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How can we bring meaningful change in the humanitarian sector?

By Ophelie Namiech, June 17, 2022.

As my maternity leave blessed me with a renewed thinking space, I spent some time reflecting on the state of my humanitarian profession. I questioned how we, as humanitarian practitioners, could bring more meaningful change in the sector, and asked myself: Where can real change come from, in the humanitarian system?

In his latest book on the origins of radical ideas that I highly recommend, Gal Beckerman explains that ideas fueling revolutionary changes have been conceived in quiet spaces, “where forward-thinking individuals or movements have imagined alternate realities to incubate their ideas before broadcasting them widely.”[i] So, changes would not necessarily happen in the visible and loud spaces but rather in the margins or “silent corners.”

But who operates in these quiet spaces, in the sidelines of the humanitarian mainstream?

Many humanitarians have pointed at the extreme concentration of power (and money) around a relatively closed circle of mainstream international aid agencies as one of the reasons behind the stagnation of the humanitarian sector.[ii] This centralization has unveiled a certain lack of diversity of views and outcomes in the sector, and is maintained by limited incentives to change a system that is indeed favorable to “big aid” mechanics.

As such, we must draw attention to other actors who can generate new or different types of knowledge and impulse change, including indigenous populations, grassroot movements, local rights groups, community-based organizations, and others that we, in the mainstream, do not necessarily know about.

How can these actors be reached and better engaged?

By revisiting power relations as a very first step towards change:

There is a vast understanding in the humanitarian community of the need for more balanced partnerships based on equity, inclusion, and accountability. Yet, as power is intangible and tacitly accepted and reproduced, power asymmetries amongst humanitarian actors persevere.[iii] Motivated by localization discourses, international actors have, in recent years, increasingly "engaged" local actors. Yet, this is the very nature of this engagement that must change – from situations where local partners are merely informed and “consulted”, to relations where they can equitably make decisions and lead processes that concern their communities.

International partners must have a better understanding of the way power works in a partnership to be in a better position to work towards shifting that power. Donors and agencies have a crucial role to play in that process, for example by making power analysis mandatory in funding allocation.

By learning from non-mainstream actors and engaging them more effectively:

Traditional humanitarian decision-makers are no longer best placed to find solutions to complex problems, and different voices must be included in problem-solving. This requires the sector to identify and genuinely invest in the “quiet corners.” This may be done by:

  • Exploring ways of solving complex problems collectively. The complexity of today’s crises is calling for more people-led solutions. Crisis-affected communities around the world are already challenging how large formal institutions operate [iv] – as we saw during the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the Global South and the recent Ukraine response. Citizen science can help accelerate the role of communities in addressing complex problems through scientific methods used by the public.[v] This could bring that much-needed paradigm shift in the search of solving big problems collectively, such as climate change, human right abuses, forced migration and disasters.[vi]

  • Investing in anticipatory action to accelerate community engagement. Anticipatory action provides an opportunity for the sector to reinvent its relationship with communities and local respondents and advance more equitable partnerships. As part of anticipatory action, Collective Crisis Intelligence (CCI) offers methods that gather intelligence from affected communities and frontline responders and leverage artificial intelligence (AI) for more effective crisis mitigation, response, or recovery.

  • Maximizing innovation to elevate the quiet spaces. Innovation, when well contextualized, can help humanitarian agencies optimize local knowledge and ensure citizens’ participation in crisis management. Technology has been key to the establishment of citizen and community-led networks in crisis response. For example, several online platforms enable communities to post, process, model, and analyze information related to disasters.[vii]

  • Leveraging and investing in consortiums or alliances of CBOs.  To advance a paradigm shift in power relations in humanitarian partnerships, local NGOs are joining forces to maximize their capacities collectively, while maintaining their specificities. This model can help redefine and reallocate responsibilities amongst international and local actors, with international agencies focusing more on technical support and facilitation roles.

  • Exploring different kinds of non-humanitarian partnerships. There is increased evidence demonstrating the importance of partnering with actors operating outside the humanitarian sector to bring about different ways of thinking and working and disrupt the “humanitarian formatting”, for example actors from other disciplines (e.g. engineering, tech or other scientific sectors) or different types of actors e.g. local digital rights groups, or the private sector through its core business strategies as opposed to its mere CSR.

  • Investing in mechanisms where mainstream and non-mainstream actors can learn together. There is a need to invest in safe spaces of reflection where various actors, unfamiliar with each other, can come together and explore different ontologies and ways of thinking and doing. Such mechanisms could create new joint good practices based on a plurality of knowledge systems.

  • Testing alternative funding mechanisms. To move away from heavily centralized and often unbending humanitarian funding and invest more flexibly in the silent corners, humanitarian actors have not choice but explore complementary sources of funding. This may include community philanthropy, social impact bonds and other investment schemes (including refugee lens and gender lens financing), forecast based financing, circular economy models and other social enterprise models, unrestricted funding, or bold ways to engage the private second beyond philanthropy-driven CSR.

In sum, it is time for the “mainstream” humanitarian circle to open its doors to different ways of thinking and doing humanitarian work. This will not necessarily affect their positions in the system, but it will certainly make the latter stronger.


To learn more, here are a few suggestions of fascinating reads and podcasts on this topic that I particularly recommend:

End notes:

[i] Gal Beckerman, The quiet before, On the unexpected origins of radical ideas, (New York: Crown, 2022).

[ii] Paula Gil Baizan and Meg Sattler, “A Brutal Year,” Interview by Lars Peter Nissen. Trumanitarian podcast 37, January 7, 2022,

[iii] The Power Awareness Tool: A tool for analyzing power in partnerships for development,” The Spindle, February 2020,

[iv] Kathy Peach,“ Collective crisis intelligence for frontline humanitarian response,” NESTA, September 2021,;

[v] Ramya Chari,, “Community citizen science: from promise to action,” RAND Corporation, (July 2019),

[vi] Hodgkinson, Supranote cxxxvi; and D. Fraisl, “Mapping citizen science contributions to the UN sustainable development goals.” Sustainability Science 15 no. 6, (2020): 1735-1751,  

[vii] Ebayanihan,; Hala Systems Inc.,; D. Fraisl, “Mapping citizen science contributions to the UN sustainable development goals.” Sustainability Science 15 no. 6, (2020): 1735-1751,; The Missing Maps Project, access date April 2022,; “Planetary Response Network: Hurricane Dorian,” Zooniverse, access date April 2022,



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