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What do Trump, Brexit and the humanitarian system have in common?

John Mitchell

By John Mitchell on 23 November 2016.

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In 1965 Bob Dylan wrote a song called Ballad of the Thin Man about a Mr. Jones who was struggling to understand the changing world he saw around him. Dylan fans will recognise the famous line ‘something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr Jones?’ In the wake of Brexit and the new US President elect, Donald Trump, I suspect many of us may well be feeling a bit like Dylan’s Mr. Jones.

But much of what is going on is understandable and we can see common features and patterns in recent events in the UK, USA and beyond - not least a growing group of people who, for various reasons, feel disenfranchised and disempowered and who believe that perceived elite groups, whoever they may be, are out of touch, lack empathy and are not serving their needs. People are frustrated and angry and above all they want change, even if they don’t have a clear idea of what this may look like. And the change they want has to be radical and transformative, rather than incremental. This new movement is gathering pace and is rapidly transforming the global political landscape.



But what has this to do with the humanitarian community I hear you ask? Well, I may be straying onto thin ice but I believe there are similarities. We too are calling for transformative change. Many of us are frustrated and want to ‘flip the system’ or, as the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition (TEC) put it, create a fundamental reorientation in power relations. And although change itself is offered as the solution, the changes proposed are not always well understood or underpinned by evidence that shows they will result in improved outcomes. It is also the case that the loudest voices have come from groups who lack ‘power’ – specifically thousands of national and local NGOs who according to Financial Tracking Service (FTS) figures received only 0.3% funding of global humanitarian funds in 2015.

"Many of us are frustrated and want to ‘flip the system.’"

And like the supporters of Brexit and Trump most of us want to see radical changes in the institutional architecture, as clearly seen at the ALNAP Global Forum, where 71.7% of attendees strongly supported changes to our most prestigious and ‘powerful’ organisations through reform of the United Nations itself.

Change is indeed the currency of our time but, although there are similarities in the drivers for change associated with Brexit and Trump and in the humanitarian system, there are also crucial differences in the way they are understood, managed and addressed. Unlike nation states, the global humanitarian community is a complex adaptive system without a president or obvious leader. It is acephalous in nature and its members are bound together by shared values and principles, even if there is ongoing debate as how to interpret them. We enjoy a functional level of internal consistency which allows us to manage our own changes without the upheaval of bringing in new people with a different world view and alternative beliefs and values, as seen in Trump’s new transition team. Fortunately, our own adaptive system built on shared values, allows us to avoid major shocks, upheavals and uncertainties that characterise many wider political processes.

"Fortunately, our own adaptive system built on shared values, allows us to avoid major shocks, upheavals and uncertainties that characterise many wider political processes."

At the end of the day, we do not need a Nigel Farage or a Donald Trump to bring about change. We can do it ourselves. And now after the World Humanitarian Summit practical improvements such as those in the Grand Bargain are being rolled out and the humanitarian landscape may well be changed as a result. But unlike the movements behind Trump and Brexit, the changes we initiate should be measured, poverty-focused and firmly rooted in the shared values and principles that steer humanitarian action. In this way, maybe we really do know what is happening here Mr. Jones.


ALNAP's next Annual Meeting in 2017 will take place in Stockholm and will address change in humanitarian action. For more information about the Annual Meeting and how to attend, please see our dedicated webpage.

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