The humanitarian imperative in the face of exploding needs and the need for transformation

An elderly couple in Jytomyr, west of Kyiv, Ukraine. A Russian rocket demolished a civilian building near a military school. A hospital is also nearby. Photo taken on March 14, 2022 © T. Mayer/HI

An elderly couple in Jytomyr, west of Kyiv, Ukraine. A Russian rocket demolished a civilian building near a military school. A hospital is also nearby. Photo taken on March 14, 2022 © T. The 2020s began with a pandemic that hit hard and everywhere, causing economic instability, disrupting markets and increasing poverty. The combination of these disruptions, the consequences of new or long-running conflicts, and the climate crisis, is exacerbating global humanitarian needs.

Children, especially girls, are still deprived of an education, women’s rights are still being violated, famines threaten. Violations of the rights of migrants and refugees are reaching unprecedented levels. Lives are in danger, and decades of development are being called into question. The temptation to paralyze in the face of these challenges is greater than ever: the rules imposed by terrorist risk management, the procrastination of certain major powers both in terms of diplomacy and humanitarian support, and the problems of access due to the administrative constraints imposed on our organizations are weighing more and more heavily on our activities. However, the 2020s also herald a decade in which the humanitarian community remains mobilized, always ready in the face of adversity and in all circumstances to surpass itself by showing what can be achieved when the international community unites.

February 08, 2023, Hatay, Turkey. Emergency search and rescue teams search through the rubble of destroyed buildings in Hatay, Antakya, Turkey, following the earthquakes © T. Nicholson / HI

The challenges are more and more numerous. And new theaters of operation have emerged. Notably in Ukraine, where, from February 2022 onwards, the war caused the deaths of tens of thousands of people[1], complicated the delivery of food and energy supplies, destroyed hospitals, schools and homes, and triggered one of the worst displacement crises in three quarters of a century. It has also caused major destabilization: rising prices, availability of oil, gas and wheat, and upheaval of the world’s geopolitical balance.

More recently, in April 2023, fighting broke out in Sudan, where 2.5 million people fled to safer areas inside and outside the country[2]; before the crisis, Sudan already had almost 4 million displaced people[3]. Afghanistan is on the brink of collapse, with women’s and girls’ rights violated and over 25 million people dependent on the mobilization of humanitarian actors[4]. In the Horn of Africa, millions of people require nutritional treatment, food aid, emergency health care and essential supplies. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, as the conflict continues to wreak havoc, humanitarian actors are providing essential aid to 5 million people[5]. In Myanmar, the humanitarian situation is reaching unimaginable proportions due to growing conflict and insecurity. In Yemen, as the impact of war continues to destroy lives, NGOs are supporting some ten million people every month. In Haiti, rising violence, galloping inflation and a cholera epidemic have drastically increased needs. In Lebanon, the financial collapse has caused needs to soar.

Democratic Republic of Congo, Kasai Central Province. A member of an NGO speaks into a megaphone in front of a group of beneficiaries waiting for an organized distribution © John Wessels/HI

At the same time, the climate crisis is making survival even more difficult for many people. In 2020, extreme weather events deprived millions of people of access to means of subsistence. And these food crises in turn generate violence. In 2021, climate change has joined conflict as the leading cause of famine, as witnessed by the drought in Madagascar. The Horn of Africa suffered its fifth consecutive shortened rainy season. Massive flooding has submerged entire villages and crops in Nigeria and Pakistan.

From 125 million in 2016, the number of people in need in 2023 will rise to 339 million[6]; one in every 23 people on the planet needs emergency aid to survive.

Significant steps are being taken collectively to strengthen regionalized responses: local and national players, civil society and citizens are now increasingly placed at the heart of the humanitarian response system. Particularly since the beginning of the decade, NGOs have been able to develop their teams’ capacity and their working methods based on power dynamics, while recognizing a generational change. Their response tools have been adapted to the circumstances – longer conflicts, more difficult to resolve – sometimes questioning their positions on weapons, sanctions and the value of negotiations. Beyond major crises, they have been careful to keep the spotlight on extreme conflicts, such as Ethiopia, and on those such as Myanmar or Yemen, where international interest has waned. They have strengthened coordination between them, breaking down silos, particularly at senior levels of humanitarian organizations, human rights organizations, think tanks and other organizations, to better coordinate their actions in times of crisis.

The results achieved by national and international aid workers are a credit to the determination and capacity of the NGOs and donors who support them.

Janez Lenarčič, European Commissioner for Crisis Management visits the European Humanitarian Response Capability warehouse in Vinnytsia, Ukraine. He is pictured here with Manuel Patrouillard, HI Managing Director, and Jean Pierre Delomier, Deputy Director of Operations. European Union, 2022 Photographer Ramin Mazur

Unfortunately, funding remains well below requirements. For example, to provide a lifeline to 230 million of the most vulnerable people in 69 countries, the financial requirement was estimated at $51.5 billion[7]… Yet only half of this sum has been received. This incomplete funding has, however, already enabled humanitarian actors to reach 145 million people, to practice responses underpinned by humanitarian negotiations aimed at accessing people in need in many parts of the world.

March 09, 2022, Przemysl, Poland: people cross the Medyka border crossing between Ukraine and Poland. More than 2 million people have left Ukraine since Russia invaded the country on February 24, 2022 © T. Nicholson/HI

In many respects, the outlook is uncertain. Not since the emergence of the French Doctors has humanitarian action – founded on the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence – come under so many constraints. The collapse of a world order based on values promoted as universal has led to an explosion in needs and a reduction in humanitarian access. The administrative processes to which NGOs are subject lock them into the responsibilities of the state. To preserve humanitarian space, we need to limit normative hyperinflation, particularly that linked to counter-terrorism measures, which unreasonably restricts NGOs’ ability to act. Better protection of civilians and humanitarian and health workers in crisis situations must be ensured. Every effort must be made to ensure that humanitarian action responds and adapts better to the climate crisis.

We mustn’t let ourselves be driven by bureaucratic locomotives; let’s not forget the original rebellion that made our organizations what they are today, let’s keep fighting because results can be achieved and early action can help mitigate the consequences of climate change, among other things. Humanitarian organizations also take steps to prioritize equity, inclusion and access to information for affected communities. They must work tirelessly to protect the most vulnerable from sexual exploitation and abuse. We must all continue to advocate for the full and equal participation of women and girls at all levels of education, the economy and public life. Even if humanitarian needs continue to grow, let’s resist the temptation to think that humanitarian action is pointless; we are collectively capable of making the necessary efforts to provide an adapted response that meets the needs!

ONG de solidarité internationale | Handicap International France (


Jean-Pierre Delomier

Handicap International Federation – Humanity & Inclusion,

Deputy Director of Operations

After working in the field for various international organizations, he co-founded and directed the NGO Atlas Logistique in 1992, until its merger with Handicap International in 2006. He then joined the Management Committee and took charge of the Humanitarian Action Department, to ensure the association’s ability to intervene in major humanitarian crises, contributing to the organization of relief efforts while providing humanitarian aid to vulnerable groups, including people with disabilities. He has been a director of Bioforce for 15 years, he is leader of Coordination Sud’s Humanitarian Commissionand board member of VOICE in Brussels. Since January 2019, he has been HI’s Deputy Director of Operations, in charge of influencing and representing the organization to stakeholders, as well as leading the Atlas technical-operational unit.


[1] AFP and Euractiv France (2023, 14 february) : the appalling toll of a year of war in Ukraine,

[2] UN Sudan: difficulties in delivering aid as conflict escalates.(2023, 27 june), ONU Info

[3] UN : UNHCR, P. L. P. (2023, 14 june), 5 things to know about the Sudan Crisis, HCR

[4] European Council :

[5] UN : OCHA 10 millions of people targeted by humanitarian aid in DRC in 2023 (2023, 23 february), ReliefWeb.

[6] UN : For the 339 million: UN General Assembly adopts resolutions on humanitarian aid and declares 2023 “international year of dialogue as a guarantee of peace”. | UN Press.

For the 125 million: UN World Summit on Humanitarian Action,

[7] UN : UN launches record $ 51.5 billion humanitarian appeal for 2023 [EN/AR/ES/FR/RU/ZH], World (2022, 1 décembre), ReliefWeb.