The Future of Humanitarian Action

World leaders have shown what they can achieve when they work together to tackle the most daunting challenges. In 2015, they agreed to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the global climate change agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, laying out an ambitious agenda and timeline for change.

We need to harness this historical momentum, through the World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016 and beyond, to ensure that the rights and needs of the world’s most vulnerable people guide our politics, steer our behaviour and drive our financial decisions.

The urgency is all too clear: if current demographic and conflict trends—protracted complex conflicts with a high risk of relapse, forced displacement at a record scale, urbanized conflict, growing inequality—continue, the gap between needs and response will only grow worse.

The starting point is a fundamental shift in our approach, away from crisis response and towards crisis prevention, by reducing vulnerabilities and managing risks. As a start, leaders must commit to work with greater intensity to find political solutions to end bloodshed and suffering. Conflict resolution must be our highest priority.

Further, we must put into action the ambitious promise we made as part of the 2030 Agenda: to leave no one behind and to reach those furthest behind first. This will require recalibrating the way that we conceptualize and approach vulnerability and crisis.

The 125 million people living in acute vulnerability must be at the centre of all our collective decision-making on peace and security, development, humanitarian actions and human rights. We must move beyond our institutional silos to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, even in places that are affected by humanitarian crisis. This will require changing the way we do business, including in the United Nations, its agencies, funds and programmes.

As we work to ensure that humanitarian needs are met in a principled manner, so we must now work with greater determination to reduce risk and vulnerability. Humanitarian and development actors will need to work towards collective outcomes, based on comparative advantages. We will need to break down silos, rather than starting with individual institutional mandates.

Reducing vulnerability at its source will require donors and investors to move away from financing individual projects with short-term goals, and towards funding collective outcomes based on longer timelines measured in years. We can only get ahead of the curve if we measure success in terms of reducing vulnerability and risk, and cooperate closely with local actors to ensure that we are supporting them, not replacing them.

We must also expand and diversify our resource base and add more creative financing tools, including risk insurance and cash payments based on risk analysis, to the traditional mix.

That is why I am calling for the adoption of measures recommended by the High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing—a “Grand Bargain”, under which donors will commit to funding more flexibly, and partners will act in a more transparent and accountable way in spending limited humanitarian funds.

These and other changes will take us out of our comfort zone and into uncharted territory.

But in truth, as demands have risen and our capacity to respond has become less and less adequate, we are already in uncharted territory. The old model of humanitarian aid has been found wanting. We must now take advantage of the momentum provided by the World Humanitarian Summit and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to shape a new model that will be equal to what we are facing.

We must rise to the challenge; business as usual is not an option. With strong support and energy, we can tackle the most difficult challenges, save lives, protect people and help them not only to survive—but to thrive.