Futureproofing Humanitarianism for Permanent Emergencies: Unpacking the Promise of Cooperation

future-proofDespite the strong growth of the humanitarian sector, there is an increasing operational and financial deficit in the capacity of governments and humanitarian organizations to respond. This has led to calls for changes in the way such crises are understood and managed. As humanitarians grapple with what is increasingly imagined as a future of permanent emergencies, the promise of cooperation has taken center stage as a way of dealing with an uncertain future. Humanitarianism has a long history of trying to improve itself incrementally through best practice examples, ever more fine-grained standards, and reforms. As humanitarian actors undertake periodic renewal projects to look and feel better and be seen as more credible and more legitimate, talk of the need for a paradigm shift has become an institutionalized feature of contemporary humanitarianism. Presently, the focus is on the ability of humanitarianism to shift into a modus operandi of continuous crisis management.

As scholars, we often don’t pay enough attention to corporate humanitarian interests. In this blog post, I try to do so by using the emergent concept of futureproofing as a prism to ask some questions about cooperation. The concept futureproofing is loosely borrowed from electronics, communications and industrial design theory. To futureproof is to try to better anticipate the future and develop methods of minimizing effects of shocks and stresses of future events. Futureproofing is about increasing resilience: the objective is for a product or system to be of value into the distant future and not be obsolete in the fact of technological change.

I suggest that as humanitarians perceive that things get harder ─ i.e. the response-gap continues to increase and the humanitarian space continues to shrink ─ the focus is on futureproofing the humanitarian system by becoming stronger, faster and better. Here, I explore the notion that humanitarian actors must find new ways of cooperating with other actors, cooperate with new types of actors (including types of new humanitarian donors, host states, global philanthropy, the private sector and the volunteer and technical communities) and cooperate more.  While cooperation is rhetorically framed as intrinsic to the future of humanitarian action, I argue that the quest for cooperation is filled with ambiguities. This concerns what humanitarians say they want to get out of it, what they really want to get out of it and what they can get out of it.

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