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COVID-19 Global Pandemic Could Transform Humanitarianism Forever

By Heba Aly, Director

8 June 2020 – There is a moment at the start of every major crisis when you think: “This is going to change everything.” COVID-19 was no exception. 

“In humanitarian response, there will be a ‘before’ and ‘after’ COVID-19,” Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop, executive director of the think tank HERE-Geneva, wrote in late March.

But as the crisis born of this global pandemic has evolved, some of the promises of deep transformation in a humanitarian aid sector that has long resisted reform have proven overly optimistic – at least so far.

Here are 13 ways the pandemic may change the future of humanitarianism – and the forces of resistance that may get in the way. 


1. Changing the face of vulnerability

2. Breaking the business model

3. Threatening Big Institutions

4. Sounding the death knell for multilateralism

5. Reviving a humanitarianism focused on solidarity

6. Eroding trust in aid

7. Boosting localisation

8. Accelerating digital solutions

9. Encouraging greater humility

10. Developing the welfare state

11. Taking climate change seriously

12. Loosening donor restrictions

13. Spurring anticipatory action

Modern international humanitarianism, with its roots in the 1968 famine in Biafra, was built on the concept – to put it crudely – of the rich in the West helping poor, dark-skinned people on the other side of the world. 

So what happens when the rich themselves need help? Or when “Southern” countries face less fallout and the epicentre of a crisis is in places like the United States and Europe? Or when the crisis is more mismanaged in countries like the UK and the United States than in South Africa and Turkey? 

“What if some African governments are doing a better job than our own of managing the coronavirus?” American journalist Jina Moore asked in a piece called What African Nations Are Teaching the West About Fighting the Coronavirus.

Hopes for change: In one sense, this crisis puts the whole enterprise of humanitarianism into question. “The age of top-down saviours is well and truly over,” writes Aarathi Krishnan, a strategy consultant who advises humanitarian organisations. There may be less willingness in future to entertain foreigners coming into “Third World” countries with their Western solutions.

“The age of top-down saviours is well and truly over.”

Even pre-COVID-19, human rights organisations had begun turning their sights on the United States. But now, aid organisations like Médecins Sans Frontières have launched emergency operations in countries like Canada, Switzerland, and Italy (not without fierce debate internally); and some international aid workers have returned home to support their own countries. 

“The eco-system will change,” Sisira Madurapperuma, director of preparedness and resilient recovery at the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre, told TNH. “It’s no longer South-South cooperation or North-South cooperation. It’s South-North-South cooperation,” with countries exchanging help based on their particular expertise. 

The fact that humanitarian crises increasingly occur in middle-income countries may lead to a review of the coordination of aid, argues Raphael Gorgeu, head of analysis, positioning, and advocacy at MSF. 

And as humanitarian aid becomes less dominated by the West, and diverse voices display confidence that they too have knowledge to offer, humanitarianism will necessarily be re-shaped in the conception of those new players. 

As Gorgeu says, the mostly Western concept of the aid sector was already put into question pre-COVID-19, but the pandemic will likely lead to continued loss of traction for the traditional, classical, or “Dunanist” approach to humanitarianism, in line with the vision of Henry Dunant, who founded the International Committee of the Red Cross. 

But keep in mind: While many have touted the power of the pandemic as an “equaliser”, the Inter-Agency Research and Analysis Network (IARAN), a humanitarian collective that studies the future of the sector, predicted in its scenario planning at the end of April that COVID-19 could lead to “new forms of neocolonialism”, whereby “the North-South power structure which permeated international aid is exacerbated”, due to developing countries suffering the greater eventual fallout from the pandemic.

With many traditional donor countries redirecting trillions of dollars towards propping up their economies, and governments generally under pressure to “help their own” before helping those abroad, financial analysts expect a big hit to Official Development Assistance (ODA) in the year(s) to come, especially for those countries that peg their ODA to a percentage of GDP.

Development Initiatives describes as “within the range of possibilities” a sharp drop in ODA of $25 billion by 2021, including from some of the biggest donors. That would be 15 percent of a total ODA flow of $165 billion in 2018. The impacts of the pandemic on global resource flows are already being felt, it says, with investors pulling out approximately $90 billion from emerging markets in March 2020 alone.

In addition, as rates of unemployment skyrocket around the world, individual giving is also likely to decrease. A survey by Bond, a network of UK international charities, found that international NGOs in the UK risked losing one third of their total income due to a reduction in individual giving. 

Signs of change: In the short term, this will threaten many programmes and the survival of many non-profits: according to the survey, 86 percent of UK charities are cutting back or considering cutting back overseas programmes.

The most obvious example of this so far is Oxfam International’s decision to lay off 1,450 staff and withdraw from 18 countries in the wake of the financial pressures of the pandemic (though there are other motivations, too).

“Some smaller or less visible organisations are going to be wiped out because of lack of funding,” Caroline Abu’Sada, general director of SOS Mediterranée Switzerland, said in a webinar at the end of April. 

In the long term, this may force a change in the way the sector funds itself. 

“Some smaller or less visible organisations are going to be wiped out because of lack of funding.”

“We have known for years that it is not sustainable to rely on institutional funding,” Rebecca Petras, adviser to H2H, a network of specialist organisations that helps the humanitarian sector perform better, told TNH in mid-April, referring to grants from governments and foundations. Many international NGOs rely on institutional funding for most of their income. “But I believe this crisis will accelerate the decline in this business model,” Petras said.

Antonio Donini, former head of policy at the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, and co-founder of United Against Inhumanity, a movement against the violation of human rights, sees this business model as “part and parcel of the neo-liberal agenda”, functioning “as a top-down conveyor belt for Western policies, ideas, values… Is this model sustainable in the post-pandemic era?” he wrote

But keep in mind: After the economic crisis of 2008, ODA did not drop. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says it sees no indication of any decreases so far, and the largest providers of aid have said they will strive to protect ODA budgets. In fact, large donors have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars for the humanitarian response to COVID-19. (Though it’s unclear whether this is additional funding or “whether we are again robbing Peter to pay Paul when there’s a big spike in demand,” Lydia Poole, an independent analyst of humanitarian financing, told TNH.)

To date, the UN humanitarian appeals have raised more than $1.14 billion since March, and some charities have seen record-breaking successes in their COVID-19 fundraising campaigns. 

“I really thought we were going into a very dark tunnel. The contrary happened,” said Tineke Ceelen, director of the Dutch foundation Stichting Vluchteling, which gets much of its funding from the public. “They started donating as I have never seen before.”

Some aid agencies are also seeing more direct engagement from the private sector and philanthropic sources, suggesting the potential for more diversified donor pools in the wake of this crisis. 

At first, it seemed this pandemic might shake up the oligarchy of big aid agencies that control most of the humanitarian response industry.

The thought was that those aid organisations agile enough to adapt to drastically different ways of working would be more likely to survive this crisis.

“Nimbleness wins,” Petras said. “The loser will be the ‘traditional’ very large and operational international NGO. The model is simply inefficient in too many ways.” 

“Big heavy organisations are going to find it hard to pivot and they’re going to be expensive to run,” added Christina Bennett, CEO of the Start Network. “The future is not about institutions. It’s about networks, coalitions, and devolution of decision-making.”

Few signs of change: Two months in, the opposite seems to be true. 

Even if they are not agile by nature, the big behemoths have largely managed to continue their operations. Over the last two months, key decisions have been navigated by a “small club”, with the World Health Organisation, the World Food Programme, and the World Bank “consolidating their roles of leader and coordinator” of the traditional international humanitarian system, as Gorgeu put it. “The quest for a new vaccine positions organisations such as GAVI (the global vaccines alliance) at the front and centre of the game.”

And big institutions have continued to receive most of the funding. 

“In the short term, it seems like this crisis has actually reinforced the centrifugal pull of the multilateral system, at least in terms of where to spend money in a hurry,” Poole said.

“In the short term, it seems like this crisis has actually reinforced the centrifugal pull of the multilateral system, at least in terms of where to spend money in a hurry.”

“Because the suspected impact of COVID in the most fragile countries will be to add macro-economic shock on top of the rest, the multilateral system remains pretty much in first line here,” added Cyprien Fabre, acting head of the crises and fragility team at the OECD’s Development Cooperation Directorate.

“The bottom line is that large incumbents seem best positioned to weather this storm,” Raj Kumar, the CEO of Devex, wrote, because they are the only organisations that have the financial reserves and “fat to cut” to withstand the short-term economic shock. Smaller organisations won’t have the same cushion. 

Keep in mind: Medium-sized international NGOs may be the ultimate losers: they are not necessarily big enough to weather the storm but not local enough to be effective in this pandemic. 

And as this crisis kills off smaller NGOs, consolidation and mergers are likely – leading to more big institutions.

Countries have turned inward, fighting amongst each other over ventilators and blaming each other for the spread of the virus. Multilateral channels, like the EU or the UN Security Council, have not been heavily tapped in responding to this crisis. The WHO has taken largely unjustified blame for the crisis, but has certainly shown its limits.

“One thing which distinguishes the reaction to this pandemic compared to the financial crisis of 2008/9,” Guy Ryder, director-general of the International Labour Organisation, told the BBC, “is that back then, the international community really did step up to provide a global response to the global problem. Unfortunately, that’s much less the case this time around.”

“The crisis has brought to our eyes even more clearly the dearth of global cooperation,” said Sara Pantuliano, executive director of the Overseas Development Institute. While multilateral organisations continue to monopolise the humanitarian response, “there is no leadership globally to make the [broader] system work as it should. The UN development system is nowhere to be seen – at least not at the level required.”

For Donini, there’s a clear reason for this. “The major challenges humanity faces today – climate crisis, unregulated financial capitalism, growing inequality within and among societies, international crime, the arms trade, acts of terror, the inhumanity of protracted warfare, the rise of surveillance states… and of course, pandemics…These challenges are transnational at their core. Multilateralism was not conceived as a tool to deal with transnationality.”

Hopes for change: Most past changes in the international order followed major crises. As multilateralism dies, could something better emerge from its wake? For instance, could this pandemic be the turning point needed for a new world order, in line with former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s call for a new global government?

Could this pandemic be the turning point needed for a new world order?

“Conventional wisdom has it that only world wars have the capacity to trigger enough political will for reforming the international system. Will the pandemic have a similar effect? Could we envisage that the UN shifts away from ‘We the states’ towards ‘We the peoples’?” Donini asks.

But keep in mind: This narrative about multilateralism assumes this crisis could lead to something better. What if the alternative is worse? 

The death of multilateralism has long been lamented and, to date, nothing has taken its place. What if it simply leaves a void or a vacuum, with states becoming more interventionist and protectionist? 

“Personally,” says TNH Senior Editor Ben Parker, “I think COVID-19 is likely to lead to a new Dark Age of semi-permanent war, protectionism, xenophobia, yawning inequality, and festering hatred. What would be the future of humanitarianism then?” 

more complex. Already, activists warn the pandemic has led to a shrinking space for civil society. 

Lockdown measures have brought human rights abuses too: Nigerian, Kenyan, and Ugandan police officers have been accused of beating or killing people to enforce COVID-19 restrictions, and five Rwandan soldiers are facing court-martial on charges of assault, robbery, and rape during nighttime patrols.

In addition, many governments have used COVID-19 as an excuse to row back on their asylum policies, in violation of international law. "The effects of this virus are the greatest threat to the international human rights regime, in particular the protection of asylum seekers, that we've seen in 70 years,” Gillian Triggs, assistant high commissioner for protection at the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said in a webinar.

In short, the pandemic has cemented the central role of government, Gorgeu argues, with “stability, political, and security agendas taking over… In such settings, the space for principled [humanitarian] action, aligned with human rights frameworks and independent from broader political and security consideration, will become even more challenging.” ………..

Via The New Humanitarian

FULL Article Analysis: https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/analysis/2020/06/08/coronavirus-transform-humanitarianism-aid

Извор: WUNRN – 14.06.2020



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