“Save the Children is often told that its aims are impossible – that there has always been child suffering and there always will be… It’s impossible only if we make it so. It’s impossible only if we refuse to attempt it.” — Eglantyne Jebb, Founder, Save the Children
This is a tough time for the humanitarian sector.
Massive cuts to aid budgets, targeting of aid workers, apparent public indifference, the rise of populism, Trump, Brexit…
Meanwhile, East Africa suffers through a third year of drought, cholera runs rampant through Yemen and the incessant bloodshed in Syria and Iraq continues to tear the region apart.
But we can’t lose hope. We must remind ourselves that our sector has faced significant challenges in the past – and emerged stronger each time.
Save the Children CEO, Paul Ronalds, has identified three key challenges facing the humanitarian endeavour, and what we must do to adapt and respond.
1. Increasing frequency and severity of humanitarian crises
The first challenge is the sheer scale of human need compared to available resources.
In recent years, international humanitarian assistance has increased somewhat. But humanitarian need and its cost has increased much faster.
In Mosul, for example, 900,000 civilians have been forced to flee their homes, but there is less than half the required funding available to provide adequate relief.
Only a fraction of the aid required for Yemen has been received – despite the embattled country enduring the ‘world’s worst’ cholera outbreak.
And, this is all on top of long-term crises like Syria that continue to absorb the largest volumes of international assistance, albeit still not nearly enough.
How should we respond?
Unfortunately, significant increases in humanitarian assistance are unlikely. Instead we must find new sources of funding and make existing funds go much further.
One option is to use new technologies and innovative techniques to reach larger numbers of people at a much lower cost.
We also need to explore new forms of collaboration and partnerships. There are currently too many competing charity organisations, making the overall system unsustainable.
Finally, we need to be more disciplined in using evidence and evaluation to determine exactly which initiatives to invest in and scale up.
2. Less stable and more fragmented international system
The second challenge is an increasingly unstable and fragmented international system.
The new world order is fraying. And there’s an obvious lack of consistent global leadership.
Without widely accepted rules and strong institutions, the space for mischief becomes significantly greater. This includes a blatant disregard for humanitarian law.
For NGOs, like Save the Children, staff and operations are more likely to be targeted. Hospitals are destroyed. Aid convoys are bombed. Aid workers are being kidnapped, raped and murdered.
The war on terror is not only making NGO operations more risky, it is increasingly used as an excuse to place restrictions on civil society; curbing advocacy, protest and free speech.
How should we respond?
Political philosopher Edmund Burke is reported to have said, ‘the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’
We must not stand by while humanitarian principles of international law are being ignored. We must advocate for the principles we believe in. And we must push the international community to hold perpetrators to account.
Of course, it will be difficult. But the founders of our humanitarian enterprise, people like Henri Dunant and Eglantyne Jebb, faced similar – if not greater – difficulties and prevailed.
3. Public indifference and cynicism
The third issue is growing indifference and even cynicism towards the humanitarian system.
While trust of charities in Australia remains high (and we owe our supporters enormous gratitude for that), a recent report on global public trust in NGOs showed a decline from 75% in 2001 to 53%.
This is fuelled, partly, by a fragmented media seeking to appeal to a narrowing readership. But it’s also fuelled by genuine failures of governance and a lack of progressive thinking within the sector.
How should we respond?
The sector must respond by adopting the highest levels of governance, accountability and transparency. We need to genuinely embrace innovation, forward thinking and reform.
We must also become better at measuring and communicating our impact.
If we want the ‘average’ person to see a generous aid program as the norm – as an essential part of what it means to be Australian – then we need to generate renewed public (and therefore political) support for the humanitarian cause.
And the greatest antidote to cynicism is authentic leadership.
Now, more than ever, we need the next generation of leaders, who can grapple with the seemingly inextricable challenges we see on television and in our social media feeds every day, to help renew the humanitarian enterprise.
I’m optimistic those next leaders are waiting in the wings, preparing to renew the fight against the cruelty of the world – as they have been so often in the past.
This article is an adapted excerpt from a talk delivered by Paul Ronalds, CEO of Save the Children Australia, at the 2017 Asia Pacific Humanitarian Leadership Conference.