Futureproofing Humanitarianism for Permanent Emergencies: Unpacking the Promise of Cooperation

Despite the strong growth of the humanitarian sector, there is an increasing operational and financial deficit in the capacity of governments and humanitarian organizations to respond. This has led to calls for changes in the way such crises are understood and managed. As humanitarians grapple with what is increasingly imagined as a future of permanent emergencies, the promise of cooperation has taken center stage as a way of dealing with an uncertain future. Humanitarianism has a long history of trying to improve itself incrementally through best practice examples, ever more fine-grained standards, and reforms. As humanitarian actors undertake periodic renewal projects to look and feel better and be seen as more credible and more legitimate, talk of the need for a paradigm shift has become an institutionalized feature of contemporary humanitarianism. Presently, the focus is on the ability of humanitarianism to shift into a modus operandi of continuous crisis management.

As scholars, we often don’t pay enough attention to corporate humanitarian interests. In this blog post, I try to do so by using the emergent concept of futureproofing as a prism to ask some questions about cooperation. The concept futureproofing is loosely borrowed from electronics, communications and industrial design theory. To futureproof is to try to  better anticipate the future and develop methods of minimizing effects of shocks and stresses of future events. Futureproofing is about increasing resilience: the objective is for a product or system to be of value into the distant future and not be obsolete in the fact of technological change.

I suggest that as humanitarians perceive that things get harder ─i.e. the response-gap continues to increase and the humanitarian space continues to shrink─ the focus is on futureproofing the humanitarian system by becoming stronger, faster and better. Here, I explore the notion that humanitarian actors must find new ways of cooperating with other actors, cooperate with new types of actors (including types of new humanitarian donors, host states, global philanthropy, the private sector and the volunteer and technical communities) and cooperatemore.  While cooperation is rhetorically framed as intrinsic to the future of humanitarian action, I argue that the quest for cooperation is filled with ambiguities. This concerns what humanitarians say they want to get out of it, what they really want to get out of it and what they can get out of it.

My argument is that the focus is heavily on futureproofing the humanitarian enterprise to ensure its continued relevance and growth. Crisis-affected communities, their agency and accountability to affected populations occupy surprisingly vague roles in these future-oriented scenarios. These ambiguities and paradoxes become more visible when cooperation is analyzed through the prism of the three logics of humanitarian futureproofing, whereby the sector aims to become stronger by reconfiguring the humanitarianism-development nexus, faster through private sector cooperation and better through the turn to humanitarian innovation.

The first logic of humanitarian futureproofing concerns the expansionist impetus of humanitarianism. I have become puzzled by apparent contradictions in how humanitarian actors perceive and discuss the appropriate boundaries for their own activities and professional roles, and the activities and roles of other actors operating in crises and emergencies. The oddness becomes evident when considering what happens when humanitarians begin to talk about preparedness, early recovery or “protracted crisis”. Humanitarians appear to argue that while the sanctity of humanitarian space is a precondition for a strong humanitarian response, to ensure the long-term effectiveness of humanitarian action, humanitarians must also be able and willing to radically extend their activities well into the terrain of what is usually called “development”. Yet, it is not clear how humanitarians will manage this transition into development work in practice. If humanitarian actors are to do more “development work”, it seems reasonable that they get better at articulating how they will engage the state, the democratic process, local political actors and agendas for transformative social justice.

The second logic of humanitarian futureproofing is the notion that private-public partnerships in themselves will make humanitarian response more effective and thus faster, by entrenching market oriented rationalities. The idea is that private companies can contribute needed expertise and resources, and because they are profit driven, they are incentivized to comply with the specific deliverables and time frames. However, this perspective overlooks persistent tensions inherent in the humanitarian market and in the actors’ rationalities.  While the turn to business cooperation is informed by the notion that the humanitarian market is inherently efficient and effective because it is a regular market, the consumer (i.e. the aid recipient) neither purchases nor pays for the delivered service. Aid agencies are the customers, donors the buyers and aid recipients the consumers.  There is also often a rather thin shared understanding of the nature of humanitarian work. Private sector actors express frustration about unprofessional and undecided humanitarian customers while humanitarians complain about being offered inadequate or unfeasible solutions and about private sector partners that “think money” instead of “activity on the ground”.

The third logic of humanitarian futureproofing is the assumption of progress inherent in the humanitarian turn to technological innovation. In previous attempts to renew humanitarian action, such as the turn to rights based-approaches or humanitarian reform, accountability was a means to have a better humanitarianism. In the humanitarian innovation agenda, the accountability issue is being invisibilized in favor of strongly held assumptions about progress and inevitability.  Thinking on problems and difficulties is often framed in terms of finding technical solutions, obtaining sufficient funding to move from pilot phases to scale or placing oneself in a functional regulatory context. The innovation discourse is focused on empowerment but pays little attention to how power operates. The turn to technological innovation is being seen as the end of accountability efforts: it is not something we use to get closer to a better humanitarianism, but something which once developed and deployed is a better, more accountable humanitarianism.

Emerging from this broad-brushed effort to unpack efforts to use cooperation instrumentally to make humanitarian response stronger, faster and better is a lingering unease about where this leaves crisis affected populations, who seem to have all but disappeared from view in this care-for-the-institutional-self model of humanitarian action. Going full circle back to the conceptualization of futureproofing, an important critique is that it may make us feel better in the moment – more comfortable, more secure and more protected – but it is unlikely to be the safe option in the long run; it is an “ongoing task of vigilance that will never completed”. However, this type of future-gazing both predict and shape desirable futures and organize resources towards them. Hence, I would argue that the starting as well as end point for effective cooperation –what would make humanitarian action stronger, faster and better in the long run – should be the commitment to accountability we can draw out of the humanitarian imperatives to do no harm, and to assist according to need in the most humane, impartial and neutral manner possible.

Note: This entry, originally posted on the humanitarian-quest blog, is adapted from Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, “Stronger, Faster, Better: Three Logics of Humanitarian Futureproofing”, in Heins, Volker; Kai Koddenbrock; & Christine Unrau, eds., Humanitarianism and Challenges of Cooperation. London: Routledge 2016.