis. This reactive approach is necessary but should not be the core of the system. To be better adapted to the contemporary challenges, the humanitarian actors should start to plan more preemptive and strategic outlooks through foresight planning and future thinking.

For example, the Venezuelan refugee crisis in Latin America was surely easy to anticipate. Nevertheless, humanitarian organizations chose to adapt a reactive approach that only started to run once the migration of Venezuelans became wide numerous.

It is impossible to accurately predict the future, but there are several methodologies that give us tools to adequately prepare for future disasters. Through scenario building and foresight humanitarian organizations can benefit from long term planning that can be better adjusted to face the evolution of problematics that are going to affect several places of the planet.

As things are going, the humanitarian system will not only face an operational crisis but a financial one as well. This new crisis is touching all sorts of parts of the multilateral system itself, within the INGOs system, actors such as the United Nations have been affected by the world’s changing paradigm: important agencies like UNESCO saw a big budget cut because of political affairs regarding its acceptance of Palestine as a member [12]. UNRWA on the other hand went through the same situation, being forced to try to bring the same results they were delivering, but this time without its biggest donor. Thousands have been affected [13].

One approach that could give a solution to overcome these obstacles and challenges is to create a more inclusive humanitarian ecosystem rather than concentrate all responsibilities, resources and duties to just one sector of the broad set of players. A united approach could help not only the actors providing humanitarian assistance, but also optimize the results by having a broader scope to work on. Bringing up more actors into the table could as well generate alternative funding opportunities and partnerships.

Taking into account that formal actors in the humanitarian ecosystem have been responsible for establishing the humanitarian narrative on the world stage, shaping humanitarian institutions and forming the structure of international humanitarian action. Thus far, formal actors such as International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs) could benefit from a network that connects INGOS on the international level with NGO and other non-formal actors at the local level.

INGOs have been a big game changer in the international system and will continue to do so if they manage to reinvent themselves and rapidly adapt to the new challenges arising from a changing international system. The need for long-term strategies in the humanitarian sector is an issue that INGOs must address.

Humanitarian organizations operate in a very volatile landscape. This is why the development of long-term strategies aimed at promoting systemic changes to assist communities escape the cycles of vulnerability is a complex issue. In order to tackle this matter, and face the challenges coming from working in short-term spaces of time, strategic foresight outlooks ranging from one to fifteen years is a must.


[1] Gibbons, T & Nordland, R (2019) Taliban Open New Front Against Aid Workers While Talking Peace. The New York Times

[2] Acosta, L (2008) Colombia usó mal un logo de Cruz Roja al rescatar a Betancourt. Reuters.

[3] Karasik, T & Spezia-Depretto, J (2019) Bombs, Then Food: Saudi Arabia’s Humanitarian Strategy in Yemen. Fair Observer

[4] Brizneda, J (2016) ¿Por qué los intentos de paz siempre fracasan en Siria? Las2Orillas

[5] Maarten, v. A (2006) The impacts of climate change on the risk of natural disasters. Overseas Development Institute; Disasters.

[6] M. Maietta, E. Kennedy, F. Bourse – Future of Aid: INGOs in 2030, IARAN – 2017, p. 10

[7] M. Maietta, E. Kennedy, F. Bourse – Future of Aid: INGOs in 2030, IARAN – 2017, p. 7

[8] OCHA (2019) Crisis Overview: Yemen;

[9] Gramer, R (2019) In Yemen, Targeting of Aid Workers Risks Unraveling Crisis. Foreign Policy.

[10] Rey, F (2005) El sistema internacional de respuesta a los desastres. Limitaciones y tendencias. Instituto de Estudios sobre Conflictos y Acción Humanitaria.

[11] Ibid (12)

[13] Amr, H (2018) In one move, Trump eliminated US funding for UNRWA and the US role as Mideast peacemaker. Brookings.

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page