The global humanitarian system, already under considerable strain, will soon be tested as never before. In 2013, the gap between the funds available for humanitarian aid and estimated global needs reached $4.5 billion, leaving at least one-third of the demand unmet. The gap seems certain to widen, as key donors cut their contributions and humanitarian disasters grow more frequent and severe. Complex humanitarian emergencies, such as the war in Syria, have shown just how poorly the world is prepared to respond to human suffering on a large scale, despite considerable practice. The international community’s response to last year’s outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, for example, was slow off the mark and then stumbled, leaving everyone worried about future public health emergencies. Meanwhile, climate change has increased the destructive force of natural disasters, which fuel violence and put tremendous pressure on governments and aid agencies alike. And rapid urbanization, coupled with massive migration to coasts, has amplified the toll of such crises.

Small wonder, then, that the humanitarian community consistently falls short of expectations—both those of outside observers and its own. To some extent, that is due to factors beyond its control. Humanitarians confront problems that offer no easy solutions. They must contend with powerful funders who would rather make feel-good pledges than actually pay up, with donors who expect relief work to serve their own interests above those of local populations, and with disasters that leave first responders as exposed to the dangers they are responding to as the victims themselves. Complex crises of the kind roiling Syria often require aid workers to plead with warlords, rebels, and guerilla groups for the privilege of helping the vulnerable, only to be denied entry or forced at gunpoint to pay a heavy surcharge.

Yet humanitarians also bear some responsibility for their shortcomings. Although donors and publics once held aid agencies to be beyond reproach, awareness of their faults has grown, as has the understanding that on occasion, they can do more harm than good. For all the gaps in funding, humanitarian budgets still attract plenty of aid providers who resemble little more than ambulance chasers in white Land Cruisers; at times, their arrival brings to mind a traveling circus. The victims often see badly needed resources go to waste or disappear, and few true partnerships between relief agencies and local populations have emerged. Most crucial, victims can rarely hold humanitarians accountable for shoddy work. These shortfalls do more than create a bad reputation for crisis responders; they also cost lives.

The humanitarian community is keenly aware of these flaws, and during the past two decades, it has made remarkable progress in improving its competence, coordination, and professionalism. But aid workers have enjoyed much less success in other critical areas, including the creation of genuine partnerships with, and accountability to, local populations. Relief work remains something done to others, not alongside them.

That failure owes in large part to the influence of a tight-knit group of elite players that can be described as the Humanitarian Club: an organized and hierarchical network of states, donors, international organizations, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that centers on the UN system. This group deserves much credit for implementing many successful reforms, but it is also responsible for the lack of meaningful systemic change. When it comes to humanitarian aid, the club controls much of the resources and the agenda. It seeks to maintain its exclusivity and therefore tends to embrace only changes that reinforce its central position—not those that would put real power in the hands of the aid beneficiaries.

How well the global humanitarian sector faces the future will depend on the club’s willingness and ability to continue evolving. There are reasons for optimism: club members are genuinely committed to building stronger partnerships with local communities and recognize that the system remains stuck in the past. They have recently begun another major push for reform and are busy preparing for the World Humanitarian Summit, which will be convened by the UN secretary-general in 2016 to help overhaul the crisis-response agenda. But if this considerable investment of time, money, and goodwill is to succeed where previous endeavors have failed, it must involve much more than cosmetic changes. Time is running out; new global forces promise to knock the club off its pedestal if it fails to adapt, and the consequences could be dire for both humanitarian workers and disaster victims. Getting ahead of these changes, however, will require the club to overcome its inertia, share power, and accept a diminished role on the world stage; only these kinds of steps can bring the humanitarian system into the twenty-first century.

A girl speaks with her mother from a temporary phone booth built by Samsung to provide free service to earthquake victims in Kathmandu, Nepal, May 2015. 


In the 1990s, the humanitarian sector’s repeated failure to stave off disaster—in Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia—shook its self-confidence. To its credit, the sector looked critically at its own performance and found many weaknesses. Poor planning and a lack of common standards were just the start. Too many actors were running in different directions in crisis zones, and too many amateurs were playing emergency-room physician without a license. The sector was also too top-heavy, smothering any possibility of real partnership with its beneficiaries. And the way the UN funded humanitarian work was too disjointed, forcing different UN agencies to compete with one another for money.

Humanitarians faced wide-ranging and relentless criticism for these failures, and they responded with efforts to tidy up their act. The UN replaced its outdated Disaster Relief Organization with the Department of Humanitarian Affairs in 1992, and ultimately with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in 1998. Formerly ad hoc consultation mechanisms grew more formal with the creation of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, now the central international coordinating body for relief work. For their part, NGOs drew up a voluntary code of conduct; crafted common standards for meeting victims’ basic needs, such as food, water, health care, and shelter; and built networks to strengthen program evaluation and accountability.

These piecemeal changes ushered in more comprehensive reforms in 2005 and culminated in the far-reaching Transformative Agenda launched by the UN in 2011. An updated funding system consolidated requests for assistance from most UN agencies into one appeal, and the new Central Emergency Response Fund pooled resources and provided quick funding to reduce emergency-response time. In the field, the so-called cluster approach to disaster response took shape, reducing confusion during emergencies through the allocation of specific tasks to designated organizations ahead of time. The UN also gave greater authority to humanitarian coordinators, the most senior UN officials in crisis zones, to oversee the various players on the ground and channel resources where they are needed most. These innovations are already fueling small but meaningful transformations. In Ethiopia, for example, a stronger humanitarian coordinator has been able to push funding toward local water and sanitation projects—usually the poor cousins of the humanitarian world—helping counter what is often a key cause of death in famines: waterborne diseases. And in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, relief agencies have used emergency-response funds to provide kits with essential household items to families displaced by nasty local skirmishes too small to make headlines.

Modern aid workers 
can still resemble the 
well-meaning but paternalistic missionaries 
of the colonial era.

Aid workers have also gotten much better at evaluating and reporting their results. New data-collection techniques have allowed them to keep better track of what has gone right or wrong and to learn from past mistakes. Meanwhile, improved reporting methods have greatly increased the financial transparency of aid agencies. One resource, the website of the Financial Tracking Service, which is managed by OCHA, now offers a complete financial picture for each crisis. Overall, when it comes to the efficiency of aid delivery, there has been slow but steady progress, made possible by more coordination and centralization at the top.

These gains, however, have not been matched by equal progress in improving the accountability and legitimacy of humanitarian action. In fact, the centralization appears to have reinforced, if not widened, the distance between givers and receivers. Aid recipients lament in one survey after another that relief agencies remain disconnected from their needs—and that there is little that can be done about it. To be fair, many reasons for these shortfalls stem from the very nature of humanitarian work. Relief workers often rush in not knowing much about the lay of the land, local customs, and the cultural traits that might determine a community’s ability to survive and recover. After they arrive, responders spend much of their time reporting back to their headquarters and their donors—a task that has only grown more urgent and time-intensive with the recent reforms. Increasingly, security threats force aid providers to work from inside barricaded compounds rather than side by side with local populations.

These barriers can combine to detach humanitarian action from local circumstances, which undercuts the trust and connections essential for saving lives. After all, local information can be as vital as food and water, and small indigenous groups are often the only ones who can provide it. The response to the Ebola crisis, for example, could not have ultimately succeeded without the active involvement of local community health workers, village elders, and teachers, who helped convince the families of victims to forgo traditional burial rituals in order to contain the spread of infection—not to mention putting their own lives on the line to help treat the sick. And in the aftermath of the earthquakes in Nepal, locals carried out the majority of the rescues, and local Sherpas and truck drivers transported aid along treacherous roads to remote villages at great personal risk.

In times of crisis, local information can be as vital as food and water.

Aid agencies have repeatedly pledged to democratize the delivery of assistance by establishing more equitable partnerships and real systems of accountability. But these were mostly empty promises. A 2013 report by a consortium of five British humanitarian agencies observed that the most common approaches to partnering with local institutions were “reactive, driven by emergency and shaped by ad-hoc interactions that take place at the point of crisis.” Another assessment, conducted in 2013 by the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (a self-regulatory body of humanitarian and development organizations), found that although local players sometimes contributed to diagnosing their communities’ needs and implementing existing aid projects, they played almost no part in actually designing those projects or monitoring them. Findings such as these illustrate why crisis victims occasionally compare modern aid workers to their predecessors: the well-meaning but paternalistic civilizing missionaries of the colonial era.


These failures and successes alike can be traced back to the influence and strength of the Humanitarian Club. The club might not represent every single aid worker, but it holds real power over how the world responds to emergencies by setting the rules of humanitarian action and controlling its gears. It also has the ability to push through the reforms that it favors and to deter measures that it dislikes or finds too difficult, not least because they would threaten its privileges.

The club was born after World War II as a Western response to the challenges of reconstructing Europe and decolonizing its former territories. Although its focus has since shifted to the developing world and its members have grown in number and reach, the club remains remarkably homogeneous. Most of its major donors are governments that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development or groups and citizens of OECD member countries. In terms of governments, the club’s most important member is Washington, which is represented by the U.S. Agency for International Development; other powerful club members include the British government, represented by the Department for International Development, and the European Commission, represented by its Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department.

Western governments also have a controlling influence over the core pillar of the global humanitarian network: the UN and its specialized agencies, such as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Program, which lead the charge in crisis zones. Orbiting this system are a dozen or so NGOs that receive most of the funds distributed by the major Western donors and dominate disaster response, among them CARE International, Catholic Relief Services, Oxfam International, and World Vision International.

Falling outside the club are many increasingly prominent donor organizations from developing countries, NGOs based in rising economies (such as Turkey’s IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation and Kimse Yok Mu), and various faith-based institutions. Also operating largely autonomously are corporate players that have a philanthropic arm, starting with Google, and a few massive philanthropic foundations. And of course, much of the real work undertaken during emergencies falls to local NGOs, which often find themselves knocking on the clubhouse’s closed door.

Members of the club are bound together by common principles and shared convictions—namely, that humanitarian aid must be neutral and impartial and that strict standards must regulate the delivery of assistance. But funding also plays a large unifying role. Between 2007 and 2012, some 90 percent of government allocations to humanitarian aid came from OECD members, according to Development Initiatives, an independent monitor of global aid flows. Nonmembers have seen little of this windfall; most of it went to UN agencies and major international NGOs. According to CAFOD, a British aid organization, only $95 million of the roughly $19 billion spent globally on humanitarian aid in 2010 made its way to national NGOs based in disaster-affected areas (although another fraction of the overall amount was provided to these NGOs via subgrants made by UN agencies). During ongoing crises in five countries in 2012—in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan—national NGOs saw a mere 14 percent of the resources channeled through the UN’s common humanitarian funds. And in post-earthquake Haiti, nearly 90 percent of U.S. contributions went into the pockets of international agencies and organizations, as documented by the Center for Global Development; only one dollar in ten actually reached the victims.

Haitian deaf-mute earthquake victims outside of a house donated by the International Red Cross in Port-au-Prince, January 2011.

Similar to many old-style associations and guilds before it, the Humanitarian Club is highly exclusive. Although the aid sector is far from being a closed shop, club membership yields useful privileges: a seat at the planning table, an invitation to field coordination meetings, and UN credentials. But membership criteria are set by the most senior club members, and outside candidates must pass rigorous tests. The UN humanitarian coordinating body, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, restricts its membership to UN agencies, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and a handful of major NGOs. Also, the club works almost exclusively in English, which is frequently an obstacle for smaller organizations based in crisis zones. Aid agencies that pursue agendas that the club deems insufficiently neutral—such as those driven by social justice ideals or religion—also find themselves ostracized.

The club’s power to mobilize its members has allowed it to spearhead many of the recent improvements in the effectiveness of aid. But those reforms, premised on the notion that humanitarian action required greater coordination and regulation, have also further centralized the system and solidified its hierarchy. Although these measures forced agencies to strengthen their standards, they have also encouraged aid workers to be more attentive to their donors than to the beneficiaries directly impacted by their decisions.

In addition, the way in which the club has sought to improve the sector’s professionalism—by stressing the importance of empirical evidence—has pushed local views further to the margin. An increased reliance on generalizable data, manuals, and checklists has improved the efficiency and transparency of aid delivery, but it comes at the expense of the less quantifiable forms of knowledge often possessed only by people and groups who hail from and live in the areas affected by disasters.


As the Humanitarian Club drags its feet on truly meaningful reform, a number of external forces are beginning to reshape the global humanitarian system from the outside. In fact, new actors and technologies could soon bring about the very changes that the club has been resisting: giving more power to affected communities and turning humanitarian action into a more localized enterprise. But they could do so in a way that risks undoing many of the improvements—if not unraveling the humanitarian system altogether.

For one thing, new sources of humanitarian aid are shaking up the sector. In 2013, donors outside the club—including Brazil, China, Turkey, and the Gulf states—contributed 14 percent of government-derived humanitarian funding, up from an average of seven percent over the previous decade, according to Development Initiatives. That year, Turkey alone gave more than $1.6 billion to humanitarian causes—a jump of almost 50 percent from the previous year, much of it dedicated to helping refugees from Iraq and Syria. The rising powers’ contributions are growing vis-à-vis those of traditional donors, and due to the recent recession and economic slowdown in much of the West, this trend appears likely to continue into the future.

The good news is that these new donors are likely to plow money into regional associations that are more responsive to local needs. The bad news, however, is that they could be even more inclined to politicize humanitarian aid than the members of the Humanitarian Club. The Gulf states’ approach to Syria, for instance, has been to operate almost entirely outside the mainstream international effort. Their actions have caused some easily avoidable failures and unnecessary expenses, undermined relief workers’ credibility among the victims, and given new ammunition to critics who charge that aid has become a geopolitical tool.

Meanwhile, new technologies are revolutionizing the system from within. Innovations such as crisis mapping and crowdsourcing are delivering more accurate information and making it easier to anticipate emergencies and respond to them. New technologies are also altering how agencies deliver their assistance. Abandoning outmoded “truck and dump” methods of providing aid to the vulnerable, agencies are now experimenting with direct cash transfers and voucher programs; they are discovering that, as the political scientist Chris Blattman and the economist Paul Niehaus have argued, these new tools empower women, stabilize incomes, and bolster economic sustainability. Such innovative methods also help democratize international aid because they rely on recipients to collect data and thereby allow people to participate more fully in their own rescue.

Donor countries should continue to encourage and reward evidence-based results.

Furthermore, numerous nontraditional actors—from faith-based institutions and multinational corporations to regional organizations—are also expanding their roles. To take one example, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is taking on greater responsibility for regional emergency relief. Its Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance is now a vibrant hub of information sharing and coordination, helping local players mount swift responses to landslides in Indonesia, flash floods in Laos, and droughts in Thailand. ASEAN’s most important role has been in training relief workers from across the region through joint response drills, enabling governments to take greater responsibility for aid efforts when the need comes. Joining ASEAN and new players of its kind are NGOs based in developing countries themselves, such as BRAC, from Bangladesh, which focuses on alleviating extreme poverty, and MERCY Malaysia, a volunteer relief organization that provides medical and humanitarian services at home and abroad.

Diaspora groups, too, are coming to the fore. In fact, global remittance flows exceed the total volume of foreign aid (of which humanitarian assistance is a small part) by a factor of three, and some of these funds are spawning local relief agencies. Africa is now home to a number of quickly growing NGOs, such as Adeso, a charity headquartered in Kenya, that have no intention of acting as junior partners to Western agencies—or of needing much tutoring from them. But neither do such organizations aspire to become transnational behemoths. Rather, they represent the new humanitarians of the twenty-first century: modest in size, agile, knowledgeable, and rooted in local contexts. Their rise, in turn, encourages ever-greater numbers of local actors to follow in their footsteps.


Ever since it began reforming itself, the Humanitarian Club has embraced a compelling vision of the future: one in which the aid system would no longer be owned and operated by the West and would be fully accountable to its beneficiaries. That ideal system would allow organizations of all sizes and places of origin to take the lead. Standards would be jointly negotiated, foreign experts would dedicate themselves to strengthening local skills, and critical material and organizational support would arrive whenever and wherever needed. Aid workers would cultivate genuine partnerships that would fully expunge any residue of paternalism. Eventually, club members promised, they would work themselves out of the job.

Whether the club is capable of delivering on this promise remains to be seen. Its interests and culture certainly suggest that evolution will come only with a great deal of effort, if at all. What’s clear is that failing to adapt to changing modern realities will almost certainly reduce the club to a historical relic, as new global forces render it irrelevant and leave the real work in the hands of nontraditional actors. That outcome, however, wouldn’t necessarily improve the system. It might spur some local successes but would almost certainly unravel many hard-won advances.

A far superior outcome would require patient, deliberate steps toward the very future the club has always professed to desire. Donor countries have all the resources to keep the club on that path, and they certainly still enjoy enough global influence to do so. The United States and other wealthy countries have a key role to play in this process, due to their vast investment in humanitarianism and major stake in its improvement. They can start by sponsoring a number of modest initiatives that will point the way to a more effective and legitimate system.

The first step would be for the club to make good on its promises to help vulnerable communities build up their resilience to crises and prepare for disasters ahead of time. Club members should finally follow through by spending more to train workers and agencies in places likely to struggle in the face of an emergency. Such spending would entail more risk and require heavier oversight, but the outcome would be worth it.

Donor countries should continue to encourage and reward evidence-based results. The transition from evaluations based on anecdotal evidence to methods that prioritize hard data has led to astonishing improvements in performance. It has also helped aid agencies select local partners based on merit and channel funding to groups that demonstrate effectiveness rather than to those with powerful connections. And for all the extra reporting they entail, evidence- and merit-based systems strengthen accountability across the board, forcing donors to cut funding for underperforming agencies and shift resources to more promising candidates.

Improving accountability, however, will not be possible without building true partnerships with local actors—before, during, and after an emergency. Too often, aid agencies, citing the high cost of training local partners, delegate to them purely logistical or administrative roles. But recent research shows that creating genuinely equal working relationships with local groups greatly increases the effectiveness of aid, even if it does not reduce costs. And a number of studies demonstrate that local partnerships can, in fact, lower the price tag. For instance, a series of accounts published by Peace Direct, a British conflict-resolution charity, showed that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a local organization has been able to reintegrate former child soldiers into society at an average cost of $153 per person, compared with costs of between $300 and $750 per person charged by international agencies.

Once implemented, these reforms might lead to perhaps the most important change of all: a change in attitude. To become as accountable to local populations as they are to the donors who sign their checks, humanitarians should learn to listen to those they aspire to serve. Local populations are already doing their part to make that happen by taking advantage of new technologies. Nepal is just the latest example, where local populations collected cell phone GPS data to help map the affected areas, accelerating rescue efforts and the delivery of relief. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are helping aid recipients organize and speak more assertively. Governments at the village, municipal, and national levels are also growing less reticent about demanding documented professional standards from aid agencies. Old notions of charitable benevolence are being replaced by expectations of proven competence.

The fact that the Humanitarian Club responds to emergencies is no excuse for not working alongside, and even for, affected populations. The question “How can we serve you?” should replace the more common statement: “Here is how you need to change to join us.” True, the club will lose some power in the process, but it might also discover some unexpected benefits, including a stronger esprit de corps. A less paternalistic process might reduce resistance and resentment on the ground, making for far more effective programs. The question is whether humanitarians are prepared to cede power to those they claim to represent and whose lives are at stake.

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  • MICHAEL BARNETT is University Professor of International Affairs and Political Science at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and the author of Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism.

 PETER WALKER is Dean of the Falk School of Sustainability at Chatham University and a co-author, with Daniel Maxwell, of Shaping the Humanitarian World.
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