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Published: August 8, 2014

Event report: humanitarian action in fragile contexts

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On Tuesday 8th July representatives from academia, INGOs, the private sector, journalists and other interested parties gathered at King’s College London to discuss key issues around new actors and the changing humanitarian space and how they will impact on security risk management (SRM). The focal point of the evening was GISF’s report on The Future of Humanitarian Security in Fragile Contexts, written in conjunction with the Humanitarian Futures Programme (HFP) at King’s College.

Joanne Burke (HFP) introduced the report highlighting the key aims and findings. The focus was on emerging trends, their drivers and their impact on humanitarian security. How the humanitarian sector needs to adapt to continue to deliver amidst these changes, how prepared organisations are and what can be done to ensure preparedness were also discussed. Although it is difficult to reach prescriptive conclusions a number of clear themes emerged from the report, which resonated with the panel and the audience and demonstrated the value of integrated SRM.

That ‘politicisation of humanitarian assistance has resulted in challenges to the established role of the “traditional” humanitarian sector by “new” actors’, was well supported by Michiel Hofman’s insightful analysis from the field. Michiel reported that in areas where INGOs are failing to effectively reach peoples in need, ‘new’ local actors are filling the gap. As these actors grow in confidence, they change the context in which they are operating. Successful navigation of this increasingly complex environment demands integration between SRM at the field level and risk attitude at organisational level. Large INGOs may find that they have to be flexible in their attitude to collaboration at local level.

Abduhraman Sharif, from the Muslim Charities Forum, suggested that the trend of ‘new’ actors is better described as ‘previously unrecognised actors’ growing in assertiveness. We are yet to emerge from the shadow of the Global War on Terror and ‘scepticism about Western aid continues in some areas’. Abduhraman agreed with the reports conclusion that the ‘humanitarian space and principles will have to be negotiated and there will be challenges to their legitimacy and application’.Specifically, pointing to the importance of admitting under-represented elements to the discussion about humanitarianism. Without a seat at the table, the humanitarian principles are ‘universal’, but unless everyone is represented in the debate ‘they are not yet shared’. As adherence to the humanitarian principles no longer guarantees acceptance, a more sophisticated risk management approach is necessary to maintain access in changeable contexts.

A central theme in the discussion phase was the need for engagement in both directions between ‘established’ and ‘new’ actors, to overcome suspicion and promote cooperation.  The report highlighted the need for organisations to be ‘proactive in building relationships, which could help them understand the context better’.  In fragile contexts, where these issues are magnified, an integrated and genuinely strategic approach to SRM is required. Narrow approaches, which subordinate security to funding and programmatic concerns, will not be agile enough to deal with the complexity of the humanitarian space we now face. Most agreed that ‘better integration of operational security issues with broader strategic planning and more sharing of security responsibilities’ are necessary to identify both threats and opportunities.

Read more about the report here.

Sam Slota-Newson


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