When the world of emergency met the climate crisis

by Eleanor Davey and Fernando Espada

June 13, 2024

For a moment it looked like the COVID-19 pandemic would be the event that would change the world. Or, at least, enough things would be different so that we could see the start of something new and, why not, better. But the global response to the pandemic will not be remembered as an example of how to respond to a global health emergency effectively, humanely, and fairly. Nor do these last four years suggest that the concept of “we/us” – as in people, humanity, the citizens of the world or the international community – has gained a more inclusive meaning than before 2020.

Internationalism did not fare well in the response to the pandemic or to the multiple ripple effects that hit those living outside the geographies where “social nationalism” (in Thomas Piketty’s words) was implemented. In wealthy countries, or elites in poorer countries, uncertainty about when and how the pandemic would end, how much more hardship, suffering, and death would be caused directly or indirectly by the virus, was mitigated by PPE and vaccines (including government-mandated manipulation of supply chains and hoarding practices), fiscal policies, and social transfers. For the rest, life looked like what it was before the pandemic, but worse.

By the time we were nudged to move on from masks and lock downs and go back to “normal”, Russia invaded Ukraine. To realise that full-scale wars of aggression between countries are still a practical option has probably been an epiphany for those who believed the world’s path towards peace and progress is unstoppable. According to the Kiel Institute, since the start of the Russian invasion in February 2022, Ukraine has received over 362 billion dollars in bilateral financial, military and humanitarian aid contributions. When refugee costs and multilateral aid are counted, the total amount exceeds 300 billion euros. An amount of money that has been just enough to keep Kiev afloat, economically and military, and still a long way from what the US and their European allies spent (measured as a percentage of their GDP) in the Gulf War of 1990-1991. However, while Russian violations of international law in Ukraine have met with condemnation from Western countries as an attack to the rules-based order, the most powerful of these governments have rationalised violence in Gaza by insisting on Israel’s right to self-defence – one of the markers that have led to claims that Western leadership of international norms is unravelling.

As we write this essay, over 36,000 people have already been killed in Gaza. Israel’s “complete siege” of the Gaza Strip reduced the already obstructed flow of basic supplies – food, water, anaesthetic, fuel – to the barest trickle, even as its furious war has driven almost all of Gaza’s population of around 2.1 million from their homes and created the conditions for ‘catastrophic’ famine. As Palestinians call for an end to the violence – backed by the large majority of member states in two UN General Assembly ceasefire resolutions, directions issued by the International Court of Justice, and multiple statements from humanitarian organisations – the Government of Israel and its allies have subjected the most elemental emergency assistance to unpredictable delays and blockages, even military attacks, with catastrophic consequences for the people of Gaza. After Israel’s allegations that twelve employees of UNRWA, the United Nations Palestinian refugee agency, participated in the attacks that triggered the war, the US and several other donors suspended or restricted funding, despite by public admission having not verified the allegations; since then UNRWA has had to close its office in East Jerusalem due to arson attacks, and faces the prospect of being declared a terrorist organisation by the Knesset. The spectacle of the US and Jordanian military aircraft airdropping aid along the coastline, or building makeshift jetties from the rubble, cannot be seen as a change but as a continuation of the isolation and extreme vulnerability of the people in Gaza.

The comparison between Gaza and Ukraine has put the limits and paradoxes of institutional humanitarianism on full display. What operates today as the formal humanitarian system is the result of decades of norm-building and networking by the actors that dominate it – the United Nations, the Red Cross and Red Crescent, NGOs, and, in a dynamic that fuels some of the system’s most persistent and morally difficult contradictions, donor states. If Ukraine shows the problem of inequitable attention, and Gaza that of the impotence to act, other settings show the complicated effects that can occur when the humanitarian circus rolls into town, and – as it usually does – stays there. An integral part of the international liberal order, the humanitarian system has become, as described by Joshua Craze writing for The Baffler about his experience among aid workers in South Sudan, “a gargantuan bureaucracy, replete with best practice guides for how to run refugee camps, impenetrable rules about donor funding, and an aristocracy of ‘expats’”. Yet the assistance and protection provided by humanitarian organisations support millions of people every year, usually alongside other kinds of aid or solidarity.

In the places where the international aid system is most established, its impacts are felt not only in its power to choose who it will “save” and how, but also because of the economic power it wields through building, consuming, hiring and firing. Imperious behaviour by foreign staff. Precarious contracts for locals, who make up over 90 per cent of the system’s workforce. Disregard for the views and choices of those in whose name they act, because “everyone’s doing stuff but nobody’s accountable”. Funding beholden to politics, politics that perpetuate inequalities: the system frequently operates in ways that violates its stated values and commitments, while proudly nurturing a space for self-critique. “Humanitarians rarely comment on the sector’s sordid political economy, at least in public,” Craze claims, while citing a bunch of aid workers doing just that.

Indeed, much of the critique in Craze’s essay is familiar, put forward already – in public – by insiders and outsiders, in academic studies, in autobiographical writing, and in some of the mass of “grey literature” that has mushroomed around the international aid world. Even the rejoinders are on repeat: after 2010’s War Games by journalist Linda Polman, a response by researchers at ODI’s Humanitarian Policy Group at the ODI’s Humanitarian Policy Group, a leading centre of critical analysis, spent a page in furious agreement with the litany of failings that Polman had identified, before objecting to “her diagnosis of the cause of these ills, her verdict on the sector’s efforts to improve and her assessment of the power of humanitarian aid to shape the social and political environment in the world’s poorest and most distressed states.” Or, as anthropologist Miriam Ticktin put it in response to Craze, “we need to be clear that humanitarianism is not a primary cause but a handmaiden”.

Such debates are long-standing, but one marked difference in their recent turn is the central place colonialism now occupies in how humanitarianism’s origins and its ills are understood. To trace the link between Western paternalism and the ways it has been deployed to rationalise and sanitise violence and exploitation means walking in the footsteps of others, generations of anti-colonial thinkers and militants as well as scholars and theorists who have built on their insights. But the presence of colonialism within the sector’s understanding of itself is new and significant. A leader of Médecins Sans Frontières wrote: “I have understood how the humanitarian aid sector at large is an industry that is a product of a paternalistic White Saviour complex bound close to the old and despicable colonial narrative of ‘the white man bringing civilisation to the savage’.”

The international emergency response sector, like all large institutions, includes many conflicting viewpoints. Those who wish to “decolonise” the sector are probably more vocal than they are numerous, though this impression may overlook the hundreds of thousands of local staff whose voices are rarely heard. Those with the responsibility to make decisions that impact the lives of people living in humanitarian crises often see calls for radical change as a distraction and counterproductive. Ultimately, however, the issue is not so much that the profound problems with this system have lacked recognition, it is that no one seems able and willing to act on the worst of them.

The lack of action is not for want of activity. Indeed, for major players in the humanitarian system, constant moves towards change have become an essential tool for responding to the demonstrated and perceived limitations of their relief work. For the past thirty years at least, an almost uninterrupted reform cycle has also been used by humanitarian actors to self-regulate and minimise the risk of external interference. Adopting minimum quality standards, tweaking coordination mechanisms, providing better “value for money”, minimising fraud and aid diversion, tackling sexual exploitation and abuse or strengthening accountability to both donors and affected people have been constant preoccupations for humanitarian actors.

This cycle may have hit a wall: climate change

Tipping points

2023 was the hottest year since temperatures began to be recorded almost two centuries ago. These extremely high temperatures were in line with the models produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which suggests António Guterres, the UN Secretary General, did not miss the mark when he announced that “the era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived”. As the world sleepwalks into uncharted territory, some models project an increase of temperatures up to 3º C by the end of the twenty-first century. By 2º, most of the world’s glaciers will have melted into an ever-rising sea. Even if climate change ends up being a slope instead of a cliff, its worst consequences are already a tangible reality for the most vulnerable populations.

Until now, traditional relief approaches have cohabited with timid attempts to streamline “disaster risk reduction”, “resilience building” and “climate change adaption” in humanitarian responses. Yet such technocratic approaches fall catastrophically short of what will be needed. In 2020, Guterres said that “humanity is waging war on nature” and more recently warned of climate catastrophe without urgent action.  But while Guterres believes that funding the green economy, resilience, adaptation and just transition programmes are the way forward, authors such as Jason W. Moore argue “there is no conceivable way that capitalism can address climate change in any meaningful way”. As Moore points out, now that the world has reached the limit of cheap nature, innovative production systems cannot outrun the costs of the waste they produce in a world that no longer offers “free gifts” to exploit. Not by coincidence, civil society and governments from the countries where the climatic impact from resource exploitation and waste spilling of capitalist production is more intense demand payments for what has already been lost and damaged. Humanitarians are hovering on the sidelines of these movements, wondering whether they can be part of climate justice while continuing to draw the bulk of their funds from those from whom reparations are sought.

In fact, the formal humanitarian system has been desperately slow to face up to the challenges posed by climate change. Not so many years ago, few big agencies had positions dedicated to thinking through its implications. Some of them have been through detailed debates about whether they could even have a role in relation to climate change, on what grounds, and with what goals. As late as 2018, a full thirty years after the first intergovernmental conference on the topic, the director of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre felt compelled to impress upon more hesitant organisations of the sector: “Yes, climate change is a humanitarian issue”.

More of his humanitarian colleagues now seem to agree. In surveys, climate change and environment have gone from being perceived as “marginal issues” to being identified as the top challenge, an evolution that required climate “change” to become the climate “crisis”. In 2019, the Global Humanitarian Overview, a kind of worldwide stocktake of crises published annually by the UN, mentioned the human cost of climate change. In 2022, the Global Humanitarian Overview talked about the “climate crisis” for the first time.

How could an existential threat on this scale creep up on a sector devoted to identifying and responding to crises? Part of the answer lies in the sector’s relationship with politics, crisis and nature. The apolitical nature of its enterprise (as both ethical principle and operational practice) is one of the most popular ideas in the formal humanitarian system. The tendency of humanitarian organisations to engage more on adaptation than mitigation reflects this supposed apoliticism, both avoiding discussions of how to address the problem and comforting the illusion that there are areas of practice that are technocratic, devoid of politics, and pure.

The ways in which the humanitarian system understands and responds to crises reinforce processes of liberal ordering, marginalising alternatives outside external intervention and oversight. In protracted crises, where four out of five people in need live, the presence of international humanitarian actors as providers of basic services is a reality for which there does not seem to be an alternative. As historian Emily Baughan reminds us, “accepting the specificity of humanitarianism as an ethic for international action that grew out of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western liberalism might also help us move away from overblown claims about its significance.”

The system’s relationship with the environment has also played a part in its slow reckoning with climate change. The “humanitarian imperative” places care for human life above profit, religious or ethnic ties, or ideological partisanship – but also above planet. Human life systems take precedence over the natural world. Underpinning these conceptions of crisis are Enlightenment beliefs about dualism between society and nature, a nature that can then be turned to humankind’s will and benefit. Wrote author and climate activist Tony Birch, “While Indigenous nations experience separation from Country with a profound sense of grief, historically, capitalist, ‘modern’ societies have justified the destruction of place and the loss of attachment to place as the necessary collateral damage that comes with ‘progress’.” We might add: that comes with being saved. Rethinking the humanitarian system’s relationship with climate change is likely to require a deep reckoning with both of their roots in the colonial civilising and modernising missions.

A crisis of needs

The arrival of climate change has changed the aid sector’s optimistic outlook. It is also demanding a complex series of ordering manoeuvres.

For a decade, the UN Agenda for Humanity has dominated discourse in the international aid sector. Under its influence, the sector declared its aim to shift “from delivering aid to ending need”.  Now, needs are not being ended but rather redefined. The Global Humanitarian Overview for 2024 warns that the climate crisis “is spiralling, leaving a trail of destruction in its path” – doubling the number of people facing acute food insecurity from one year to the next. However, as humanitarian response plans in 2023 suffered the largest funding shortfall in years, the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator has slammed on the brakes of the upward trend in funding requirements. Presumably, this decision came as a result of a request from some donor governments eager to reduce the “humanitarian bill” in times of fiscal austerity. A few rich countries already spend more of their aid budgets within their borders – labelled as “in-donor refugee costs” – than on humanitarian assistance abroad. Instead of optimism there is contraction, and anxiety induced by the polycrisis.

At the same time, donor governments, UN agencies and NGOs are brainstorming what their role should be in the fight against climate change. The argument that “the climate crisis is a humanitarian crisis” consolidates the platform for humanitarian actors to position themselves as part of the international community’s solution to the problem. The Conferences of the Parties on Climate Change (better known by their acronym, COP) have become key influencing, (re)branding (and, potentially, fundraising) moments for humanitarian actors. War humanitarians are being asked to become climate humanitarians, to elevate anticipation, adaptation and mitigation as moral obligations and operational principles, a status until now reserved for humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence.

This has put the humanitarian system in a paradoxical position. The lower numbers of people “in need”, of those who will be targeted by humanitarian actors, and of global funding requirements, may be more technically accurate than those of the years of growth. However, better assessments of needs and capacity are only a small part of the picture. More telling is Hugo Slim’s proposition that humanitarian organisations should abandon the long-standing aspiration of addressing life-making needs and “hold firm to a life-saving definition of needs”, echoing a shift in mood in parts of the humanitarian system.  The request to set boundaries between life-saving priorities and everything else (ignoring that people affected by crises tend to care more about having access to education or livelihoods instead of being saved), while trying to jump on the climate financing wagon surfaces top-down and self-serving tendencies in the humanitarian system.

Here again, the relationship with history matters. So deep-rooted are the white saviour narratives that, even among many critics of the humanitarian system, there is a near total identification of “humanitarianism” with European and North American (read: US) political cultures. When this term comes to stand in for any relief effort to assist others – indeed, for the very impulse to help in times of emergency – entire cultures and long histories of practice are removed from the picture; societies beyond the West are limited to sufferers and recipients. The irony is that, because of this, critiques of imperial humanitarianism only reinforce its dominance. As Tammam Aloudat and Themrise Khan argued, the conflation of “humanitarianism” and the formal humanitarian system “is one of the features that allow a continuation, and often glorification, of a ‘humanitarian industrial complex’ that is often complicit in the harm and violence that befalls people it seeks to help”.

The sector, or at least parts of it, has come to recognise the fallacy of its assumed monopoly on providing assistance. The centrality of self- and mutual help efforts has once again been underscored in Sudan, where the international response to conflict and starvation has been slow and locally run ‘emergency response rooms’ are coordinating much of the relief. Under the banner of “localisation”, making space for this reality is one of aid agencies’ most frequently stressed priorities. But imagining alternative futures is difficult, especially when understandings of the past remain fragmented and over-determined by habits of the present.

As the product of a particular historical moment coinciding with the rise of the liberal order, the conventional role of the formal humanitarian system no longer appears to be in sync with the prospect of a crisis of planetary scale. Catastrophic scenarios, no matter how probable, are too uncertain and imprecise for what Amitav Ghosh calls our deranged intellectual models. Its dominant players seem incapable of considering the possibility that, perhaps, the Earth may have already entered the ecological threshold, an irreversible climatic change. Policymakers, including in humanitarian organisations, continue working under the assumption that it is possible to continue business as usual in the climate agenda, moving “as close as possible to the precipice without tipping us all over the edge.”

All this suggests a crisis of confidence in the humanitarian system’s capacity to play a key role in tackling the climate crisis.  The pressure to chase after successive crises and a conflicted relationship with politics have contributed to the system’s pattern of isomorphism. Despite its perpetual calls for transformation, the humanitarian system shows signs of being trapped in the conditions that allowed its exponential growth in the previous decades. It may have discovered climate change, even turning it into a humanitarian crisis.  Yet humanitarians (in the narrow sense) seem more at ease approaching climate change as a chronic emergency, exceptional but mundane, rather than an accelerating catastrophe. This might not matter so much, outside the sector at least, if humanitarians carried a less consequential moral weight – if they had not come to represent, in many ways against their will but also as a result of their oversized sense of self-importance, the limits of what can or will be done to protect human and non-human life on this planet.

This essay is part of the project The Limits of Humanitarianism: Politics, Crisis, and Reform in the Era of Climate Change, supported by the Alameda Institute and led by Eleanor Davey and Fernando Espada. The views expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Save the Children or any other organisation.

Eleanor Davey and Fernando Espada

Eleanor Davey writes about histories of aid and activism, and how historical perspectives can inform current understandings. She has published on power dynamics and debates within and among humanitarian organisations and their interlocutors, including histories of international humanitarian law and other concepts of intervention, humanitarian engagements with anti-colonial armed groups, and aid in situations of displacement and confinement.

Fernando Espada is Head of Humanitarian Affairs at Save the Children. He joined Save the Children in 2014 after roles as Senior Research and Policy Associate at DARA, Field Research Manager of the Humanitarian Response Index, and Deputy Director of the think tank FRIDE, among others. Fernando is member of the editorial board of the Journal of Humanitarian Affairs, co-editor of Amidst the Debris: Humanitarianism and the End of Liberal Order, editor of Essays on Humanitarian Effectiveness, and author of several essays on humanitarian politics. He has conducted field research and policy analysis in over a dozen humanitarian responses.


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