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Skip to 0 minutes and 12 seconds CHRISTINA BENNETT: The Humanitarian Policy Group’s flagship publication, Time To Let Go– Remaking Humanitarian Action For The Modern Era is based on the premise that the humanitarian system is facing a crisis of legitimacy, that despite decades of reform, it is unable to do a good job both by its own measure and in the eyes of the people it aims to serve. So why is this happening? For one, the system looks and operates largely as it did at the end of the Second World War. The world has changed a lot since then. The humanitarian system has not. So what do we do about this?

Skip to 0 minutes and 43 seconds This requires abandoning those processes, those structures, those behaviours that hold the sector back, that prevent it from making real changes and addressing the demands of the modern crisis. How can we make this happen? In our minds, this requires letting go in three key ways. First, this means letting go of power and control. And this is going to be difficult for the large UN agencies and international NGOs who have been largely operating in the same way for decades. But these major organisations really need to take a step back and rethink their purpose and their role. There is no longer the same need for them to be operating major aid projects in the field.

Skip to 1 minute and 20 seconds Instead, what they should be doing is supporting other crisis responders– those national Red Cross societies or local NGOs, diaspora groups, community groups, church groups, those who were first on the ground after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, those who are able to access small Syrian towns and villages where international actors cannot go. These organisations should be afforded the training and the financing that they can actually access. And rather than telling them, here is what we have to give you, they should be asking them instead, what can we do to support which you’re already doing? Second, this means letting go of perverse incentives and putting the needs of crisis-affected people ahead of those of aid organisations.

Skip to 1 minute and 58 seconds For this to happen, the financing of humanitarian action needs to be overhauled. For one, this requires a more diverse array of funders and more types of donors to be able to provide more funding, more flexible funding, and more predictable funding. This will go a long way to prevent the delays and shortages that happen when an earthquake strikes or when a conflict drags on. Donors themselves should also be looking to lift those bureaucratic hurdles that make it difficult for local NGOs to access funding, like the organisation’s haven’t been in existence long enough, or that they only require small amounts of funding when donors are able to give big grants.

Skip to 2 minutes and 34 seconds Third, this means letting go of the unhelpful divisions that set humanitarian action apart from other forms of aid. Humanitarians really need to stop thinking of themselves as unique, as special, as distinct. As crises last longer, as they incorporate elements of disaster and conflict and poverty, humanitarians need to be much more realistic, more honest, and more accepting of other forms of aid. More realistic in the sense that they need to dial back their own expectations of what humanitarian action can and cannot do and work more closely with development actors when longer term approaches are required.

Skip to 3 minutes and 6 seconds It means being more honest in using the humanitarian label and applying it to those circumstances that require humanitarian principles and the application of international humanitarian law. It also requires being more accepting that other forms of relief can co-exist and are equally legitimate in order to be able to harness the full extent of the capacity available in this world to help the people in need. Letting go is therefore a practical imperative as well as a moral one. Effectively addressing people’s needs, not ideologies, and not self-interest, should dictate approaches to crisis response.

Time to let go: a proposal for change in the humanitarian system

The humanitarian system as we know it has been in existence since the Second World War, but is it time for it to change?

In this video from Overseas Development Institute (ODI), Christina Bennet discusses the need for the humanitarian system to adapt to modern realities.

She highlights the importance of supporting local groups and actors on the ground, in addition to putting the needs of affected populations above those of aid organisations by overhauling the financial system.

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Health in Humanitarian Crises

London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine