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Beyond survival: exploring wellbeing in humanitarian action

Literature reviews

Written by Oliver Lough, Sarah Phillips, Alexandra Spencer, Megan Daigle

Image credit:Tim Harcourt-Powell Image license:CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Over recent decades, crisis-affected people have consistently emphasised that humanitarian assistance is not in line with their most urgent needs and priorities. It also often fails to engage substantively with people’s needs, desires, aspirations and agency, beyond questions of basic survival. This is especially important in protracted crises, where aid is less and less about saving lives and more about sustaining them.

Regardless of the difficult circumstances they find themselves in, people strive not just to exist, but to live, in ways that they believe have meaning and value. The focus of humanitarian aid, meanwhile, tends to be largely restricted to meeting the biological requirements of keeping people alive in the most efficient way possible. This can leave substantial chunks of the human experience – such as sex and intimacy, religious observance, or even having a basic sense of agency and control – largely invisible to humanitarian actors, who either sideline them entirely as ‘out of scope’ or engage with them obliquely as problems to be solved or means to other ends.

This paper lays the groundwork for a two-year study by the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG), focusing on how humanitarian assistance enables and inhibits people’s efforts to pursue meaningful lives in protracted crises. In doing so, it seeks to introduce the idea of ‘wellbeing’ as a framework for thinking about what matters to people beyond survival in humanitarian settings. Used increasingly in public policy and development but far less visible in humanitarian discourse, ‘wellbeing’ serves here as a conceptual shorthand for exploring the basic question of ‘what it means to live a good and flourishing life’ for different people in different places.