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Rising to the humanitarian challenge

“We are caught in a race against time between the growing size of the humanitarian challenge, and our ability to cope; between humanity and catastrophe.  And, at present, this is not a race we are winning.”

So writes Paddy Ashdown in the foreword to the ‘Humanitarian Emergency Response Review’, or ‘HERR’ (nothing raises a smile amongst humanitarian policy wonks so much as a new acronym).  Tasked by the government to consider Britain’s performance in humanitarian response, Lord Ashdown and his team have valiantly spent the past nine months reviewing, researching, pondering, and talking to just about everyone with a stake in the humanitarian system — from leaders at the UN, to aid workers in the field and people affected by disasters and conflicts.

The result?  The report, released yesterday, has set objectives with real potential to transform the humanitarian system:

  • to make the Department for International Development more effective in working with partners
  • to improve UN leadership and critically…
  • to increase the impact of humanitarian response for those caught up in emergencies.

Understanding the challenge

In our report, At a Crossroads, Humanitarianism for the Next Decade, we set out the extent of the challenges that face the sometimes dysfunctional international humanitarian system.  We identified how environmental, political and economic factors will lead to an inevitable increase in humanitarian needs in the years to come.  It’s a diagnosis echoed in the HERR, which warns of 375 million people affected by climate-related disasters alone by 2015, and which shows how the ability of aid workers to operate has reduced because of increased threats.

It’s clear that the humanitarian system is already struggling to deal with today’s needs, let alone with those of the future.

Prevention is better than cure

How to respond in the face of such challenges?  At the heart of Save the Children’s solution was the importance of being prepared.  In Crossroads, as well as in submissions to and meetings with the Humanitarian Emeregency Response team, we argued that the system would be more effective, more lives saved and money best spent if international bodies, governments and — crucially — local communities were prepared ahead of time for the emergencies they were likely to face.

Reading the report, we were greatly encouraged that Lord Ashdown and his team shared our analysis.  Summed up by the report’s focus on “anticipation” and “resilience”, it set out in impressive detail how DFID’s contribution to the international humanitarian system could be maximised by acting as a leader in reducing risks.

Dynamic solutions suggested in the report to make communities more resilient are better infrastructure, better technology, and providing people with cash in emergencies. We agree and have pioneered these in our policy and programming.

Crucially, the HERR also recognised that children, who are both the most vulnerable and most affected in any emergency, must also be at the heart of planning and response: “Humanitarian assistance that does not address the needs of children may be ignoring the majority – and would therefore potentially be failing to have the greatest impact.”

Leading from the front

DFID does far more than provide funds in emergencies.  As the Ashdown Review recognises, as a leading donor, DFID has the potential – and the responsibility – to influence the entire humanitarian system for the better.

Nowhere is the need for this influence greater than at the UN.  At the heart of the international system, the UN — and its various agencies and bodies — has great potential to provide world-class leadership in humanitarian emergencies.  Too often, it does not.

Recommendations to the UN are a to-do list that should begin without delay:

  • clearer vision at the top
  • political backing for humanitarian leaders
  • deployment of the best people to emergencies and more strategic operation of the “clusters” in humanitarian response.

Ashdown’s team also recognises — as Save the Children has argued — that the UN must look beyond itself to ensure the best leaders are in charge of humanitarian responses.  It should look to the expertise of non-governmental organisations, which have a wealth of experience and have risen to the leadership challenge when given the chance — as Save the Children has done as co-lead of the Global Education Cluster.

From talk to action

The HERR is a breath of fresh air for the humanitarian system.  The UK government showed foresight in establishing the review; it must now move to puts its recommendations into action without delay.

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