We asked leading humanitarians and development analysts, climate change experts, political scientists, economists,military analysts, entrepreneurs and health specialists* to outline emerging global challenges that will shape the future of humanitarian action. Here are some of their insights — combined with trends highlighted in OCHA’s 2020 Global Humanitarian Overview.

1. Inequality will lead to pockets of entrenched vulnerability that will overstretch humanitarian expectations

Economic, political and social inequality are on the rise, each one reinforcing the other. Economic growth is reducing poverty in many countries, but not among the poorest communities. Many countries are sinking into dangerous levels of debt — 40 per cent of countries in need of humanitarian aid are in debt distress according to OCHA’s 2020 Global Humanitarian Overview. At the same time, political inequality is leading to a growing gap between decisions taken by elites and the priorities of their citizens. So, we will see growing tension between transformative movements and elites holding onto power, and with it, a hardening of authoritarian tendencies, as governments sense political risk.

What will this mean for humanitarians?

The humanitarian sector will need to clarify how it advocates around inequality, and pressure governments and development institutions to lift the most marginalized out of poverty. Humanitarian groups will need to deliver more inclusive, bespoke assistance that addresses specific vulnerabilities. But meeting the humanitarian needs of an entrenched underclass will test the limits of humanitarian capacity, and humanitarians will have to set clear limits on what they can and cannot do.

2. Erosion of international norms leads to protracted crises and a growing humanitarian caseload

Displaced children at a UNHCR supported settlement for internally displaced people near Aden in Yemen.
Credit: Giles Clarke for UNOCHA

In the past, conflicts catalysed high-profile efforts to resolve fighting, build peace and achieve accountability. The crises in Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Bosnia for instance, spurred the Responsibility to Protect movement, the International Criminal Court, and greater international engagement in fragile and transitioning countries. But high-level international support for these efforts has eroded. As a result, we are seeing internationalized proxy conflicts like Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Yemen burn on indefinitely, and violations of international human rights and humanitarian law continue unchecked, leading to a dangerous erosion of international norms.

For humanitarians, this contributes to a steadily expanding caseload. It leads to increasingly dangerous operating environments in which international humanitarian law is flouted with impunity. And this, in turn, makes humanitarian response more difficult — and costly — to implement. Tackling these challenges head-on requires robust, evidence-based advocacy and collaborative approaches.

3. The climate crisis will force humanitarians to redefine their role, and to go green

A third successive year of flooding in Sindh Province, Pakistan. Credit: Amjad Jamal/World Food Programme

Climate change and conflict will cause the number of people in need of international humanitarian assistance to soar to 200 million by 2022. The climate crisis will require a monumental public policy shift to close the gap between current governance structures and the solutions that are needed.

Where do humanitarians fit in? Climate change mitigation and adaptation is largely the work of governments and development organizations, but humanitarian organizations will need to advocate to ensure that these efforts do not overlook the needs of the most vulnerable people. Governments, humanitarian and development organizations, are already collaborating more to address vulnerability and need — this work will need to take on a climate lens. When it comes to humanitarian financing: most extreme weather events are predictable, and we will see a growing shift towards more anticipatory preventive humanitarian action. This will require humanitarian financers to commit to providing more agile, predictable, financing before crises occur.

We will also see a ‘greening’ of aid as humanitarians face up to their own impact on the environment and climate change. In the refugee camps housing the Rohingya in Bangladesh, for instance, humanitarian operations led to water scarcity for locals, thus creating a new problem while solving another one. Humanitarian oganizations will need to take more sustainable approaches to shelter, power provision, water sourcing and food assistance, and will need to increase cash-based responses.

4. Empowering localized assistance vital to keep up with need

Medics with Indonesian NGO Palang Merah Indonesia keep children entertained while their relatives receive treatment, at a mobile clinic in Donggala, Central Sulawesi following the earthquake in Indonesia. Credit: Anthony Burke/UNOCHA

International solutions are lagging far behind today’s complex international problems. This creates a vacuum in which too much is expected of international humanitarian assistance. This scenario requires humanitarians to be clear about their limits. At the same time, they can boost their effectiveness and accountability, by shifting from a project-driven approach to a results-based one, in which people in need are viewed more as clients to be served. Humanitarians also need to recognize that sustainable change is locally driven and, to put less effort into substituting local services, and more effort into empowering them.

5. Infectious diseases more prevalent and harder to control

Volunteers raise awareness of Ebola risks in Sikhourou, southern Guinea. Credit: Ivo Brandau/UNOCHA

Infectious disease outbreaks are already more prevalent and harder to control, linked to conflict, weak health systems, poor water and sanitation infrastructure, and lack of access to vaccines. This trend is set to continue. Cholera now affects 3 million to 5 million people each year; measles is spiking; the risk of dengue fever is soaring; and viral haemorrhagic diseases such as Ebola are becoming more complicated to contain. The fight against Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — the world’s second-largest outbreak — is hampered by ongoing insecurity, including direct attacks on health-care workers and facilities.

When it comes to humanitarian action, swift diagnosis of infectious diseases will be critical to reduce the number of people at risk. Vaccination programmes will need to be scaled up and development partners need to speed up and scale up investment in health systems. Understanding how the gender of a person can impact exposure, severity and treatment of a disease will also be critical to effective response.

6. Ethical tech policies will not keep up with technological change

Quantum processor computing concept on a virtual screen. Credit: Wrightstudio/Pond5

Technological developments, including distributed technology, 5G supercomputing, and, down the line, quantum computing (which is essentially far more complex computing technology) will continue to improve the efficiency and targeting of humanitarian operations, will expand reach, and improve the scope of remote programming. But unequal access to technology means many will be left out of this rapid pace of change — particularly countries in crisis which struggle even to achieve 3G connectivity. This will create a growing gap between the technological haves and have-nots, and reinforce existing inequalities along gender, racial, ethnic and social-economic lines.

The use of artificial intelligence in warfare will grow. Drone weapons will increasingly be set up to target victims based pre-programmed algorithms. And we will see the development and spread of automated weapons that can independently search and engage targets based on programming. Myriad challenges will arise around limiting the controls of such weaponry. We will need to keep vigilant scrutiny of technological advances in warfare and their impact on civilians.

As humanitarian action becomes more data-driven, humanitarians will have ever-greater access to large volumes of personal data, which will augur an urgent need for ethical data privacy and data protection policies to be adopted across the sector. OCHA’s Centre for Humanitarian Data and partners aim to lead the way. The sector will also need to get ahead of potential security hacks as digital cash assistance rises in prominence. To get ahead of these threats, humanitarian organizations will need to improve their data literacy. Data can also strengthen humanitarian advocacy but it is not a panacea. For instance, ample data are collected to document attacks against aid workers, but for the most part, this evidence does not lead to governments or others cracking down on perpetrators.

Looking ahead, by developing a deeper understanding of shifting geopolitical, economic and environmental dynamics humanitarians will be better able to analyse the drivers of vulnerability, and create opportunities to address them. To seize on these new opportunities, we will need to broaden our collaboration with a more diverse set of partners and increase our literacy in other sectors, so that we can deliver better solutions.

*At a policy forum in late 2019, run by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the UN Foundation.


Six trends that will shape the future of humanitarian action was originally published in Humanitarian Dispatches on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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