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In Ukraine and elsewhere, the humanitarian system won’t change without reshaping narratives

Expert comment

Written by John Bryant, Patrick Saez

Hero image description: A building in Germany with graffiti saying "Refugees welcome" Image credit:Sven-Kåre Evenseth/Flickr

Looking back at the past year since the escalation of the war in Ukraine, it’s notable the speed at which many solid-seeming narratives in global politics were cast aside and others constructed in response to the invasion. Long-held norms, policies and assumptions around the most appropriate response to Russia’s foreign military involvement were turned on their heads. Attitudes of European states towards their responsibility to provide asylum to people fleeing war and persecution changed almost overnight.

That speed and adaptation do not compare favourably with the international humanitarian sector’s response. Rather than breaking with old approaches, well-rehearsed narratives centring on the suffering and helplessness of Ukrainians, and the unique role of international aid agencies and their neutrality, surfed the wave of Western generosity and raised unprecedented levels of public and private funding. But these narratives were at odds with Ukrainian stories of resistance, solidarity and resilience. They ignored the marginal role of international aid agencies and the relatively strong response from government systems and civil society. The latter two were bypassed by an international response model similar to that of many other crises, with local responders under-funded and frustrated.

The ICRC Ukraine appeal page features Red Cross workers wearing logos and unloading a truck
Image credit:The ICRC Ukraine appeal page features Red Cross workers wearing logos and unloading a truck. Credit: ICRC

Why did this happen yet again – in contradiction with collective policy commitments, backed by evidence, to make the humanitarian system more people-centred and locally led? A lack of ‘political will’ is often blamed for delaying change, but political will is a broad and slippery concept. In a new working paper, we argue that part of the answer might lie in the ‘framing effect’: the way problems and solutions are framed – particularly in terms of gains and losses – bears greater influence on decision-making than facts and figures. The humanitarian sector’s dominant narratives – the stories aid organisations tell about themselves, the situations they respond to and the people they serve –continue to exert a powerful influence on their policy choices. In a sector entirely reliant on voluntary donations, these narratives continue to be mainly fed by fundraising appeals and project proposals.

We found that these narratives all fit within the same master frame: of crises as exceptional events, divorced from their complex causes. The invariable prescription for these problems is emergency relief, provided to people in ‘need’ by ‘neutral and independent’ international responders. Problem, solution and agent are all ringfenced under the humanitarian banner, sitting above and outside politics. Usually, such narratives have a call to action: the potential donor can make this effort possible and relieve suffering, in accordance with their own values and interests.

This frame is, at best, incomplete because it ignores the capacity and agency of countries, communities and individuals to manage risks. It’s also one increasingly challenged by many actors who are excluded from it: affected governments, national and local aid groups, and affected people themselves.

Despite this, the frame has proven resilient for decades. Fundraising tactics may have changed, with images of famine victims that were a mainstay of ‘shock’ appeals now rarer, but their underlying narratives remain much the same today. The constant need to fundraise clearly acts as a powerful reinforcer of this frame, emphasising urgency at the expense of the longer term – small wonder, then, that advocacy of critical reform processes like improving anticipatory action has made limited headway.

The media and politicians undoubtedly have influence, but humanitarian organisations often have greater power to shape narratives than they are willing to admit. It may be pragmatic for humanitarian organisations to emphasise their political independence and de-emphasise the complexity and cost of responses. However, this belies a reality where the largest organisations have the greatest agency in deploying narratives through engagement with donors and governments, not to mention directly communicating with the public.

With that comes a responsibility to reflect upon the role of these organisations’ communications in delaying much-needed change. Not least because as much as it resists change, sticking with exceptionalism as the main humanitarian frame is providing diminishing returns. Calls for continued increases in funding are no longer cutting through. Humanitarian space is likely shrinking, with the claims to universalism and neutrality made by humanitarian organisations never as commonly accepted as its proponents assert.

The system needs some new shared frames and narratives that align with policy commitments to change. They should redefine the relationship between donor governments and the public, aid agencies and aid recipients. To do this requires shifting from disempowering narratives that ascribe pity to aid recipients and heroism to aid providers, to ones that align with what both affected citizens and the public in donor countries value: independence and agency, equity and shared values, partnership and progress.

These alternatives would focus on helping countries and people continue to help themselves and each other, and would be honest about the complexity of providing aid and bringing about change in fragile contexts. These narratives should be reflected by default in humanitarian communications, particularly when appealing for funds from public or private donors.

Making this change will not be easy. It requires those who currently wield power to de-centre themselves and give at least some power to shape the narrative to other voices. But well-constructed narratives have spurred policy changes before in the humanitarian sector. Over the past two decades, cash and voucher assistance has increased from comprising less than 1% of humanitarian assistance to almost 20%. Such a change was only possible through the combination of supporting evidence with opportune political moments and advocacy that changed attitudes. Influential narratives that emphasised efficiency, effectiveness, risk, inclusion and choice were instrumental in driving change.

The idea that facts and evidence don’t in themselves drive change can be a sobering reflection for a research-based institute like ODI, but understanding the key role narratives play in policy change is crucial. To further this, our new research project will explore how these narratives are constructed, how they change over time, the process through which they shape policy decisions and how that process can be influenced. Three case studies will focus on how public narratives have shaped the rise of Germany as a leading humanitarian donor; how evidence-based narratives have interplayed with public and institutional narratives in the significant rise of cash transfers; and how feminist narratives in the foreign policies of Canada, Sweden and Germany are influencing humanitarian policy and practice.

The missed chance to do something different in the international response to Ukraine is just one outcome of a system in sore need of not just new funding but new approaches, attitudes and – ultimately – stories told about who humanitarians are and what they do.