World Humanitarian Day: the power of collective action

Change is uncomfortable. And it’s not easy. Yet in the humanitarian sector, it is urgently needed.

For years there have been countless discussions, pledges and commitments to make substantial changes in the sector. Without undermining some notable successes, we must not forget that to transform a sector, we first need to transform ourselves. Yes, it is that personal.

In the humanitarian sector, the need to make change happen is increasing by the second. External forces, such as the climate crisis, a global economic recession, restrictive and limited funding and the shrinking space for local civil society, demand urgent action. Statistics are not in our favour. Recently, the Global Humanitarian Overview reported the greatest ever gap in humanitarian funding at $41 bn, with 274 million people in need of assistance worldwide. To close this gap, a more proactive, locally led and accountable system for people affected by crises, or at risk of them, is needed.

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But change takes time, and it takes more than good intentions and will – it takes collective action.

It takes a network

The theme of this year’s World Humanitarian Day, which takes place on 19 August, celebrates not only the power of collective action but the life-changing role each person plays to achieve a shared objective. This resonates so loudly with me. The Start Network which consists of more than 50 humanitarian agencies across five continents, has a vision for systems change. We are taking steps to provoke changes in our network and nudge others in the sector. Unilateral initiatives can be the first step towards more transformational actions, but siloed shifts are not enough to comprehensively change a sector. At best, they are inspirational. But, realistically speaking, they are unsustainable and doomed to failure – unless they propel action from others.

Daring to face the problems

It is common wisdom that the first step to addressing a problem is recognising it. But I would challenge this notion. It can be misleading and it can create paralysis, which will stop us from moving forward. Facing the problem by reflecting on it, and then acting, is really what is needed.

In past years, our membership – in particular our local and national members – has challenged our beliefs, attitudes and behaviours in many ways; from funding to language, inclusivity to locally led action, racism to saviour complexities, and everything in between.

This feedback has been tough. At points – at least, personally speaking – I have felt lost about how we are measuring up to the challenge ahead. Nonetheless, these reflections provoked a need to work in a different way: a more ethical way that examines our intentions, — constantly and consistently — across our work streams and programmes. This has resulted in concrete changes, such as the consolidation of our five funding hubs, more funding going directly to local and national actors, and a cross-cutting shift of our operations that can be found in our locally led framework.

But our work is not done, and as we navigate our complexities, we keep identifying many more avenues to explore to co-create a better, more efficient and dignified system.

It takes a network to make changes like this, and it will take the whole sector to make those changes sustainable.

And it takes you to make the first step.


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