Humanitarian Sector Faces Extensive Challenges

By Cynthia Price, ChildFund Director of Communications

The next two to three decades will be challenging for those working in the humanitarian sector, and the players aren’t entirely prepared for what is to come.

António Guterres, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, shared his perspective yesterday during the opening session of the InterAction Forum in Arlington, Va.

two men on panel discussion

He noted that the international community has lost part of its ability to prevent conflict, and, as a result, “unpredictability has become the name of the game.”

Challenges include population growth, climate change and food and water scarcity. “These are all influencing each other,” Guterres said.

Because there is not consensus on these mega trends, Guterres said, “In the absence of collective answers to these problems, they will continue to get worse.”

He also is concerned because financial resources are shrinking. “Humanitarian aid budgets are not growing proportionately with humanitarian needs,” he said. “We will be called to do more and more with less and less.”

Another concern is the difficulty in making people understand at all levels the need to preserve humanitarian principles.

two men on discussion panel

(l to r) António Guterres, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and Sam Worthington, president & CEO, InterAction in Washington, D.C.

To effectively respond, Guterres said, non-government organizations (NGOs) must be prepared to do so with limited resources and recognizing that humanitarian principles will not always be fully followed.

Guterres painted a stark picture and said for humanitarian efforts and the world to move forward, “it will not be enough to see people dying, it will not be enough to see people fleeing….” Only when the security of people is at risk will they be “motivated to act.”

However, he said, there has been progress in the ability of NGOs to respond to crises. Partnership and coordination has improved. “The most effective delivery organizations are NGOs,” Guterres told the sold-out crowd. “I am not really worried about your capacity to deliver and to be effective.”

NGOs and political systems must adapt to the new environments, including using all the tools that technology has to offer. He also stressed the need to do more advocacy, not only for fundraising, but also to promote values, such as protection.

“We are not doing enough to invest in the civil societies of the countries where we operate,” Guterres said. “We need to invest much more in strong, independent NGOs. We need to give them space and help them build themselves, even if it means a reduction in our own business.”

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