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Three unconventional places to look for humanitarian solutions in 2017

Written by Christina Bennett

From the bloody siege and eventual evacuation of Aleppo last month to the crisis of compassion that has marked the response to the arrival of refugees in Europe, the past year has seen human beings dismissed as afterthoughts as governments negotiate their interests and redraw their spheres of influence.

International humanitarian law (IHL) and rules-based conduct are in jeopardy, and short-term self-interest is undermining the values humanitarian action was built on.

There will be no shortage of violent conflicts in 2017 – two insightful, if depressing, rundowns of today’s tinderboxes can be found here and here.

And with xenophobia and self-congratulation buoying the incoming US president and populism dominating elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands in the coming months, the battle between national interests and global humanitarian values may infect European politics and policies too.

So, where will humanitarian issues find traction and humanitarian values find their footing in 2017? The answer requires a humanitarian workaround: the ability to forage for solutions in some unconventional places.

1. Coalitions of the willing

As Western governments come to terms with the uncertainty of their new political class and mounting pressures to reduce foreign aid; the UN grapples with its own reform and realignment amid predictions of its growing irrelevance; and the big 30 humanitarian players sort out their commitments to the Grand Bargain – meeting by meeting – progress on humanitarian issues is likely to be made at the margins.

The fact that the UN General Assembly out-manoeuvred the Security Council with its own resolution to investigate war crimes in Syria demonstrates what strong coalitions can achieve against dominant powers.

Energetic, resourceful and nimble networks may be the sector’s best chance for both revolution and quiet change. Think Charter 4 Change on humanitarian financing, or business initiatives such as Tent, whose members include Chobani, Ikea and Airbnb, and which offers employment and other assistance to refugees.

Bound by a common ethos, fuelled by social media and driven by a commitment to acts of human kindness, these initiatives, and others like them, represent a new generation of humanitarians and deserve attention and support.

2. Non-Western leadership

After decades of playing at the margins, 2017 might just be the year that China makes its mark on the global humanitarian agenda.

Its multi-billion-dollar ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative, designed to reinvigorate the Silk Road and Chinese interests along it, now runs through several countries in crisis – Myanmar, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Jordan, to name a few. The initiative’s success will depend on managing the instability within these: China has already offered Jordan $20 million for Syrian refugees. 

Gulf states too, long-tagged ‘emerging humanitarian actors’, are now front-line responders and generous and increasingly consistent donors. In the absence of their traditional benefactors, humanitarians might tap into the political dynamism and financial strength of a new set of supporters.

3. The Sustainable Development Goals

Whatever you think of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their place in – and relevance to – humanitarian action, they remain one of the best platforms for promoting humanitarian values in the current political climate.

Their acceptance by many – though not all – governments around the world remains a strong statement of shared purpose in the face of difficult global problems. Their explicit recognition of crisis as a development failure, and their nod to fragile states as incubators of violence and instability, will pique the interest of even the most hard-nosed isolationist.

The fact that the UN has a new and tenacious champion in Secretary-General Antonio Guterres means the SDGs have a chance at sustained momentum and global focus. At a time when humanitarians’ means and methods will be questioned, they could do worse than frame the basis for their intentions – while preserving the specificity of humanitarian action – within the context of the SDGs.

From the First World War to Vietnam, from Afghanistan to Somalia and the response to the Ebola crisis, the tension between interests and altruism has always been a defining feature of humanitarian response.

But in these first weeks of 2017 this challenge seems more explicit, more palpable and potentially more dangerous: making headlines, fuelling twitter wars and prompting negative attitudes and regressive legislation at a time when the state of the world requires humanity, solidarity and, dare I say it, hope.

So next year, when we look back on 2017, let’s make sure that in the age-old battle between interests and values, it’s humanity that wins.