The 2011 World Conference on Humanitarian Studies

On June 2-5, I attended the second World Conference on Humanitarian Studies (WCHS) organized by the International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA) at Tufts University. Every two years, the IHSA brings together academics and practitioners from the humanitarian sector—more than 400 attended this year — in order to share research and assess the current challenges to the humanitarian system. Here’s what emerged:

  • Humanitarian crises recur. The humanitarian community is moving from short-term, rapid responses to recurrent engagement in protracted crises. Humanitarian action has been developed based on the paradigm of emergency relief in response to sudden outburst of needs following conflicts or natural disasters, a temporary activity by nature. Yet, many humanitarian agencies have been involved for decades in situations where crises and corresponding humanitarian needs are recurrent, prompting humanitarians to rethink their approach and consider a rapprochement with development and peacebuilding sectors.
  • New global trends pose new humanitarian challenges. The humanitarian system should be better prepared to face some of today’s global trends—such as climate change, population growth, urbanization and migration —which require new directions in policy. Some of the challenges include: urban violence and the growing role of criminal groups; the increased frequency of weather-related natural disasters; the depletion of natural resources; and the spread and increased virulence of diseases and epidemics. The challenges posed to neutral and impartial humanitarian action by due to the changing geopolitical landscape and the emergence of other actors in the humanitarian sector (private companies, military, and emerging “non-Western” donors), imply a dual need to reassert a principled humanitarian action while developing relationships and cooperation with new actors.
  • Innovation is needed. This changing geopolitical environment calls for even more professional humanitarian services, and this requires ensuring better support processes for assessment of needs, monitoring and evaluation of activities, and accountability to donors and beneficiaries, but also increasing standards in core areas such as health, water and sanitation, or shelter. For instance, the use by the International Federation of the Red Cross of seasonal weather forecast in West Africa proved efficient to better prepare response to floods in the region. This reduced the deployment time of humanitarian aid from an average of 40 days to approximately 3 days. Such innovations should be widely shared and replicated.
  • Food security may be the priority of the next decade. Nearly 1 billion people are suffering from hunger worldwide and it is questionable whether the estimated 50 percent increase in global food production needed to meet demographic expansion by 2025 is achievable. Given these stark predictions, research on food security and related advances in public health and nutrition will be of paramount importance to face this challenge.

The conference was a unique opportunity to share and advance knowledge on humanitarian action. One shortcoming has to be mentioned: participants were mostly from the Western world, reflecting the image of a too Western-centric humanitarian community. Organizing the next World Conference in Africa or Asia would allow more universal participation, facilitating attendance by non-Western participants. The organizers of the conference are seemingly aware of this – rumor has it that Addis Ababa might host the next WCHS. See you there!