Rows of blue resettlement housing with worn paint

Can We Draw a Line Between Humanitarian and Development Work?


Humanitarian workers have been busy recently. Conflicts in the Middle East and Eastern Europe continued to drive an unprecedented number of migrants and refugees seeking asylum to Europe. Conflicts in Africa, such as the ongoing civil war in South Sudan,  continue to exacerbate already dire conditions. News headlines of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa have been replaced with the Zika epidemic in the Americas. The recent April earthquake in Ecuador reminded us disaster can strike at any moment, anywhere in the world. Without doubt, the global humanitarian system is being stressed to its limits.

In the midst of all these disasters, there is also an unprecedented level of discourse happening about how to take action. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) passed the Sendai Framework in March of 2015. The United Nations, with the support of 193 member states, formally adopted the Sustainable Development Goals last September. A consortium of states and organizations are hosting the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit next week. In anticipation of the summit, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s report One Humanity: Shared Responsibility, has set an agenda that seeks to transition from delivering aid to ending need. In particular, there are calls to break down silos and integrate humanitarian and development agendas. Despite the positive intent of this strategy, it has faced some staunch critics.

Last week Medicinas San Fronterias (MSF) announced that they will be withdrawing from the Summit. MSF cited the following as one of the primary reasons for their withdrawal, “We no longer have any hope that the WHS will address the weaknesses in humanitarian action and emergency response, particularly in conflict areas or epidemic situations. Instead, the WHS’s focus would seem to be an incorporation of humanitarian assistance into a broader development and resilience agenda.” 

These sentiments were echoed by Marc DuBois, former Executive Director for MSF-UK, in a compelling article picked up by the Guardian last week Don’t blur the lines between humanitarian and development work. DuBois provides a useful metaphor behind his argument, “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.”

So if humanitarianism isn’t intended to solve poverty, what exactly is it? At its core, humanitarianism is about serving humanity through the principles of impartiality and neutrality. As DuBois frames, “its purpose is to fix the human being, not the system.” When you consider these guiding pillars, it makes sense to separate humanitarianism from the development agenda. There is an argument to be made here that humanitarian and development agendas should remain separate because they have different goals. Humanitarianism exists to serve an immediate need, while development seeks to solve the underlying issues.

Now let’s take a step back and look at the problems that humanitarians aim to address – disasters. As Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s report points out, 80% of humanitarian needs stem from conflict. My expertise is in natural disasters, and while I realize it represents a smaller percentage of humanitarian demand, I want to provide some examples which show why humanitarian action is so connected to development that we can’t avoid integrating it into the larger development agenda.

Part of the issue with the debate between humanitarianism and development is the issue of defining what actually constitutes each. For example, one of the most undisputed forms of humanitarianism is medical services. Few critics on either side of the debate are going to argue about where this falls, but what about the field hospitals that come along with these medical services? If this temporary infrastructure becomes the sole source of medical facilities after the disaster, shouldn’t we at least try to integrate its planning and use into future development goals? One of the primary reasons that multilateral organizations and donors are pushing for integration of agendas is financial consolidation. The UN currently estimates a funding gap of $20 billion for humanitarian needs. This amount of new funding streams anytime soon is highly unlikely. If we are going to solve the current humanitarian crisis, we need to get creative about how we finance it. Integration into the development agenda is one way we can address this gap.

Other humanitarian initiatives also become blurry. Shelter and housing gets messy when we start to draw a line between what should be considered temporary fixes to immediate needs and what serves a long term purpose. Transitional housing, for example, is typically considered ‘humanitarian shelter.’ These programs move households out of hazard prone areas, but in the process often remove access to water, sanitation, livelihood and education. Emergency sanitation facilities are another immediate fix, which all too often become permanent. Is it the development worker’s job to replace all humanitarian installed sanitation systems? Food, another arena that is usually unquestioned as humanitarian assistance becomes complex when it moves past consumable items, such as seed distributions in South Sudan by ICRC. These food solutions can have long-term implications for food security in the region.

I want to return for a minute to the previously cited analogy about ambulance teams. While we would not expect an ambulance team to play a role in strengthening a hospital system, we would certainty expect them to get the patient to the hospital. If the ambulance team drops the patient off 10 blocks from the hospital, it is the doctor’s responsibility to go get patient? No. Should we hold humanitarians accountable for getting the patient to the hospital? Yes. Should we hold humanitarians accountable for making sure the temporary fixes allow for better long-term development? Yes. The patient shouldn’t arrive at the hospital in worse condition than they started when they were picked up.

This requires us to think about humanitarian assistance from a different perspective. Humanitarian action has an impact on development. Addressing immediate needs, such as providing safe shelter, may come at the expense of other services, such as access to water, livelihood and education. From the debates in recent days, I can’t help but connect this discussion to William Easterly’s new book The Tyranny of Experts. One of Easterly’s primary contentions is that we have all too often fallen into the trap of viewing development as starting from a clean slate, ignoring the past history and precursors that lead up to development actions. Viewing humanitarian and development agendas as mutually exclusive only further reinforces this paradigm that falsely identifies developing communities as malleable for development experts to impose technical solutions.

We are at a crossroads where there is the potential to ensure that the remnants of humanitarian action create an enabling environment for development. There is a critical need for a discourse between humanitarian and development actors. This can’t happen if humanitarian players refuse to come to the table. No one is suggesting that humanitarians abandon the principles of neutrality or their goal to address short-term needs. In fact, it’s imperative that they maintain these traits in order to operate in the places they do. Just as there is a push for accountability of states in adhering to humanitarian law, however, humanitarians need to take accountability for the impact of their actions on development.

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