Current humanitarian and development practices are built on decades of research, partnerships, policy development, and operational implementation. These origins have shaped the dominant view of about the aid sector. As we are increasingly aware now, these past dominant views are not fit for our collective future.
Throughout history, progress has hinged on pivotal moments of significant change. In this vein, the last few years have seen countless calls to transform the international humanitarian framework so that past hegemonies don’t dictate future states.
There have been some small and meaningful shifts in the way the humanitarian system works, but none of them has been truly transformative. For the most part, aid organizations run the same types of interventions, projects, innovations, and funding mechanisms, and only tinker at the edges of what needs to change. Predominantly, international aid projects continue to reinforce the North to South paradigm. Our sector, in general, continues to refer to those we serve as “beneficiaries.” Innovation experiments are conducted on “groups,” as if they were scientific trial specimens. International “solutions” are flown in, often overwhelming local systems; ignoring local expertise, culture, and language; and paying lip service to local inclusion. Many aid workers still seem to thrive on the excitement of aid work – unwittingly putting the focus of the narrative on themselves.
A recent collaborative survey by Devex, USAID, and DAI on the future of development work and next-generation development professionals assumes that the key skills aid workers will continue to require are in capacity building and program management. The report notes that development professionals believe “English skills will be most important in the future.” These conclusions ignore contrary research suggesting that vastly different future skill sets are needed, and overlook the greater global prevalence of languages other than English. In addition, programs encourage greater diversity and inclusion, yet workforces are woefully lacking in diversity and are certainly not equal.
If these threads are woven together, the resulting pattern is alarmingly clear. The majority of international humanitarian organizations and aid workers reinforce a system in which they themselves are at the centre. Too many of us cannot imagine, nor do we want to imagine, a future in which we ourselves are not a fundamental component of a global humanitarian system. We assume that the status quo will endure, and we continue to reinforce an “us and them” narrative, thereby increasing the distance between us and those we serve.
When we look in the mirror, we face some difficult questions: Are we contributing to a humanitarian system that is primarily invested in perpetuating itself? Can we imagine a more effective system in which we are not a driving force? Are the hierarchical structures, the competing missions, and the privileges that permeate the system we have created preventing transformative change? Are we truly ready for change, or do we fear to question our continued role?
Change does not happen if we do not question our values and biases, our assumptions, and our mental models. Our work, more so than in any other sector, is closely linked with the concept of “I,” of “self.” Our identities and our personal values systems are intrinsically connected to the work we do – and, for the most part, we pride ourselves on our altruistic identity. We go there to help them. Those poor people that need our help. We often see ourselves as the solution, without necessarily articulating that viewpoint. We therefore condition ourselves to maintain an identity – that weaves together our professional and personal sense of self – as the key to the entire process. Who are we if we are not the aid worker, the development worker, the helper? It is difficult and deeply challenging on many levels to extricate ourselves from this perception. As a result, we are limited in our ability to consider alternative futures where there might be a fundamental shift in power and circumstance, and in which our roles might not necessarily be as holders of power and resources, as influencers and decision makers.
Changes in our world over the last few years demonstrate that the status quo is shifting in multiple dimensions. The recent devastating report issued by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gives us a clear timeline within which transformative change must happen to avoid complete climate breakdown. Considering the convergence and implications of this reality on all areas of humanitarian need, it is more imperative than ever that all actors within the humanitarian system strive to achieve deep transformative change. This next decade requires more than just commitments to a completely different way of working, of being, of partnering. It requires action.
We cannot continue to operate as if the prevalent and current mental models and structures are our only options. In our attempt to #reformaid we should ask ourselves whether we are ready and willing to give up control. I am not dismissing or denigrating the desire to do good – that demonstrates the best of our collective humanity. But let us adapt to a rapidly changing world in a way that is more suitable and effective. Integral to this effort is that we reform ourselves. We must strive to be better, to do better, to think better, to break the shackles of our own stereotypical narratives so that our work – and ourselves within it – has authenticity and soul.
About the author:
Aarathi Krishnan works on global humanitarian futures and is based in Geneva. She previously worked in regional humanitarian innovation and futures in the Asia Pacific and has humanitarian program management experience across Africa and Asia. She is a Fellow of the Inter-Agency Regional Analysts Network (IARAN). Aarathi writes in her personal capacity. The views expressed in this article are hers and do not represent those of her employer.