NGO Official Explains: Why 'Traditional Humanitarian Action' Still Matters

The recent and unfolding crises in Japan, Libya and Ivory Coast as well as long-standing conflict situations in various African countries highlight the demand for “traditional humanitarian action” as opposed to a new business model for the humanitarian community that emphasizes the role of new actors such as corporations, citizen groups, the military and celebrities, argues a senior official of the largest network of U.S.-based relief and development organizations.

Traditional humanitarian actors, particularly United Nations agencies, the Red Cross and large international non-governmental organizations came under fire for their response to the earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, says InterAction’s vice-president for humanitarian policy, Joel Charny, who adds that the analysis of the response has prompted a paradigm shift that demanded a new business model for humanitarian action.

“This year, however, the demand for traditional humanitarian action has returned with a vengeance,” Charny says on the Guardian’s “Poverty Matters” blog, noting that it is the “traditional pillars of the international humanitarian community” that are providing vital and livesaving assistance in the midst of the conflict in Libya, the disaster in Japan and wars in Africa. New aid providers are almost always absent from these emergencies, partly due to the crises’ complexities and lack of lure, Charny says.

He argues that the Haiti response as a new paradigm is an oversold idea that provided “great fodder” for critics and cynics of international humanitarian action.

“But as the first quarter of this year demonstrates, the fundamental problem is rarely going to be too many agencies and resources. Rather, the core challenge is the inability of the international humanitarian community to reach people in need due to lack of security and funds,” Charny writes.

He adds that the international humanitarian community may indeed require a new business model, but the goal should be to increase the ability of the sector to reach the vulnerable “who would never be more than an afterthought to the new aid providers.”

“This will require better leadership, more efficient co-ordination and flexible funding to allow agencies to respond where the need is greatest,” Charny writes.

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    Ivy Mungcal

    As former senior staff writer, Ivy Mungcal contributed to several Devex publications. Her focus is on breaking news, and in particular on global aid reform and trends in the United States, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Before joining Devex in 2009, Ivy produced specialized content for U.S. and U.K.-based business websites.