Simon Maxwell

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Should protecting and promoting livelihoods be a new Humanitarian ‘Principle’?

I am moved to ask the question in the title by reading some of the materials being circulated in advance of the World Humanitarian Summit, to be held in June 2016 in Istanbul; and also by being able to participate in informal discussion of the emerging agenda. I am going to suggest that adding one new humanitarian principle, on the importance of protecting and promoting livelihoods, could transform the scope of humanitarian action, make the long-term role of humanitarian action more visible, help overcome institutional blockages, improve accountability, and give a new urgency to the conversation with development people on the other side of the corridor.

For reference, the current humanitarian principles are in Figure 1: humanity; neutrality; impartiality; and independence. The new principle I propose to add is

Livelihood: Humanitarian action must wherever possible protect livelihoods and promote sustainable development, in its economic, social and environmental dimensions. This includes supporting health and education systems and markets, and otherwise contributing to long-term sustainable development goals.

Figure 1

Humanitarian principles


The reason for asking the question about principles is that I find the observers of crisis situations still fretting about the lack of attention to resilience, or what we used to call ‘linking relief and development’ – and that they attribute the problem, at least in part, to institutional blockages and poorly structured incentives. These are completely plausible conclusions. However, I think that (a) the development community has moved a long way, (b) the core of the problem may lie in the reliance on under-resourced humanitarian actors in conflict areas, and (c) an extension of the principles might just help to ‘shock’ the system, by clarifying accountabilities and responsibilities, including those of donors.

Let’s not spend time debating whether or not vulnerability to crisis needs to be tackled at source, nor whether both development and relief programmes can do more to reduce risk and build sustainable livelihoods. These are commonplace propositions, and have been for a long, long time. In a piece back in 2013, on the EU’s approach to resilience, I traced some of the history, including reference to the work Margie Buchanan-Smith and I led at IDS in the mid-1990s. That work was born in part of our frustration, even then, that practice lagged so far behind thinking. Susanna Davies (now Moorehead) also worked on this topic:  her book on Adaptable Livelihoods was one of the first to articulate the principle that the purpose of famine relief should be to ‘save livelihoods, not just lives’. The UN has long accepted the case. For example, General Assembly Resolution 46/182, dating from as early as 1991, says that

‘There is a clear relationship between emergency, rehabilitation and development. In order to ensure a smooth transition from relief to rehabilitation and development, emergency assistance should be provided in ways that will be supportive of recovery and long-term development.  Thus, emergency measures should be seen as a step towards long-term development.’

Yet here we are, in 2015, and reducing vulnerability and managing risk is one of the four areas of action identified for WHS. Speaking in New York at the beginning of June, the new Head of OCHA, Stephen O’Brien said

‘We must help people and communities become more resilient to shocks and less reliant on humanitarian assistance. This is particularly critical in protracted crises, where humanitarian action cannot be a substitute for basic service provision year after year. The development and humanitarian communities must find ways to better manage risks and crises together.’

These sentiments are reflected in the scoping paper on this theme, posted on the WHS website. The paper says, inter alia, that

‘A body of evidence is starting to be built that demonstrates that the impact of disasters can be mitigated by better managing risk, and addressing the root causes of vulnerability. At the heart of this is an attempt to get the right combination of humanitarian, development, climate change adaptation and political action in order to limit unnecessary loss of life and suffering, better protect livelihoods and in the long-term reduce the need for humanitarian assistance.’

Most recently, Lord Mark Malloch-Brown has observed, in a review of the current state of the humanitarian system, that

We also need to fashion a smoother transition from relief to development. This has been the bump in the road that has unseated too many operations. Different agencies with different mandates and budgetary sources have found it difficult to offer joined-up solutions that assist people to make that journey in a steady and seamless way.’

Why is progress thought to be so slow? The WHS paper identifies the 13 ‘limitations’ listed in Figure 2. These include the perception that disaster risk management remains primarily a humanitarian endeavour rather than a development one, as well as weak coordination, incoherence between programmes, and poorly managed finance. Do you know what, this makes me want to scream. It is twenty years since Margie and I produced a similar list – and, remember, our starting point was that this was already old hat.

Figure 2

What limits the ability to reduce vulnerability and manage risk?


I don’t doubt that there are problems still, but I do wonder whether sufficient account has been taken of what is happening on the other side of the corridor, so to speak. Three examples.

First, the UN Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, held in Sendai in March this year. This was set up to review progress with respect to the Hyogo Framework for Action, agreed in 2005, and to build further the work of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), itself first established in 1999. The Sendai Declaration says that ‘recognizing the increasing impact of disasters and their complexity in many parts of the world, we declare our determination to enhance our efforts to strengthen disaster risk reduction to reduce losses of lives and assets from disasters worldwide.’ More specifically, the Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-30 runs to 25 pages of text on integrated risk assessment and management. The four priorities for action are:

  1. Understanding disaster risk.
  2. Strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk.
  3. Investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience.
  4. Enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response, and to “Build Back Better” in recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction

There are no references in the text to conflict or war, but climate is mentioned 18 times, droughts and floods get mentions, so does health, and resilience is mentioned 34 times. There are no references to humanitarian assistance, but ‘relief’ is mentioned 5 times. The need for improved finance is repeatedly emphasised.

Second, the Zero Draft of the Outcome Document of the Addis Ababa Financing for Development Conference. Humanitarian assistance does not feature specifically, but there are several references to disasters and disaster resilience. The draft says (para 61) that

‘We further acknowledge the importance of aligning all financing flows, including ODA, with the three dimensions of sustainable development and that we need to build climate and disaster resilience considerations into development assistance to ensure the sustainability of development results.’

Third, the Zero Draft of the new Sustainable Development Goal framework was published at the beginning of June: 24 references to resilience, 13 to risk, 8 to conflict, 5 to humanitarian needs and action, and a paragraph worth quoting which frames the proposals in language that will be comforting to humanitarians:

‘We are meeting at a time of immense challenges to sustainable development. There are rising inequalities within and between states. There are enormous disparities of opportunity, wealth and power. Unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, is growing. Spiralling conflict, violence and extremism, humanitarian crises and a growing migration challenge threaten to reverse much of the development progress made in recent decades. Natural resource depletion and adverse impacts of environmental degradation, including drought and the prospect of irreversible climate change, add to the list of challenges which humanity faces. The survival of many societies, and of the planet itself, is at risk.’

There are multiple references in the specific goals and targets to issues germane to this agenda, including a specific target on resilience (1.5) and another on social protection (1.3).

The least we can learn from all this is that the language is coherent with humanitarian ambitions. Of course, that does not mean that there is not a large gap between aspiration and actuality. But still, the statements in the declarations do reflect change on the ground: there has been a big expansion of social protection schemes in the developing world, for example. See the World Bank’s Atlas of Social Assistance for data. The work of the ODI Social Protection team is also useful, including a work steam specifically on social protection and safety nets in risks, shocks and emergencies. IFPRI has been doing good work on cash and in-kind transfers – see this review by Sandra Yin, which covers countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

A lot of action is taking place in countries which the humanitarian industry probably knows rather little about, because they do not rely on intervention by the international community – for example China, India or Brazil. Is that a fair comment?

That points to an underlying problem, which is that so much humanitarian work is in conflict zones or fragile states, where development interventions are more limited or more difficult. The ALNAPActive Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action reports on The State of the Humanitarian System confirm as much, though a new Report is due in July 2015 and may change the picture. Although natural disasters outnumbered complex emergencies in the period 2007-10 (Figure 3), complex emergencies accounted for by far the greater share of funding (Figure 4). The roll-call of recipients is a familiar one: Sudan, Pakistan, Ethiopia, DRC, Somalia, Afghanistan (Figure 5)

Figure 3

Emergencies requiring international humanitarian response,2007-2010


Figure 4

Total funding contributions by disaster type (US$ billion)


Figure 5

Largest recipient countries for humanitarian contributions, 2006-2010


So perhaps the problem lies mainly in conflict zones. Even here, there has been progress on the development side. The OECD’s work on fragile states is relevant: see the principles here and the current work programme here. ODI’s Budget Strengthening Initiative works in this area, and has done important work, for example on state-building contracts.

Still, it is easy to see that smooth linking of relief and development will be difficult when bullets are flying. This is where humanitarian principles become important, as a way of protecting humanitarian workers. They supplement international humanitarian law, particularly in their focus on neutrality, impartiality, and independence. But the four principles are very much focused on emergency relief. They provide very little guidance for work on longer-term issues, including resilience. For example, can humanitarian workers help build the capacity of health systems ‘owned’ by one side or another in a conflict?

These issues have been explored by Christina Bennett, in an important paper on the future of aid in protracted crises. The paper is worth reading in full, and makes a strong case for a more integrated approach to thinking about humanitarian and development problems in complex emergencies. Among the key points are the folowing:

  • Humanitarian assistance, which is often predicated on emergency relief, is in practice overwhelmingly long-term in response to protracted and recurrent crises. In 2014, more than 90% of countries with annual humanitarian appeals had had such appeals for three or more years, and 60% for more than eight years. While humanitarian assistance is designed to be stop-gap and short term, humanitarian activities have, by default, expanded into recovery and basic service provision in protracted crises, where extreme, widespread and unpredictable needs exist alongside longterm structural vulnerabilities, and where there are major barriers to scaling up development funding and activities.
  • Addressing the challenges in effectively dealing with protracted crises requires abandoning ‘humanitarian’ and ‘development’ labels and perspectives and finding commonality in objectives, principles and approaches to commonly identified problems, where commonality makes sense, as well as clearly identifying where such concepts diverge and should remain distinct. This requires a more nuanced understanding of where humanitarian principles are operationally relevant in protracted crises, and where they may be counter-productive in cases where a cohesive strategy and mix of approaches, tools and actors may be required. While some have argued that ‘it is only at the sharp end of the stick of acute crises that the distinctions between relief, recovery and resilience are distinguishable’ (Kent, 2012), others point to instances where an openended approach to aligning these agendas allows for widely varying interpretations and applications of core humanitarian tenets and raises deep-seated ambiguities around actively linking relief with both development and security policy (Harmer and Macrae, 2004).

New approaches are being adopted by some donors, Bennett says, for example Canada and Australia.

I know that there is a lot of research and practice about how an ‘open-ended’ approach might work in difficult environments. I hope good cases and summaries will be presented at WHS.

Let me just make my one suggestion, then, which is to look again at the humanitarian principles. How would it be if we were to add a principle on the importance of protecting and promoting livelihoods, in a sustainable dvelopment context? This would be absolutely in line with thinking about recurrent crises and about what is now called resilience. Such a principle would fit within the post-2015 sustainable development famework. It could be worded as follows:

Livelihood: Humanitarian action must wherever possible protect livelihoods and promote sustainable development, in its economic, social and environmental dimensions. This includes supporting health and education systems and markets, and otherwise contributing to long-term sustainable development goals.

I can see the pitfalls, of course, and the security of both benficiaries and humanitarian workers must be a prime consideration. As Mark Malloch-Brown observes:

‘Unarmed Red Cross or UN workers and their NGONon-governmental organisation allies need to be rebadged again with the sacrosanct status of noncombatants, allowed free movement and obliged to accept the neutral nature of their work.’

But I can also see that having this extra principle would make it explicit that the humanitarian community – including donors as well as operational agencies - is expected to think long-term, and be accountable for overcoming any insitutional constraints that stand in the way. That might change planning and reporting of humanitarian funding and practice. As is currently the fashion, there could be goals, targets and indicators. Having a new principle might also change the terms of  the conversation with the development people on the other side of the corridor.


NB. It goes without saying that these comments are offered in a personal capacity.



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