Essays on humanitarian effectiveness

Fernando Espada (Ed.)


The five essays that form this collection are the result of extensive desk and field research carried out in nine countries: Bangladesh, India, Nepal; Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey; Liberia; Niger; and the Philippines. The essays are part of a project by Save The Children’s Humanitarian Affairs Team, in partnership with the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute at the University of Manchester, and analyse understandings of humanitarian effectiveness in different geographical, social and cultural contexts and their influence on how particular responses are shaped and assessed.

The researchers used desk reviews, semi-structured and unstructured interviews with informants in capitals and field locations, focus groups with communities, and observation. Researchers sought to ensure appropriate representation of relevant communities (affected people, humanitarian workers, local officials, etc.) and organisations (international, local, UN agencies, Red Cross, NGOs, governments, etc.). The purpose of the interviews, focus groups, and the project as a whole was explained in advance to informants, with the guarantee that their contribution would remain anonymous.

The chapter on the response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines reflects on the disconnect between the priorities set by humanitarian agencies, which overlooked everyday politics, and those of Filipinos. By reacting to the disaster as an exceptional event, rather than a momentous but ‘everyday’ disaster, and targeting individuals, rather than communities, in accordance with predetermined definitions of need and vulnerability, the agencies delivered assistance that was not always culturally appropriate.

Such a deficit in understanding of political and social dynamics also hindered the effectiveness of the response to the Monsoon floods in Bangladesh, India and Nepal in 2014, analysed in another chapter. Humanitarian agencies and local governments in the region speak radically different languages that widen the trust gap between them. In response to increasing attempts by South Asian governments to exert their authority over the response (relegating civil society organisations to a service provider role), humanitarian agencies react by focusing even more on short-term programmes and technical solutions, which ultimately make them accomplices of the bureaucratic structures that challenge their autonomy.

As a chapter on the Syria crisis explains, complying with counter-terrorism legislation has taken precedence over any humanitarian consideration. Reporting programme activities and results to ensure no accidental link to any terrorist group becomes the priority of international humanitarian agencies and their local partners. Because of the risk aversion of donor governments, humanitarian agencies surrender their autonomy and distance themselves from those who they seek to support.

A chapter on Niger, considers how the country is considered to be in a permanent ‘state of exception’. Such exceptionality fits the ideal template for humanitarian agencies to appeal for funds, coordinate responses, and manage programmes. As a result, local perspectives of effectiveness that value the ability to stay in place or self-determination (as opposed to dependency) are dismissed.

Finally, a chapter on Liberia discusses how local capacities and priorities were bypassed in the response to the Ebola outbreak, on the grounds of the unprecedented nature of the crisis. Ignoring the repeated calls for assistance and then wrongly defining the outbreak as unprecedented, unexpected, and/or unmanageable, requiring a containment operation, excluded local people from ownership of the event and the response, presenting them as passive victims or even vectors in the transmission of the disease. That this limited the humanitarian effectiveness of the response was proven by the fact that, when given information, resources and trust, Liberians were able to control the spread of the virus.


Espada, F. (Ed.). (2016). Essays on humanitarian effectiveness. London: Humanitarian Affairs Team & Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute.