Crises in a new world order

Challenging the humanitarian project

Published: 7 February 2012
Author: 
Edmund Cairns, Senior Policy Adviser

In 2010, vast humanitarian crises from Haiti to Pakistan almost overwhelmed the international system’s ability to respond. Despite years of reform, UN agencies, donors and international NGOs (INGOs) struggled to cope. In 2011, Somalia yet again saw a response too little and too late, driven by media attention, not a timely, impartial assessment of human needs.

At the same time, humanitarian action is needed now more than ever. The growing number of vulnerable people, the rise in disasters, and the failure to put most fragile states on the path to development, will significantly increase needs.

Western-based donors, INGOs and the UN provide only part of the answer. Already, new donors and NGOs from around the world provide a significant share of humanitarian aid. Future humanitarian action will rely on them, and on the governments and civil society of crisis-affected countries even more. The UN and INGOs will be vital, but their contribution will increasingly be measured by how well they complement and support the efforts of others, and encourage every humanitarian actor to uphold humanitarian principles.

Key recommendations

The key challenges for INGOs are to:

  • build the capacity of states and civil society while making difficult judgements on how to work with states with varying capacities and commitments to humanitarian principles, and finding vastly different civil society capacity;
  • build communities’ resilience to cope with disasters, climate change, violence, and economic and political shocks, while maintaining the operational capacity to respond when needed;
  • encourage states and others to uphold humanitarian principles, while learning from non-Western agencies how to implement them in different contexts, and recognizing that ethical humanitarian action demands upholding principles and making difficult judgements based on the consequences of different courses of action;
  • encourage new and different sources of funding and action from emerging economies, private companies, and others, while encouraging them to uphold humanitarian principles, and respond to needs wherever they are;
  • strengthen the quality and accountability of INGOs, including through some form of certification of effective humanitarian action, while recognizing the value of diverse and varied humanitarian agencies.

In this video, Ed Cairns, the report's author, gives a short summary and explains why Oxfam has launched this report now.

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