Home The CentreLatest news and insights COVID-19: The future of humanitarian action, sooner rather than later?

Humanitarian organisations are racing to manage the immediate implications of COVID-19 – not only to ensure the safety of their staff and the communities they work with, but also to adapt programming approaches to continue to deliver essential goods and services to those affected by humanitarian crisis. These immediate implications must be managed as an urgent priority. But recent border closures, economic restraints, and isolation, quarantine and social distancing guidelines bring to the fore a number of issues about the future of a humanitarian system still dominated by international donors, international non-government organisations and international surge.

What happens if a large-scale earthquake hits in Asia next week? We don’t yet know what allowances will be made in relation to the current COVID-19 restrictions, but the response of the international humanitarian machinery – the surge of people, money and expertise – will be constrained.

The capacity of the traditional international humanitarian donors will diminish as concerns amplify at home and priorities shift. Changing health security, both on an individual and national level, will force responding agencies to reconsider deploying staff, with the potential of aid workers rejecting the deployment over personal risk. Borders are closed, resources are stretched, and international attention is diverted.

When surge can’t surge – localisation by default?

Access constraints and the need to manage programs remotely are nothing new in humanitarian contexts. But the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing the aid sector to deal with some of the more ideological, fundamental questions facing the system, and quickly. The localisation agenda (shifting resources and decision-making power to national governments and local organisations) has been a central issue of recent humanitarian reform agenda, with the commitment to respond “as local as possible, as international as necessary”. And while there are examples of changing power dynamics and ways of working, international NGOs and the UN system still play a majority role in a large-scale response.

Access constraints are often tied to controlling forces who are not receptive to international assistance. The coronavirus pandemic may see a rise of national governments who want assistance, but can’t physically access it. This will provide an opportunity for INGOs to put into practice some of the rhetoric around localisation that is yet to fully materialise into action.

COVID-19 will force us to reimagine the role of international organisations, moving away from program delivery and decision-making toward fundraising, advocacy and remote technical advice and support, as required and requested by national governments or local organisations.

Not just a shift in mindset, this will also require a broadening of skillsets – doing and supporting are very different things, and moving between the two does not necessarily come easily.

Techno-optimism in humanitarian contexts  

There are many examples of the way technology is shifting humanitarian practice – from crowdsourced mapping and ‘digital humanitarians’ to the use of drones for needs assessment and delivery of goods.

An absence of the usual stream of specialists in the COVID-19 era, could prompt wider investment and uptake in tech-based approaches by INGOs. Once seen as a ‘nice-to-have’ addition to more traditional approaches, tools that allow the sharing of knowledge and expertise even in resource-poor environments are going to become more critical.

The development of governance structures and ethical frameworks, however, has not kept pace with the technological capacity and, in many contexts, the limited access to reliable internet and relevant equipment means the impact of technology is less evident and not evenly distributed. Developing and adopting new ways of using technology will need to be cognisant of these challenges, and a one-size fits all approach is unlikely to be successful.

As much as there is potential to use technology in new ways to support humanitarian response in the current environment, and an urgency to do so, we must also remember that technological solutions are not necessarily panaceas. While there is significant potential in technological developments, the line between innovation and experimentation can be blurred and regard must be maintained for the ‘do no harm’ principle.

Affected communities as the humanitarians

Many have commented on the need for a change in perception about the role of affected communities in humanitarian response – going from the object of ‘charity’ to the decision-makers and drivers behind response. The COVID-19 environment where aid workers and organisations will have limited access to communities could bring this to the fore.

This shift may be facilitated by access to technology that puts communities in control. Crowdfunding platforms like CanDo enable communities to be connected more than ever before – meaning they don’t have to wait for an NGO, whether it be national or international, to determine what resources will or won’t be available to them. Further, the need for information sharing for and by affected communities is not exactly new, but is something that has generally been poorly facilitated by humanitarian agencies in the past. Tools for effective communication with affected communities gains increasing importance in light of physical isolation and movement restrictions brought about by COVID-19.

Considerations for humanitarian leaders

Many humanitarian leaders are occupied with managing the immediate implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, and rightly so. We don’t know how long this will last or how severe it will be, and exactly what it will mean for current humanitarian responses.

Significant constraints at the heart of how the humanitarian system is currently structured will be severely tested in coming months. The immediate priority must of course be the health and safety of communities and front line workers, and the continuity of essential services. But COVID-19 is forcing us to experience a world that is less easily accessed and where local knowledge and resources must come to the fore. Such a transition is unlikely to be straight-forward or without its problems. But solutions are needed to keep humanitarian programs running in the short-term and thought must be given to implications for potential new humanitarian responses in the coming months. The tools and approaches that are developed to support this may have lasting implications for the way the humanitarian system functions in the future.

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