19th August, World Humanitarian day, what progress?

World Humanitarian Day is celebrated every 19 August since 2008. While humanitarians celebrated in their own way by implementing appropriate relief efforts, there was no shortage of official statements. We must first of all welcome them because these statements are useful to reinforce the need for solidarity with populations in danger. We must also take them at their word. Is humanitarian aid always equal to the needs and risks of the victims of war, disaster and epidemics against a background of extreme poverty?

On August 19th, Martin Griffiths, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said that 303 million people were in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and that he had “great hope” despite “the depths of despair and division”. Joseph Borell and Janez Lenarcic for the European Commission applaud “…all those working on the front line, constantly risking their lives to save others and reduce human suffering”. Even US President Joe Biden from the White House said that humanitarians “…need our protection and support more than ever” and “It is therefore imperative that we collectively strengthen our humanitarian response”. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres recalled that “Far from the spotlight”, “against all odds, often risking their lives, humanitarians are alleviating suffering in the most dangerous of conditions”. He goes so far as to say that “Humanitarians represent the best of humanity”. I would add that we must humbly and convincingly demonstrate this every day if we are to live up to our mission to save lives!


Humanitarian emergency in Nepal after the earthquake in April 2015 @Alex Cauvin

The theme of this year’s day is “It takes a village”; between those affected, neighbours who help each other, local, national and international humanitarians with diverse and complementary skills and capacities. We cannot forget public services and states as the sustainable solution to be supported and promoted.

This recognition cannot fail to raise questions and to be useful to public opinion, governments and the various actors in political, economic and social life. However, in order to carry out our humanitarian mission, beyond the moral support of these leaders, we need above all concrete measures and an adapted and demanding policy on their part.

In welcoming their statement, this is the best they could do to give humanitarianism what it needs to be more effective in relief work.

Humanitarianism is based on the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. These principles apply to all and the partnership between humanitarian actors and state or inter-state actors must scrupulously respect and apply them. It is up to humanitarians to be the first to set an example in their daily work, avoiding any risk of partisan politicisation for purposes other than impartial relief.

Beyond commitment, humanitarian aid is about providing the means to meet the vital needs of people at risk. In 2020, we found that while humanitarian needs had increased rapidly, resources had stalled after a steady increase in previous years. This year, OCHA found that needs were estimated at $46.3 billion but only $15 billion had been mobilised by mid-year! What will happen at the end of the year when Ukraine requires immense resources that cannot be taken away from the victims of other crises, from the Sahel to the Middle East?

Humanitarian overview 2022 in needs by country.

Let’s face it, International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is in danger of being weakened, if not undermined, by anti-terrorism laws (COTER), which risk on the one hand “criminalising” humanitarians in the territories where they provide relief and where so-called terrorist groups operate and, on the other hand, by imposing administrative screening obligations on the populations they rescue. The mechanical and unintelligent application of these measures will have the effect of reducing aid to victims and putting humanitarians at risk. Who will take this responsibility?

Child with both legs missing due to bombing in Syria. @UOSSM

Similarly, at the 1st World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016, one of the collective decisions had been to decide to simplify the administration of humanitarian action, which has the unfortunate tendency to become bureaucratized at the risk of weakening the responsiveness, adaptation, access and impact that are essential to relief efforts, and increasing their cost. But this does not seem to have happened. On the contrary, bureaucracy is thriving and becoming more expensive in all areas of aid to people. Why don’t the institutions do what they publicly commit to? Can we believe that more and more bureaucracy is always better humanitarianism? Which institution will set an example of virtuous, efficient and sufficient simplification for all?

Moreover, the industrialisation of aid is also a danger at the end of the humanitarian chain. In the face of major crises such as the food security crisis caused by the war in Ukraine, it is essential to massify the volume of international aid. However, at the other end of the chain, aid must be adapted as closely as possible to the needs of each population, lifestyle and capacity in order to optimise the quality of the aid for the benefit of the recipients. In this respect, the diversity and complementarity of actors is a major asset, whereas a “single model” designed to manage volume would ultimately weaken the humanitarian ecosystem which has been built up over time through a kind of organisational empiricism which is regularly revisited. As not everyone can do everything and a few cannot do what all the others do, the synergy of diversity is a key asset.

Food distribution in Haïti @Solidarités International

Beyond these messages to the leaders and partner institutions such as the United Nations, the States, the European Commission and others who are described as “donors” in the NGOs but who are first and foremost partners, I would like to conclude by placing all this in a more global context.

If humanity is one, humanity is also a diversity that deserves respect and recognition. A diversity of peoples, countries and nations, states, cultures, ways of life, religion, cuisine, music and many other “identities” inscribed in history. Conversely, massification is one of the characteristics of totalitarian systems or of a vision that would reduce human beings to the exclusive role of producers and consumers in a world that would resemble a vast supermarket.

The war in Ukraine, beyond freedom and independence, is also a global geopolitical war that will change the existing order and balance of the world. Some believe that this is the end of “globalism”, or even “universalism”, and the affirmation of localism, nations, peoples, religions and history as the frameworks of collective belonging necessary for the sovereign governance of each people and for the security of human communities. If humanitarianism has worked in ‘globalism’, it can just as easily be adapted to these frameworks, which are equally in need of humanitarianism in times of crisis.

On the condition that we pay more attention to “others”, in particular small peoples, small countries and minority cultures, which are all the more in need of our attention, our respect and our help because they are small and often the object of domination and great misfortune in their history. In this context, which could be described as “human relocation”, humanitarian actors can and must also alert, mobilise and act in the face of increasingly threatening global risks such as climate change, extreme droughts and floods, and the increasing scarcity of water and biodiversity, which humanity, in all its diversity, urgently needs to live. Will humanitarian aid be able to contribute to this, that is the challenge.

Finally, I would like to thank all those who make this edition of Humanitarian Challenges possible through their donations, however small (make a donation). Thank you.

Alain Boinet.

Afghanistan “As a humanitarian, I have never seen such a crisis in my life”

Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen in the center on an emergency assessment mission in Afghanistan @ Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen

An exclusive interview with Isabelle Moussard Carlsen, Head of the OCHA Office in Afghanistan.

Alain Boinet : More and more, media and humanitarian actors are talking about the risk of famine in Afghanistan. What is the reality today and how do you see the coming months in that regard ?

Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen : The number of people in Afghanistan facing hunger today is unprecedented with 23 million Afghans not knowing where their next meal is coming from. This is more than half the population. 1 in 2 children are facing acute malnutrition.

With winter temperatures dipping below zero, people have to spend more of their already dwindling household incomes on fuel and other supplies needed for winter at a time when food supplies are lowest due to harvest cycle.

This is caused by a number of aggravating factors: Afghanistan is facing the second drought in four years, a looming economic crisis, the socio-economic effects of COVID-19 and decades of conflict and natural disasters. Today, people are spending more than 80 per cent of their household budget on food.

Humanitarian organizations are increasing their response and have already reached 8 million people with food in just three months and 1.3 million with agriculture support, but much more is needed. 

Alain Boinet : What about the health structures which seem to lack staff due to lack of salaries, medicines and consumables ? 

Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen : As the crisis in Afghanistan deepens, a collapse in healthcare must be averted. Humanitarian agencies are supporting the system by providing medicine, medical supplies, paying salaries (many healthcare workers had not been paid for up to five months) and more to prevent this from happening.

From the hospitals and health facilities I have visited, both at provincial and district level, nurses, midwives and doctors told me that they continued to work without getting paid. Starting in October, they had been paid for 2 of the 5 months. What is clear is that they need more support, but at least it is some progress. These wonderful Afghan female and male health workers are preventing healthcare from collapsing by providing trauma care, reproductive, maternal, new-born and child health, among other essential services to their fellow Afghans.

Martin Griffiths, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), during a meeting in Kabul with the Taliban leadership.

Alain Boinet : Martin Griffiths recently indicated in his 2022 appeal for OCHA that the largest budget is for Afghanistan, at $4.5 billion, just ahead of Syria and Yemen. Can we expect that this sum will be effectively mobilized in time to be implemented for the populations in danger ?

Shouldn’t we consider a large-scale relief operation to reach the most endangered populations ?

Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen : This year, donors contributed US$1.6 billion to the response in Afghanistan to cover immediate needs particularly in the last four months of 2021. Indeed, needs are deepening and we urge donors to generously support life-saving assistance, including food, medicines, health care and protection for 22 million people next year.

We are encouraged by the UN security council resolution on Afghanistan sanctions. The humanitarian exception will allow aid organizations to implement at the scale required. Some 160 national and international humanitarian organizations are already providing assistance in Afghanistan and it is critical that flexible and early funding is received so that they can continue to do so.

Alain Boinet : Humanitarian actors testify that among the main difficulties they face is access to the Afghan banking sector to receive funds and carry out transactions as well as the constraints of air travel and visas to reach Afghanistan. What is the situation and what consequences does it have ?

Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen : The economic situation has been extremely difficult and most particularly felt by Afghans.  Banks were closed and there was no money in the system. Doctors, teachers and civil servants has not been paid, local institutions and services are at risk. Last week’s vote for a humanitarian exception will allow aid organizations to implement what we have planned: to reach 22 million vulnerable Afghans. It also provides legal assurances to financial institutions and commercial actors and facilitate humanitarian operations.

At this critical time, we all need to come together, and the international community has a major role to play, to support the millions of Afghans that are counting on us and have exhausted all other options. 

Alain Boinet : Are the financial resources mobilized commensurate with the needs ? Are they available and do the humanitarian actors have the necessary capacity to act during the harsh winter in Afghanistan ?

Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen : Regarding access, winter does make it more difficult to access people in need and for people to access the services they need which is why it is so important that we continue to deliver aid to vulnerable communities, including winter aid that was distributed in October and November ahead of winter. Besides winter aid, humanitarians were also providing people with 3 months’ supply of food and agriculture support like wheat seeds. Access missions are also ongoing along the Saranjal Pass on the way to Ghor province and more recently in snowy and remote parts of Bamyan. In November along, OCHA conducted 17 missions, the majority of which by road. It is critical to re-establish access to remote parts of Afghanistan where needs are often the highest and many communities have not been reached in years. 

WFP trucks deliver food to remote, hard-to-reach areas in northeastern Badakhshan province before roads are blocked by snow @PAM Afghanistan

Alain Boinet : With the new Afghan government, are the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence respected and is it possible to have unhindered access to all populations ? What is the significance of the UNSC Resolution 2615 of December 22 for OCHA and humanitarian actors ?

Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen : As humanitarians, we continue to engage with all parties including the Taliban (as we have been for decades) to access people in need, focusing on the most vulnerable.  The humanitarian principles are the guiding principles in our engagement and essential to principled response in complex situations such as the one in Afghanistan. As before, humanitarian assistance is independent and must be based on needs as identified by needs assessments.

We are very encouraged by the UN security council resolution on Afghanistan sanctions and will allow the 160 humanitarian organizations on the ground to respond to people in need at the scale required.


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Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen

Isabelle has been engaged in the humanitarian sector since 1987.

Her first field experience was in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. She subsequently spent 12 years in the field in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Kenya and Somalia.

Back in France in 1999, she first worked for four years with the Samu Social de Paris before joining ACF in January 2005 as Desk Officer.

In March 2013 she was promoted to a Regional Director position.

She has been the Director of Operations of ACF- France between August 2016 and April 2021.

Isabelle has joined OCHA Afghanistan in June 2021.