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Background paper: Learning from disruption: Evolution, revolution or status quo? (2021 ALNAP Meeting, 19–21 October 2021)

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By Amina Khan, Fatimah Khan, Anne-Lise Dewulf, Alice Obrecht, and John Mitchell

While responding to epidemics and reflections on racism in aid were not new to the humanitarian system, the COVID-19 Pandemic required new ways of working in fast order, and the BLM protests brought renewed urgency to how aid organisations consider their roles and approaches.

1. Introduction

What influences change in the humanitarian system? In recent years, researchers have tried to answer this question (Steets et al., 2016; Knox-Clarke, 2017; Austin et al., 2018; Mitchell, 2020; Schenkenberg van Mierop, 2020) and have suggested that external forces may play a more significant role in sparking reform in the humanitarian system than planned internal shifts (Bennett et al., 2016; Knox-Clarke, 2017). It is perhaps unsurprising, given how deeply interconnected the humanitarian system is with other external systems (particularly national and international political systems) and global trends, like technological advancement and urbanisation. Their assessments seem to show that change – especially transformative change – often lies outside of the control of humanitarians.

In 2020 two external events or ‘disruptors’ appeared to ALNAP Members and the wider humanitarian community to hold significant potential to drive change in the humanitarian system.

First, the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) caused rapid and large-scale disruption to people around the world – and particularly among those communities already experiencing crisis such as conflict, food insecurity, climate change and forced displacement. The pandemic and responses to contain it (such as lockdowns and border closures) escalated humanitarian needs dramatically but they also made humanitarian response all the more challenging by disrupting the infrastructure and access to affected communities on which the system relies. In 2021, 250 million people need humanitarian assistance and protection (Humanitarian InSight, n.d.), and only a third of the required funding (US$12.6 billion) has been received as of September (ibid).

Second, the humanitarian system saw a re-emergence of the debate on ‘decolonising aid’, sparked by global conversations about race, privilege and power following the wave of global Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests after the murder of George Floyd by US police in May 2020. In the humanitarian system, which has been criticised for perpetuating unequal power relationships between local and international actors based on race and other forms of social identity, long-running debates about ‘decolonising aid’ came to the fore.

These two forces have been the subject of significant discussion and speculation in the humanitarian system, with practitioners wanting to know the extent to which they have influenced change, how best to promote positive trajectories already underway and how to mitigate negative disruptions.

The 2021 ALNAP Meeting, ‘Learning from disruption: evolution, revolution, or status quo?’, will provide a timely opportunity for the humanitarian community to come together to reflect on these issues – to share experiences of and learn more about where change is happening in the system and how significant it is. It will also provide a space to enhance the collective capacity of ALNAP Members to enrich the understanding of ongoing changes and how they can be best managed.

This Background Paper to the 2021 ALNAP Meeting uses the lens of ‘learning from disruption’ to help inform meeting discussions. An exploration of all potential disruptors would be vast; instead, this study looks specifically at the disruptive potential of COVID-19 and the decolonising aid debate, which have emerged as key issues affecting policy and practice for ALNAP Members since 2020.

  • Where and to what extent have COVID-19 and the ‘decolonisation of aid’ debate driven change – both positive and negative – within the humanitarian system?

  • What can the humanitarian system learn from these external disruptors and the ways in which they do or do not effect change in humanitarian policy and practice?

COVID-19 and the decolonisation of aid debate were selected due to the acute disruption they caused in 2020;

While responding to epidemics and reflections on racism in aid were not new to the humanitarian system, the COVID-19 Pandemic required new ways of working in fast order, and the BLM protests brought renewed urgency to how aid organisations consider their roles and approaches.

The aim of the ALNAP Meeting, and this paper, is to learn how the humanitarian system responded to these disruptors.

In pursuing this, the paper distinguishes between ‘disruption’ and ‘change’:

  • Disruption signifies ‘the action of preventing something, especially a system, process, or event, from continuing as usual or as expected’ (Cambridge University Press, 2013). It may be brief or long term, and deep or surface level. A disruptor is the actor or thing that causes this disruption (ibid).

  • Change is an action or process through which something becomes different (Merriam-Webster, n.d). Changes may be small or large in scale, incremental or transformational in degree, and may occur gradually, or rapidly (Knox-Clarke 2017). Changes can also move in either positive or negative directions of travel.

This paper looks specifically at three important themes of change that emerged during the inception phase of the study: changes in localisation, changes in humanitarian financing, and changes in humanitarian operations.

1.1 Methodology

The research for this paper used a qualitative approach, combining insights from existing literature with key informant interviews (KIIs) to understand where changes are happening in the humanitarian system and the extent to which these changes are significant. The research team conducted an initial review of academic and grey literature in May 2021 to identify themes that this paper could usefully explore ahead of the 2021 Meeting.

Between June and August 2021, the research team conducted 33 KIIs with a diverse range of stakeholders. Many have been part of the humanitarian system for decades, working in bilateral and multilateral aid agencies including the UN, international and local non-governmental organisations (INGOs and LNGOs), civil society networks, think tanks and universities, and contributing directly and indirectly to crisis responses in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. In parallel and following the KIIs, the team reviewed additional literature to dive deeper into a smaller set of themes that are now covered by the paper. Interviews were conducted in English or French. Insights from the interviews were broadly consistent with recent literature.

Given the vastness and complexity of the humanitarian system and the limited time available to conduct the research, this paper is not a comprehensive review of change. Perceptions of change vary depending on who is asked and how people within the system understand discourses such as localisation and decolonisation.

The paper is organised as follows. Section 2 provides a summary of recent studies on change in the context of external triggers of the past and a brief overview of the pandemic and the decolonisation debate. Section 3 explores the extent to which the pandemic and the debate catalysed change in localisation. Sections 4 and 5 follow with similar insights on humanitarian financing and operations. Section 6 concludes with final thoughts.