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Disaster response – a paradigm shift

Disaster response and humanitarian thinking and action have undergone significant change since the 1990s, with the focus shifting from needs to rights.

Following the Balkan war and the Rwandan genocide, and an increasing trend in reported disasters impacting across Africa, South America and Asia, the humanitarian crises of the 1990s raised many concerns regarding who received aid, the quality of aid provided, and how agencies were held accountable to both affected populations and donors.

The provision of external aid through top-down structures meant needs were often assumed rather than assessed, and communities viewed as passive recipients of aid. All too often, symptoms alone were addressed, rather than the underlying causes that resulted in those needs. Any accountability for actions was usually only required from the agency to the donor.

The way needs-based approaches were delivered generally failed to have a lasting impact and were unable to hold donors, governments and agencies accountable to the people for their actions or inaction. Injustice, discrimination and powerlessness were often left unchallenged, or exacerbated because those people affected were not empowered and engaged in the response.

Human rights, of course, long predate the 1990s. Human rights came to prominence with the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which recognised that all humans have specific inherent rights. A dominant perspective became that these rights are maintained through responsibilities, duties, transparency, trust and accountability. They commonly emphasise:

  • Justice and equality (or, more commonly, equity)
  • Inclusion, participation and empowerment
  • Accountability and transparency

The table below illustrates the result of shifting from a needs-based to rights-based approach and its implication on practice:

  Before 1990s After 1990s
Aid work Charity/voluntarism Professionalisation
Aid workers Volunteers Professional
Approach Needs-based Rights-based
Participation Work for people Work with people
Position Beneficiaries/victims Right-holders
Donors Angels/saviours Duty bearers
Focus Symptoms Root causes
Action Handouts Advocacy/mobilisation
Accountability Vague Clear and quality

Looking forward

There’s still much to do to ensure that the humanitarian system is fit for purpose in the challenging times ahead, not only to fulfil the aspiration of a rights-based approach during operations. We’ve already mentioned the need to change the power balance between local and national organisations and external international agencies through the localisation agenda. We’ve also highlighted the benefits of preparedness, anticipatory response and the stifling legacy of traditional funding models for disaster response.

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This article is from the free online course:

Humanitarian Action, Response and Relief

Coventry University