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Living well or simply surviving: what’s next for wellbeing in humanitarian action?


Written by Leen Fouad, Alexandra Spencer, Dustin Barter, Almas Korotana

Hero image description: Children on their way to school in Syria Image credit:quetions123/Shutterstock

As an unrelenting genocide escalates in Gaza and famine stalks multiple countries across the world, it feels almost incongruent to be talking about wellbeing for displaced populations.

Sadly, such realities reinforce key findings from our research: the centrality of rights for wellbeing, the importance of state engagement, and the need for humanitarian actors to address drivers of protracted displacement. The following provides brief reflections on this body of research at an alarming and critical moment globally.

Our literature analysis, published in 2023, laid the groundwork for a two-year study which focused on how humanitarian assistance enables and inhibits people’s efforts to pursue meaningful lives in protracted crises. In doing so, it introduced the idea of ‘wellbeing’ as a framework for thinking about what matters to people beyond survival in humanitarian settings.

The study culminated in a policy brief, Beyond survival in displacement: rights essential for wellbeing. In this brief, HPG’s Senior Research Officer Alexandra Spencer and Senior Research Fellow Dustin Barter explored the aspects of life people deem important to their wellbeing (including the right to cultural expression, education, work and movement), how these change over time, and how they vary across intersections of power and identity. These are often at odds within a humanitarian system that prioritises the provision of what is deemed lifesaving assistance and the meeting of basic needs. Multi-year, flexible financing and dramatically expanded efforts to support locally led humanitarian action were identified as critical to enhancing wellbeing.

Pursuing wellbeing, from Thailand to Syria

The policy brief was grounded in two case studies, the first of which focused on the experiences of Karen refugee youth from Burma/Myanmar living in decades-old camps in Thailand. It explores what aspects of life Karen youth deem important in pursuing their wellbeing, including meaningful participation in decision-making, access to education and how humanitarian actors can help uphold rather than inhibit their rights.

The second case study examined how people conceive of and pursue lives of meaning within the context of Northeast Syria. It explores the realities of life in an unrecognised de facto state, where the population bear the negative political, social and economic effects of the international non-recognition of their government and the impact of this on their ability to live a meaningful life. Despite relative safety away from the Syrian regime, displaced people face immense challenges and are often forced to ‘choose the least worse option’.

A global perspective

Putting wellbeing into a global perspective, HPG also recently finalised an Independent review of the humanitarian response to internal displacement, co-authored by HPG’s Research Officer Leen Fouad. This global lens identified many similar issues to the wellbeing research – calling for displaced people and their needs to be centred in responses – alongside broader concerns relating to untimely and disjointed responses.

We presented the culmination of this work at a panel discussion held in Amman, Jordan, in April 2024, where Alexandra and Dustin reflected on how humanitarian actors can better engage in rights-related issues that are critical to wellbeing. Nadia Siddiqui of Social Inquiry also joined to expand on the aforementioned case study on Northeast Syria, and Leen presented key findings and recommendations from the global displacement review, and how this relates to wellbeing. (You can watch the event in full if you weren’t able to attend.)

What next for non-state humanitarian actors?

What became acutely evident throughout this research was the importance of the state and related dynamics with civil society actors. States are critical to expanding and realising rights, yet often remain marginalised from humanitarian action. While we understand that some states are the drivers of humanitarian need, such as in Syria, there are many instances where the state either wants to or should be taking a greater role in leading responses, yet are often crowded out by the aid system, such as in Somalia. What does this mean for non-state humanitarian actors? How can they avoid becoming entrenched service providers? And to what extent have issues of governance and addressing systemic inequalities been integrated into crisis response?

Those are just some of the issues we will be exploring over the next three years, as HPG seeks to build evidence for and work towards improved humanitarian architecture. As fractures spread and deepen across the world, driving unprecedented humanitarian needs, HPG is committed to overcoming inertia and galvanising humanitarian systems change.