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Constructive deconstruction: imagining alternative humanitarian action

1 Introduction

When the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) launched ‘Constructive Deconstruction’, a two year research project to reimagine the humanitarian system, it was borne of frustration and promise in equal parts. Frustration that changes in the nature of crises and declining political support for international laws, asylum regimes and humanitarian operations meant that the international humanitarian system had neither the resources nor the political backing to do much about the problems confronting it. Frustration that, despite exponential levels of organisational and financial growth, the fundamentals of the international humanitarian system had changed very little since its origins.

And frustration that the significant resourcefulness and drive of individual aid workers continued to fall prey to a system that co-opts their ingenuity to suit its own purposes. HPG’s contribution to the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in 2016, Time to Let Go: Remaking Humanitarian Action for the Modern Era, was our articulation of that frustration, supported by four years of research on the humanitarian ‘system’: its Western origins, its non-Western interpretations and the workings of the large organisations that make up its core today.

But in developing this research, we also found promise. Promise that these frustrations were shared by humanitarian practitioners and senior aid officials, host and donor governments and even the stalwarts of the sector, who were finding it more difficult to do their jobs, amid inadequate funding and political support, inadequate political support and public scepticism about the purpose and point of aid. Promise that, perhaps, the WHS, in its run-up and its follow-up, had amplified uncommon voices, brought together ‘coalitions of the willing’ among both aid insiders and outsiders and generated momentum for change. Promise that many living in and around crises were be sufficiently inspired, resourced and networked to be engaged and supported as responders on their own behalf.

The aim of the project was not to suggest that reorganisation or system change would automatically lead to better humanitarian outcomes. Any reform of humanitarian action would still be confronted with external politics and patterns of power, military imperatives and the brutishness of war, and would remain constrained by a lack of power to control or influence these dynamics. But we thought that, by imagining a more adaptable, flexible and transparent form of humanitarian action, and doing more to capitalise on the skills, capacities and ingenuity of those outside the formal system, the sector would be better equipped to confront the exigencies of today’s crises.

The international humanitarian system needed a rethink, a modernisation, an upgrade, an honest conversation with itself. This project could help catalyse that thinking. Even the name, Constructive Deconstruction, was intended to suggest that reimagining and rebuilding a more transparent system required dismantling what currently exists – at least intellectually – and challenging the values, assumptions and incentives that underpin humanitarian action today.

The research itself was based on the twin methods of deconstruction, using a combination of social science theory and previous analysis of the sector’s architecture, performance and political economy; and reconstruction, reimagining what a more effective humanitarian system would look and act like if we truly ‘put people at the centre’ and designed the system from the perspective of its users up and down the humanitarian value chain.

For this we used Design Thinking, a collaborative tool that mixes empathy with systems design to develop more user-friendly human systems.

What we found throughout the process was that, when you put yourself in other people’s shoes and judge problems from their perspectives, the results can surprise you. In place of politics, mandates and bureaucratic processes emerges compassion, ingenuity and good sense. When viewing the humanitarian system through the lens of its users’ experience – whether a refugee, a local official, a donor, a country director from an international organisation or the head of a local NGO, or a volunteer – its requirements, functions and configurations change.

Our research suggested that before reforming the architecture of the humanitarian system, we must first address what lies beneath.

Read the full report at https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/resource-documents/12206.pdf