Overcoming the Humanitarian Futures Challenges: follow-up questions

On 12 December, PHAP organized an online briefing on Humanitarian Futures: Capacities for 21st century humanitarian organizations, featuring presentations from Beris Gwynne from Incitāre, and Randolph Kent and Joanne Burke, creators of the Humanitarian Futures Platform. The event introduced the audience to the concept of the humanitarian futures challenge, and explored the capacities that humanitarian organizations will need in order to “fit” for the future.

The presentations were followed by a discussion of questions submitted by participants (you can listen to this in the event recording). As there was not time to answer all questions live during the event, Randolph Kent also answered follow-up questions in writing, which you can now read on this page.


 “Should the capacities described during the event be applied the same way in both international organizations and local/national NGOs?” 
 - Red Cross Red Crescent movement, Uganda

 Randolph Kent

The types of humanitarian crisis drivers are increasing exponentially as are their dimensions and dynamics. Despite this reality, the humanitarian systems, institutions, and assumptions that have emerged over the past three decades – be they local, national, or international – show limited interest and even fewer capacities to meet the humanitarian challenges that will have to be faced over the next two decades and beyond.

The capacities that comprise the Humanitarian Futures (HF) ‘tool kit’ apply to any organization that is determined to be more anticipatory, adaptive, and innovative, and is willing to undertake essential changes in the ways that it collaborates and is led.

Naturally these capacities – again as reflected in the HF tool kit – will have to be adjusted to meet particular geographical and cultural factors as well as to the resources and size of different types of humanitarian organizations. Yet, each of the five capacities that are promoted in the tool kit will be essential for all types of organizations determined to meet the humanitarian challenges of the future.


Do you think, as funders seek more confirmation (auditable evidence) of beneficiaries being served, that humanitarian organizations are actually focusing more on the risks facing their operations and their ability to continue to serve in the future?
 - Audit Coordinator, Switzerland

 Randolph Kent

The broader global context in which humanitarian crises take place is dramatically changing, including geo-political and socio-economic transformations. It is the interplay between the changing nature of threats and their geo-political and societal contexts that will in the foreseeable future be of increasing concern to funders.

This proposition is reflected in funders’ increasing insistence on compliance criteria, intended to prioritize security over humanitarian action, including detailed accounting measures and ever more stringent accountability for humanitarian actors. Hence, humanitarian organizations feel compelled in so many instances to deal with the immediate risks engendered by compliance constraints – all too often at the expense of preparing for the uncertainties and complexities of the future.

This understandable though very short-term perspective nevertheless means that all too many humanitarian actors will find that they may not be prepared to meet the expectations of funders and crisis-affected populations in the future. Hence, there is a clear dilemma. All too many humanitarian organizations ignore futures-oriented planning, and focus instead on avoiding the funding risks of the present. In so doing, they will find themselves unprepared for the sorts of humanitarian needs to which funders will want to contribute in an inevitable future.

In various ways this dilemma can to some extent be resolved by parallel streams of preparation – both for futures planning and for compliance. The key is the individual organization’s willingness to change its approach to collaboration. Operationally, shared approaches to auditable evidence can provide compliance backups; futures planning at the same time can be promoted through integrated approaches to inter-institutional programs that enhance more effective anticipation, adaptation, and innovation.

Yet, in the final analysis, the challenge for the humanitarian organization is to avoid what all too often is a recognizable instinct when faced with complexity. In general, the more ‘wicked’ the problem, the greater is the inclination to make the world ‘fit our model’ rather than to develop a model that would fit plausible and emerging realities. This has to be avoided if the dilemma between the risks of the immediate and the challenges of the future are to be met.


In my opinion, most discussions on the humanitarian sector focus more on conflict and protracted crisis. What do you see as the key capacities for humanitarian responders in natural disaster response, particularly in preparedness in risk-prone developing countries?
 - Humanitarian Affairs Officer

 Randolph Kent

The question presupposes a clear distinction between so-called ‘natural disasters’ and ‘conflict and protracted crises’. An alternative reality is that the distinction between the two ignores a more fundamental point, namely, that humanitarian crises – virtually of all types – are reflections of the ways that societies structure themselves and allocate their resources.

Hence, in so many ways, it could be argued that natural disasters can be either precursors or reflections of the aftermath of conflict. In other words, the impact of natural phenomena will depend in so many ways on vulnerabilities all too often created by poverty, exploitation, and inequalities; and, in turn, such vulnerabilities can trigger conflict. Conversely, natural phenomena can have greater impact when the consequences of conflict intensify vulnerabilities.

That said, in answering the question, one needs to make a distinction between the ‘core capacities’ that are necessary to ensure organizational effectiveness when it comes to anticipating, preparing for, and responding to disasters of all types, and the specific opportunities required to meet certain categories of disasters. Such opportunities can be described, for example, in terms of access, types of needs, distribution mechanisms, and monitoring.

The former, organizational core capacities, should enable an organization to anticipate a wide range of potential and actual crisis drivers. In so doing, the organization should have the ability to adapt its procedures to meet requirements across a multitude of potential and plausible threats. It should have a well-developed understanding about ways to identify appropriate innovations to address new and standard types of crisis threats, and should also have a clear idea about the value added and comparative advantages of different sorts of potential collaborators.

As for crises initially driven by natural phenomena, one has to recognize that such phenomena offer the prospect of time and access, which conflict situations normally do not: time to explore and understand the nature of particular types of vulnerabilities; and access that generally will not be thwarted by overt violence. These two characteristics are fundamental for effective prevention and preparedness as well as response when dealing with the possible consequences of natural phenomena.

And, yet, in the final analysis, the key capacities for humanitarian responders in so-called ‘natural disasters’ will inevitably reflect the core competencies of the organization, whatever the crisis driver. Conflict complicates humanitarian response, including preparedness, but in a broad sense the essential capacities remain the same for all types.


You can access the rest of the Q&A and as well as further resources on the event page.