Die Zukunft ist ein ungeschriebenes Blatt says the popular wisdom. Imagining the state of the humanitarian landscape in 10 years’ time is a hazardous exercise even for practitioners directly witnessing its transformation. From our vantage point we nevertheless anticipate that the power shifts challenging the current world order will deeply influence the way humanitarian action is conceived and delivered.

Three key areas point to lasting changes of humanitarian action:

First, the development of new weapons and weapon technology will inevitably change warfare, and therefore change how communities will be affected. Second, the emergence of new humanitarian actors and new technologies will have an impact on both the reasons and means with which the sector operates. Finally, diminishing support among both States and armed groups for independent and neutral humanitarian action means less stability for the functioning of the humanitarian system and more insecurity for humanitarian workers.

All of these developments are taking place in an environment where information about humanitarian suffering moves faster than any established early-warning process. The proximity and interconnectivity of social networks coupled with the use of information technology also is already reshaping the way humanitarian response is planned and implemented, and casts doubts on the relevance of traditional coordination and mobilization mechanisms.

Challenges ahead

Humanitarian assistance has seen continuous, significant expansion over the last decade. The global budget reached USD 22 billion in 2013- up from approx. USD 5 billion in 1993 (an increase of over 400% in the last 20 years). Despite a decreasing frequency of conflicts, humanitarian needs remain high. The world may have enjoyed relative stability over the last four decades, but the policy of containing rather than solving emerging or protracted crises will likely remain the Leitmotiv of the international community’s crisis management and hence perpetuate needs for humanitarian action. Simultaneously, governments may be less and less inclined to embark on large-scale, risky peacekeeping or stabilization operations. The assumption that demand for humanitarian aid will continue to grow for years to come is unfortunately quite realistic.

Furthermore, the outlook for aid providers is daunting: the largest crises today, from Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Somalia and the Central African Republic, all feature poorly trained armies, militias, paramilitaries, gangs and loosely organized rebel groups rather than organized armies which used to be bound to recognize the mandate and guarantee the safety of humanitarian organizations.

Regional power shifts, climate change, domestic or popular discontent, social and economic problems or sectarian strife will continue to breed tension and violence. The volume of assistance and protection needs generated by armed conflict and other situations of violence, the rising incidence and risk of disasters and crises linked to extreme climatic events, increased competition over scarce natural resources, and economic and political instability will likely put increasing pressure on humanitarian operators. Paradoxically, these situations are far from new; many of today’s major conflict situations have been at the very least simmering for several decades. Generations of men, women and children have lived under recurring threats from armed hostilities in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Columbia, Israel and the occupied territories or Iraq, to name just a few places. Populations have faced types of abuse that are centuries old, such as direct targeting, forced displacement or recruitment, extortion, arbitrary arrest, sexual violence or, sometimes, summary execution. While new challenges are arising in terms of the globalization of armed groups and hostilities, or the development of technologies such as drones, the core problem remains largely the same: the lack of security and safety of people not or no longer participating in hostilities.

Although the principles of international humanitarian law apply universally, constant efforts are necessary to ensure that they continue to be upheld. If a principle is regularly violated without consequence, it is likely to lose its status as a principle over time, with incalculable effects for victims of armed conflict. This is why the ICRC and Switzerland in 2012 launched talks with all States on the best ways to strengthen compliance with international humanitarian law.

In the face of global trends and changes the current humanitarian system is likely to become increasingly fragmented. The coexistence of more and more diverse actors and forms of aid seems likely, including initiatives led by the private sector, deployment of military assets, bilateral State aid, UN-designed comprehensive operations, and neutral and impartial humanitarian action as provided by the ICRC. Fragmentation could also occur between Northern and Southern organizations, between emergency and development actors, between secular and faith-based organizations, between charity and business-oriented aid, between civil society initiatives and State-supported action. Western States may well lose their monopoly on humanitarian funding, and emerging competitors will propose or impose their own agendas. States that until recently were aid recipients are becoming aid providers. We must seek to build bridges between all different actors, as chaos will only serve those violating the law and increase vulnerabilities.

Pressures to control or direct humanitarian aid as a conduit for political crisis management are unlikely to disappear. Issues such as sovereignty of States, regional stability, the importance of local responses and equal partnerships must be balanced against the duty to take humanitarian action in conflict and disaster situations.

Economic inequalities play at least some role in the development of conflicts, as well as the factor of State fragility. Today, one third of people surviving on less than USD 1.25 per day live in States classified as fragile. In only three years’ time, the majority of the world’s poor will be living in fragile States.

The future of humanitarian response

Over the past decade, we have witnessed a rise of emerging powers as humanitarian donors, seeking to influence global humanitarian issues. Some may wish to demonstrate that they are responsible regional and global leaders and naturally want a greater say in shaping humanitarian policy and practice. With new actors come new approaches, often pitted against what is perceived as traditional Western models. Besides differing approaches, different security and economic interests can affect perspectives of humanitarian issues.

The humanitarian sector’s number one challenge is to obtain access to people in need and it is likely to become greater in the future. Looking ahead, the ICRC estimates that it will have to be equipped to deploy in large-scale emergencies while simultaneously having the know-how to address the recurring needs of populations caught up in low intensity conflict. We aim to design smart programmes for upcoming crises and to link emergency action with development policies, to prevent the re-occurrence of crises and make local communities more resilient. There will not be one recipe but many: like most other humanitarian organisations, the ICRC will continue to develop contextualized actions rather than impose pre-designed responses and, given the unpredictability of many contexts, to adopt a capacity-based rather than a scenario-based response.

The potential role of the private sector

According to the latest Global Humanitarian Assistant Report, contributions from individuals, trusts, foundations and corporations rose to an estimated USD 5.6 billion in 2013 (35% increase from 2012 levels) in comparison with the USD 16.3 billion of public funding. Over the past five years, assistance from such private sources has accounted for more than one-quarter (26%) of the international humanitarian response, with a rising tendency.

In addition to increasing financial contributions, the trend of leveraging companies’ expertise, innovation capacity and networks to help advance humanitarian objectives could fundamentally alter humanitarian functioning. The involvement of business actors takes the shape of partnership ventures, whereby solutions to specific humanitarian challenges are designed through joint projects involving a humanitarian actor and a business company. This type of partnership can bring added value and sustainability compared to mere donations, but also carries some risks notably in terms of perception.

Seeking to absorb best practices from the corporate world, the use of sophisticated financial instruments (such as impact investing) or methods as a way to develop new sources of financial support for mid- to long-term humanitarian projects could broaden the scope of action.

Some reasons to be optimistic

The expanding humanitarian sector has brought more actors and a greater diversity in humanitarian response. Although some approaches have effects that are detrimental to the acceptance and perception of humanitarian actors, we consider diversity an opportunity, not a curse. Diversity and complementary roles are probably the best response to the complexity we will have to deal with in the future. The ICRC is confident that emerging actors will be the drivers of a new consensus in aid architecture and ethical frameworks. The ICRC is ready to listen, to learn, and to build cooperative relationships, based on solid foundations and on respect for existing law and principles.

Working together in a spirit of complementary partnership and with respect for existing mandates and competences is the best guarantee for aid effectiveness. The risk remains that competition and contradiction between aid operators will prevail. Each organization has received or developed its own mission or mandate. We follow different models, different objectives, different priorities and strategies. Financial resources are scarce by nature and our sector is constantly trying to boost its effectiveness and relevance. This creates frictions and duplications, and also serious gaps leaving sometimes many people without the support they need.

Programmes that perform poorly and wasted resources continue to be closely scrutinised, publicly and internally. From an ethical point of view, refraining from counter-productive competition when the survival or protection of civilian populations is at stake is a categorical imperative. In order to respond to growing needs, achieving optimal synergies between local and international actors will be of paramount importance. We are convinced that solutions to this challenge have to be crafted through open dialogue, creative initiatives, meaningful consultations and good will from all parties involved. It is our duty to build a common language and design a response that meets the needs of the people we are trying to help and that also corresponds more closely to what they themselves want. To this end it is indispensable to retain proximity to the victims. While outsourcing to third parties (“remote control” operations) can help circumvent problems of access, it can by no means obviate the need for established presence based on local acceptance.

In an unpredictable environment, aid providers can no longer work in isolation. New, more effective ways of tackling humanitarian challenges and development issues will inevitably transcend traditional sector boundaries. To achieve this, aid actors will not only have to innovate in order to adapt successfully but also make sure that their new practices and techniques fit into a robust ethical framework. In this environment, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, acting in accordance with its Fundamental Principles (including in particular humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence) and connecting international response to local capacity, will play a major role in maximizing the delivery and impact of humanitarian assistance.

If you cannot predict, be prepared

History teaches us that trends predicted by experts do not necessarily materialize. Surprises and unexpected developments will continue to shape the international order, just as they have in recent decades. This conclusion is also valid for the humanitarian sector. The aftershocks of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the long-term impact of the so-called war on terror or the current meltdown in the Middle East were hardly predictable. At the same time, organized violence engendered by political ambitions, ethnic rivalries, radical ideologies, greed or grievances will persist under various forms and will necessarily bring new humanitarian emergencies. Aid operators will have to respond to the pleas of the people affected from new angles. The test for organizations like ours will be to find new solutions to old problems. To this end, we have to improve our political reading, our understanding of arms carriers on all sides, and our ability to forge relationships with them in order to influence their behaviour to gain support for our presence.

In conclusion, normative adaptations, dynamic operational strategies and technical innovations and new alliances will be key to the continued relevance of humanitarian endeavour. Our new institutional strategy adopted this year is aimed at exactly that: preparing the ICRC to carry out its mission in an uncertain future.

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Peter Maurer (1956) studied history and international law in Bern, where he was awarded a doctorate. In 1987 he entered the Swiss diplomatic service, after he became deputy permanent observer at the Swiss mission to the United Nations in 1996. In 2000 he was appointed ambassador and head of the human security division of the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs in Bern. In 2004 Mr Maurer was appointed ambassador and permanent representative of Switzerland to the United Nations in New York. In June 2009, the UN General Assembly elected Mr Maurer chairman of the Fifth Committee. In January 2010 Mr Maurer was appointed secretary of State for foreign affairs in Bern with its five directorates and some 150 Swiss diplomatic missions around the world. He succeeded Jakob Kellenberger as ICRC president on 1 July 2012.