Home The CentreEvents 2021 Humanitarian Leadership Conference: Who are the humanitarians?

The people we don’t see.

The voices we don’t hear.

Who are the real humanitarians?

A pandemic, a climate crisis, and a global movement for racial equality, freedom, justice and the end of white supremacy. The consequences of inaction have never been more dangerous or more real.

The 2021 Humanitarian Leadership Conference was part of the global transition from rhetoric to action. More than 1000 delegates from across 80 different countries came together to determine where change is needed and what a reshaping of the humanitarian ecosystem might looks like, from the actors involved and ways of working to the very definition of what constitutes a humanitarian crisis.

The Conference challenged traditional humanitarian systems, actors and perceptions through the following sub-themes:

  • Decolonising the humanitarian ecosystem
  • Leadership in a world of upheaval and crisis
  • Transformative ways of working
  • The political economy of aid and solidarity.

Read the Conference Review (PDF)

A jam-packed digital program

The 2021 Humanitarian Leadership Conference featured two days of panels, workshops and presentations that challenged, explored and developed a new dialogue and understanding around the real humanitarians and how we can approach current challenges through systemic change.

Recordings from the conference are available on our YouTube channel. Subscribe to our channel to stay updated about the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership.

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Please keep checking this page for conference videos and wrap-ups.

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Who are the humanitarians?

The 2021 Humanitarian Leadership Conference critically challenged traditional humanitarian systems, actors and perceptions through the following sub-themes:

Decolonising the humanitarian ecosystem

Constructing an anti-racist and decolonised humanitarian system. Shifting power dynamics; dismantling colonialism in the humanitarian system; systemic racism and, specifically racism within the ‘aid’ system; reconceptualising the role of affected communities in humanitarian response; reimagining the role of international NGOs; wrestling with concepts of neutrality and impartiality.

Leadership in a world of upheaval and crisis

The impacts of climate change, pandemics, the Black Lives Matter movement, and protracted crises on our understanding of what constitutes a humanitarian crisis; current and future events are forcing systemic change – humanitarians are radically re-thinking who they are, how they work and how they should lead, or if they should lead at all.

Transformative ways of working

The devolution of power and funding to local organisations, governments and communities; new models of humanitarian financing, including anticipatory crisis financing, impact investment, social enterprise models; the impact of technology and development of innovative solutions; and unpacking the ‘triple nexus’ between humanitarianism, development, and peace; understanding the private sector role and engagement beyond the traditional humanitarian sector.

The political economy of aid and solidarity

What does genuine solidarity and movement building look like when we examine the root political causes of humanitarian crisis including global governance structures? Can power be devolved in solidarity without addressing the political economy of the aid system? Reconfiguring where leadership lies in humanitarian preparedness and response – including ethics, accountability, politics, participation, role of affected communities and governance.

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Keynote presentations

  • Dr Danny Sriskandarajah

    Chief Executive Officer, Oxfam Great Britain (UK)

    The global context is changing, but the need for humanitarian aid continues. As we move forward from past developments in the sector, Dr Sriskandarajah calls for a humanitarian system that is not only focused on ‘what’ we do, but ‘how’ we do it. These hows are: keeping people safe, accountability, and innovation. By integrating these values into humanitarian work, we may build a new humanitarianism based on solidarity, mutual liberation, diversity, and resilience.


  • Lina Sergie Attar

    Founder and CEO, Karam Foundation (Syria/US)

    In the world of aid and development, well-intended yet problematic language often undermines the agency of the very people that humanitarians seek to serve. Imposing concepts, out-of-touch expectations, and buzzword values create deep divisions between organizations and communities that upend the collective goal of creating lasting and positive change. Lina Sergie Attar deconstructs some of these popular concepts and proposes a shift in the narrative through stories and lived experiences of Syrian refugees.

  • Heba Aly

    Director, The New Humanitarian

    Today’s humanitarianism is reaching its limits. Financially, operationally, structurally, and ethically, the contemporary aid sector has too often failed to deliver. In her presentation, Heba Aly makes a bold proposition: that humanitarian aid may no longer be the solution to the problems the world faces today. We must not stop a simply recognising these failings, however. Aly encourages the sector to reimagine a humanitarianism based on community ownership, empowerment, solidarity, humility, and anticipation.

  • Lina AbiRafeh

    Executive Director, Arab Institute for Women at the Lebanese American University

    In a global context where women continue to be marginalised, there is an urgent need to close the gender gap. Lina Abirafeh calls upon feminist leadership to transform the current social, political, and economic order. The status quo is no longer good enough. Feminist leadership means reforming individuals and systems, and it must be upheld to fast-track widespread change and build a better world for women, now.

  • Arbie Baguios

    Founder, Aid Re-imagined (Philippines)

    Humanitarian aid is about collaboration and encounters, often between the Global North (mostly the aid donors) and the Global South (usually the aid recipients). While this collaboration usually has noble intentions, it can lead to more harm than good in the absence of certain considerations. Arbie Baguios shares how he became interested and invested in localisation of aid. According to Arbie, all events including social changes, developments, discoveries, and destructions, are products of encounters.

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The 2021 Humanitarian Leadership Conference inspired conversation, self-reflection, and motions towards change. Read what our participants are saying about the event.



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