Three Priorities for the Humanitarian Future

by Liana Ghukasyan | Nov 1, 2022 | Leadership Voices

Liana Ghukasyan is Deputy Head of Delegation/Deputy Permanent Observer, IFRC Delegation to the United Nations 

The humanitarian system has undergone many changes in recent years. These have been triggered by political and economic factors, security considerations, the multiplicity of actors, vulnerable populations at risk, volunteers and new technologies – the last of which has ignited unprecedented innovation in humanitarian affairs. Liana Ghukasyan focuses on three IFRC priorities that have changed the way humanitarian assistance is delivered and will be instrumental in shaping the humanitarian future. 

Participatory aid

Participatory aid enables more direct participation of affected people from all over the globe to have a greater impact on how aid is designed, delivered and evaluated. Much of this participation will be leveraged by ‘digital humanitarianism’ which has progressed fast in the last ten years and after being sparked into action during the response to Haiti earthquake in 2010.

Our era of advanced technologies has enabled a qualitatively different model of humanitarian response. In a world where there are more mobile-connected devices than there are people, communication technologies are rapidly transforming the way in which humanitarian assistance is delivered. Social media and the increasingly cheap availability of mobile technology have transformed the way an average person interacts with their fellow human beings and governments.

Dwelling on IFRC’s long experience of working closely with and within communities, and improving our response based on their feedback, we know the added value of community involvement and engagement. We want people in vulnerable situations to be digitally included and actively in charge of the aid which they and their loved ones need to receive.  

IFRC wants a humanitarian future in which affected people are digitally connected to the advice, information, aid and data protections that can save their lives and keep them safe. We also want people connected to their families and safely enrolled in digital systems of social protection, healthcare and education. 

But this connection should be a two-way process so that people can co-design aid, inform disaster response and influence our work for the better.

31-year-old Alzira Simango collects water from a near-empty water hole in the district off Mabalane. Many people come to this area to dig for water and leave empty-handed. The holes they dig to reach water get deeper by the day. According to Alzira, many children come to collect water from this area but they often go home with nothing (Photo: Aurélie Marrier d’Unienville/IFRC).

Anticipatory action

Our second priority should be scaling up anticipatory aid. IFRC has invested a lot of effort and resources into championing and further developing this approach.  

It is becoming more and more obvious that we need to move from a reactive approach to an anticipatory approach, and we now have the technology and expertise to make this shift. 

According to an analysis of humanitarian financing by the Overseas Development Institute and the START Network, at least half of all humanitarian crises are foreseeable and 20 per cent of humanitarian crises are highly predictable. 

Yet only 1 per cent of crisis funding is pre-arranged. We can and must do better in the face of predictable shocks – especially when our early warning ability to forecast is improving so much, as our own Climate Centre has been showing in recent floods, heatwaves and storms. 

There is a growing bank of evidence showing that anticipatory action is effective. 

  • In Mongolia in 2018, for example, livestock keepers who received animal care kits and cash before the severe winter cold saw fewer of their animals die. 
  • In Bangladesh, an anticipatory intervention reached more people with assistance at half the cost compared to previous years. 
  • In Senegal in 2019, the number of households reporting going a whole day without eating reduced by 19% during a six-month anticipatory project. 

Since the 1990s, climate-related disasters have risen in frequency by almost 35% and impacted over 1.7 billion people around the world. The IFRC’s Cost of Doing Nothing Report predicts that by 2050, 200 million people every year could need international humanitarian aid due to climate-related disasters and their impacts, costing more than $20 billion per year in additional humanitarian aid. 

We know that anticipatory action will be an important strategy that will shape the future of humanitarian action. But it is important to note that anticipatory action is not a panacea and there are a number of prerequisites for successful anticipatory action. One of them is sufficient, predictable, and flexible financing. Some government donors are leading the way in anticipatory financing and we need others to follow.

Climate Law

The third priority for the humanitarian future is a new law. As we continue to witness the increasing intensity and frequency of climate crisis, we are going to need new international laws to protect people in climate- and weather-related disasters. 

This means new treaties and resolutions that are more specific and more targeted than what we have at the moment for humanitarian response to extreme heat, floods, cyclones, evacuations, early warning and early action.

Laws can be a struggle to make and do not lead to instant compliance, as we know from IHL. But we have seen the importance of regulatory frameworks in many instances, most recently during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The process of agreeing on treaties helps to affirm global norms and once they are law, new treaties give states, institutions and citizen movements a framework to work with and aspire to in practice.

We at the IFRC network have been prioritising participation, anticipation and new legal frameworks for many years and will continue our efforts to make sure they play a central role in the future of humanitarian action.


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