Blurring the humanitarian – development divide

[This post can be found here, on The Guardian’s Global Development Professionals web pages. Thanks to the GDPN team for their work.]

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which announced last week it is pulling out of the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), is not the only organisation to feel anxiety about the event. When the summit launched, it promised to transform humanitarian action. Now it seems more likely the summit will confuse it to death.

Number four of the five core responsibilities set out for WHS, in UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s report One Humanity: Shared Responsibility, was that we should tear down the divisions between humanitarian and development work. He proposes merging the two, aligning humanitarian action behind the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and shifting its objective from delivering aid to ending need.

To most ears, I imagine that sounds pretty good. Inspirational, even; as thoughtful and as grand a dream as one can have. To my humanitarian ears, well, I hear alarm bells going off. And so did MSF.

The WHS misjudges the extent to which the distinctions between ‘humanitarian’ and ‘development’ form the lifeblood of the humanitarian endeavour. Making the SDGs the common overall results and accountability framework amounts to making over the ultimate goal of humanitarian action. Would you want ambulance teams to aim at strengthening the hospital system or improving nutrition? No. Should humanitarians be held accountable for ending hunger? No. They should be held accountable for feeding people who are starving.

To be fair, the UN secretary general’s diagnosis of the problem strikes a depressingly accurate chord. The humanitarian/development divide imposes institutional divisions onto the real world of people in crisis. The urgency of food, water, healthcare or shelter needs in Syria or eastern DRC displaces but does not diminish the longer-term hopes and aspirations of people in terms of wanting economic progress, a functioning healthcare system or political empowerment. Short-term and long-term problems intermingle, perhaps especially in crisis situations and complex emergencies.

The aid system, for its part, functions in what research shows to be well-anchored structural, financial and cultural silos. Each are convinced of their own moral superiority and effectiveness, and the two sides do not talk to each other, often not even within the same organisation. Slap the label of “humanitarian crisis” on a situation and it becomes difficult to undertake development work. This has a particularly pernicious effect in protracted crises such as in South Sudan or eastern DRC, where humanitarian work resembles a 20-year series of one-year projects. The UN secretary general is right in thinking the system can and should do better. He is wrong in proposing convergence as the answer.

The humanitarian imperative is defined by the principle of humanity. In simple terms, its purpose is to fix the human being, not the system. Humanitarian action is thus defined as addressing the immediate needs of people caught up in crisis, by delivering relief aid and delivering it in accordance to the principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence. Ultimately, development and other long-term goods may be more important but to humanitarians they must remain goals of secondary value.

Why is this humanitarian specificity so important? Because the overwhelming majority of humanitarian needs are generated by war (the UN secretary general’s report puts the figure at over 80%) and war makes access tricky. To reach people in conflict, humanitarians have but one power, the power of trust. The people with the guns and bombs must be convinced that you seek to fix humans full stop. Distrust will flare if you come with an agenda to address the causes of their suffering, reinforce national authorities or stabilise fragile states. Building clinics for the Afghan government might support the SDGs, but the Taliban see it as part of a military and political strategy. That means not being able to reach millions of Afghans. Tragically, the perversity of war means that laudable goals on one side place humanitarians in the crosshairs on the other.

From dramatically different goals come dramatically different methods and approaches. In simple terms, maintaining neutrality and independence drives humanitarian actors towards “state avoidance” while development requires much more of a partnership approach.

Everyone should be frustrated with the travesty of humanitarian solutions being applied to protracted problems. A camp for displaced persons is a good place to find shelter, nutrition and (hopefully) safety; it is a terrible place to call home and raise your children. Similarly, it is unacceptable that in long-running crises like South Sudan or eastern DRC, decades of humanitarian response have left people no closer to functioning national services. But in the absence of those services, in the absence of development and peace and justice, humanitarian action is what keeps people alive.

The sensible solution is to let humanitarians deliver on the immediate needs, empower others to end those needs in the first place and ensure the two work better together. Folding humanitarian action into development, as WHS aims to do, is not the answer.

2 thoughts on “Blurring the humanitarian – development divide”

  1. Thanks for this piece. I am relieved about MSF keeped sharing your lucidity as its pulling out from WSM showed us. However, in my opinion, despite the misleading denomination, WSM was also an appointed occasion for a common thought on development aid. First because, exception made of MSF, no other organisation could pretend to such independence. Second, because there are legitimate way to “fix the system” in order to prevent humanitarian crisis by resilience and development. Not every situation are as tricky as Yemen or Syria. Third, because in long time humanitarian crisis it’s necessary for humanitarian and other aid-workers to collaborate and only such summit can impulse appropriated initiatives capable to stem crisis who keeps pursue refugees outsides of the epicentre, even in developed countries (where there are also entrenched in camps like “la jungle de Calais”). Resilience and development capabilities don’t necessary needs very infrastructural means, so it could be easily implemented outside from the crisis pool with minor political impact. It starts, for instance, with education whom only aid organisations can sometimes provide when government are reluctant or just unable to do so.
    I totally agree that humanitarian and development have definitely to be distinguished and each one should be contemplate in its proper way but sometimes it’s just impossible because the second has often to shift on the first to prevent unfinite mission protracting. Such summit is an unexpected occasion to think coordination ways between both even if it has an obvious political turn. The fact is you can not escape definitely political issue, political invades every structural dilemma, such is its purpose. It owes to humanitarian to make think government on it when UN can not alone. After all, humanitarian organisations from their civil actor status can hail them, so it is their duty! After, government agree upon share responsibility, support aid program, well done! Crisis have to end. The essential is the suffering civil society recovers or simply gets capabilities. Then the humanitarian system should be leading the way in involving beneficiaries in needs assessment, resources allocation decisions and driving increased accountability. Only after, they can sovereignly enter in political process who starts firstly in the choice to remain in their native area or to quit it.
    But as much as fundraising system will deter organisation to collaborate by giving punctual missions granting annual credits, the competition for acknowledgment will enforce the donor (governments, mainly) control on humamitarian and development orgas. No local involving system will be reachable, and government agencies will resume the satisfaction of their own interests actuating their soft power (an evidence is the local unpopularity of USAID).
    Anyway, if there is no independent way to cope whith a political situation, you can not strive longer to avoid dealing whith authorities conditions. Except MSF, none organisation can pretend to enough independence via-a-vis of public powers. Furthermore, striving to enforce the international humanitarian rights is a lost cause even for united humanitarian initiative all together, so we can’t blame other to pass by, accepting collaboration. More there are gathered, easier from a diacritic thought will likely emerge an effective project.
    Whatever, the merit of MSF initiative is to shed light on the WHS’s ontological problem.
    The critique might go further. By actuating so a global response including development panel, UN reveals its will to extend OECD logic in humanitarian system in order to monopolise the welfare market and by the way legitimate a system of global governance.
    And how big is a that piece to warn people about while encouraging cooperation between the two sectors! Determine what is a sustainable global structure is a distinct venture. But the benefits of such cooperation should not be underestimated.

    PS : please, excuse this laborious expression to the French guy I am !

  2. I am interested in what you have wrote and would like to follow some of our ideas as they would not align with my own yet at least. 3 million children die of hunger every year and at the WHS it was not hardly mentioned was considered a developmental problem. The divide took place at a time of great hope over 40 years ago. It recognised development aid as a potential key to ending poverty. .7% of GDP was promised and till date less than half of that amount has been given. Merging the divide would mean that building the hospitals and schools would include providing nutrition so that they can make the most of the school and need the health system less.

    Would like to discuss this further

    Kind Regards


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