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The Danakil desert. Photo by Jérémie Labbé

Policy Papers - November 16, 2012

Rethinking Humanitarianism: Adapting to 21st Century Challenges

Jérémie Labbé

 

 

The modern international humanitarian system is being tested like never before. Built on a philosophy that espouses universality and integrity of humanitarian principles, the system now faces crises and conflicts that are changing in nature, an increased humanitarian caseload, and a renewed assertiveness on the part of host states.

Humanitarian actors have proposed an ambitious agenda for adapting to this changing landscape—from anticipating future risks to strengthening local resilience and increasing coherence and coordination. But this conventional narrative of reform and adaptation fails to address significant underlying tensions, in particular the growing disconnect between the system’s expanding ambitions and its foundational principles.

This policy paper examines the boundaries of the humanitarian enterprise, investigates today’s challenges and their implications, and addresses the tensions inherent in the mainstream agenda for adaptation. It then explores key questions for the future of humanitarianism:

  • Can the modern humanitarian system become truly universal by adapting to a changing international context and opening up to actors who have different values and practices?
  • Could a sparser but more faithful use of humanitarian principles, adapted to the context, support rather than undermine these principles?
  • Despite the quest for ever-greater coherence and coordination of the humanitarian system, could the fragmentation of the system be valued as a strength given the comparative advantages of its various components?

To deal with twenty-first century challenges and meet its broader objectives, the humanitarian system may now need to redefine the rules and theoretical foundations on which it was built.

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