In a changing world, humanitarianism needs to be smarter and more innovative than ever

End of the decade: as global crises reach unprecedented levels, we need better and more sustainable solutions

Children walk carrying humanitarian aid packages at the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp for the displaced where families of Islamic State (IS) foreign fighters are held, in the al-Hasakeh governorate in northeastern Syria on December 9, 2019.  Around 200 Syrian displaced people, mostly women and children, were heading home from an overcrowded desert camp in the northeast of the war-torn country on December 8, a Kurdish official said. The majority were civilians with no ties to IS, he said, while a few might have aligned with the jihadists but today regretted their decision. / AFP / Delil SOULEIMAN
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With war, violence and disaster around the world resulting in soaring humanitarian needs, the past year has once again broken some unenviable records. More people are displaced than at any time since the Second World War, record numbers of people require humanitarian assistance globally and appeals for humanitarian funding have hit all-time highs.

And just as humanitarian needs reach unprecedented levels, the ability of humanitarian organisations to respond effectively appears seriously diminished.

There are many reasons for this gap. For the most part, responsibility lies with those who wage war, and those who encourage and support them. There can be no humanitarian solution to political problems and no substitute for political will to make peace.

Deliberate restrictions to humanitarian access – be they military, political or bureaucratic – are a major impediment to reaching people in need of help

But responsibility also lies with us as humanitarians. We can and must do better. More and more, we need to be pragmatic as well as principled in order to remain relevant and effective in our fast-changing global environment.

Modern warfare is generally more protracted, more fragmented and more urbanised than at any other time in recent history. Even the most fundamental rules of international humanitarian law are frequently violated by warring parties on all sides. Sometimes it is hard even to identify the parties, never mind engage with them on their obligations to protect civilians. Shifting and splintering alliances of armed groups fighting on many fronts, with diverse and often opaque reasons for doing so, is the norm in many contexts.

Just as diverse are the methods and means of warfare used, characterised in some cases by what might at best be described as reckless disregard for the protection of civilians. Waging battle in the midst of a densely populated urban area – sometimes with highly explosive weapons – is just one sadly prevalent example.

The suffering this causes, mainly for civilians, is immense. The devastation we have witnessed in cities such as Aleppo, Gaza or Mosul, for example, will have consequences lasting for generations. Beyond catastrophic loss of life, livelihoods, infrastructure and services, there is also the long-term mental trauma.

Put these together with rapid urbanisation, mass migration and accelerating climate change, and the prognosis is even gloomier.

Yet just when they are needed most – in the most challenging conflict zones – many humanitarian organisations are conspicuous by their absence. Deliberate restrictions to humanitarian access – be they military, political or bureaucratic – are a major impediment to reaching people in need of help. A growing number of counterterrorism measures and sanctions are having a particularly chilling effect on principled humanitarian action.

At the same time, some international humanitarian organisations commonly outsource their response (and the risk that goes with it) to local implementers, retaining little or no control over the delivery of aid and no proximity to the people they are trying to help. In an environment where winning trust and acceptance is essential to our work, response purely by proxy is a non-starter.

We need to prove that our principles of neutrality, independence and impartiality are not empty words. For humanitarian actors like the International Committee of the Red Cross, this means staying close to the people we are trying to protect and assist. It means involving them properly in the response to their real needs and never making assumptions. For example, when our teams have arrived in besieged cities in Syria, bringing much needed relief supplies, many families have asked us for books and other educational materials so that children could continue to be schooled. It also means talking with stakeholders on all sides so that we can safely gain access to those who need our help most.

All of this is easier said than done. We need to be smarter and more innovative than perhaps ever before to keep pace with the changes around us. Given the scale, duration and complexity of today’s humanitarian crises (the average length of time we have been present in the countries hosting our 15 largest operations is more than 30 years), we also need to have long-term vision and commitment.

For a start, we need to keep up with fast-changing technologies and embrace the digital transformation. And we need to connect better with potential partners – including business and development actors – to co-create effective and sustainable solutions.

In the field of healthcare delivery, for instance, we are forging transformative partnerships in areas such as improving treatment for non-communicable diseases, energy solutions for health structures in the field, and mother-and-child services. As another example, we are developing high-tech facial recognition technology to help reconnect family members who have been separated by war or displacement, while building on state-of-the-art personal data protection.

New financial models are also key to unlock new resources. These include initiatives such as the humanitarian impact bond, mobilising private capital to support some of our physical rehabilitation activities in Africa, with the aim of significantly increasing their scale and impact.

Looking ahead, it is clear that the pace of change and with it, the need to innovate and adapt, will only increase. What might have seemed to be in the realms of science fiction just a few years ago is now posing serious challenges to humanity. Warfare in cyber or even outer space is one example. Autonomous weapons and the military application of artificial intelligence is another.

While there are still many complex questions around precisely how to apply the rules of war on these new frontiers, it is clear that they remain essential. Any new weapon and new technology of warfare must always be capable of being used in compliance with international humanitarian law.

It is equally clear that only humans, not machines, can apply these rules. Maintaining human control over weapons systems and use of force is vital.

Ultimately, these rules will continue to provide an anchor in the chaos of war and define its limits. For despite all the well-publicised violations, there are many more instances of quiet respect. The rules of war can and do work. We witness this every day on frontlines and it is this that gives us hope – hope for our common humanity in an otherwise uncertain future.

Robert Mardini is the director-general designate of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the permanent observer and head of delegation of the ICRC to the United Nations in New York