Unpacking humanitarianism - April 2020

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Over the past three years, HERE-Geneva has taken an in-depth look at how eight organisations prioritise their responses to acute and ongoing humanitarian crises. This synthesis report draws from four detailed country case studies that provide analyses of humanitarian response and leadership in highly complex settings.
Unpacking Humanitarianism outlines a number of cross-cutting findings, among these: the vital importance of organisational and individual leadership approaches at country and global levels;

• the fact that rapidly changing contexts require hard strategic choices that are paired with adaptability and flexibility on the ground;

• the need for humanitarian and other players to focus on collective outcomes in these complex situations, not simply an individual organisation’s operational delivery; and,

• the benefit of carefully considering how organisational thinking, action, and behaviour relates to the core humanitarian principles.

These are key issues for the humanitarian community as it struggles to respond to an increasingly complex and politicised world, where traditional labels and approaches often fail to alleviate large-scale suffering while building the resilience and capacity of communities and partners.

The study, although carried out before the current global COVID-19 pandemic, also has global relevance to the current crisis. Never before has coordinated action for crisis response and shared impact been more important. Indeed, the best national responses to COVID-19 have also demonstrated the importance of strategic leadership – making difficult choices based on sound, but changing information, and working with and for beneficiaries to address those most in need.

Such difficult questions are at the core of HERE-Geneva’s mission and HERE’s talented team will continue to pursue evidence of what truly makes the biggest difference for response.


The differences between humanitarian organisations are significant and this diversity needs to be recognised. Lack of clarity around ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of humanitarian action increases the difficultly to uphold and implement broadly-defined common policy positions.

Motivations matter more than labels in complex humanitarian environments. The humanitarian-development nexus is too simplistic a dichotomy to inform cooperation among those working in the landscape of aid in conflict situations.

Working in armed conflict needs to be a conscious strategic choice. This choice requires careful consideration as to the structural set-up of an organisation, and the ideological framework supporting its goals.

How the humanitarian principles are applied determines the approach of organisations to conflict environments. When using humanitarian principles strategically, organisations focus on issues such as access and protection. When principles are used as contextual tools, organisations focus on protection as self-reliance and empowerment and accountability to affected populations.

Leadership matters when navigating conflict situations. What the board and ‘CEO’ of an organisation make of its mission or mandate, rather than the mission or mandate itself, informs an organisation’s strategic direction. Alignment between the global and local leadership is important if an organisation wants clarity and coherence in its vision of humanitarian action.

Effective inter-agency coordination accommodates diversity while providing a framework to ensure the complementarity of the actors involved. Comparative advantages are better leveraged when the development or strengthening of networks and consortia is accompanied by in-depth strategic thinking. Risk management approaches are not only important in informing individual organisational approaches in conflict environments, but they also influence the achievement of collective outcomes based on comparative advantages. In contexts where states are either party to the conflict or are responsible for serious human rights violations, it is particularly important not to consider comparative advantages only in terms of sectoral complementarities, but also in terms of who has what leverage to protect humanitarian space.