Why we urgently need more collaboration to solve long-term humanitarian crises

Last week on this section Marc DuBois gave an impassioned call not to blur the lines between humanitarian and development work. Yet his article describes exactly why business as usual is not good enough for today’s humanitarian crises. Throwing away the idea of independent, impartial and neutral humanitarian action is not the answer – yet a new way of working between humanitarian and development actors is urgently needed.

“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,” wrote DuBois.

Indeed. Protracted crises are the new normal. Humanitarian appeals today last for 7 years on average and 89% of humanitarian financing goes to crises lasting more than 3 years. The most shocking statistic is that the average length of displacement is now 17 years. This is enough for a child to be born, schooled (or not, tragically) and reach adulthood. Doing so with nothing but basic, short-term humanitarian assistance is an outrage to the idea that all children in the world deserve development opportunities.

In a piece published by my institute last year, a group of UN agencies and the World Bank argued for a new approach to protracted displacement – one that recognises displaced people have a right to be connected with development.

Linking humanitarian action and development helps both

The idea is a simple one: humanitarian actors have an interest in connecting their populations of concern to development opportunities such as good quality education and jobs. Similarly, development actors have an interest in ensuring that they reach the furthest behind, which includes populations affected by humanitarian crises.

Getting humanitarian and development folks to work together in longstanding crises allows programmes to reach the most vulnerable, whether they are longstanding local residents or those displaced by humanitarian crises from another country or region. This is crucial for managing the politics of crises: it is difficult for Lebanese citizens, for example, to continue showing exceptional generosity to Syrian refugees if their government cannot show that extra education support will benefit poor local families too.

It also encourages more local capacity building. This is important because many of today’s crises (eastern DRC or South Sudan, for example) repeat. A new way of working together can help build local institutions which are then able to respond to future crises.

When the bombs are still falling, it is a different story

By contrast, in acute crises – such as the situation today in much of Syria – what is needed is classic humanitarian emergency response. In these situations where fighting is high intensity, the imperative to save lives and alleviate suffering cannot easily be combined with any long-term focus. 

As laid out in the UN Secretary General’s report for the World Humanitarian Summit, the priorities are to press for political solutions to end the conflict, for respect of international humanitarian and human rights law by the combatants, and for humanitarian access. Humanitarian action will be, and should be, in traditional independent emergency response form. However, this does not mean no useful links with development actors can be made: they may have analysis and data to contribute.

Governments are part of the solution - not just the problem

DuBois underlines the link that development actors have with governments, and says that: “Distrust will flare if you come with an agenda to address the causes of their suffering, reinforce national authorities or stabilise fragile states.”

Trust is key. But the critique ignores three things. 

First, not all governments are distrusted. Humanitarians supported Indonesia’s efforts to protect its citizens after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, for example, despite the Aceh conflict. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reported that “local solidarity and national assistance played by far the most important role in the acute emergency response phase.” Governments are the first responsibility holders of the right to protect, and where they are able to fulfil that responsibility they should be supported.

Second, in conflicts where governments cannot play that role because they are party to a conflict, development actors have also adopted principles of “do no harm”, avoiding the appearance or reality of partisan support or undermining national governance. They have civil society and community partners as well as governments, and they switch between different modes of operating depending on the circumstances. 

Third, conflict situations do not transition in a linear way from war to peace. If the ceasefire proceeds in Syria, there may be areas where local development activities can take place and link up with humanitarian action, alongside others where conflict requires an independent emergency response. 

Conflict occurs on a spectrum, with many grey areas. Respect for humanitarian principles applies in all cases, but the form of humanitarian action – and its links with development – needs to adapt. The test is to make sure our principles can translate into the best results for people on the ground: in active conflict that means focusing on protection; but in lengthy crises it also means getting kids into school and giving them development hopes for the future.

This article was originally published in The Guardian on May 24, 2016

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May 24, 2016
Sarah Cliffe
2030 Agenda