One step further towards a systemic contribution?

Climate & Natural resources,Food Security03 Jun 2011Marieke Hounjet

Humanitarian studies is receiving increased attention; this is already the second World Conference dedicated to humanitarian studies. Perhaps this is related to the common knowledge that emergencies are on the rise.1 The last couple of years saw emergencies of a scale that exceeded the destruction caused by the 2004 Tsunami.2 Developing countries and developed countries alike suffer from natural disasters (like the recent crisis in Japan); climate change might cause more smaller scale emergencies in vulnerable situations; and population growth in urban centres could cause emergencies of a type that we are currently not yet used to.3 In addition, as Joost Herman and Dennis Dijkzeul wrote in the most recent edition of the Broker, humanitarian principles are less straightforward than one would think in all of these situations, and perhaps they need to be adapted or rethought in certain contexts. Lastly, humanitarian crises are also becoming more permanent in certain ‘chronic regions’ in the world, one of the insights Frans Bieckmann (editor in chief of the Broker) took back from the last WCHS conference:

“We therefore need a different way of analysing and theorising about crises – more longer term, more systemic – than usually done by humanitarian agencies and their consultants.”

Perhaps in that light the International Humanitarian Studies Association was launched at the WCHS conference last year. So, this year, living up to its interdisciplinary and the range of issues humanitarians face, the conference focuses on four broad themes:

1) Emerging from Protracted Crises: How can we understand the causes of protracted crises? How do they affect societies’ and individual lives? How do different intervention models work and interrelate?

2) New Directions in Policy: How does policy relate to the changing nature in crises? How are non-traditional actors (such as China and India) influencing the sector? What are the implications of new global humanitarian financing mechanisms and donor profiles?

3) Innovation in Humanitarian Practice: How can innovation best contribute to positive change in the humanitarian sector? What are the incentives that encourage organisations to be innovative? How are innovations, creativity and new ideas already improving the humanitarian sector (both in specific sub-fields and processes)?

4) Advances in Public Health and Food Security in Crises: How is the latest clinical, institutional and operational research on humanitarian medicine, health and nutrition interventions, impacting on food security in crises?

We hope this blog will be able to give the reader a flavour of all of these themes, even though our contribution is mostly related to the third theme. Despite the complexity and demand discussed above, humanitarian funding to NGOs is only a fraction of some aid budgets.4 Amongst other reasons, this leads humanitarian agencies to collaborate. Hence, people are talking about consortia, alliances and networks, because collaboration is becoming more important to humanitarian action, yet there is little evidence about what works. Thus, watch this space for more thoughts on the latter, some guest blogs from other conference participants and hopefully a small ‘systemic contribution’ to the field of humanitarian studies.


    1. Humanitarian Emergency Response Review (commissioned by the UK government)
    2. “After the relatively moderate year of 2009, the extent of the impact of natural disasters took aturn for the worse in 2010. A total of 385 natural disasters killed more than 297 000 people worldwide, affected over 217.0 million others and caused US$ 123.9 billion of economic damages.”
    3. See here for more information on urbanisation and emergencies: IFRC, World Disasters Report 2010
    4. For example, the UK’s Department for International Development’s humanitarian spending was £428,224,048 in 2009-2010 of it’s overall approximate £7 billion budget. Of this humanitarian spending 11% is allocated to non governmental organizations. See the DFID website and the HERR for more information.

This is a contribution to a 2011 online blog called ‘Innovating Humanitarianism’

Humanitarianism today is faced with many challenges. On 2-5 June 2011, the Second World Conference on Humanitarian Studies (WCHS) brought together the best of thinkers and researchers to discuss urgent questions about the changing nature of current crises and how humanitarian policy and practice can best respond to this.

The Broker hosted this conference blog, which was run by Sean Lowrie and Marieke Hounjet of the Consortium of British Humanitarian Agencies. Contributions are welcome: mail Marieke Hounjet.

The WCHS conference is organized by the International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA) and hosted by Tufts University, Medford, in collaboration with Harvard University, Columbia University and the Social Science Research Council.