Dawn of a new humanitarian world order

Governments of some of the most disaster-prone countries in the world are increasingly rejecting the ‘Western’ approach to prevention, preparedness and response to humanitarian threats.

The message is from the Director of the Humanitarian Futures Programme (HFP) at King’s College, London.

“We are on the brink of a new humanitarian age and increasingly, governments in some of the world’s most disaster-prone regions are relying on their own capacities, human resources and traditions to prepare for humanitarian threats which will affect us all,” says Dr. Randolph Kent.

He argues that the challenge for the traditional ‘Western’ humanitarian sector is to have a much clearer idea about what it really has to offer when it comes to dealing with the sorts of crises for which the world has to prepare. He warns that new types of crises will affect the whole world directly and indirectly, from economic impact of affected markets to the consequences of threats such as pandemics and he emphasises that while no one is denying the moral strength of assisting others, there is also the issue of "enlightened self-interest".

“Institutions – including those of the United Nations, bilateral donors and non-governmental organisations - are too concerned with applying what they do now to a changing world order rather than to focus upon the sorts of changes that they need to make to remain relevant to the changing dimensions and dynamics of humanitarian crises. These traditional international humanitarian institutions can no longer assume they are the natural actors to lead policymaking for a world facing greater than ever humanitarian hazards."

The HFP Director completed a round of consultations and keynote speeches before Christmas with humanitarian policymakers and practitioners in Washington, Ottawa, Rome, Kuala Lumpur, Beijing and Sydney, in which he urged that a new approach for a new humanitarian age had to be taken.

“National governments and regional bodies in areas such as South-East Asia and West Africa are already reviewing the ways they deal with traditional Western humanitarian actors. They no longer want to be told what they need and how they are to apply it. They are becoming, in other words, far more demand-driven and far less supply-driven. Given the intensifying political consequences of failing to deal with humanitarian crises more effectively, governments of affected countries want to take responsibility and manage their own affairs in planning how best to mitigate future humanitarian threats,” states the open letter.

Dr. Kent believes the traditional international humanitarian community cannot assume it has exclusive expertise and capacity to intervene. Its new role will be to wait to be asked and then to offer support. “Frankly, the old hegemony that presumed ‘West is best’ is dead,” says his letter.

It contines: “If the international community fails to recognise the new order, it will fail in its mandate to protect human kind. The new age I am describing is one in which traditional humanitarian institutions will be expected to collaborate and offer to pool their skills, knowledge and capacities with regional bodies who intend to lead their own programmes of action to deal effectively with new types of humanitarian threats. Make no mistake, this new construct must be understood if the world as a whole is to find ways of mitigating humanitarian threats - threats whose dynamics, dimensions and frequency are in various ways increasing exponentially."

Randolph Kent highlights the current experience of the Humanitarian Futures Programme in working with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the commission for West African nations (ECOWAS) to develop ways of building resilience in highly vulnerable regions. “It is clear that these regional groups of nation states want to renegotiate the future role of what we might call traditional Western humanitarian actors, such as the UN”.

And he is concerned that not everyone in the international humanitarian sector is gearing up for this unstoppable, fundamental change.

“In discussions with international NGO executives in the last days of 2011, it was concerning to discover that a significant number did not recognise that we are on the brink of a new world order in which national governments – in what used to be thought of as hapless regions - would have new expectations of the role of the international community. If Western institutions remain stove-piped in past ways of thinking, they will become irrelevant as the new order advances.”

On the BBC:

2012 should be seen as the beginning of a new humanitarian dawn. Randolph Kent told BBC Radio 4's 'Today Programme'...

...having consulted with representatives of 22 governments in the last months of 2011, he strongly believed that the traditional humanitarian sector needed to adapt to the changes that will come about through the rise of greater regionalism and through changing needs and demands of governments of vulnerable countries. He told the BBC that the contributions of "the West" would increasingly be measured by the affected in terms of providing technical expertise and support and not by a "boots on the ground" criterion. And be emphasised to interviewer, James Naughtie, that support for prevention and risk reduction were ultimately true reflections of moral commitment to reducing suffering.

You can listen by clicking here.

Randolph Kent was also interviewed about his New Year message on the BBC's 'The World Today' programme. You can listen by clicking here.