Thrive, Swim or Sink: Humanitarian Sector Needs Change

Reana Rossouw believes that the Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare critical weaknesses in the humanitarian ecosystem in South Africa. As a sector, we were completely ill-prepared.

‘Although the humanitarian ecosystem has done its best to respond adequately to the health, humanitarian and economic challenges unleashed by the pandemic, it is clear that no stakeholder group was adequately prepared to deal with so many challenges at once,’ says Rossouw, owner of Next Generation Consultants, a management consulting firm.

Stakeholder groups include government that facilitates infrastructure and coordinates efforts, the private sector that funds activities, and contributes and distributes resources, and civil society that ensures that no one is left behind.

Now, not only has the pandemic forced the humanitarian system to tackle some glaring distortions in the way the sector operates, it has also been the cause of much reflection and, hopefully, reform.

‘I am talking about adopting new behaviours that we should have practised in the first place,’ says Rossouw. ‘If we do not talk about and evaluate the new versus the old, we will not be able to value the difference we make, and we will return to the way things were. That would be a loss.’

Given that the pandemic will probably last for an extended period and with the risk of concurrent outbreaks of other infectious diseases, it is timely and imperative to think and discuss what it will take to rebuild the sector over the next few years.

‘Now is our moment to change and think of ways we could do better in our complex environment,’ explains Rossouw.

Rossouw believes we need to take a serious look at how we do humanitarian and development work and to consider some quite fundamental changes:

  1. We need a landscape change: Some organisations will emerge stronger because they were able to reinvent themselves, organise themselves better, and command financial resources and community support for their interventions. Unfortunately, organisations that were not able to respond quickly enough are already closing down. This is not a bad thing; it simply shows that the sector is posed for disruption which, together with innovation, can bring about a new resilience.
  • We need organisational change: Far too many organisations are doing the same things, which leads to wasted resources and minimal impact. To change organisations, leadership has to change. Those best positioned to lead us through the transition are young people – the next generation of stakeholders. We need the strength, diversity, energy, innovation and inspiration of the youth to recreate organisations that will be fit for future purpose. 
  • We need programme changes: We need to acknowledge that the current generation of humanitarian workers has not had much success at eradicating poverty, sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry, educating the nation, building resilient communities or ensuring the sustainability of interventions. Development workers have to redesign their basic programme delivery and outcomes.  The next generation will use a mix of technologies, new operational models and new holistic, integrated programmes that will deliver greater impact at scale. The young know and understand the potential of technology and can leverage it to build new networks of collaborative organisations.
  • We need collaboration, networks and new actors: The pandemic has shown that organisations need to work far more collaboratively to solve big, complex and interconnected challenges. If we can combine strengths of different organisations to create hybrid organisations that are more responsive to the ever-changing conditions on the ground, we will become much more responsive to future disasters. To work in this fluid, dynamic way requires an ability to build trust and relationships all the time.
  • We need trust and accountability:  At its core, development work is about relationships, which means people need to trust one another. And trust is built on transparency and accountability. We can no longer afford to dismiss our inability to effect meaningful, large-scale change.  
  • Performance management: The future survival of the sector and of organisations will depend on people’s ability to show the impact of their work. Development workers will have to work hard for investments – firstly to justify investments already made, and secondly to ensure that real impact is derived from the resources invested. To measure impact and the value derived from work, staff of NGOs and parastatals will have to become more comfortable with the use of technology.
  • Technology: Already we have seen that the use of technology means we can deliver products and services much more cost effectively, efficiently and with far less logistical infrastructure and human resources.  The ease of various applications highlights the fact that we no longer need traditional intermediary-type organisations; technology allows communities to self-organise and mobilise, raising their own funds and serving their own needs better. The optimum use of technology calls for new skills amongst NGO workers and communities.
  • Skills:  The ability to continuously adapt and reinvent on the fly means we no longer need traditional, linear or bureaucratic organisations.  The competency to constantly innovate has become critical, as innovation builds resilience and makes us future fit. Skills appropriate to the 4th industrial revolution may save the humanitarian sector from extinction.

If these cornerstones are in place, organisations can redesign and rebuild themselves, driving down costs, improving resilience, and becoming better, faster and stronger in the process.

Corporate Social Responsibility News (CSRNEWS) is South Africa’s leading Corporate Social Responsibility news, media and publishing firm. We create content on social responsibility, helping government, corporates, consultants, NPOs and NGOs to reach their target markets through appropriate, targeted development news.

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