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People, power and agency: HPG Integrated Programme 2022–2024

Framing paper/Concept note

‘People, power and agency’ is the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG)’s 15th Integrated Programme (IP) of work. The projects proposed here constitute the core of HPG’s research work for 2022–2024. Through this programme, HPG will combine cutting-edge research on humanitarian policy and practice, extensive policy engagement, public affairs and convening through a programme of public and closed-door events, conferences and media work and academic engagement.

Affected people are always the first, and often the most effective, responders to humanitarian crises. Whether mobilising collective support, negotiating with armed actors, fleeing violence or rebuilding following disasters, affected communities undertake a range of strategies to stay safe and cope with crises. While humanitarian assistance may provide a critical lifeline, the agency, power and relationships that affected people are able to deploy are equally, if not more, important and can be critical determinants of survival and recovery, or of vulnerability and exclusion. This may be more evident in protracted crises where the limits of humanitarian action can be more obvious. Yet, for a humanitarian sector forged on the basis of common humanity and founded on humanitarian principles, assistance is often disconnected from how people actually live their lives, and from the relationships that support and sustain them.

There is growing acknowledgement that the humanitarian system is embedded in social and political dynamics. This is reflected in calls to decolonise humanitarian action that seek important change across multiple levels, including by re-centring people’s rights, capacities and agency, as well as challenging historical and structural power dynamics that privilege the Global North. At a time of rising nationalism and reducing aid budgets, and when the humanitarian system faces deep questions about its priorities, models and approaches, major change is required. This includes shifting humanitarian models away from direct delivery towards enabling local solutions and local leadership, repositioning narratives away from charity or dependency towards solidarity, and focusing on people’s rights and agency.

This set of proposals for HPG’s IP for 2022–2024 will explore how the humanitarian sector can better understand the social and political forces that condition and influence humanitarian assistance. A lens of people, power and agency can both challenge and inform a range of policy agendas, including on accountability towards affected people, local humanitarian action and ‘nexus’ approaches aimed at bridging humanitarian, development and peacebuilding efforts.