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Three opportunities for humanitarians

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11th-Feb-2018       
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Larissa Fast :
As 2018 begins, the challenges of humanitarian crises are momentous. Humanitarians are responding to large-scale emergencies in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
Rohingya refugees are seeking protection in Bangladesh and the threat of famine and armed conflict looms in Nigeria, South Sudan, and Somalia. The number of refugees now reaches 22.5 million.
Many states including India, Turkey, Myanmar, and Pakistan have enacted legislation to restrict the work of or even expel aid agencies. This makes an effective response even harder.
With the United States making or threatening cuts to their support of the United Nations (UN) and Pakistan uncertainty in the political realm is spilling over into discussions about assistance.
These challenges are complex and, in the midst of access constraints and heightened needs, overcoming them will require creativity. But there are reasons for optimism. Here are three key opportunities to increase humanitarian effectiveness in 2018.
1. More locally-led and contextual responses
The chorus of voices advocating the value of and need for locally-led humanitarian response is growing, and local, national and regional actors are increasing in strength and profile.
Local humanitarianism is already happening all over the world, in various shapes and sizes. The Humanitarian Leadership Academy and British Red Cross recently released case studies of 10 local humanitarian organisations leading or managing responses to refugee movements, natural disasters, conflict and environmental crises. Other initiatives have documented what it would take to achieve a localised humanitarian ecosystem in the Pacific, and the opportunities and challenges that arose from a locally-led response to the 2016 cyclone in the Fiji Islands.
Debates over the 'localisation marker' to track funding going 'as directly as possible' to local organisations illustrate that we still have a long way to go but the strength of consensus around the idea, if not the details, represents a significant opportunity.
If we are to exploit this opportunity, we must remember to pay attention to power dynamics and remain open to alternative perspectives.
2. The role of data, technology and evidence
Quantitative and qualitative data are crucial in humanitarian response, whether in the form of the 3Ws (who does what, where?) or as information for affected communities.
Humanitarian agencies are deploying technology to improve aid delivery and using data to improve our analysis of humanitarian crises. The new Centre for Humanitarian Data aims to increase the quality and use of data throughout the humanitarian community.
A recent US Institute of Peace report points to the transformative potential of renewable energy technologies in South Sudan, where humanitarian actors could use solar energy instead of diesel fuel.
Despite their potential, however, data and technology are not a cure all, nor a panacea. We cannot forget the crucial importance of data protection, particularly given recent news of security issues and potential risks to beneficiary data. There is still room for progress in documenting humanitarian evidence.
Yet data, technology and evidence all represent opportunities to foster change in the humanitarian sector. We can start with not getting distracted by the latest and greatest toy, and by collecting only what we need to support effective response.
3. Reforming humanitarianism
System reform is a longstanding challenge that has stymied many a humanitarian. How should we promote lasting and profound change in a sector that is prone to repeating the mistakes of the past? Previous reforms, such as the implementation of the UN cluster system after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, have been incremental and delivered mixed results.
Yet creative new models and approaches are appearing, many drawing inspiration from outside the humanitarian sector. An upcoming report from the Humanitarian Policy Group will detail a series of alternatives: from a networked approach allowing aid recipients and providers - whether international, local or individual - to interact directly based on collaboration rather than control, to a cooperative, social economy model that uses humanitarian supply chains to generate economic opportunities for communities in crisis situations.
Approaches such as the fledgling United Against Inhumanity campaign, more closely resemble social movements. This campaign aims to address issues including the inhumanity of strategies that maximize human suffering and the failure of political actors - including the UN Security Council - to prevent or resolve armed conflict.
Finally, there is cash. As the High Level Panel on Humanitarian Cash Transfers observed, providing cash in emergencies offers transformational opportunities; whether related to efficiency and effectiveness in addressing needs, or to reform of the humanitarian sector as a whole.
Together, these opportunities represent a vision of an inclusive humanitarian sector galvanizing enthusiasm from a broad set of actors.
Maintaining optimism in the face of overwhelming suffering and need is difficult. The challenges facing the sector are significant, but we must not yield to pessimism or overlook the progress that is happening, in big and small ways, right in front of us.
It is precisely this progress that can encourage us to solve the challenges ahead.
(Larissa Fast is a Senior Research Fellow at the Humanitarian Policy Group/Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in London and a former Fulbright-Schuman scholar).

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