Recent research and experience from the past two decades suggest that change in the humanitarian system – particularly transformational change – may have more to do with the influence of external forces than planned internal shifts (Bennett et al., 2016a; Knox-Clarke, 2017). This is certainly reflected in the system’s response to ‘mega-crises’, for example the profound sense of failure following the international responses to both the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which helped create watershed moments in the evolution of humanitarian action. But what does this mean for humanitarians?
How can they promote positive shifts while mitigating negative disruption?
This paper documents insights from the 2021 ALNAP Meeting, ‘Learning from disruption: Evolution, revolution, or status quo?’ Drawing on interviews, panel discussions and literature review, it looks at two external disruptors that have, to varying degrees, dominated conversations about change in the humanitarian system over the past two years: the COVID-19 pandemic and the ‘decolonise aid’ debate.
The findings from this research suggest that since the start of 2020, the international humanitarian system has experienced disruption because of and in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that parts of the system have demonstrated positive shifts towards greater localisation, flexible funding, inter-agency coordination and resource pooling, and care for staff mental wellbeing. However, this picture is not consistent across the system, nor do all these changes look set to be long lasting.
• Localisation may have accelerated out of necessity under the pandemic as the system needed to rely more heavily on local actors. This is a positive step towards diversifying leadership roles. However, there are concerns that any progress towards more locally led humanitarian action will not be built upon. Excessive bureaucracy, unfair risk burdens and limited trust were found to be compromising the space for adaptation and improved delivery for local actors.
• Some of the notable changes in financing included greater flexibility in 2020 in terms of donors easing earmarking restraints and increasing unearmarked funding. While welcomed, these changes largely benefited UN agencies and large INGOs. Direct funding to local actors remained negligible even though their roles and responsibilities in crisis responses grew manifold.