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What if Survival Wasn’t the Goal?

October 2, 2020

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Heba Aly

The New Humanitarian

The following is an excerpt from Director of the New Humanitarian, Heba Aly’s, keynote address at the launch of Humentum’s OpEx365, a year-long series of virtual learning and networking for the global development community. Heba’s engaging talk set the tone for the meaningful discussions we look forward to having at OpEx365 this year! Watch the full video below.

This year is The New Humanitarian’s 25th anniversary. We thought it was a good time to reflect on how crises have evolved over the last quarter of a century; whether aid has delivered on its promise, and what lessons can be drawn for the future.

This year the pandemic overwhelmed healthcare systems—and dramatically challenged the way aid is delivered on so many levels. It hit funding models hard and led to a series of operational complexities. And of course, the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement led to another moment of reckoning for the sector in which we’ve seen humanitarians asking themselves: to what extent are we equipped to relieve suffering in the west? Does racism exist within the humanitarian sector? And more fundamentally, to what extent is the sector part of or even propping up a world order that for many is designed to keep power and resources in the hands of some people and countries, while keeping other people poor and powerless?

As I see it, both COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement have identified or re-exposed structural problems at the heart of the aid endeavor. Operationally, financially, and ethically—the current model has reached its limits.


Parachuting or surging people into a crisis works when there is one crisis or a few crises at a time—that is not possible when the crisis is everywhere, hitting everyone at the same time. The parachute isn’t big enough, as one person I once interviewed said. We saw that with COVID-19 where both the aid industry but also governments were completely overwhelmed. And it will be 100 million times worse when climate change picks up speed because we will have a crisis engulfing the entire world at a scale of which the sector is not equipped to deal with. There’s also the much bigger question of whether that model is appropriate when crisis becomes the norm.


  • Early predictions are a sharp drop in overseas development assistance in $25 billion in 2021, including from some of the biggest donors. So that would be 15% of total ODA (official development assistance) flows in 2018.
  • A survey by Bond found that international NGOs in the UK risk losing one-third of their total income because of reductions in individual giving. Funding is about to go way down just as the needs are about to go way up because of the knock-on effects of the pandemic: hunger, livelihoods, access to healthcare, and so on.


  • I think the hypocrisies of the system were always there, but they are really on display now—it’s hard to avoid; in particular, white supremacy culture within aid institutions. But it isn’t really about the racism within organizations; it is much more about the way the entire structure is set up both within the aid world and in the sector’s resistance to giving up power to those it’s actually meant to serve. And why the localization movement has been struggling to get off the ground. But also, internationally—in the whole premise that aid is a transfer of wealth, knowledge, kindness from developed countries to developing countries. We’ve seen in both COVID-19 and BLM that that notion does not hold. The developed world fared much worse in many cases in so-called developing countries in the face of COVID-19.
  • It’s important to recognize that some countries remain in crisis and poor for a reason, and that is an international order that was set up to be extractive and to privilege some countries over others. That has prompted a massive conversation around how to decolonize aid, which starts with a recognition of the terms that are used and the definitions that we have become accustomed to, and what that says about the biases that we have. instead of calling this industry “aid”, which suggests there is a strong party helping the weak party, perhaps it’s time to think about it as solidarity.
  • What are the threats facing the world? A lot comes down to inequality, abuse, predatory economics, and in that landscape, a political framing of aid is coming into question. If the goal of the aid endeavor is to relieve human suffering, there may be more effective ways of doing so in 2020 than the old model that everyone has become accustomed to.

What is the roadmap for the way forward? Here are some ideas to think about.

  • Is there a role for INGOs in advocacy, fundraising, in being the intermediary between the international community in the field?
  • Can INGOs be reimagined as a platform for enabling and supporting locally-led response?
  • Could INGOs be sub-contracted by local NGOs to provide specific expertise?
  • Network humanitarianism: in the broader societal shift of the network society, the world isn’t up-down anymore—people trust their peers; they don’t trust the elite.
  • Consolidations and mergers: Simon Connell the former head of Mercy Corps UK, argued that if you look at any given crisis—let’s say Mosul in Iraq—each NGO is spending, e.g. $500,000 in overheads to have country directors, security focal points and procurement people. If you merged those overhead costs, you could save to his count $1 million per context, per year. Imagine how that could be reinvested?
  • The biggest area that you can change is your mindset. Leaders need to be radical in their leadership because it doesn’t start anywhere else. Dr. Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, CEO of Oxfam UK, said, “you don’t have to wait for a systemic overhaul to start doing better, there is such a thing as an incremental approach.”

I will also share a few ideas from Stephanie Kimou, founder and lead consultant for PopWorks Africa, on the decolonization of aid.

  • Accept that racism exists. What steps are you taking to dismantle white supremacy culture?
  • Have an exit strategy. You shouldn’t be working in Haiti for 50 years without having any plan on how you’re going to exit.
  • Elevate local expertise. Buy the books of the local people. Invite them to speak. Honor and elevate their rooted expertise in a meaningful way.
  • Understand colonial histories and trauma.

More broadly than decolonization—how do you abandon competition and the obsession with staking your ground and space? In the Netherlands, the Dutch Relief Alliance, a coalition of 15 aid and humanitarian organizations in the country, were essentially forced by the government to unite under a network. To access government funding, they must together decide in any given crisis who is best placed among them to respond. Rather than all the agencies going in, they must pick two or three that have the greatest added value in that particular crisis, and they do that collectively as a group.

Where to from here?

What if you tried testing the hypothesis that with a smaller size and less funding, you could actually maintain or even grow your level of impact? And if that was your goal, how would you go about doing it? So often I hear NGOs talking about survival—we have to survive, we have to figure out how we keep existing. What if survival wasn’t the goal? What if you were to start with a clean slate and say, what is the most effective way to alleviate suffering whether or not I am part of the answer? And be open to the answer to that question.

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