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Responding to Changing Needs: Can the humanitarian sector adapt to the "new normal"?

John Mitchell Ben Ramalingam

By John Mitchell and Ben Ramalingam on 17 December 2014.

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CAR, Syria, Iraq and South Sudan, Gaza, Ebola… For some time now, humanitarians have been talking about the 'new normal': a more vulnerable, unpredictable world, more prone to shocks and crises. We will probably look back at 2014 as the year this stopped being new, and became all too normal.

At the Montreux XIII Retreat earlier this month the discussions resonated around this ‘new normal’. Heads of several major international humanitarian organisations as well as senior officials from peace-building, development and the private sector met to explore ‘game changers’ in humanitarian aid, to develop radical and innovative ideas for changing the way the sector works, all to better save lives and protect livelihoods.

We were commissioned to write the discussion paper for Montreux, which proved a fascinating and stimulating exercise. We found that though the drivers of humanitarian needs have changed considerably, and the sector has grown, the emphasis within the sector has been on incremental rather than transformational improvements.

At the heart of our paper ‘Responding to changing needs?’ was our framing of four distinct models of humanitarian responses – or as we referred to them, the four ‘C’s. From our perspective, the humanitarian system needs to deliver each of these models – and others that may arise – when and where they are needed, and as well as possible.

The key purpose of game-changing improvements should be to make the system more open, more flexible to deliver these diverse models and therefore better adapted to different contexts. More details of this model can be found in the presentation below.

ALNAP PPT FOR MONTREUX XIII | 'From best practice to best fit' from ALNAP

Making improvements to humanitarian practice: from better operations to a better system

What can we say about how these models work in practice? The picture is rather uneven. The international humanitarian system tends to operate as a rather blunt instrument, typically working to apply the comprehensive model in all contexts. The reality, however, is that different crises demand different ways of working, and the sector as a result is often found wanting. Humanitarian aid is not well suited to the fragmented and diverse landscape in which it finds itself.

This was brought into stark relief by Sharon Agduma of the Philippines Government’s Mission to the United Nations who spoke in Montreux about how the international response to Typhoon Haiyan was welcome at first (when a comprehensive model was needed), but in the recovery phase was found to be poorly adapted to work through local structures (when there was a need for a more cooperative model).

So, how can we tackle this problem? As we argued in the paper, the international humanitarian system isn’t broken, but it is under considerable strain. The positive news is that there was a good sense of how to strengthen responses, by thinking through each of the four ‘C’s in turn:

These examples illustrate that it is possible to bring about better operational responses - and indeed we heard examples of all of these types of changes at Montreux.

However, it proved a much harder proposition to discuss these sorts of practical solutions at the level of the overall system. When we attempted to do so, we were left with more questions than answers.

How can we make the system more flexible and better adapted to these different contexts? What would a better system, that enabled these four models (and more) to be deployed as necessary, actually look like? Would it even be one system?
Are we even the right people to think about this, or should we be bringing new and different actors to challenge and push us into new ways of thinking?

Watch this space…

What seemed clear is that for truly game-changing improvements, we need to be able to continue these discussions, because a day and a half is simply not long enough to get to grips with such far-reaching questions. Fortunately, the conversation doesn’t end there. Montreux XIII forms part of an ongoing dialogue, which will be taking more shape and substance over the coming months, with several meetings related to the WHS process including a major Global Forum in June 2015.

Many of us believe that ‘business as usual’ will not be sufficient for the international humanitarian community to adapt to the changing landscape in which we find ourselves. But changing from business as usual will not be easy and it will require all of our collective energy and creativity to rise to the challenge.

Whether we are up to this challenge still remains to be seen.

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1 comment

Linda Poteat

Linda Poteat (Consultant) 6 January 2015, 18:55

Hi, John and Ben! How would you characterize the Ebola response under the rubric of the four Cs? It seems to me that it would be a combination of Comprehensive, Collaborative and to a lesser extent Consultative - in different places and at different times. Which would indicate to me that appropriate humanitarian responsee still requires one system, but one that is flexible and understands triggers that indicate when to shift from one model to another (and back, if need be).

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