The Future of Humanitarian Action: Reshaping the international humanitarian system for a new generation of emergency response |

The Future of Humanitarian Action: Reshaping the international humanitarian system for a new generation of emergency response

On 11 July 2014, the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy hosted a lunchtime talk by Ms Valerie Amos, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, on the challenges in today’s humanitarian landscape. 

Amos was in Singapore en route to the World Humanitarian Summit’s (WHS) Regional Consultation for North and Southeast Asia, held in Tokyo from 23 to 24 July 2014.

“Humanitarian needs are rising rapidly, beyond the capacity of the [current] global humanitarian system to cope,” Amos said, precipitated by global challenges like rapid urbanization, population growth in some countries, environmental degradation, conflict, climate change and resource scarcity. “Disasters do more damage; they last longer and they have a tendency to recur,” she said. Although the number of armed conflicts in the world has declined in the last 20 years, more people than ever, she added, were being uprooted by violence – more than 50 million in 2013 alone.

The entire humanitarian system, therefore, was at a crossroads, with a need to take stock and use the opportunities at hand to reshape global thinking around humanitarian action.

One of those pressing challenges facing humanitarian action was scale, and dealing with complex “mega crises” caused by multiple factors that persist for a long time. In short, she said, there were “more disasters, more people affected and longer term impact.”

As demands increase, humanitarian organizations are also becoming more diverse – in nature of response, and type of structure. Regional organizations, private technology companies and academic institutions are all playing a larger role in preparedness and recovery efforts, and organizations from the global south and the Islamic world are taking on regional and international roles – such as in Somalia and Syria. “They are bringing new expertise, and new ideas,” Amos said. “They are challenging established ways, but it also comes with risks.”

The most significant of these was the threat of a fragmented response system. “Many of the major actors now included in humanitarian response are not represented in the UN’s inter-agency agency and global forum that sets policy guidelines and coordination mechanisms,” Amos said. “There is also little to no representation from the global south and emerging economies.”

A fragmented system also meant a renewed focus is necessary to ensure that humanitarian work is based on the fundamental principles – impartiality, neutrality and independence. “These principles offer our only protection from allegations of politicisation of our work,” she said. “Without them, the basis for humanitarian action can be called into question.” Sacrificing these principles for short-term gain always, and she stressed “always,” has long-term ramifications and negative consequences. Adding to the complexities, perceptions of the United Nations were changing, she said. “In some places, we have to accept that we are not seen as impartial and neutral.”

Humanitarian organizations, therefore, needed to prepare a broad range of partners: marshalling a response that included both scientific and technological know-how with policy and delivery effectiveness. The first step, she said, was establishing effective two-way communication with those in need of aid. “In 105 countries now, there are more mobile phones than people. That means people can tell us where they are, what they short of, and what they need. We can, then, tell them how to get it.” She added later that the UN was also developing better tools for analysis, such as mapping platforms to accurately target at-risk populations.   

Second, she said humanitarian organizations themselves must collaborate, and not work in silos. “We’ve known this for years, and yet action on the ground is patchy,” Amos said. “Often, research and information are not shared, and there’s a lack of strategic planning.”

Third, a greater focus on preparedness was crucial. “We see evidence of preparedness bearing fruit in India and the Philippines, both hit by storms in the last year,” she said. “Without early warning and evacuation systems, many more people would have been killed.” But donors, she added, still find it easier to channel money into emergency response over prevention systems, even though every dollar in early response saves up to 7$ in emergency response costs.  

Channelling examples from Syria and the Central African Republic to Yemen and the Gaza strip, Amos concluded by distilling some of the pertinent lessons of contemporary humanitarian work. “Disasters affect everyone, and prevention is everybody’s business,” she said. “We have more power when we work together.”

In an energetic question-and-answer session, Amos clarified that humanitarian action should not be seen as just “first responders” to an incident or merely “disaster management.” Collaborating with local communities was central to humanitarian work, but the scale and complexity of many crises means that they often cannot do it on their own. Amos responded to a question about the role of faith-based organizations by stating that they were doing important work, and were not significantly different from other civil society organizations. Amos also re-emphasized the importance of early warning systems and preparedness, stating, “we are not doing enough.” Successful prevention, she said, doesn’t make headlines and is, therefore, still perceived as wasteful expenditure in some contexts. 


Asia is the most disaster prone and conflict prone region of the world. It houses more than half of the world’s population and faces a challenging future when considering the possible impacts of urbanisation, population growth, conflict climate change, resource scarcity and shocks. At the same time Asia has made great strides since the turn of the century in developing capacity to manage disasters and crises.

Ms. Amos will reflect on the role that Asia is increasingly playing in humanitarian affairs, outline areas where she feels that still more can be done, and link her thoughts to the emerging discussion around the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit process and the Summit’s regional consultation for North and South-East Asia (Tokyo, Japan from 23 to 24 July 2014).

Launching the first regional consultation in West Africa on 19 July, Ms. Amos issued a call to action:  “I know that changing the way we work will not be easy, but we have already seen some incremental change. What we now need is a step change in the way we work together.”

To encourage broad participation in the lead up to the World Humanitarian Summit, an online consultation has also been launched; please go to to register and share your views and ideas to shape the future of humanitarian action.


Ms Valerie Amos, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator

Friday, 11 July 2014
12:15 p.m. - 1:30 p.m.

Oei Tiong Ham Building,
Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy,
469C Bukit Timah Road,
Singapore 259772

Seats are limited and will be available on a first-come, first-served basis. Kindly register your interest here.

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