Our Programmes



Sign up to our newsletter.

Follow ODI

Moving on from 2020, what does a humanitarian reset look like?

Written by Sorcha O'Callaghan, Nasra A. Ismail, Ben Ramalingam, Hugo Slim


2020 was, by any measure, a year of unprecedented disruption. Soaring Covid-19 death rates and chaotic responses in richer countries called into question traditional characterisations of a competent global north and struggling global south. The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement elevated conversations about racism across society. While local solidarity flourished, global trends seemed to move in the opposite direction: populist nationalism gained ground in many places, multilateral action appears increasingly fragile, and trust in established institutions continues to erode.  

Amid these events, the fault-lines in how humanitarian action currently functions were brought into sharp relief, forcing reflection on what needs to change for it to be relevant to needs arising from inequality and injustice, as well as from crisis.

In December, the Humanitarian Policy Group brought together a group of humanitarian experts to discuss whether these events would trigger a humanitarian ‘reset’. They highlighted how the multiple crises of 2020 have challenged traditional assumptions about crisis, fragility and solidarity. Below they unpack these ideas in more detail suggesting ways toward alternative, more locally-led models of humanitarian action that are grounded in equity, mutuality and empathy. 

Sorcha O'Callaghan
Director of Humanitarian Policy Group

Frequently asked questions

Nasra A. Ismail: build a system founded on love

Cornel West famously said, ‘justice is what love looks like in public’. In the humanitarian and development world, we often don’t speak about love as a tool of both relief and deep connection to the communities we seek to serve.  

When I reflect on the last decade, and the many lessons it has offered every one of us, I am struck by a few things: 

I come away from 2020 with a sense of collective vulnerability – we are all vulnerable. If you thought class, skin colour, or whether you belong to the global north or south made a difference, 2020 just confirmed that we are all vulnerable to all the isms that once classified us in groups: racisms if you’re part of the global majority of black and brown skinned folks; sexism if you’re a girl, woman or identify as such; and classism if you’re bearing the brunt of the growing economic inequality of our world.  

The only thing to count on is love. It is my new governing principle. Love will dictate every strategy I use when I show up for my family, my friends, my neighbours and, most importantly, those I work to serve in my professional humanitarian and development role – our brothers and sisters suffering under poverty, patriarchy and placelessness. We must bring forward love as a tool of justice and restoration just as much as we rely on cash and other unique interventions in our system. Let’s innovate on love as the keystone holding together our due diligence, partnership and financing models. Any programme looking to leave a lasting legacy, be inclusive and ultimately address deepening inequality in our societies must grapple with love first. Our prevailing caste-like systems of oppression and inequality have injected not only our bodies but our minds too - so much so we refer to the very people we serve as ‘beneficiaries’ when they ought to be our beloved community. 

Frequently asked questions

Ben Ramalingam: why humanitarians must cede power to those living and working closest to crises

Like all areas of industry, the humanitarian sector has faced profound challenges due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Our traditional business models have been upended by: 

  • Restrictions on movement, social contact, and gatherings. 
  • The centrality of national governments as the de facto coordinators, leaders and instigators of crisis response. 
  • The integration of crisis responses within wider economic, political and security agendas. 
  • Challenges in fragile and conflict-affected states where healthcare systems were already at breaking point. 

Many operations continued, albeit with adaptations. But, with a few exceptions, humanitarians have failed to respond meaningfully to the wider societal fractures exposed by the pandemic. For example, Covid-19 has exacerbated many social, political and economic frailties and tensions, particularly around race. While many humanitarian organisations see this as a strategic inflection point for the sector, meaningful action has been scarce.  

Similarly, the pandemic’s global nature has created a living lab of experimentation, with the potential to learn from anywhere. However, humanitarian actors have not played a significant role in identifying or brokering such lessons. 

Last, but not least, the considerable growth in voluntarism and mutual aid has not been mirrored in aid flows, and resources have not empowered well-placed local responders. Just 0.1% of total funding reported for the Covid-19 response has gone directly to national and local NGOs. 

Despite the pandemic and its related challenges, humanitarian actors arguably have been most concerned about shoring up existing status, resources and control. Rather than grasping the pandemic as a moment to transform our way of working, the attitude has prevailed that ‘We will change what we have to, when we have to’.  

Sustained and meaningful change will take greater willingness on the part of international actors to give up power and status in favour of those living and working closest to crises, more trust in and respect for diversity, and greater levels of honesty, humility and empathy. Above all, it will demand vision and creativity, to re-imagine how the sector might work if it was shaped by a more collective and collaborative spirit. 

Frequently asked questions

Hugo Slim: three options to complement the “Swiss model” of principled humanitarian action

Billions of dollars have been pumped into UN agencies, the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement and international NGOs in the last 30 years, largely by Western governments. This has pioneered a global welfare system for people enduring war and disaster and is an extraordinary achievement in international relations. It has saved millions of lives, but its current humanitarian approach is too limited for the 2020s.  

Today’s system is too much in the grip of the “Swiss model” of “principled humanitarian action” formalised by the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in 1965. Access failures, protection failures and the expensive priority it gives to international agencies means it is not a consistently winning formula. Its dominance is stifling humanitarian creativity in hard conflicts like Rakhine, Yemen and Nigeria. Its bias towards armed conflict is increasingly inappropriate in a world more widely challenged by climate emergency, non-war violence, entrenched poverty and risk of zoonotic pandemics. 

Three other humanitarian models may be better placed to meet 21st century challenges:  

  1. The 20th century’s greatest humanitarian, Herbert Hoover, is responsible for saving 100 million lives during and after the First World War. He used commercial methods to leverage industrial scale humanitarian aid and delivered it with a major humanitarian power play: first neutrally with the Commission for Relief in Belgium, then belligerently to win the war as US Food Administrator and, finally, politically to save Europe from starvation via the American Relief Association. An “industrial model” could be used by “Great Powers” today, prioritising social protection instead of relief. 
  2. The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the power of local mutual aid. This communitarian model should be enabled much more than it has been so far in the 21st century. 
  3. Subversive “humanitarian resistance” should be more widely supported. The Underground Railroad that smuggled 100,000 slaves to freedom in the US is a classic example. Historians of today’s Syrian war will probably find that most people were saved by local rescue routes, and Angela Merkel’s refugee policy may prove her to be one of today’s greatest humanitarians.   

Social protection, mutual aid and humanitarian resistance are carried out on the ground primarily by local actors. These models work with realist ethics of what is right in a given situation and are not held back by the idealism of humanitarian principles which often struggle to fit with reality.