Understanding Humanitarian Futures - Interview with Randolph Kent

On 12 December, PHAP will organize an online briefing exploring the capacities that can help humanitarian organizations ensure that they are fit for the future. The event will feature presentations from Beris Gwynne, Incitāre, and from Randolph Kent and Joanne Burke, creators of the Humanitarian Futures Platform, who will present a new set of tools developed for this purpose.

Before the event, PHAP had the opportunity to speak with Randolph Kent about the concept of “humanitarian futures” and how it is being used by actors in the sector.


Randolph, you were a senior UN official in emergency operations in Ethiopia, Sudan, Rwanda, Kosovo, and Somalia, and then you moved out of operations to become Director of the Humanitarian Futures Programme at King’s College and now the Humanitarian Futures Platform. What does the term “humanitarian futures” signify? And what was it that prompted your interest in this research area?

Thank you very much. They are very interesting questions. Let me begin with your last question and then get to your first. If you look at where I have been – from the Ethiopian famine and then onto Sudan, Rwanda, Kosovo, and Somalia – one of the things that struck me was that while in one sense we were always very willing and very determined, we never quite understood until it was too late what affected people really needed.

Let me give you an example: In Rwanda in 1994 and 1995, within a period of three months 800,000 people lost their lives in one of the worst genocides in the 20th century. And while eventually we brought in the food assistance that was needed, and the clothing, and the shelter – when a society loses 800,000 people in three months, and you don’t bring in psychosocial support and assistance, then to a very significant extent you really have missed the needs of affected people. So I think it is this mounting concern – that we too often stick to our standard operating procedures. We did what we felt was needed, without really understanding the dynamics and the situation sufficiently well. This eventually led me to say: “well, how should one begin to prepare?” And when we meet new kinds of challenges that we may be facing, will we be adequately prepared?

We need to move beyond our standard operating procedures, we need to be more adaptive and anticipatory, we need to be more sensitive to the societies in which we work. And that, in a sense, is the whole basis, the whole of purpose of the humanitarian futures initiative. How does one begin to generate an ethos not based upon the past, but based upon a commitment and willingness to see “what might be,” and what really might be needed? We need to “plan from the future,” well beyond our normal repertoires.


Why should humanitarian organizations, in your words, "plan from the future" to develop their policies and strategies? Doesn’t this risk detracting from responding to the challenging and dynamic situations that organizations are facing right now?

There is no doubt that if you take a look at the hazards of Myanmar, Syria, Yemen, and so many other places, the pressure on the humanitarian sector to provide assistance seems almost unprecedented. At the same time, if you take a look at the world in which we live, if you take a look at the types, dimensions, and dynamics of potential crisis drivers – dynamics which perhaps are almost exponentially different – then one has to say that while we deal with the immediate, we have to also deal with “what might be”. Let me just say this, if you take a look at what is already happening to humanitarian crises and the crisis drivers, we see a level of complexity and spillover that we really have not seen before. And if you just project that, what you will also be seeing more and more is that the crisis drivers are no longer situated in some small country, in some region, or some continent, but are becoming increasingly global.

When the whole humanitarian sector began to get energy, we all began admitting that the world was divided between the resilient and the vulnerable. What we are increasingly seeing now is that the assumptions about Western resilience are increasingly questionable, and that all of us may be increasingly vulnerable. So why planning from the future? Because basically the type of crises we have to face will not be merely a trend from the past. There will be new types of crisis drivers, like bioengineered pandemics, cyber failures – and a whole range of factors that we never had to consider before. We have to be sensitive to those.

Hence, it is not the past, it is not planning for the future from the past, it is planning for the future from the future: the “what might be.” Are we adequately anticipatory? Do our organizations have an ethos of adaptation, which can quickly help us maneuvering in new types of unprecedented crises? And in terms of collaboration, how well do we really collaborate? Not only amongst ourselves in the humanitarian sector, but with the private sector, with the scientists, with all of those who given the dynamics and dimensions of global crises and threats should increasingly become key partners and collaborators with us. We should be measuring what their value added is, what are their comparative advantages, and what are ours. So this is what I mean by planning from the future.

Nobody is saying we predict, but one has to be sensitive to “what might be.” Nobody is saying: “I will tell you what will be.” But we all must say that unless we try to be more anticipatory, unless we are adequately adaptive, unless we promote new forms of collaboration and new ways of looking at innovation, we will not be able to deal with the increasing vulnerabilities at global level in the future.


In your presentation on 12 December, you will focus on the humanitarian capacities challenge. In a few words, what does this entail for humanitarian actors?

The humanitarian capacities challenge has two components. One is, based on what I previously mentioned, that the types of crises we will have to face in the future will be unprecedented. What I am saying here is that we do not have the capacities to deal with this. And the answer is again: new forms of collaboration, new ways of looking at innovation, and most importantly, looking at how we engage with other, understanding the self-interest of potential collaborators, understanding their value added, and their comparative advantages. This way, together, the humanitarian capacities challenge can be met by redefining who is a “humanitarian,” and looking at this from a far more global perspective, not linking or relating “humanitarian” just to a specific set of organizations but to a much wider community.

What is the second element of the humanitarian capacities challenge? To understand this approach to dealing with crises of the future, and to be able to adjust to a greater appreciation that more and more – be it with the scientists, the private sector, the business community – we all have mutual interests to collaborate together. How we do this is probably one of the greatest challenges for the present humanitarian sector.


Join us on 12 December for the next PHAP Briefing to learn more about the Humanitarian Futures Platform. You can read more about this upcoming session and register now at phap.org/12dec2017