What we do
We aim to stimulate actionable improvements bridging policy and practice in two ways: research and exchange. We provide insights and prospective analyses on systemic issues and offer a space for honest dialogue. We leverage our core areas of expertise to carry out a reality check on the relationship between policy and humanitarian practice.
CORE AREAS OF EXPERTISE
The core principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence define and clarify the humanitarian mission. Humanitarian actors assert that they deliver their actions in accordance with these principles, but we believe the mere statement is not enough. What evidence can they provide that they do follow the principles? Can the degree to which they apply the principles be assessed? In our work, we have developed methods to review the application of the four core principles.
Here’s what we’ve done on humanitarian principles to date. In our research we will continue to assess the application of the principles and use them as benchmarks for reviewing performance.
Many humanitarian crises, especially armed conflicts, are a failure of states to respect or fulfil their obligations under international law when it comes to protecting and assisting civilian populations under their jurisdiction. They need to be held accountable for these failures. Organisations holding humanitarian mandates or missions have duties too, either by law or as ethical and moral imperatives. They too should account for their actions and decisions, be ready to be held to account by others, and take ownership for their actions. In examining the gap between policy and humanitarian practice, we look at the various accountabilities of states and humanitarian actors. We recognise that accountability and learning lessons go hand in hand.
Since the 2005 UN-led humanitarian reforms, leadership has been high on the policy agenda. 2019 saw the further strengthening of the UN Resident Coordinator position as part of the reform of development coordination. Linked to these efforts, leadership in the context of humanitarian coordination is often thought of in terms of structures and mechanisms, yet our research shows that much relies on leadership behaviour and providing vision and direction. Humanitarian strategies are too often a wish list rather than a set of priorities that are also transparent and honest on the trade-offs. In terms of leadership in support of collective efforts, we have seen that leaders are rewarded almost exclusively for what they do for their own institution/organisation, and do not get rewarded for what they do to achieve collective results.
Protection is a core pillar of humanitarian response. Without it, humanitarian work risks becoming merely an act of service delivery or charity that ignores the rights of crisis-affected people and omits to focus on the reduction of immediate threats these people may still face. Despite being a core pillar, protection is often not entirely understood by humanitarian workers and/or they feel insufficiently equipped in meeting their commitments to protection standards and the rights-based approach. We provide support and guidance to humanitarian actors on integrating protection in their policies and practice, and we include protection as a key aspect in our reviews and evaluations.
Being forcibly displaced from their homes or place of habitual residence is an increasing reality for many of the people humanitarians are called to assist and protect. In a world where the scale and duration of displacement continue to rise, and where the reasons for displacement increasingly mix violence and conflict together with the degradation of the environment and the absence of livelihood opportunities, the need for change is inevitable. The quality of protection and the availability of solutions are declining, which is why exploring the opportunities and challenges of new ways of working in response to forced displacement is part of our work. We do so by highlighting the role of humanitarian actors and by flagging the lack of true accountability for current state behaviour.
We provide expert support – both in the form of training and research assistance – on refugees, IDPs, and displacement more generally. We have for example studied how displaced groups can better influence the durable solutions that may ultimately become available to them, and explored what it takes for change to be truly of benefit to refugees in the context of the Global Compact on Refugees.
The humanitarian field is not homogenous. It is populated by a diverse set of actors that garner their raison d’être from a combination of historical or geographical roots, institutional characteristics, and personal backgrounds. Yet, in global humanitarian discourse, their collective objectives and actions are presented as the sum of technical sectoral differences.
Our research has found that this is oversimplification of reality carries important risks for the effectiveness of the humanitarian endeavour. Humanitarian coordination has yet to find how to optimise the presumed complementarity of the wide variety of mandates and missions. The challenge remains to set a meaningful collective direction while taking into account the diversity of humanitarian actors. Using our institutional memory of past reform efforts and changes in the sector, their gains and failures, we are ready to support this endeavour.
We are committed to advancing a research agenda that better understands the gaps between policy and humanitarian action, and that provides actionable solutions to bridge those gaps. Our research products provide an honest and constructive reflection of the reality on the ground – a reality often very different from that envisaged in policy statements and instruments designed from afar. We undertake both self-initiated activities and commissioned pieces of work, and for both, we are more interested in the question whether the right things are done, than whether things are done rightly. Quite often, evaluations opt for a technical perspective. We divert from conventional evaluation outfits, as our experience tells us that the core issues to solve are often inherently political. We therefore engage in in-depth conversations with our commissioning partners, to clarify objectives and ensure alignment on the terms of reference. Our self-initiated projects provide us with the independence and flexibility that we need to assess and analyse major issues in humanitarian responses. Many of the ideas and thinking for these activities come from commissioned work. Together, the two work-streams provide us with insight to address the systemic issues that stand in the way of more effective and principled humanitarian action. Our research into the gap between policy and humanitarian practice delivers real-time evaluations, policy papers, and advisory notes, at our own initiative, or on commission. Our particular focus is on situations of armed conflict and protracted complex emergencies, where the largest gaps between commitments and reality are found.
We engage in dialogue with humanitarian actors and other stakeholders to understand their views on the gap between policy and humanitarian practice, to ensure that our research is evidence-based, and to point to possible solutions and provide actionable recommendations. We keep a close eye on what happens on the ground, and continuously engage with government representatives, the UN and other international agencies, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, NGOs, and other humanitarian actors. We aim to stimulate mutual learning and critical thinking among humanitarians through informed policy debates and continuous project outreach.
Assisted by our long-standing partnerships across the humanitarian sector, we convene in-person and virtual round tables, panel discussions, and conversations with leading humanitarian thinkers. We also issue monthly blog posts discussing findings generated through our research work, to spur debates on topical humanitarian issues in a non-technical fashion.
Advancing a principled agenda and strengthening accountability for upholding humanitarian norms can only be done in collaboration with others. For this purpose, we partner with other think tanks, academic research institutes, humanitarian networks, UN and non-UN agencies, governments, and local institutions.
In working with others, we seek to create mutual benefit. Several of these are also commissioning partners.