Skip to content

Agenda for Humanity: getting the language right

August 20, 2018

It’s right to change the way services are devised and offered to people in distress, but in the relentless focus on how the agencies themselves must change, are we losing sight of the people we wish to help?

Yesterday, 19th August , was World Humanitarian Day. A day to remember the tragedy of all those whose lives are being lost and lessened by circumstances few of them called down upon themselves: environmental disaster, famine, drought, communal violence, epidemics, war – or simply the continuous grinding down, felt year on year, of chronic environmental pressure, political instability, threatened or actual violence, bad governance or economic, social and political exclusion. And a day to celebrate and support the many thousands of people, national and international agencies who help them: such as we are now seeing in response to floods in Kerala.

In 2016, at the World Humanitarian Summit, the international community agreed that, despite huge successes in saving lives across the decades and the continents, it had nevertheless failed and was continuing to fail people who needed help. It recognised it was not doing enough to go beyond people’s urgent needs, to address the underlying causes of their distress, and thus reduce the likelihood they’d become distressed again. This was all enshrined in the Agenda for Humanity, which set out five areas of emphasis:

• Prevent and end conflicts
• Respect the rules of war
• Leave no-one behind
• Work differently to end need
• Invest in humanity

The Agenda included really important practically oriented ideas. Such as better systems for early warning, and for converting early warning into early action, the importance of a longer term approach, the need for leaders at every level to take more responsibility for protecting people and people’s lives, and better coordination and cooperation between the humanitarian and development agencies.

Agenda for Humanity

The Agenda for Humanity

People not personally involved in the international aid sector often assume that the “humanitarian aid” covers everything from saving lives to longer-term development assistance: from water, food, shelter and sanitation for displaced people and refugees, to improving slum dwellers’ and small farmers’ livelihoods, and better education in their daughters’ schools. And it’s true that some international development agencies, like Oxfam or CARE, cover all of the above. Some go even further, and cover all of the above and also peacebuilding too.

But the vast network of international public good agencies is actually quite divided, between those with a mandate to help people in acute distress, known within the system as “humanitarian agencies”, and those with a mandate to support longer-term initiatives, often seen as “development agencies”. Indeed, where individual organisations do work on both, the same division often persists internally.

This division is understandable. The provision of different services no doubt requires different mindsets, different organisational competencies and capacities, different sets of personal skills and interests. But unfortunately, the separation means that too often, agencies on either side of the divide fail to collaborate as effectively as they should. This short-changes those they wish to help, whose circumstances don’t neatly fall into ‘humanitarian’ and ‘long term development’ phases. At its worst, this has led to organisations developing a mutual mistrust, with their staff adopting seemingly tribal positions, protecting the narrow interests of their agency – including its funding – rather than the best outcome for people in need.

Working differently to end need
The Agenda for Humanity recognised this problem – as it had been recognised twenty years earlier in Kofi Annan’s UN reforms – hence the agreement to ‘work differently to end need’, which involves, among others, ‘transcending the humanitarian-development divide’. If you visit crisis zones today, you find many examples of agencies working better across this divide: e.g. the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR not just helping feed and house refugees, but also building their resilience for the future, and staff of humanitarian and development agencies collaborating intimately on the design and execution of initiatives.

The UN failed to implement Kofi Annan’s reforms to the full twenty years ago, partly because it was dealing with huge geopolitical crises like Climate Change, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, leaving insufficient bandwidth for internal issues. But it was also partly because its agencies resisted the reforms. This was not only because the powerful heads of powerful UN agencies felt it was right to defend their turf. It was also because the culture and ingrained habits of the UN and its agencies were resilient to change.

Whether the current round of reforms will fall victim to the same fate remains uncertain. Certainly some of the key agencies remain powerful, and their culture and habits remain an obstacle to change. Certainly plenty of real-world crises are likely to distract the current Secretary General from his reforms in the coming years. But factors in favour of ‘working better’ succeeding include the broad support for this change voiced by many of the UN’s donors, who can tie their funding to evidence of change, and the fact that many UN staff seem to have embraced the need for change.

Language matters
If I have a lingering doubt, however, it is partly because of how people – donors, UN staffers, and others – are framing this, and other associated changes. The main headings of the Agenda for Humanity are shown in the graphic above, copied from They cover a range of important factors, all of which matter. But the “agenda for humanity” is framed not in terms of humanity, but in terms of the service providers. Its headings are all exhortations for service providers to ‘do better’. This seems too narrow, and not as helpful as it might be. It surely misses the crucial ‘why?’.

By this I do not mean to imply that the framers of the reform agenda are crass, unfeeling bureaucrats. They are not. Nor do I mean to imply they lack a genuine desire to do better. They know very well from their own experience, how important it is to do better. They have crafted the agenda using language directed at the agencies because this is how international aid works: it’s in keeping with the culture of the aid sector to focus on explaining, justifying, marketing – and indeed reforming – itself.

‘So what?’, you may say, ‘it’s just words, and it’s obvious what they mean’. But language does matter, since the language through which we express our intent is the language others hear and act upon.

By framing the Agenda in terms of “what we must do better”, we convey the responsibility of international agencies to find better ways to respond, and that’s important. But at the same time, we fail to convey – and perhaps obscure – a simple and essential truth. Poor and vulnerable people needing help really don’t care if those providing it decide that it’s “humanitarian”, “development”, “peacebuilding”, or whatever. What they want, and what they deserve, is to be helped to respond to their needs and aspirations as they see them, and in a way which treats them with dignity and respects their right to have a voice and agency in what happens.

Now, it’s probably not unreasonable to assume that a person’s aspirations in an emergency are for the kinds of life-saving assistance normally seen as “humanitarian”: food, shelter, protection, water… But longer-term aspirations are seldom far away, and they kick in pretty soon, once immediate needs are met. It’s the most natural thing to start wondering how to avoid getting into another mess, once the current mess starts to seem a bit less distressing. People want to plan and prepare for their future and their children’s future almost immediately: they don’t wait until the ‘humanitarian phase’ is over, and the ‘recovery’ – much less the ‘development’ – phase begins.

So it’s really important for agencies operating in crisis and crisis-prone situations to keep in mind, as they implement the agenda for humanity, that it’s just not about them recognising the need to ‘work across the humanitarian-development divide’, but rather to recognise that for the people they wish to help, there is no divide. We must do all we can to design and execute assistance for people in ways that recognise they can simultaneously have short-term needs and longer-term aspirations; and above all, respect their need and aspiration to decide what matters most, when.

It surely follows therefore, that the best way to bridge the divide is to put it to one side, and adopt an approach that’s based on the fullest possible appreciation of people’s needs and aspirations, in the knowledge that these change, as their circumstances do. Perhaps this means moving from an Agency-based or delivery-based approach to a more human-centred, empathetic one, highlighting the agency of the beneficiaries, rather than our own.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: