Time to let go: Remaking humanitarian action for the modern era

Humanitarian Policy Group


The decades since the end of the Second World War have seen a significant expansion in the number, type and size of humanitarian organisations and a proliferation of players laying claim to the humanitarian cause. Despite this progress, the humanitarian system is struggling to keep pace with the growing demands of more frequent and more enduring humanitarian crises and the changing nature of conflict. ‘Non-system’ actors – militaries, the private sector, diaspora groups, local NGOs, ‘new’ or ‘rising’ donors, regional organisations – are increasingly entering the humanitarian space, and new technologies are changing the way assistance is organised and delivered, and the relationship between aid givers and aid recipients.

Despite a decade of system-wide reforms, the sector still falls short in the world’s most enduring crises, and perceptions of humanitarian work suggest that the formal, Western ‘system’ is not doing a good job in the eyes of the people it aims to help. Past responses to changing circumstances and acknowledged problems in humanitarian assistance have tended to be piecemeal and uneven, tweaking the current system rather than challenging the underlying structures and assumptions on which it operates. This report explores three possible aspects of this reform:

Letting go of power and control. A more modern humanitarian action requires letting go of power and control by the formal Western-inspired system and reorienting the sector’s view outwards. It should ask, not ‘what can I give?’, but ‘what support can I provide?’. Rather than reforming mandates, this requires mindset change and the development of a more diversified model that accepts greater local autonomy and cedes power and resources to structures and actors currently at the margins of the formal system. This also requires a commitment by UN agencies and large, multi-mandate NGOs to embrace difficult changes in the approach and architecture under which the sector currently operates.

Redefining success. Ensuring the depth and permanence of future reforms means changing the prevailing humanitarian culture and incentives that work against evolution and change, and redefining success so that the longer-term incentives for mutual cooperation in the interests of crisis-affected people outweigh the short-term incentives to compete for resources and visibility. At the heart of the matter are the financial incentives set by the sector’s core and emerging donors, which currently drive competition among its key players and enable a powerful few to dominate.

Remaking humanitarian action. Finally, redefining humanitarian action requires acknowledging the specificity of different spheres and approaches, implementing more developmental or solidarist responses where appropriate, while safeguarding independent and neutral humanitarian action in a limited number of situations where it is essential. This would not make one form of humanitarian action less valuable or legitimate than another, but it does require that aid organisations be explicit and upfront about the nature of their aspirations, objectives and operational frameworks, and transparent about delivery lines and methods. Acknowledging that there is no single response model would facilitate the engagement of a wider and more diverse set of actors in crisis response, without asking them to aspire to a more restrictive form of humanitarianism that does not conform to their beliefs or operational models.


Humanitarian Policy Group. (2016). Time to let go: Remaking humanitarian action for the modern era. London: ODI.