The humanitarian in the trap of the time, who embraces too much embraces badly…

To run after one’s time – and its conceptual fads – is an exhausting exercise, if not vain. One can also wonder if it is not an approach which by nature disperses energies, knowing no limit, at the risk of a 360 degrees “catch all”… likely to make one lose the North.

Any time generates its conceptual fads, which fade away, by dint of rubbing up against reality… Ours does not escape it, and even seems particularly fertile in this field. The reasons are numerous and could be the subject of an article in itself. But the fact is that today no dimension of human activity escapes it… Humanitarianism, thus, finds itself caught, “embedded”, we could say, in this general movement where the certainty of speaking and acting in the name of the universal good leaves little room for doubt, nuance, or even the consideration of reality. In the era of globalized humanitarianism, “industrialized” according to some, more and more standardized, framed, constrained, sometimes directed, this involvement is concretized by an increasingly massive impregnation of these conceptual fads, by donors, influencers (such as certain large Anglo-Saxon NGOs) or partners of humanitarian NGOs, such as United Nations agencies or governments.

Thus, these NGOs and humanitarian organizations are now encouraged, often by those they need to continue to exist as structures for action, to demonstrate, or at least affirm loud and clear, their adherence to the long list of these conceptual fads. Any written document, issued, consultable, from a humanitarian organization becomes an opportunity to respond to an implicit summons, that of positioning ourselves on each of the themes in the air of time, to “check all the boxes”, as a good and irreproachable student, responding to the favorite subjects “that must” be addressed, as we say in our jargon. Independent in principle, we find ourselves, in an unspoken way, “assigned to sign” at the bottom of each paragraph of a doxa which aims, of course, only at the good of all.

Pierre Brunet in Afghanistan in 2003, as part of a mission with the multiple operational teams of Solidarités International in the country.

Honesty demands that we recognize that there is more than meets the eye in this phenomenon. First of all, it is important to emphasize the sincerity of the individual adherence, as citizens, of a good number of humanitarians to a large part of these themes and concepts. Furthermore, the irruption of these concepts into our thinking often leads to an enrichment of our approach, which can lead to a widening of the scope of our action. Finally, this conceptual irruption forces us to leave our comfort zone and to question ourselves, to re-distinguish the priority from the secondary, the essential from the complementary, the obvious from the debatable, and to redefine the responsibilities of all the actors.

Having said this, let’s look at the main themes and conceptual fads that we humanitarians are being asked (or at least suggested) to take on or at least make our own by adherence-absorption-integration in our mandate, whatever it may be. Small non-exhaustive inventory à la Prévert or “What we should address, in addition to the humanitarian needs of people in distress…” :

  • The urgency of responding in the short and medium term to vital needs and at the same time putting in place sustainable solutions has founded the double nexus of emergency and development. The complementarity between humanitarian and development approaches, now often implemented together and in parallel, is an undeniable progress. However, in recent years, a third nexus has been insisted upon, the triple nexus of emergency-development-peace, in which humanitarians, at the risk of their fundamental principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence, should, through their actions, participate in the establishment of peace in the countries in conflict where they intervene. This false good idea, just like the recent one of participating in the fight against terrorism by screening our teams, partners, service providers and especially beneficiaries, is fortunately rejected by the majority of humanitarian NGOs in the name of these principles. This is the first example of concepts that have been seductive, but which are inoperative, dangerous and incompatible with what we are.
Iraqi women of Solidarités International register beneficiaries of humanitarian aid ®Solidarités International
  • The localization of aid, a theme highlighted at the May 2016 Istanbul Global Humanitarian Summit, has since become a staple of any humanitarian NGO’s positioning. In addition to the fact that humanitarians did not wait for this summit to see the interest in general and the benefit for the populations of assisted countries of favoring, whenever possible, the design, organization and implementation of aid provided, as close as possible to the needs, by national humanitarians, doesn’t this much sought-after concept often overlook a few important points? Among these, don’t we sometimes forget a little quickly, in our eagerness to embrace it, that international humanitarians contribute to the effectiveness and efficiency of aid through their commitment, their skills, experience and expertise, which are sometimes rare in countries in crisis (in addition to the question of logistical capacities and emergency response), and through the framework of humanitarian principles and rationalized and shared operating methods of which they are the guardians? Should we throw the baby out with the bathwater?
  • The fight against the effects of climate change is a vital and global issue. We know this. Our role as humanitarians is to participate, whenever possible, through relevant programs of adaptation to this change, of resilience in the face of shocks, to limit and mitigate its effects on populations that are often among the most threatened on the planet. We have been doing this for many years now, and will have to do it more and more, better and better. But is it essential to complicate and weigh down our action by multiplying the “processes” for measuring our carbon footprint and the tools for “accountability” of our “eco-responsibility”, as we are not, by far, the most polluting organizations on the planet? As for the fight to limit global warming, is it within the scope of our mandate, of our mission? We are not the UN, and even the UN is struggling on this crucial issue…
  • The notion of protection of populations, for the past twenty years, has become more and more important in the field of humanitarian semantics, and as a “prism” for a growing number of programs implemented. The principle of protection is, in itself, a very good thing, no one disputes this. But, once we have established as its foundation the International Humanitarian Law (IHL) that we must defend relentlessly, what does this notion, which is very broad in nature, mean in concrete terms? Does it fall within the scope of our possible action? Yes, insofar as it is our responsibility “to do no harm”, not to aggravate in any way by our action and our behavior the threats and attacks on the dignity and fundamental rights of the people in distress that we are helping… Yes, because when it comes to specific groups (women, children, the handicapped, such and such a community, etc.), it is true that we must, whenever necessary, pay particular attention to them and inform the competent actors of the serious attacks of which they are victims. But beyond that? In countries where people are threatened at any moment by war and violence, where explosive barrels or gas are dropped on them, where schools or hospitals are bombed, is it within our reach, and is it lucid, to claim to be doing a work of protection?
Clearance operation in Haiti, 2011®Solidarites International

In a way, we humanitarians have to reinvent the wheel. The decisive point of this affair is, let’s remember, the need for most humanitarian NGOs to send “subliminal messages” to the donors of the international humanitarian system by “ticking the boxes” of the conceptual fads of the moment. But should we give in to the temptation of catching all, losing our compass? On the contrary, can’t we take advantage of this context to find the North? To return to the realistic idealism that has made our action indispensable, to rediscover the modesty of our pretensions, but the concrete ambition to save more and more lives. We are not going to save the world, and we are not going to change the world. Once again, we are not the UN, which is already failing to do so… Of course, humanitarian organizations cannot, and should not, be cut off, as if in a watertight bubble, from the issues, the questions that concern and grip this world, but should they strive to embrace them all? He who embraces too much embraces badly…

Pierre Brunet, writer and humanitarian worker:

Born in 1961 in Paris to a French father and a Spanish mother, Pierre Brunet found his first vocation as a freelance journalist. In 1994, he crossed paths with humanitarian aid and volunteered in Rwanda, which was devastated by genocide. In early 1995, he left on a humanitarian mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, then torn by civil war. There he took on the responsibilities of program coordinator in Sarajevo, then head of mission.

Upon his return to France at the end of 1996, he joined the headquarters of the French NGO SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL, for which he had gone on mission. He will be in charge of communication and fundraising, while returning to the field, as in Afghanistan in 2003, and starting to write… In 2011, while remaining involved in humanitarian work, he commits himself totally to writing, and devotes an essential part of his time to his vocation as a writer.

Pierre Brunet is Vice-President of the association SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL. He has been in the field in the North-East of Syria, in the “jungle” of Calais in November 2015, and in Greece and Macedonia with migrants in April 2016.

Pierre Brunet’s novels are published by Calmann-Lévy:

  • January 2006: publication of his first novel “Barnum” by Calmann-Lévy, a story born from his humanitarian experience.
  • September 2008 : publication of his second novel ” JAB “, the story of a little Spanish orphan girl who grew up in Morocco and who will become a professional boxer as an adult.
  • March 2014: release of his third novel “Fenicia”, inspired by the life of his mother, a little Spanish orphan during the civil war, refugee in France, later an anarchist activist, seductress, who died in a psychiatric institute at 31 years old.
  • End of August 2017: release of his fourth novel “Le triangle d’incertitude”, in which the author “returns” again, as in “Barnum” to Rwanda in 1994, to evoke the trauma of a French officer during Operation Turquoise.

In parallel to his work as a writer, Pierre Brunet works as a co-writer of synopses for television series or feature films, in partnership with various production companies. He also collaborates with various magazines by publishing columns or articles, notably on international news.

Humanitarian impact: how to combine quality and innovation?

RCA – distribution alimentaire dans le cadre du mécanisme de réponse d’urgence – 2021

In order to best cover the needs of populations affected by a crisis, Solidarités International (SI) strives to implement qualitative and innovative solutions on a daily basis. The Department of Operations and Programs (DOAP) is the guarantor of the optimal balance between quality and programmatic innovation: reinforcing the quality of the programs implemented and developing new modalities of intervention and adapted activities are the key to the agility and sustainability of the responses implemented.

1/ What are the most effective qualitative levers for improving programs and the implementation of activities?

DOAP has several qualitative levers on which to act in order to guarantee programmatic quality.

The first qualitative lever is at the strategic level: a good humanitarian response is above all a response that solves problems that are often complex because they are multifactorial. The development of the response plan must therefore be based on a precise and holistic situational analysis, which highlights unmet needs, gaps in the existing response and the differentiated impact of the crisis on the population according to a detailed analysis of vulnerabilities. The intervention logic, inspired by the Theory of Change, makes it possible to link this situational analysis carried out at the country and/or grassroots level, and to develop a response strategy focused on solving the problem (instead of a sectoral approach). It pushes program teams to always ask the question of the rationale for the intervention and the chosen modality by answering the question: “Why are we doing what we are doing? DOAP supports teams by developing and training on these methodologies of situational analysis and theory of change.

A good response is also and above all a technical response: covering basic needs such as “eating, drinking, sheltering” in 18 crisis contexts as different as they are complex, requires the mastery of a wide range of technical skills, from the rehabilitation of wells and boreholes, drinking water analysis, physico-chemical and microbiological analysis of wastewater, waste management, drinking water and sanitation networks, vector control, infection prevention and control measures, project management assistance… for the water, sanitation and hygiene sector; market gardening, tree farming, agroecology, urban agriculture, animal health, small and large livestock breeding, fishing, fish farming, product processing and value-added techniques, value chain approach, etc. for the food security and livelihoods sector. This impressive – yet non-exhaustive – list should be complemented by skills in civil engineering, construction and rehabilitation of small and large infrastructures… The reality of sectoral technical expertise is also complementary to more cross-cutting skills such as irrigation, integrated water resources management, climate change, monitoring systems or the market-based approach and cash transfers.

Drainers in action in a latrine in a refugee camp in Bangladesh ®Solidarités International

The DOAP thus ensures the respect of technical standards through the elaboration of technical reference documents and the creation of expertise. The team brings, in addition to the daily technical support, the global vision and the consideration of the stakes related to the environment, the public health, the social cohesion and the protection in order to control the negative impact of its actions.

In order to cover as broadly as possible the range of technical expertise required to carry out its activities, and recognizing that a partnership and multi-actor approach is essential to the successful implementation of activities in the field and to the organization’s capacity building, DOAP regularly calls upon its preferred technical partners.

Finally, one of the central pillars of SI’s quality approach is based on methodological support for program management and learning. DOAP promotes a dynamic and continuous learning approach throughout the project cycle, as well as participatory, monitoring and evaluation methodologies to ensure that humanitarian action is geared towards achieving concrete changes in the lives of the populations we work for and with.

Keeping a sense of action and the perspective of the changes we are contributing to in the lives of the people at the heart of our programs is the best guarantee of the effective quality of our programs.

Sludge treatment plant, Sittwe, Myanmar. 2020 ®Marine Ricau / Solidarités International

2/ Are innovation and humanitarian action really compatible?

The crisis and fragility areas in which we work are particularly conducive to innovation because the diversity of contexts and needs as well as the constraints of implementation (security, technical, land, administrative, temporal, contextual…) that we encounter on a daily basis do not allow the implementation of a single standard solution to the complex problems encountered. Furthermore, the humanitarian imperative to respond to vital needs and to facilitate access to basic services and fundamental rights for the most vulnerable populations affected by crises, leads us to think outside the box and always seek more integrated, more adapted and more sustainable responses.

Thus, DOAP claims the role of internal coordinator of the research and innovation approach as a full-fledged lever of the quality approach: from the identification of innovative solutions emerging both from headquarters and from the field, to the evaluation and capitalization, including support for the development and monitoring of the pilot phase, DOAP ensures the emergence and replication of good practices.

However, it is sometimes tempting to give in and give up in the face of the many paradoxes involved in juxtaposing the terms “humanitarian” and “innovation”:

Donors’ aversion to risk and uncertainty leaves little opportunity for funding in the seed and start-up phases of a new project, a new approach or the implementation of an innovative solution. Paradoxically, however, the humanitarian sector is increasingly endowed with funds dedicated to the implementation of innovative solutions that have already proved their worth in various fields.
The humanitarian culture and the need for rapid and efficient implementation are still far removed from the culture of innovation, research and learning that is inexorably linked to it. The key stage of evaluation and dissemination of good practices and new solutions is also still poorly funded by donors.
Our sectors of technical expertise are conducive to different types of innovation (product innovation, innovation approach or action research). The innovation approach allows us to highlight our technical expertise and increase our credibility and reputation in the sector. However, the technical nature of the solution and the need to adapt it are both the biggest obstacles to the ability to replicate the solution identically in another context, and therefore to the scaling up of the innovation.
Finally, the long temporality of the innovation cycle (multiannual, including a long phase of ideation and preliminary development) cannot be compatible with the necessary efficiency of the solutions implemented in the short term in the phases of response to the shock (rethinking a rapid response mechanism whose short-term response cycles are repeated for many years in the context of repeated shocks, and the temptation is great to look for a more durable solution, is extremely difficult). When people’s lives are at stake, are we willing to risk answering “no” to the question “did the implemented solution work”?

All these constraints increase the risk that organizations focus on “headquarter” / global innovation (e.g. very technological) that brings more communication than impact on people. So, for innovation to solve the transition from theory to practice, we need to encourage the development of innovation in the field, for sustainable solutions that are easy to develop and replicate.

Keeping a sense of action and the perspective of the changes we are contributing to in people’s lives at the heart of our programs is the best guarantee of successful innovation.

Sludge treatment plant, Sittwe, Myanmar. 2020 ®Marine Ricau / Solidarités International

3/ Giving ourselves the means to meet the demands of the humanitarian mandate and to bring the voice of the people to the global level

In addition to being a platform for mobilizing resources to strengthen the organization’s dual approach to quality and innovation, DOAP is mandated to represent the voice of the people at the global level in humanitarian coordination bodies. DOAP represents SI on the steering committees of the EAH Cluster, the SAME Cluster, and the ALNAP Humanitarian Action Evaluation Network.

In order to move from theory to practice, also at the global level, and to be an actor of change in the humanitarian sector and thus promote its dual approach of Quality and Innovation as a guarantee of humanitarian impact, SI has been the incubator of 2 projects financed first by innovation funds, then by institutional funding: The first one, develops a system to strengthen quality and accountability of beneficiaries in the WASH sector (AQA) and the second one, OCTOPUS, allows the improvement of good practices and the monitoring of the implementation of innovative solutions related to emergency sanitation. These two projects are in the process of being transferred to the WASH sector to be integrated as a global coordination tool and approach.


Developed by SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL in 2018, the OCTOPUS (Operational Collaborative Tool Of Ongoing Practices in Urgent Sanitation) platform is an online collaborative tool related to fecal sludge disposal and treatment in emergency contexts. It aims to improve sanitation practices through the sharing of knowledge and experiences by stakeholders and experts in fecal sludge management. Case studies present detailed technical and contextual information that sanitation practitioners can draw on to adapt their interventions to the crises they face.


As of late 2018, the Accountability and Quality Assurance Initiative (AQA) aims to increase the capacity of humanitarian organizations to respond effectively and efficiently to crises by providing decision makers with the information they need to continuously adapt to changing contexts. Based on the industry’s Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control methodology, this initiative relies on the collection of simple data to support evidence-based, results-oriented decision-making, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that quality and accountability standards are met and improved over time. This project is a partnership between Oxfam, Solidarités International, Tufts University, and UNICEF, with support from the Global WASH Cluster and the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Sector.

The final word

Having a body at the heart of operations that carries this dual approach is a real organizational asset that allows a medium-sized structure to implement Quality and Innovation in the same way as large ones.

The risk-taking inherent in innovation and the development of new approaches is only possible with the guarantee of follow-up, technical support and quality control. Quality and Innovation are therefore intrinsically linked and their effects are mutually beneficial.

The multi-stakeholder approach and the ability to mobilize partners contribute to the richness of the approach and reduce paradoxes.

Behind two words and two approaches that could be considered too conceptual, the specificity of SI is to remain an operational actor in the field, always driven by the desire to remain as close as possible to the populations affected by crises.

All the qualitative levers are activated with a single concern: to maintain a sense of action and commitment for and as close as possible to the people in the most fragile and remote areas.



Who is Anne-Lise Lavaur ?

After studying political science and children’s rights, Anne-Lise Lavaur joined international organizations (Médecins du Monde Argentina, International Catholic Child Bureau), and became a program coordinator and advocacy officer.

In 2014, she joined SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL in the technical and quality department of the programs of which she became the coordinator eight months later. In 2018, this department evolved into the Deputy Program Operations Department (DPOD). Through the coordination of the team of technical and program referents, this department at the heart of operations guarantees the Quality and Innovation approach of the organization.