How do we get there from here? The Futures of Humanitarianism

Who’s afraid of the big bad future?

I want to talk about how the humanitarian community talks about the future: or rather, how it fails to talk about the future in any meaningful sense. Let’s start with that OCHA quote: the “new challenges” it outlines are not new. They’ve all been anticipated for at least 20 years; it’s just that the humanitarian sector collectively failed to register them.

Briefing note for new staff: Central African Republic 2030

  • What used to be the Central African Republic has quietly disintegrated, as already-porous borders simply became irrelevant to the daily life of communities. The Central African region is now a satellite of the regional economic powerhouses of Central Africa (Douala and Kinshasa) and East Africa (Nairobi and Dar es Salaam).
  • The communal conflict of the 2010s have largely subsided, and the twin social networks of trade and religion have merged into trade guilds, widely distributed across the region. Each guild maintains its own mobile-based cryptocurrency, the successors to the e-banking boom of the early 2000s and the bitcoin explosion of the 2010s, and their trade networks rely on a variety of airborne and waterborne drones.
  • Trade guilds are linked by mobile telephone infrastructure, and connected to the internet via static balloons and mobile zeppelins funded by the global internet companies. However maintenance of these flying hubs is erratic, and Nairobi-based NGOs provide local mesh networks to ensure that connectivity is maintained when a balloon goes down.
  • Just as mobile telephony leapfrogged fixed-line, 3D printing leapfrogged factory production. 3D designs are free, but trade guilds maintain some control through lease agreements for relatively expensive 3D printers and access to the distribution networks for raw materials. These printers, run by local businesses, provide most day-to-day items at low cost.
  • Cheap Chinese electronics are still the norm across the region, although African-produced electronics have recently started to appear. On a personal level, this includes low-cost wearable computers customised for communal identification; at a communal level, the falling cost of solar panels has revolutionised domestic life, although distribution remains poor, and electronic waste disposal has now become a critical problem.
  • Agricultural work remains central to most peoples’ lives, although it has been transformed by the second industrial revolution. Local farmers experiment with GM crops that have been illegally hacked by the trade guilds; these provide more productive yields but increase the risk of spontaneous genome blight that erupts like wildfire.
  • Internet-based private school education (particularly from the regional education hub of Kampala) has lifted many communities into the mainstream economy, although it has also increased tension at the community level, as young people now have higher expectations of future jobs which do not yet exist.

Why is my crystal ball so cloudy?

In the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”. Bearing in mind that the farther ahead you look, the less likely it is that your predictions will be accurate, it’s still possible to extrapolate trends. However these trends emerge not just from the humanitarian sector, but across a range of different domains where our humanitarian expertise may be of limited use. And how wide those domains stretch! Disasters are the outcome of factors across a range of such domains: technological, economic, social, political, environmental, and so on.

How to think about the Futures

Humans are, as a rule, terrible at predicting the future; and humanitarians are only human. We face the same cognitive challenges as anybody else when it comes to understanding what the future holds. The trends that will shape the future can be too near or too far for us to focus on; they can be beneath the surface of our daily experience, or flying far overhead, making it difficult to see them in the first place.

There are no conclusions

Following the end of the Cold War and the start of the War on Terror, political and financial support for an independent humanitarian sector is evaporating. With the rise of middle-income countries, particularly in Africa, governments have become more assertive about the role of international organisations, particularly NGOs. The short version: the old space that humanitarianism previously occupied within the top-down hierarchy of the international system is disappearing.

  1. New methods. There are a range of tools that need to be incorporated into our organisations. Some of these relate directly to the future: we need better methods for forecasting, running from short-term probabilistic assessment of likely events and their impacts all the way to long-term horizon-scanning that can track the trends described in this paper. By itself this is not enough: we need better ways of incorporating this and other learning into our existing work flows, in order to steer those work flows in more productive directions. This means that planning must be evidence-based and holistic, responding quickly to changes in the external environment across the full range of organisational roles. It is often said that military forces spend 95% of their time preparing and 5% responding; currently the humanitarian sector runs the reverse of this, and with only 5% of our time spent preparing it is no surprise that we are so often unprepared. The only way to develop new ways of working is by incorporating innovation into structures, rather than isolating it in departments within organisations, and ensuring that we are flexible enough to adopt (and discard) new technologies more rapidly than at present.
  2. New forms. These new approaches do not sit well in our current organisational structures; and if we adopt such approaches, they will change those structures. We need to be ahead of the curve in this regard: rather than responding (often too late) to new developments and new requirements, we need to build organisations that can be one step ahead — or at the very least, avoid building organisations that are one step behind. In practice this means that we restructure our organisations around the principles of the network, and not the hierarchy we have inherited from our industrial history. This will mean relying on smaller, modular organisational units that can be rapidly and specifically configured to respond to emergencies, rather than relying on a one-size-fits-all industrial approach. This restructuring needs to be across entire organisations: not just perational areas such as health and WASH, but also in logistics, human resources, and so on. While elements of the industrial model may be retained, these professional skills are already being reshaped in the wider world of work.
  3. New people: Our current staff will be unable to implement these new approaches or develop these new forms. To some extent this is a generational divide — younger staff are much better equipped to deal with the changed world we live in — but we need to get a balance between new vision and old experience. Many of the key aspects of disaster response will remain the same, and the lessons we have learned in the past can guide us in the future. We must avoid at all costs Year Zero thinking, where every generation discovers aid work anew. We also need different skills — two examples that I have advocated for in the past is that we need more professional statisticians and urban planners working with our organisations, and I have recently added privacy advocates to that list. However the real need is not so much for specialist skills, but for staff who can understand this new way of working through the network; not just to deliver the project, but to reinforce a new culture of humanitarian values.



I live in the city because I got tired of living up the mountain.

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Paul Currion

Paul Currion

I live in the city because I got tired of living up the mountain.