Keep it complex, stupid

By Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop and Marzia Montemurro.

The idea that systems work best if they avoid complexity and typify simplicity is one that most will support. This is also why, since the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, the localisation of aid, the humanitarian-development nexus, and accountability to affected people have become panaceas for all the ills of humanitarian response. They are concepts that many will understand as remedying humanitarian action over the long term and in a transformative and sustainable way.

However, if there is one finding that encapsulates HERE’s recent research into the impact of ‘mandates’ on humanitarian action, it is that the reality on the ground is always much more complex. HERE’s study in the Central African Republic has revealed that there is very little local response capacity. In Ethiopia, a developmental humanitarian mind set has led to the inability to respond to conflict-induced displacement. And in Myanmar, for those agencies refusing to refer to the Muslim ethnic minority as Rohingya – something the Rohingya population so desperately wants – implies that accountability to affected people becomes redundant when agencies define it subjectively to fit their politics.

The superficiality of the current humanitarian discourse, together with a certain political correctness, is likely to lead to a dead end. It contradicts the complexity that HERE sees on the ground, which requires a much deeper reflection and analysis than can currently be found riding on the waves of the mainstream. It is urgent that ways be found to recognise and address the complexity of the environments in which humanitarians are working and the choices they need to make, so that we can begin to institute a sense of realism when it comes to what can be achieved. And in this regard, HERE’s multi-year study on how eight international humanitarian agencies define their priorities in complex environments is generating some crucial lessons.

Firstly, the diversity found among different conceptions of humanitarianism must be acknowledged. The word humanitarian can appear to have as many different meanings as there are interlocutors, regardless of the context. Language around common goals or collective results in policies and plans suggests there is an agreed understanding of what humanitarian action actually entails, and what it attempts to achieve. There isn’t. In addition, short-term or emergency response does not equate to humanitarian action, while capacity strengthening cannot solely be associated to development programmes. It is critically important that we take a step back and look at the why organisations engage in a certain way in a certain context, and how they do so.

Secondly, the terms ‘humanitarian’ and ‘development’ are increasingly unhelpful labels for activities. But this is not an argument for a merger, as is suggested by the humanitarian-development nexus. Nexus thinking on how the work of humanitarian, development, and peace actors intersect may break down some silos – which is much needed. But to be successful it must build on the comparative advantages of each and, in particular, take into account the very different lenses that each use in their analyses. Providing a platform for comparing these analyses might be as far as the nexus can (and should) reach. This would be an important gain, but does in no way justify the time and resources currently spent in the humanitarian community as it goes around in circles discussing the nexus.

Thirdly, the opportunities and/or limitations of an organisation’s humanitarian response in armed conflict depend to a large degree on how an organisation’s mission is interpreted by its leadership. The choices organisations make operationally – where to operate, when, and how – will be reflective of the choices made in terms of the structural set-up of the organisation and the ideological framework used to support them. Flexibility, for example, comes not only with (unrestricted) funding. It comes also from a certain mindset and culture. Fostering a learning environment and adopting adaptive strategic plans relevant to the local context would appear a requirement.

All of this demonstrates that solutions are not found in simplicity or superficiality, but in mastering skills that help us to scratch beneath the surface and understand problems in terms of their multiple dimensions and competing perspectives. Making choices, investing in leadership, and providing space for negotiated, horizontal decision-making are not the natural strengths of NGOs (and perhaps even less so of UN agencies), but they are essential in navigating difficult situations. It is about time that the focus shifts to these issues, instead of repeating the politically convenient discourse.

This blog has been written on the basis of the findings of HERE’ study on The role of ‘mandates’ in humanitarian priority setting for international non-UN agencies in situations of armed conflict led by HERE’s Research Director, Marzia Montemurro. The synthesis report of the study will be published in March 2020.

One comment on “Keep it complex, stupid

  1. Thanks HERE for this interesting blog that resonates strongly with the challenges in the current discussions, particularly on the humanitarian-development-peace nexus. While the idea of establishing stronger linkages between humanitarian and development realms makes perfect sense (and the discussion is certainly not new), from a purely humanitarian perspective, there are issues that need to be addressed. The triple nexus discourse faces many challenges, starting with prioritization and ownership of nexus programme priorities in often complex and highly politicized aid contexts, to potential issues of insecurity in contexts where governments may be at conflict with non-state armed groups. Another problem we see is in the tendency for the nexus policy to speak about “addressing the root causes”, a terminology used in presentations, draft policies and guidance documents. Essentially, from a humanitarian point of view, it is unrealistic to expect humanitarian organisations to “address the root causes”, especially in conflict situations. We should not forget that the humanitarian action is designed to alleviate the suffering of communities impacted by conflicts or by natural disasters. It is important for all aid stakeholders to clearly recognise this, and enable the space for humanitarian action. It is possible to establish complementary analysis and put in place complementary actions, particularly between humanitarian and development realms, without necessarily mixing them. The aid community seems to be relatively quiet about these issues. We need strong humanitarian leadership to speak up and advocate for protecting the space to provide impartial humanitarian assistance to people affected by crises.

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