Michael Vatikiotis, an HD senior advisor and former Asia director, looks at ways to overcome fragmented geopolitics and get help to people in desperate need.

Never in recent history have global humanitarian needs been more severe. Never has the access that governments and aid agencies need to deliver relief been more limited.  

As major humanitarian crises bear down on various parts of the world, the framework of global security and the array of principles designed to underpin the basic instinct to support people in distress is gravely threatened.

With the international system becoming more and more fragmented and contested, there is an urgent need for revisions and reforms.

As conflict, climate change and high food prices cause hardship around the world – particularly in Africa and the Middle East – the recent UN-brokered agreement on shipping Ukraine’s grain through Turkish ports shows what can be achieved with a concerted and more sophisticated approach to humanitarian access. 

Sadly, the Black Sea Grain Initiative is the exception to the rule these days.

For some years now, sovereign interests and widening polarities have eclipsed the power of collective norms and values. At the same time, the roots of these norms in European and North American ideals are being contested by emerging big powers.

In this multipolar context, humanitarian aid more easily becomes hostage to political and geopolitical trends that are less conducive to shaping a common understanding of what issues should be purely humanitarian.      

Just consider the needs today. Somalia is on the brink of disaster. Prolonged drought has created food insecurity that could tip the country into famine. Close to 1 million Somalians have been forced to move in search of food and water.

Across Somalia, parts of Ethiopia and northern Kenya, some 20 million people are struggling to feed themselves. The UN estimates that 90% of the 5.5 million people in Ethiopia’s Tigray region need urgent help in the face of war, chronic drought and economic collapse.

After a decade of conflict in Yemen, as many as 24 million people need humanitarian assistance, half of them acutely. In Afghanistan, more than half of the 40 million people need aid to survive. Across Myanmar, 1.2 million people are displaced, most of them since the military takeover in February 2021.

And now the war in Ukraine has triggered one of the largest refugee crises on record, with more than 5 million people fleeing the country since the Russian invasion in February and at least 7 million people displaced internally.

Beyond the trauma of displacement, these contexts – mostly conflict zones with little hope of imminent peace – are facing severe economic and public health challenges, compounded by threats to food supplies. Even people with homes and some sources of nutrition are facing challenges to survival.

Coordination and consensus in short supply

How has the world responded to this particularly acute level of humanitarian need across many regions? Not at all adequately.

The multiplicity of crises makes it hard for donors to keep up and introduces elements of choice and selection, depending on which crisis dominates the headlines. Conflicting interests figure more prominently in decisions to offer help.

Many donors fear that providing aid will legitimise authoritarian or illegal regimes. Where conflict rages, hard power calculations and ideological contestation make it harder to negotiate humanitarian corridors.

Above all, conflict zones with the most urgent needs are increasingly caught in a web of proxy interests and geopolitical polarity.

In Yemen, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Ethiopia, the focus on human suffering risks being lost amid competition between neighbouring states that lend support to conflict parties or higher-level geopolitical posturing that prevents collective action.

When larger powers find a crisis inconvenient, they leave the task of humanitarian support to regional bodies that often lack the mandates and the collective political will to intervene.

Chronic deadlock in the UN Security Council reflects the divergent trajectories of Russia, China and the United States. Rising tensions between the United States and China over global primacy rule out effective coordination and consensus.

Witness the appeals that European states made to China to intervene on the issue of Ukraine just as the United States insisted that China was enabling and abetting Russia’s aggression. This inhibited a more constructive Chinese response to the crisis.       

Much of the humanitarian machinery we use today was built and calibrated for a different world. Not that long ago, it was possible – seemingly effortlessly – to rally global support for concerted relief efforts after the 2004 Asian tsunami.

In today’s more polarised context, humanitarian aid is regarded with suspicion as a Western-dominated instrument and as a tool of regime change.

Europe’s reflexive mobilisation of aid to Ukraine is viewed critically by other regions where similarly tragic situations have attracted little attention. Accusations of hypocrisy and double standards distract humanitarians from the basic task of helping people in need. 

Finally, the global pandemic has highlighted the inequality of humanitarian support and wide disparities in access to vaccines. While two-thirds of the world’s richest countries have vaccinated more than 70% of their people, just 15% of the adult population on the African continent had been fully vaccinated as of March. 

A humanitarian buffer set up by GAVI/COVAX to extend vaccine reach to conflict-affected and hard-to-reach areas has not worked – not for a lack of supplies but because of donor reluctance to provide vaccines in sensitive areas that are often in the most acute need.

Bridging the divide

Given these stark realities, what could be done to improve access? Do we need a new global agreement to reinforce the principles of humanitarian assistance, one that accommodates the new structural fault lines in geopolitics?

Dealing with accusations of double standards could be a starting point for discussion. The role of mediation and negotiation by neutral third parties could be reinforced as a tool to create access in contested areas, with more states accepting the role of guarantors.  

Should the humanitarian/political divide be treated as a false dichotomy, with the focus instead placed on more effective collaboration between humanitarians and political actors?

The Black Sea Grain Initiative offers some useful lessons on finding a way forward – even in the midst of a full-scale war. Negotiations were conducted separately with Ukraine and Russia, involving two separate UN agencies. The process was facilitated by the government of Türkiye and private actors, including advice and close support from HD.

In addition to adopting multi-pronged efforts like that, the methods for early warning and assessing needs at the multilateral level could be improved.

A detailed heat map of areas in need would help to focus donor attention and support. The 2011 famine in Somalia was uncovered too late to save the lives of nearly 260,000 people – because of insufficient access and data collection that could have triggered an earlier response by donors.

Where possible, more work is needed at the community level in conflict zones to promote socio-economic resilience and recovery using local agreements and arrangements, instead of top-down aid delivery dependent on the state. The plethora of private and local humanitarian initiatives must be better integrated and coordinated.

Privatised, localised approaches to humanitarian access may fall short in terms of scale and capacity, yet they address gaps in relief and offer the flexibility needed to surmount the more complex political environment in which humanitarians must operate.

The way the world is going – with more frequent conflicts and the worsening impact of climate change on food security and public health – we can be certain that growing numbers of people will need to be fed and sheltered.

As much as the threat of climate change has captured the attention of younger generations worried about their future, so the inability to reach and help the world’s most vulnerable people should generate a rallying cry that hastens the flow of human kindness.

Photo: © EPA-EFE/Yahya Arhab