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.

How can anthropology and humanitarian action be better combined?

This article makes no distinction between humanitarian aid and development. Yet these two fields of action have different timescales and objectives. While humanitarian action is aimed at meeting the vital needs of the most vulnerable, development is a long-term process, designed to accompany social change.

The remarks that follow on the value of anthropology and the ways in which it can be integrated into humanitarian and development actions must therefore be adapted according to the situation on the ground – more or less urgent, conflict-ridden or unstable. In the humanitarian field, anthropology is perhaps most useful when emergencies become chronic, and in post-crisis and reconstruction phases.

The terms international aid/international action/aid actors are used to refer generally to development and humanitarian actors and action. However, it is important to be aware of the distinction between these actors and modes of action when reading this article.

How can anthropology and humanitarian action be better combined?

Anthropology has long included development mechanisms and humanitarian action in its field of study. It often takes a critical look at the logics of power inherent in the international actions of NGOs. Many anthropologists have studied these issues, and it is now generally accepted that there is such a thing as “development anthropology” or “humanitarian anthropology”. The reverse – the integration of anthropology into humanitarian action – is also true, but to a lesser extent.

In fact, anthropology is not always integrated into the design of aid programs, or into NGOs’ reflection on their own actions. Yet there is a broad consensus on the value of this discipline for humanitarian action[i]. Anthropological studies of the populations targeted by international action provide a better understanding of the populations concerned, the power dynamics within groups, and the knowledge and practices in place. This information, once taken into account by aid actors, would enable projects to be better targeted and their adoption by the people targeted to be reinforced. So, what hinders its integration, and what solutions are available to humanitarian actors?

Ati regional hospital, Batha region, Chad – August 2018, ©Solidarités International

1. What hinders the use of anthropology in humanitarian aid?

a. Opposite modes of intervention

Anthropology and humanitarian aid have quite different modes of intervention. While the former aims to describe the world with as little alteration as possible to its object of study, the aid sector assumes a modification of its field of action and, in the case of development, aims to accompany social change.

These two disciplines operate in opposing timeframes. Anthropological research, by virtue of its ethnographic method, takes a long-term view. It requires an in-depth understanding of the logics of actors, and a sharing of their experiences. Development and humanitarian aid, on the other hand, take a shorter timeframe, often defined by the funding granted by donors. Action must be efficient – achieving its objectives in a short space of time – since the NGO is accountable to institutional or private backers, donors and beneficiaries alike.

Finally, because of these two characteristics, anthropology and humanitarianism have distinct approaches to reality. Anthropology, which seeks to understand the complexity of social relationships, looks at things from an actor’s point of view. Humanitarianism, on the other hand, takes a programmatic approach to reality. The latter sometimes requires a simplification and homogenization of social reality.

These very different ways of working make it difficult to work together. There is sometimes a lack of understanding between these two working cultures and their respective players. The anthropologist is said to be too academic and detached from the “field reality” of the humanitarians. His work does not fit in with the developer’s timeframe, and is not operational enough. Humanitarians, on the other hand, are at the service of action, and are unable to stand back and reflect on more abstract issues that are far removed from the field.

b. A project-based rationale that prevents a long-term approach

Integrating anthropology into the humanitarian field is made difficult by the very way the aid sector operates. NGOs have little time between the call for projects and the first response they have to give. This does not allow them to carry out a proper needs analysis before defining activities and expected results.

The project approved by the donor is already complete, presenting a needs analysis, baseline study, planned activities, deliverables and targeted results. Once the funds have been released, the project can begin. The anthropological study, when it fits into the project, is often located in the needs assessment phase, integrated into the project. This is where the problem lies: the assessment phase takes place once the activities have been defined and approved. But once the terms of the project have been validated, there’s no way of changing them easily.

However, readjustments are sometimes essential, as shown by this example from Chad, detailed by Florence Chatot[ii], Groupe URD research manager, during a telephone interview. Groupe URD works in partnership with an NGO that combats female genital mutilation, and has carried out operational research focused on analyzing the dynamics and social norms associated with this practice. One of the NGO’s planned activities was the professional retraining of excisers by setting up IGAs to compensate for the loss of income associated with abandoning the practice. The study revealed that such a strategy was far too simplistic to address a problem as complex as the practice of excision. In fact, far from being restricted to a strictly female “excisor/excised” interaction, the study uncovered the existence of a real excision economy bringing together multiple community players with divergent interests who, through their social function in the practice, legitimize its persistence. In fact, one of the study’s recommendations was to reinvest the budget initially allocated to IGAs in prevention activities.

This example highlights the need for precise studies, carried out by people already familiar with the subject, prior to the definition of activities, in order to avoid readjustments whose costs – organizational, human and financial – are easy to imagine.

Some associations have the capacity to carry out socio-anthropological studies upstream of calls for projects. Médecins du Monde, for example, has even integrated anthropological expertise into its head office “Research and Learning” department. The infographic below, taken from their website, shows where the socio-anthropological study fits into the association’s program cycle. This organization is made possible by the relative freedom of Médecins du Monde, which has its own funds not earmarked for any particular project.

2. What kind of anthropology do we need for humanitarian aid?

The humanitarian community’s interest in anthropology is real, but it’s not so easy for the two disciplines to meet. The researcher is too often presented as a critical academic, rather than a source of proposals, or idealized as the “rescuer” of a failed project.

What kind of anthropology do we need for humanitarian aid? The argument put forward in this article is that anthropology must be at the service of action. It must not be subservient to it, but must keep as its objective the improvement of humanitarian action.

a. Making local action logics intelligible for international action

Anthropology is concerned with specific social functions, always trying to grasp the vision of the people living the phenomenon in order to understand it. Humanitarian action is often carried out by multinational players – the UN and its agencies – or by non-governmental actors operating outside their own borders – international NGOs. Anthropology’s interest here lies in making the link between this local scale and these international players. It makes the social exchanges of some intelligible to others. It can be mobilized both to help the “global” – the international players – and to support the “local” – the populations targeted by aid programs.

This is what is put forward by Sharon Abramowitz in her article “Ten Things that Anthropologists Can Do to Fight the West African Ebola Epidemic” (2014). In it, she sets out 10 actions that anthropologists can put in place to be useful to humanitarians, as part of the fight against Ebola in West Africa in 2014. I’ll use three of her proposals here.


/ Anthropologists can observe, report, interpret and explain local perspectives on external action. The aim here is not to understand for the sake of understanding, but to operationalize their understanding in order to propose arrangements, adapt humanitarian action and make it acceptable to local populations.

2/ Anthropologists can identify local health capacities and structures that can contribute to the epidemic response (in this case, Ebola). For the anthropologist, this means not only sharing “objective” knowledge of existing health structures, but also his or her knowledge of social constructs that could be useful to the humanitarian response in place. Faced with a disaster, populations invent and implement ways of responding and mitigating its effects. Anthropology’s interest lies in identifying these structures and bringing them to the fore, so that international action can integrate them into its response strategy.

3/ Anthropologists can share their local contacts with the global health experts coordinating the response. Whether they are researchers, members of civil society or leaders in the public or private sectors, these people can help and communicate with those involved in international action. Humanitarian response targets different scales and therefore needs contacts belonging to these different levels – local, national, international.

Anthropologists can also make the international humanitarian response intelligible to local populations. They play the role of “cultural mediators”[iii] with target populations.

This work can help defuse social tensions, as Faye has shown in the case of the burial of women who have died pregnant in Guinea[iv]. Among the Kissi, in Forest Guinea, it is forbidden to bury a pregnant woman with her child in her abdomen. Instead, the fetus is removed from the woman’s body and the two are buried separately. In the context of the Ebola epidemic, it was not feasible to operate on the woman to achieve this separation. Faye explains that “if it were impossible, for one reason or another, to extract the fetus from the mother’s womb, a rite of reparation consisting of offerings and various ceremonies would have to be sacrificed”. This is how the burial took place.

b. Operational research provides recommendations.

Action research”, or “operational/participatory research”, is a way of bringing together those involved in international action (development and humanitarian aid) and researchers. It’s not a question of erasing the specificities of these two disciplines. On the contrary, as Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan points out, “all action research must submit simultaneously to the rules of research and those of action, otherwise it will be nothing but bad research and bad action”[v].

Thus, action research must respect academic criteria such as the recognition of the researcher’s involvement in his object of study, and the taking into account of personal and subjective biases. This is all the more relevant given anthropology’s emphasis on participant observation, in which the researcher plays an active role in what he or she observes.

New constraints apply to “action research”: the delimitation of a more restricted subject, a shorter timeframe and more accessible writing.

Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan points out that research is subject to the same principles of selection and detour as development projects. The people targeted by the study select what they share in order to best serve their objectives. The researcher must be able to identify and integrate these processes.

Action research helps to guide action so that it is in line with the logic of the target populations.

The case detailed at a Médecins du Monde seminar[vi] on unwanted pregnancies in Côte d’Ivoire shows how the project was guided by the socio-anthropological study that preceded it.

The aim of the study was to “understand the difficulties encountered by Ivorian secondary school pupils in adhering to the prevention messages distributed in schools”[vii]. It revealed the coexistence of two opposing discourses that confined high-school students and reduced their capacity for action. The first, conveyed by peers and social networks, encouraged “early sexuality and a multiplication of partners”. The second, conveyed by adults and certain Ivorian institutions, makes sexuality a taboo subject and presents numerous barriers to access to contraception.

The approach described above enabled us to involve all stakeholders (social, educational, health) in questioning their perception of sexuality, taking into account their position in society and their capacity for action. Young people were integrated into the project by hosting radio programs to support behavioral change. Community agents were recruited to reduce the gap between young people’s experience of sexuality and the communities’ perception of it.

Goundam, Timbuktu region, Mali. Solidarités International has been present in Mali since 2012, working closely with the local population / ©Solidarités International

3. How can anthropology and humanitarianism be linked? The example of Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan’s “contractual model
a. Three preferred areas of interaction

To link anthropology and development, J.-P. Olivier de Sardan presents the solution of the “contractual model”, in which “researchers and operators agree to define a clearly circumscribed zone of interaction and collaboration, without renouncing their specific identities”[viii]. This way of thinking about anthropology/humanitarianism is both broader and more specific than action research. The author details three “preferred areas of interaction”.

Firstly, the training of development workers in the method of ethnographic inquiry, which would protect them from certain clichés. Secondly, anthropologists should be involved in monitoring project drift. Lastly, new types of survey that are neither entirely quantitative nor entirely qualitative.

b. What type of survey?

i. Anthropo experts

J.-P. Olivier de Sardan proposes three ways of overcoming these survey problems. The first method is to call on socio-anthropologists as “experts”. These researchers are long-term specialists in a particular theme or region within a research framework, and bring these skills to the development framework and the constraints that go with it – constrained subject matter, speed of action, efficient delivery. The richness and accuracy of their contribution to the world of development is nourished by their knowledge, built up over many years in an academic setting.

This is what Desclaux and Anoko (2017) describe during the Ebola virus disease epidemic in West Africa in 2014. The WHO called on anthropologists, including some who had already been mobilized during the 2000-2001 epidemic in Uganda, the 2003 epidemic in Congo and so on. The scientists mobilized during these various episodes gathered and created knowledge on “the medico-technical aspects [of the disease], biosafety constraints, the history of population reactions during previous epidemics, and institutional dimensions”[ix].

When the epidemic broke out in Guinea, the WHO immediately called on these experts to “implement the humanization of public health measures, clarify people’s interpretations of the disease and the social logics underlying their reactions”[x].

ii. Mixed research

J.-P. Olivier de Sardan then suggests setting up doctorate programs in which development and research players become involved. They would jointly define the research theme, and the development players would commit to making a field site available to the doctoral student.

These research techniques have proved their worth. This was the case for research manager Florence Chatot, who worked in Niger on a water access program. Upstream of the project, she conducted a needs assessment in partnership with a water, sanitation and hygiene engineer. The study showed the importance of traditional wells for the target population and highlighted the difficulties, particularly financial, associated with borehole maintenance.

Thanks to the integration of social science and technology, the association has adapted its activities by proposing improved traditional wells that do not necessarily meet international standards, but correspond to the needs expressed by the people interviewed.

Linking technology and social science enables us to find technical innovations that are adapted to the field.

iii. Combining surveys

Finally, it is possible to implement a combination of individual and collective surveys in the medium and short term, in order to produce relevant observations in a timeframe acceptable to aid providers. Ethnographic surveys, which focus on individuals over a long period of time, can be carried out in conjunction with rapid collective surveys of the MARP (Méthode Accélérée de Recherche Participative) type.

J.P. Olivier de Sardan and Thomas Bierschenk have proposed the ECRIS (Enquête Collective Rapide d’Identification des Conflits et des Groupes Stratégiques) method or “framework”[xi]. This multi-site comparative analysis approach aims to capture local conflicts, contradictions and issues “from the inside”, in order to build qualitative indicators tailored to the field and the survey theme.

This methodology makes it possible to introduce non-standardized qualitative indicators and common lines of inquiry, which then guide the researchers’ individual fieldwork. It is useful for comparing several sites, but also meets needs linked to “the preparation, monitoring or assessment of development operations”.

The proposals set out in this article to facilitate the integration of anthropology into the humanitarian field are in line with the humanitarian sector’s constant aim to improve the quality of its programs. Anthropology, with its ethnographic method, and the anthropologist, with an outside viewpoint, help to highlight the complexity of the world on which the humanitarian and the developer are working. Anthropology brings a fresh perspective to humanitarian action, even if it is sometimes difficult to integrate.


Madeleine Trentesaux

Due to its interest, we are republishing this article by Madeleine Trentesaux which appeared in issue no. 49 of January 12, 2021.

Who is Madeleine Trentesaux?

Interested in humanitarian and public health issues, Madeleine Trentesaux is currently completing a Master’s degree in “Human Rights and Humanitarian Action” at Sciences Po Paris. Prior to this, she studied anthropology at the University of Paris Nanterre. She worked for a year as an intern at Fondation Mérieux, and took part in international solidarity and development projects in France, Armenia and India.

[i] De nombreuses publications existent sur l’intérêt de l’anthropologie pour l’humanitaire. Pour exemple, le dossier « Anthropologues et ONG : des liaisons fructueuses ? » piloté par Laëtitia Atlani-Duault.

[ii] Chatot F., 2020, « Dynamiques et normes sociales liées aux mutilations génitales féminines dans le Mandoul » [accessible en ligne], Groupe URD, URL :

[iii] Anoko J., Desclaux A., 2017, « L’anthropologie engagée dans la lutte contre Ebola (2014-2016) : approches, contributions et nouvelles questions » [accessible en ligne], in. Santé Publique, Vol. 29, n°4, pp.477-485. URL:

[iv] Fassasi A., 2014, « Ebola : les anthropologues, composante clé de la riposte » [accessible en ligne], URL :

[v] Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan, 1995, « Conclusion », in. Anthropologie et développement. Essai en socio-anthropologie du changement social, Paris, éd. Karthala, p.192.

[vi] « Les recherches socio-anthropologiques à Médecins du Monde : quelle utilité dans l’action ? », 2019, Accessible en ligne :

[vii] Magali Bouchon, 2019, « Innover dans les pratiques humanitaires par la recherche en socio-anthropologie », in. Alternatives Humanitaires, n°10, p.3.

[viii] J.P. Olivier de Sardan, ibid., p.194.

[ix] Anoko J., Desclaux A., ibid., p.479.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan, ibid., « Arènes et groupes stratégiques », p.180.