Yves Daccord: ‘Future humanitarians must adapt to the shift in vulnerability’

Volunteers for the Syrian Arab Red Crescent help distribute aid in Douma, Syria, 2018. (Keystone/DPA/Samer Bouidani)

Humanitarians will have to radically adapt the way they work in the next 20 years to reach the people who need them most, writes Yves Daccord, former director general of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The story of humanitarianism is one of vulnerabilities, power, mobilisation and adaptation. This has been true since humanitarianism became an industry in its own right and will continue to be so in the decades to come.

If we look at what has happened since the 1990s, a number of catastrophes have deeply transformed the humanitarian sector. The war in Bosnia and the genocide in Rwanda, while very different in nature, both changed the way the world was looking at humanitarian activities and, more generally, war.

Then, the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami changed the way both local and international humanitarian actors were operating. The UN, for example, was prompted to organise by cluster and invest more in coordination.

After that came the protracted crises of Afghanistan and Syria that altered how humanitarians work, how they are used and financed by donors. It’s well known that you can mobilise people when there is a crisis, but it’s much harder to mobilise people and raise money when it comes to long term conflicts. Ukraine is a good example. There was a moment where everyone was watching, but the momentum is already stalling.

“If people feel vulnerable in themselves they are less willing to support others.”

More recently, Covid and climate change have brought a new dimension of vulnerability to us as a society. Many people here in Switzerland or elsewhere in Europe used to feel safe and well protected. Vulnerability was not something visible in their own country but far away. But now, people feel much more vulnerable and deeply uncertain about the future.

This shift in vulnerability is the first major challenge facing the sector today. If people feel vulnerable in themselves they are less willing to support others, shifting the allocation of empathy and, as a result, resources.

The impact on humanitarian actors is profound. It is changing how they work, and is likely to continue to do so in the coming years. In this changing environment, mobilising attention and resources to protracted crises will be key.

The second challenge is the ability to access people and communities affected by crises, as conflicts in Ukraine, Ethiopia or Afghanistan show us every day. The situation will only get worse. In the future, countries will see their borders as more important than anything else, making it much harder to reach people affected.

At the same time, the rising polarisation between China, Russia and the so-called Western world has already had a huge impact on the ability of humanitarians to operate globally. We are back to bloc politics, which will mean less space and less acceptance for humanitarians.

The third challenge is related to the capacity to adapt more radically to the evolution of the needs of the people affected by war and disaster. These needs have changed and there are sometimes gaps between what humanitarians are proposing and what people are asking for.

If you think about the way the transfer of cash became a central commodity for a lot of communities affected in the last five years. Tomorrow, safe transfer of personal data might also become a critical need. People don't want you to throw blankets or medicines at them.

“We are back to bloc politics, which will mean less space and less acceptance for humanitarians.”

In the next 20 years, the challenges facing humanitarians today will become more severe, prompting the sector to adapt how it operates to retain legitimacy. I believe there will be a stronger pushback against Western organisations, which will have to become even more localised, not just by having a local partner but locally governed.

Humanitarians will also have to have services that are easily accessible through the internet. They will have to help people digitally much more than they do today, while at the same time delivering their most basic, essential services in the field.

None of this will be easy. The sector has to adapt, but the question is where the pressure for change will come from. I'm not sure that the change will actually be led by the humanitarians themselves.

Over the last 10 years, humanitarian actors have had to adapt to the requirements of the donors. However, in the future, my bet is that the sector will have to adapt more towards the people themselves.

The good news is there will always be dedicated people committed to helping those affected by war and disaster, in 20 years and beyond. But they might not be in an organisation or structure that we recognise. The difficulty to mobilise resources for protracted crises, the power of sovereignty above all else, and the need to adapt radically to peoples’ needs will dramatically change the sector.

Yves Daccord was director general of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) from 2010 to March 2020. He is currently executive chairman and co-founder of the Edgelands Institute and co-chair of the Principals for Peace initiative.

This article was published as part of a special 2nd anniversary print edition of Geneva Solutions, published in collaboration with Le Temps.