Humanitarianism in debate

Control of distribution vouchers in the Tapoa, Niger border region. CE/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie

This article by François Grünewald follows on from those by Cyprien Fabre and Emmanuel Rinck on the very nature of humanitarianism. This debate will continue in the coming months in our online magazine. We welcome your testimonies, reactions and reflections on this subject, to be sent to

Turbulence, data and band-aids:

 Some thoughts on the state of the planet and our sector.

As Groupe URD ( celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this year, thirty years of travelling through so many crisis areas and working with all the actors, we are very interested in contributing to the debate launched by Défis Humanitaires. It raises essential questions. The challenge, as is too often the case, will be our ability to find answers.

More crises, fewer crises, lasting or ephemeral crises, wars, political or socio-natural crises, or even technological and environmental crises. And first of all, in a highly chaotic world, what is a crisis requiring a humanitarian response?  A war? The effect of a climatic event? A pandemic? The collapse of an economic system (Lebanon)? We have even come to say that we are in a humanitarian crisis because we have fallen below the critical level of malnutrition indicators due to extreme poverty. Similarly, the growing lethality that accompanies the reign of gangs in the favelas of Brazil or Haiti, drug cartels in Mexico or the Maras in Central America, and reaches the level of real wars, has led to the creation of a new category in IHL and humanitarian action. Alongside IACs (international armed conflicts) and NACs (non-international armed conflicts), we have seen the arrival of OVWs (other forms of violence).  The increase in aid budgets has been evident over the last 30 years. Previous articles in Défis Humanitaires on this subject, notably those by Cyprien Fabre and Emmanuel Rinck, highlight this and explore a number of reasons for it. Effects of a real increase in the number of people in need, surely, both mechanically with population growth and due to the state of the planet (climate change, effects of the pandemic, economic and environmental crises)?  Effect of the evolution of the notion of needs? Gender, education, dignity kits, food security, hand-streamed protection, etc. have been added, where before there was only health, food aid, WASH and the distribution of tarpaulins and some essential goods (pots, buckets, etc.). Not to mention resilience programming! Effect of the evolution of needs analysis tools? But also the effect of the bureaucratisation of the sector, with the costly multiplication of MEAL (Monitoring, Accountability, Learning), management and due diligence procedures, the cumbersome nature of consortium management, the multiplication of audits, etc.

African student attending Bioforce Institute distance learning courses. @Bioforce

It is sometimes said that humanitarian aid has become more professional? I would like to say that it has not: the basic aid workers, doctors, nurses, WASH engineers, etc. who work with populations and communities are already professionals and have just learned to do their job in the particular contexts of the world’s crises.  What we have seen is the emergence of a new category of professions involved in aid management, fundraising (grant writers and grant managers), monitoring, communication, advocacy, evaluation, etc. These activities are certainly important but also costly and contribute to the increase in the amount of money spent on humanitarian aid. After the technical and militant generations at the beginning (doctors who crossed mountain passes in the snow), the erratic generation of logs (we remember the epic of Equilibre in Bosnia), we saw the arrival of the DESS and Masters generations (I am one of the guilty parties, I have trained many of them under different hats). Where commitment and life trajectories in the service of others predominated, we saw the emergence of careers: you start as an NGO and end up at the UN or with the donors. On the institutional side, the early generations (always heroic, of course) were the generation of ECHO Babies, DFID Babies and OFDA Babies, the end of the Cold War having removed the lid on humanitarian funding. The end of the UN Security Council’s blockade profoundly altered the various parameters of humanitarian aid and allowed the creation of institutions for the implementation and coordination of humanitarian aid, while freeing up humanitarian funding, which took off in 1992.

Beni, North Kivu, DR Congo – MONUSCO has handed over to the FARDC a military camp built in the locality of Kididiwe, formerly a stronghold of the ADF rebels. The Congolese army will now hold a permanent position there as it conducts MONUSCO-supported operations against armed groups in the Beni area. Photo MONUSCO/Michael Ali.

But there are always crises that pile up because the political systems cannot do the job. This was the thrust of UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s speech at the 1st World Humanitarian Summit when he spoke of the importance of crisis resolution by launching the concept of the Humanitarian-Development-Peace Triple Nexus. But while the triple nexus could have become a strong and continuous political call for state responsibility, or even multinational mechanisms, it has turned into an issue of coordination between humanitarian, development and … what is peace, who are the actors of peace? So conflicts rarely end, except in some cases because of combatant fatigue. Indeed, with the release of permitted violence, the failure to respect the red line on the use of chemical weapons in Syria (the Ghouta massacre), they are multiplying, worsening and becoming more entrenched, while the management mechanisms of the past (the United Nations missions, in particular) are increasingly challenged and rendered ineffective.

With population growth, we have seen increasing human densities in areas at risk of earthquakes, floods, landslides and droughts. The slightest extreme event and, from then on, the populations affected can be counted in tens, even hundreds of thousands or millions (see the floods in Pakistan). In these contexts of long-lasting conflicts or repeated disasters, the populations know us very well and often know what to say to be registered as beneficiaries. How many times have we seen “victims” who knew the questions even before the volunteers on the first mission of the NGOs took out their Kubo tool box? Similarly, how many times have we seen needs inflated according to the adage “if you want X and you know the landlord is only going to give you y% of what you ask for, then ask for X + X*y% to get what you want” knowing that in the end, in so many situations, we have seen situations stabilise when less than 60% of what was asked for had been granted? How many times have we seen the logic of “turnover” and “financial surface” take precedence over the logic of effectiveness in the field (and this is true for donors as well as for NGOs, at the UN and in the Red Cross world). In the name of good, of course…

Building resilience against hunger and malnutrition in Burkina Faso
In Tapoa, a region bordering Niger, the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO) is funding the NGO ACF to provide health and nutrition care and food assistance. CE/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie

In short, faced with this explosion in the number of beneficiaries, the growing complexity of their needs and the dynamics of the aid sector, are we condemned to accept the axiom, “ever more needs, ever more expensive needs and ever more limited resources”?

Here we would like to look at some of the blind spots in all of this thinking, which seem to us to be hopeful but also ultimately to be in need of profound change within the aid system.

Firstly, it is important to remember that many of the world’s crises go under the radar. There is an infinite number of small disasters and conflicts that do not interest the media or donors. But the humanitarian sector is very rarely present. In all these crises, local actors, neighbours, mayors, teachers, and even families who have emigrated to the capital or abroad, are at the heart of the response: they clear rubble, get water out, welcome people to their side of the border, warm, feed, protect them from killers, comfort them in silence and humility, and send money and blankets, motivated solely by a feeling of solidarity and the desire to help.

Then, even when the crisis is visible and well-publicised, as was the case with the explosion in the port of Beirut, the floods in the Roya following storm Alex in France or the war in Ukraine, we see similar dynamics but with effects amplified 10×10! In Beirut, many international NGOs and UN agencies were still figuring out how to launch their needs assessments when armies of volunteers from all over the country were already deployed in all the affected areas to evacuate the wounded, clear the rubble, assist, comfort while a huge solidarity was building up within the Lebanese Diaspora. In the Roya and Vésubie valleys, cut off from the world, the solidarity of the mountain people was at work from the very first hours, by torchlight, with the municipal officials to save, evacuate, shelter and feed, and this led to the setting up of impressive mutual aid dynamics throughout France by innovative mechanisms optimising Facebook and social networks. Finally, in Ukraine, an entire people rose up to help those affected by the war, but also those on the front line defending the country. And there boom, for the Ukrainians, neutrality was not really their cup of tea. But for the classic humanitarian actors, who find it difficult to move away from their tried and tested models, especially in fragile countries where civil society is looking for ways to act or even survive, they were suddenly confronted with groups of very committed, dynamic, digitalized and often very competent volunteers and with municipalities that were on the ball! In fact, these observations lead us to the other side of the debate on localisation, which is too often seen as a question of sharing the cake between NGOs from the North and NGOs from the South, whereas it is a question of supporting the wide range of actors in the territories and their deterritorialised connections with diasporas and social networks.

“Unconditional cash transfer beneficiaries” by Bizo Oumarou.
Mataram and Ya Gana from the village of Boudouri, Niger, receive the monthly ration of unconditional cash transfer. @Photo KaluInstitue

The humanitarian sector has increasingly become a “cash machine”. Emergency cash transfer, unconditional cash transfer, RedRose are now part of the daily vocabulary of humanitarians and the figures imposed by donors.  With many good reasons and many limitations, as we can see on the front line of eastern Ukraine, where there are no banks or functional shops. But the development of individual-to-individual money transfer tools, with Orange Money and other systems, also has another effect that humanitarians will have to imagine and even anticipate the medium and long-term consequences. These money transfer systems, such as Money Express, which have been widely used by diasporas for years to send remittances home, allow generosity to be personalised and to go beyond known channels. “Instead of giving a cheque to ACF or MDM, I will send money directly to Fatoumata in Mali, whom I met on Instagram. She will give me news of her children and I will be able to see directly and at low management cost that my money is useful. This story, invented for a conference on the future of NGOs 15 years ago, has become a reality that challenges the NGO business model.

François Grünewald in Kharkiv (Ukraine) with representatives of the municipality.

Lastly, it is clear that we will have to accept to saw off the branch on which part of the humanitarian system has been built with a much more proactive policy of disaster preparedness and adaptation to climate change. Beyond the caricature “for every y dollars invested in prevention, x dollars are saved in the humanitarian response”, there is a reality: countries, territories and populations prepared to manage disasters are the most likely to reduce their impact, while anything that can reduce the occurrence and magnitude of disasters reduces suffering and the costs of relief and reconstruction operations: preparing air raid shelters, storing food and heating supplies in subways and basements of buildings saved many people and continues to alleviate suffering. To govern is to plan, the saying goes. “To prepare is to save” could be the humanitarian adaptation.  We saw this when we evaluated the Nepalese hospital system’s preparedness programmes for the risk of a major earthquake in Kathmandu ( or during our work on the Horn of Africa, which highlighted the importance of having “preparedness-early warning-early response” mechanisms (   But here the problem is that we are responding to an anticipation of future needs, and therefore we cannot provide any “evidence” of these needs; no data and therefore very little money…. In the absence of political courage and the application of the “no regret” principle, we are “back to square one”: we wait for the dead, the decapitalization of rural economies and the terrified faces of skeletal children to act!

François Grunewald

François Grunewald has been working in the international solidarity sector for over 35 years, after various posts in the UN, the ICRC and NGOs. Since 1993, he has been involved in Groupe URD, a research, evaluation, methodological production and training institute specialising in crisis management, humanitarian action and reconstruction. He has carried out numerous research and evaluation projects on humanitarian and post-crisis programmes (Post Mitch, Tsunami zone, Somalia, Darfur, Central Africa, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Mali, Caucasus, Haiti, Syrian crisis, Nepal, Ebola, Yemen, etc.) for donors (European Commission, French, British and American governments, etc.), the ICRC, IFRC, UN and NGOs. He leads work on disaster management and resilience as well as on population displacement. A former associate professor at the University of Paris XII, he teaches at various institutions in Europe, Canada and the United States. Author of numerous articles, he has edited several books, including “Entre Urgence et développement”, “Villes en Guerre et Guerre en Villes”, “Bénéficiaires ou partenaires” published by Karthala.

The humanitarian debate, previous articles :

What is a humanitarian need? – Cyprien Fabre 

Cheap needs, overpriced humanitarian aid? – Emmanuel Rinck