Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Global Players: The Role of International Humanitarian Organizations in Africa

| Apr. 09, 2024

Beyond the Headlines: A Kaleidoscopic Exploration of Contemporary African Politics and International Cooperation - Study Group

About the Study Group

Over the course of five sessions, this study group, led by Dr. Gloria Ayee, is exploring the pivotal moment experienced by the African continent. With youthful populations, abundant resources, and growing economic and technological capacity, Africa holds solutions to global challenges from food security to climate change.  Participants of the study group are invited to reflect on the role that international cooperation must play in supporting inclusive, sustainable development in Africa, as well as to move beyond outdated perspectives and learn about Africa’s profound transformation through trade, investments in clean energy and health, and youth empowerment initiatives. Participants are also given the opportunity to prepare one policy memo on a topic related to one of the sessions and to provide a memo briefing the study group and to a relevant external expert guest.


Second Session

On April 2, the study group met for the second time to evaluate the role of international humanitarian groups in shaping political and social outcomes in Africa. The group examined how these organizations deal with emergencies, crises, and conflict situations across the continent, and scrutinized their influence on policy decisions and discuss the potential benefits and drawbacks of their involvement. Discussions covered the expanding influence of organizations like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), and the International Rescue Committee (ICR). The study group counted with the presence of external expert guest Professor Sabs K. Quereshi, a senior-level leader with 17+ years of experience in global health, gender equality, health policy and equity, national security, humanitarian response, and government and multilateral affairs sectors in the U.S., with the UN, and worldwide.


The following post summarizes key learnings that arose through the discussion.


Humanitarian Crisis and Organizational Response

An alarming overview of ongoing humanitarian crises reveals that 35 emergencies exist worldwide, affecting approximately 300 million people. 19 are situated in Africa. Factors such as increasing authoritarian governance, climate change impacts, and refugee surges represent compounded risks driving these crises. In this context, it is concerning to note how dwindling donor funds are posing substantial challenges to the provision of efficient humanitarian operations. Humanitarian actors must play a role following principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence, despite the limitations sometimes posed by operational constraints in regions that are not under the control of internationally recognized governments, which further requires a delicate balance of trust and flexibility in response efforts. 


Compounded Global Impacts and Local Challenges

Global crises, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have had negative effects on African supply chains, further straining resources and exacerbating crises. Similarly, local challenges such as logistical hurdles and increased corruption make the delivery of humanitarian aid a complex feat that requires more localized interventions. In response, humanitarian agencies like the World Health Organization have initiated strategies of strategic decentralization, opening more regional hubs and aiming for more effective presence and quicker response times. This shift of approach emphasizes the importance of building local capacities to reduce dependence on external actors.


Navigating the Humanitarian-Development Nexus and Climate Considerations

The intricacies of the humanitarian-development nexus face barriers to proper collaboration including trust and perceived competence. Participants in the study group debated the extent to which the nexus can be operationalized and explored alternative paths to collaboration across fields including the production of comprehensive country profiles that look at the interconnected challenges related to humanitarian and development operations. In this context, humanitarian actors are increasingly focusing on climate change impacts as drivers of instability, vulnerability, and violence, sometimes as a result of fierce competition over donor resources.


The Path Forward: Localization, Capacity Building, and Sustained Motivation

A consensus on localization's importance was evident, underscoring the collective agreement among donors, local governments, and agencies on its necessity. However, there are challenges of actualizing localization, including the need for proper capacity building, training, and deployment readiness of local staff. The conversation concluded with reflections on the importance of emotional and mental health as part of the labor of a humanitarian worker, emphasizing the need for breaks, family care, and maintaining motivation against the backdrop of challenging conditions. The collective responsibility to find solutions to the world’s humanitarian crises and the impact of effective humanitarian action in this regard provides a hopeful note for those seeking a career in this field.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Martín Rodríguez , Alejandro.“Global Players: The Role of International Humanitarian Organizations in Africa.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, April 9, 2024.

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