The Humanitarian Blog
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For many years, our BOFAXE series, has provided our faculty and partners the opportunity to publish short think pieces on international humanitarian and human rights law. However, given the IHFV's leading role in Germany as a centre for education and research on humanitarian action, we aim to provide similar opportunities to highlight the research and opinions for our social scientists and those involved in humanitarian studies. 

Within this scope, we are proud to publish ‘The Humanitarian Blog’, a new joint initiative by the Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict (IFHV) and the Centre for Humanitarian Action (CHA) with contributions from both institutions and guest authors. Contributing authors to all blogs include CHA and IFHV staff, international researchers, and practitioners. We welcome input from interested scholars, journalists, and humanitarians. If you would like to contribute a piece to the blog, please contact, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

You are most welcome to join the discussion through the comment function below each published blog and to share and republish our contributions. Please name the source of our blogs when sharing with other audiences.

    Gender Equality and the Grand Bargain: Whose Efficiency and Effectiveness?
Author: Goda Milasiute

About the Author:

Goda Milasiute is a Fellow of the Centre for Humanitarian Action (CHA). She has a master’s degree in International Relations at the Free University of Berlin, the Humboldt University of Berlin, and the University of Potsdam. Her research interests include gender mainstreaming in humanitarian action and localisation of humanitarian aid.


The Grand Bargain goals and gender mainstreaming
May 2021 marks the fifth anniversary of the launch of the Grand Bargain – an agreement between some of the largest donors and humanitarian organisations. Through advancements in nine (formerly ten) areas, or workstreams, this agreement aims at “improv[ing] the effectiveness and efficiency of the humanitarian action” as well as “get[ting] more means into the hands of people in need”.

Persisting and new challenges such as protracted crises and underfinancing of humanitarian operations signal the need for enhancing the humanitarian system. Reflected in the Grand Bargain workstreams, the areas for improvement include greater transparency and reduced bureaucracy, more support for local actors and their participation in decision-making processes, multi-year and flexible financing, as well as an increased use of cash-based programming. The former workstream no 10, greater engagement between humanitarian and development actors, is now closed and is to be mainstreamed within the other workstreams.

What about gender mainstreaming? Largely invisible when the Grand Bargain was launched, gender considerations have become more prominent in recent years. Although gender mainstreaming is not itself a workstream, in their yearly self-reports signatories are asked to highlight how they “contributed to the advancement of gender equality and women’s empowerment in humanitarian settings through [the] implementation of the Grand Bargain” and to discuss the specific results or outcomes achieved in this regard.

Advancement of “gender equality and women’s empowerment” are ambitious aims in a framework which has nine issue areas, none of which is specifically dedicated to gender. Based on the above-mentioned question, it seems that the assumption is the following: the very implementation of the Grand Bargain should contribute to the advancement of gender equality and women’s empowerment in humanitarian settings. By contrast, according to the Informal Friends of Gender group for the Grand Bargain, gender mainstreaming is a “prerequisite for success across the workstreams”, i.e., success of the Grand Bargain.

It therefore remains unclear whether gender mainstreaming should bring more effectiveness and efficiency to humanitarian action, or the effectiveness and efficiency of humanitarian action should contribute to more gender equality. Perhaps both?.

Effective gender mainstreaming vs effective humanitarian action
While at a first glance this might seem like a “chicken or egg” kind of question, it is important to highlight that an integral part of this confusion is the false assumption that effective gender mainstreaming in humanitarian action equals effective humanitarian action or vice versa. In her research on women’s participation in refugee camps, Elisabeth Olivius found that women’s participation had become an instrument for optimising the efficiency andeffectiveness of humanitarian operations as opposed to being a tool for the promotion of gender equality. According to Olivius, “the participation of women is not primarily represented as an issue of equality, justice, or power; rather, it is discussed in terms of the contribution it can make towards the achievement of humanitarian goals such as public health or food security”.

Why is this problematic? While some might argue that gender equality is not and has never been a goal of humanitarianism, programmes that treat women as resources can reinforce existing gender inequalities because they essentialise women and thus do harm. Being perceived as more reliable or trustworthy, women are often simply given additional responsibilities by international actors, while the unequal gender norms remain unchallenged. To make matters worse, this instrumentalisation of women occurs in a humanitarian system dominated by racist and neo-colonial beliefs, making any substantial change regarding power relations extremely hard to achieve.

A common practice of reinforcing traditional women’s roles and presenting it as participation of women is to make women responsible for hygiene promotion and for collecting food rations for the benefit of the whole community or household. While essentialising women by assigning them the caretaker’s role is already harmful, women who collect food assistance might also be at greater risk of gender-based violence on their way to and from distribution points, as well as at home. Additionally, as they collect food, women are at risk of sexual abuse and exploitation by the staff of international organisations.

Gender-related risks within the Grand Bargain
If the Grand Bargain is to actually contribute to more gender equality and empower women, as the question for self-reporting implies, the risk of instrumentalising – or neglecting – gender mainstreaming for the achievement of other goals should be highlighted.

Failing to incorporate gender considerations leads to local women-led organisations not benefitting from flexible financing in the same way that larger male-dominated NGOs do. The intent of localisation and flexible financing workstreams might technically be fulfilled; however, at the expense of deepening the gender hierarchies. Regarding the “participation revolution” workstream, as Olivius’ research shows, making women participate in humanitarian operations without reflecting how their participation affects gender relations can simultaneously make the operations more effective/efficient and reproduce gender inequalities.

The Grand Bargain signatories should therefore be very aware of the distinction between the effectiveness and efficiency of humanitarian operations and the effectiveness and efficiency of gender mainstreaming. If the signatories really care about contributing to the advancement of gender equality, they should target local women’s organisations – while taking into consideration the specific constraints that these organisations face – as well as provide reliable data on that. Ultimately, humanitarians must pay attention not only to whether women are included into humanitarian operations, but also to how women are included, and what the possible consequences of their inclusion are.

    How can the home of peace be restored? Humanitarian action vis-à-vis a retreating state and the protection of civilians in North East Nigeria
Author: Rebekka Goeke

About the Author:

Rebekka Goeke is a research associate at the Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict (IFHV) and a project manager for the academy of humanitarian action (aha). Her research interests include non-state actors, changing spaces, humanitarian protection and the ethics of humanitarian work. She lived and worked in Maiduguri from 2019-2020.


In 2021, the conflict in the North East of Nigeria entered its eleventh year and the country is making ever more gruesome headlines. The infamous non-state armed group Boko Haram and its splinter factions have stepped up their attacks against civilians and humanitarians in the North East, effectively controlling large parts of the region and notably targeting humanitarian workers and safe zones, with the latest attack on the humanitarian hub in Damasak being the fourth this year.

Yet, there is no end in sight for the bloody conflict between the Nigerian government and armed groups that has already cost more than 40,000 lives. Civilians in the North-East find themselves more exposed to violence and humanitarians face the dilemma of whether to stay or leave. In either scenario, there is a need to hold the state accountable to ensure the protection of human rights and adherence with international humanitarian law (IHL). A glimpse of hope could be the recent attention by the International Criminal Court towards the crisis which might help provide the much needed impetus for national action.

A decade of conflict in the Lake Chad Basin
Fighting between Nigerian security forces and Boko Haram has been going on since 2009, when Boko Haram started to gain foothold in Maiduguri, the regional capital of Borno state which still carries the motto “home of peace”, written on every licence plate registered. However, Boko Haram and its splinter factions’ extremist beliefs and the continuing armed conflict has put an estimated 8.7 Million people in the North East in need of humanitarian assistance today.

The crisis came to the attention of the general public following the abduction of 274 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in April 2014. Western support in the form of humanitarian assistance soon followed. Coordinated by UN OCHA, Clusters were quickly activated and the first Humanitarian Needs Overview (HNO) for the North East was published in 2016. With already high levels of abductions, forced recruitment, slavery, and trafficking, the crisis was swiftly framed as a protection crisis – putting civilians at risk of physical harm and “flagrant human rights violations”. This situation had left more than 3 Mio. people “trapped” in inaccessible areas at the time, following the assessment of the HNO of 2016.

In search of protection: the super camp strategy
This figure of people in hard-to-reach areas has been reduced to an estimated 1 Million people today. Those stuck in the area are forced to work in the war economy. Those who make it out soon find themselves in densely crowded camps which oftentimes function at the same time as humanitarian hubs protected by national security forces. Here, IDPs can access humanitarian services but hardly find any opportunity to avoid becoming aid dependent or to leave the camps again safely.

Sheltering in these so-called “super camps” thus entails other risks. Many IDPs and, increasingly, host communities in the area are relying heavily on external aid to serve their daily needs. However, this barely suffices and leaves individuals and families frequently without much choice than to stroll out of the protected areas to find firewood or harvest outside the camps where they are exposed to attacks. The only practical alternative to staying in the camps, voluntary returns organised by the regional government, has turned out to be rather limited. These tend to be politically motivated returns without adequate protection or accessible infrastructure into areas controlled by non-state armed groups.

Not taking over responsibility: an unable or unwilling state
Protection of IDPs in the ongoing conflict therefore does not seem to be the priority of the entity foremost responsible for its citizens’ safety: the Nigerian state. Despite the declarations by sitting President Muhammadu Buhari that Boko Haram was “technically defeated” in 2015 and again “substantially defeated” in 2019, little progress has been made to ensure safety for civilians and reinstall peace in the region.

Rather, the super camp strategy has been criticised as a fig leaf to obscure the Nigerian Army’s inability to defend critical infrastructure and military bases over the vast territory of the North East. Arguably, military successes in the past were largely possible thanks to the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), a unit composed not only of Nigerian security forces, but also soldiers from neighbouring countries. Chadian Forces, for example, constitute an integral part of the MNJTF and have provided safety to entire Nigerian communities in the North East. In addition, complaints from within the military about inadequate conditions are being voiced time and again.

On humanitarian issues, the state similarly shifted responsibility to address the needs of millions of people to the humanitarian actors. Working jointly with the national authorities, the survival and daily needs of the people affected by the conflict are largely met by multilateral donor organizations, UN agencies and programmes, the International Committee of the Red Cross, international NGOs, and local initiatives.

Unlike humanitarians, citizens cannot evacuate
However, the armed groups are gaining ground by destroying civilian infrastructure, looting military bases, and increasingly also targeting humanitarian activities and aid workers. The years 2019 and 2020 have seen peaks in violence against aid workers, with more than 15 humanitarians losing their lives and putting local aid workers at the highest risk of physical harm. Garrison towns like Damasak, Ngala, Dikwa, or Monguno with protected camps and humanitarian hubs have been attacked repeatedly in the first few months of 2021. The increase in violence has forced several organizations, including the UN, to withdraw their staff from the humanitarian hubs and field offices, eventually bringing life-saving activities to a halt.

With humanitarians on the retreat from the areas with the severest humanitarian needs, the population will be left even more exposed to violence and without a neutral observer of the humanitarian conditions in the region. Without the state being able to fill in for protection and humanitarian support, and armed groups like the Islamic State in West Africa Province (IWASP) ready to step in, this situation is likely to spiral into yet another decade of deprivation, violence, and opportunities for armed groups to expand their territorial control and provide local governance.

What to do about it: Stay or go?
Hence, the situation in Nigeria embodies an old dilemma: Humanitarian action often takes place in fragile settings with a dire security situation and severely weakened state structures. The case once more illustrates that humanitarian actors depend on a minimum degree on protective structures themselves. This leads to a situation where third-party actors, in the case of Nigeria including humanitarians, foreign armed forces and civil militias, assume protective state functions. Consequently, the incentives for an already weak state to engage in costly but strongly needed processes, such as security sector reforms, further erode. The alternative however, withdrawing humanitarian actors from the scene, would effectively undermine live saving assistance to the 2.7 Million people in critical need.

One solution is for humanitarian action to be backed up by political and legal initiatives. Developments in other countries, such as Syria, show that these solutions may depend on a political consensus that can prove difficult to achieve. However, the intention by the chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to open investigations on the crisis might be a silver lining to the rather dim prospects in the region. Just in December 2020 the ICC prosecutor declared her decision to investigate possible war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the different Boko Haram factions, but also included crimes by the Nigerian security forces in her observations. She found “a reasonable basis to believe” that both parties to the conflict have been committing grave human rights violations including murder, torture, rape, attacks on civilians, and forced movements of the population. Even though the decision is still up for approval by the courts judges, it has been welcomed by human rights observers and protection advocates as a step into the right direction.

Humanitarian actors in the region commenting on the developments mentioned above is not new. Calls by the resident and humanitarian coordinator Edward Kallon and observer groups such as Human Rights Watch have been made repeatedly, stressing the need for the protection of civilians and humanitarians and calling all parties to the conflict to adhere with international humanitarian and human rights law. However, these have rarely led to sustained action by the government. While providing life-saving assistance day by day, local and international humanitarian actors struggle to strike the balance between reliance on the Nigerian authorities and denouncing the lack of support.

Therefore, local and international calls for support need to have repercussion at the national political level. So far, the political will to pursue the human rights breaches nationally has been very limited. This is reflected in a lack of support for survivors. From the humanitarian perspective, people who have suffered from those crimes and the conflicts, have a right to legal assistance and should be supported by health and trauma care. At the same time, the state should engage in preventive measures to train its own security forces to adhere with international human rights and humanitarian law. It could team up with specialized humanitarian agencies to improve its own capacities and support ongoing projects. Further, it should support the needs of humanitarian agencies by seriously ensuring the protection of its last strongholds protecting IDPs in the North East.

Sadly, this seems to remain wishful thinking for the moment. Rather than taking sustained efforts to support the relief in the North East, the Nigerian government faces a range of other pressing security issues to deal with. From the longstanding conflict between farmers and herders in the Middle Belt, high levels of criminality by uncontrolled vigilante groups operating across the entire country, the Covid-19 pandemic and dropping oil prices, a severe food crisis and the resurgent conflict in the South East of the country, the Nigerian central government does not seem able to intervene for now. Humanitarians do not really seem have the choice to stop working in the North East in due time. Hence, after more than 10 years of conflict and suffering, peace remains unachieved. For now, it is solely a motto written on a licence plate.

Author: Sonja Hövelmann

About the Author:

Sonja Hövelmann is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Humanitarian Action (CHA). She researches the Shrinking Humanitarian Space, Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus, as well as German humanitarian policy.


UNICEF released a report earlier this month stating that 168 million children have missed out on a full year of classroom instruction due to pandemic-related school closures. The so-called ‘education emergency’ has not only dire impacts on many learners in crisis-affected contexts but also threatens to dismantle significant achievements concerning the provision of education as part of a humanitarian response. Sonja Hövelmann provides three suggestions to keep education on the agenda moving forward.

Four weeks ago, the Geneva Global Hub for Education in Emergencies was launched. This network, consisting of UN agencies, networks, donors and research institutions, is a good opportunity to bring education in emergencies back on the agenda, as the dire impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and its secondary effects become more apparent. Development reversals, especially regarding the fight against global hunger, forge a ‘back to basics’ focus of emergency relief on food, medicine, water and sanitation rather than on providing education or changing unequal gender norms. Funding crunches and financing gaps – such as the recently announced overseas aid budget cuts of 30 per cent by the UK government – will likely increase, as traditional donor states come under economic pressure due to COVID-19 assistance to businesses and public at home. Yet, closed schools and discontinued education worldwide indeed increase the need to pay attention to the future of the most vulnerable children in fragile and conflict affected contexts.

Education in emergencies (EiE) refers to quality, inclusive learning opportunities for learners of all ages in situations of crisis such as conflict or natural disasters. It includes formal and non-formal education as well a psycho-social support or social emotional learning. EiE has long been side-lined or marginalized as part of the humanitarian sector because it is often not seen as a life-saving part emergency response, despite the fact that communities and families in crises-affected contexts continuously prioritize education. However, joint advocacy as well as the increasingly protracted situations of conflict, insecurity and crises fostered rethinking and change.

EiE has received more visibility
In fact, the EiE sector can look proudly upon several successes in recent years, including the formulation of Minimum Standards for EiE as endorsed by the Sphere Handbook in 2004; the formation of an Education Cluster within the Cluster Approach in 2006; the 2010 UN Resolution on the Right to Education in Emergencies as well as the establishment of the multilateral Education Cannot Wait fund in 2016. Even the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – within the humanitarian system known to be a conservative actor regarding the humanitarian mandate – has developed a Framework on Access to Education laying out its approach on how to enable others to ensure the provision of education in armed conflict. These achievements symbolise the growing recognition and increasing institutionalisation of education as a sector of emergency relief work.

While EiE had faced several obstacles within the humanitarian architecture before COVID-19, the need to pay attention to it is even more dire during this global health emergency. Even prior to the pandemic, 127 million children were out of school, half of them living in crisis-affected countries. In spring 2020, UNESCO calculated that globally 1.6 billion children were not in school due to full or partial school closures. As a result, an estimated two thirds of the academic school year 2020 were lost.

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Snapshot March 2020 of school closures worldwide due to protective measures against the Coronavirus. Source: UNESCO.

Research from the Ebola epidemic shows that global health crises can have devasting long-term consequences for children’s wellbeing, learning and safety – especially for girls. The threat of marginalising female learners is also apparent in the context of COVID-19. Studies show that even prior to COVID-19, access to mobile internet was 26 per cent lower for girls than for boys. Likewise, digital solutions for distance learning are often not possible in conflict or crises-affected districts. In countries of Southern and Eastern Africa, less than 30 per cent of the children have internet access at home.

Save the Children assessed in a multi-country study that 37 per cent of the children reported that they had no one to help them with learning, and that 67 per cent had no contact with their teachers at all throughout the last schoolyear. Frequently meals provided as part of nutrition programmes are a reason for parents to send their children to school, as WFP statistics repeatedly show. This only adds to the protection aspect of education that humanitarian actors frequently cite as a reason for providing EiE, as receiving education reduces risks of child labour or child marriages.

While the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to dismantle significant achievements of the development and humanitarian sectors, for example, in terms of fighting hunger, I fear it will also negatively impact the support for education as part of a humanitarian response. Therefore, I offer three suggestions to keep EiE on the agenda for 2021:

Funding: Promising trends, but it is concentrated on few geographical areas and is too short-term
Despite the significant accomplishments outlined above, education continues to be chronically underfunded. In 2019, 2.6 per cent of total humanitarian funding was dedicated to education, continuously failing the 4 per cent goal set by the UN in 2012. Under EU Commissioner Stylianides, DG ECHO became a champion of EiE, by continuously increasing its budget for education from 1 per cent in 2015 to 10 per cent of its total humanitarian aid. For 2021, the European Commission targeted an amount of €146.8 million, which is approximately €13 million less than in 2020.

While education funding is slowly catching up with other sectors, the share of funding requests met is still significantly lower than, for example, the food security cluster. To mitigate the effects of what UNICEF coins an imminent “education emergency”, donors should not only follow the examples of ECHO and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation to increase the funding for EiE, but also ensure a more equal distribution across crises. Education requests for the Syria regional response are much better financed than the ‘forgotten’ crises such as Cameroon and Venezuela, whose funding requirements for education were only met by approximately 15 per cent in the last year.

Similarly, a point for improvement is the length of education programmes. A recent external auditors’ report stated that the duration of EiE projects funded by ECHO were on average 10-11 months and thus insufficiently addressed the long-term educational needs in protracted crises.

EiE actors: More data and evidence are needed
Key EiE actors, such as Inter-Agency Network on Education in Emergencies (INEE) and the Education Cannot Wait fund, have been instrumental in establishing and advocating the EiE sector, including the development of standards, tools, guidelines and, most importantly, a community of practice of researchers and practitioners. Moving forward, more research, evidence and data are necessary to ensure that global goals such as SDG 4 on quality education are met. Additionally, they are needed to ensure that non-governmental actors, when they step in to fill gaps in state-provided education, offer quality education with certificates and curricula that allow refugee and migrant learners to continue their education within a formal system. Similarly, non-governmental actors should advocate for strengthening national education systems and draw from local knowledge and expertise to ensure culturally-relevant pedagogy.

Humanitarians: Recognizing education for its full potential
Since the 2000s, the EiE sector has (over-)emphasised the life-saving and life-sustaining aspects of EiE to gain footing as a sector of humanitarian relief work. Looking ahead, it is important to view education not just in terms of ‘humanitarian’ aspects such as protection, but also to allow for quality programming across the Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus that offers children and youth perspectives and professional futures. This is important since half of the global out-of-school population lives in crisis-affected contexts where national education systems are non-existent or of insufficient quality. Given the priority and importance that crisis-affected communities place on education, the humanitarian sector should live up to its promise of a ‘participation revolution’ made within the Grand Bargain and ensure that the voices and choices of children and families matter in the type of assistance they receive.

The Portuguese EU Council Presidency 2021 has made EiE a focus topic for the Working Party on Humanitarian Aid and Food Aid (COHAFA). Together with the launch of the Geneva Global Hub, these are important political initiatives to keep EiE on the agenda. This momentum is instrumental to ensure available funding and underline the importance of providing education as part of a humanitarian response in order to mitigate the indirect effects of the pandemic on children’s safety, wellbeing and development.

    Change we can believe in? What can the humanitarian community expect from the Biden Administration?
Author: Will Jamison Wright

About the Author:

Will Jamison Wright is a research associate at the IFHV at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum and the communications and administrative manager of the Network on Humanitarian Action (NOHA). He is currently a PhD candidate at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum focusing on international norms and non-state armed groups. Will is a graduate of the George Washington University and the NOHA master in international humanitarian action.


In the first few weeks of the Biden administration, there has already been several positive signs of a shift in Washington in relation to humanitarian issues. Since entering office, President Biden has dramatically raised the cap on refugees allowed into the United States above the number allowed in during the Obama administration, named Samantha Power - former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who has not shied away from humanitarian issues in the past - to head USAID, and rescinded the ban on U.S. foreign aid being used for abortion or abortion advocacy. Further achievements, or rather returns to the status ante Trump-um, include a normalisation of relations with the Palestinian Authority and a return to membership in the World Health Organisation. The development which is arguably most important for those affected directly by the crisis is Biden’s decision to take a step back from Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen and change Ansar Allah’s terrorist designation after weighing the concern of aid organisations.  It is clear that, for the humanitarian community, the Biden administration will be a better friend than the Trump administration was over the past four years.

But, to utilise a cliché, all that glitters is not gold. President Biden is still leading a divided country, where nearly half of the population has bought into the idea of “America First”. President Biden has promised to be a president for those who did not vote for him, as well as those that did – raising questions about his willingness to radically challenge the undercurrent of isolationism that seems to be strong amongst many in the U.S. By invoking the Defence Production Act, President Biden has ensured that U.S. industry will be mobilised to support the COVID-19 vaccination campaign. However, this same act was invoked by President Trump only months ago to limit the export of crucial medical equipment. The proliferation of the COVID vaccine, or rather lack thereof,  has already made painfully clear the lack of global solidarity in attempting to combat the pandemic. While the new administration has paid lip service to increased U.S. support for COVAX, concrete steps are either missing or being actively undermined by the administration‘s prioritisation of vaccination at home above getting crucial doses to low income countries and those at greater risk.

Likewise, increasing the cap on refugees to 125,000 annually, while moving in the right direction, is likely to do little more than make a dent in the record number of displaced people around the World.  Similarly, stating that the administration will “review” sanctions against International Criminal Court judges, still hints at a hesitancy to engage in any real substantive change in U.S. positions toward the court. While President Biden has reversed course on U.S. troop removals from Germany, questions still remain about what he will do with troops in Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as violence in the latter country increases despite ongoing peace talks. It is hard to know if or whether continued US interventionism or isolationism will bring further stability or violence, however it is crucial for the new administration to weigh the humanitarian considerations alongside the domestic or foreign policy goals which are currently being weighed. One of President Biden’s most prominent campaign promises, U.S. re-entry into the Paris Climate Agreement, is an excellent first step, but may not go far enough. As cited by UNHCR, climate crises are already a major contributor to displacement. Estimates that climate related disaster could affect up to 200 million people by 2050 means that the humanitarian impact of climate change is likely to be felt more and more throughout Biden’s term in office meaning there is just as much a need to emphasise aiding those impacted by climate change alongside reducing US contributions to climate change.

All things considered, the humanitarian community should follow the approach of progressive Democrats. While the left may have much preferred a Sanders or Warren administration, many have placed their hopes in the ability of progressive politicians both inside and outside of the administration to have their voice heard and influence policy-making. Criticisms of President Biden’s age seem to miss his ability to change and adapt his positions. With this in mind, the humanitarian community should aim to push the U.S. to, as the man in the White House himself would say, “build back better”. The Biden administration has made clear its desire to “re-establish U.S. global moral leadership” by example. While taking such a moralistic stance, particularly by pre-supposing that a US moral leadership ever existed, comes with its own risks, it may hint at a less realist US foreign policy. However, such a shift could mean a willingness to address issues around political will that get at the root causes of humanitarian crises.

There is ample room for cautious optimism with the Biden administration, particularly the ability of civil society to push for changes in long-standing policies such as the conflict in Yemen. Perhaps,  for a start, U.S. institutions, weakened by exits and scandal and poor leadership under the Trump administration, can be built back better, in terms of their willingness to address humanitarian crises in a principled way, than before - but it will be on a number of actors to maintain pressure for this to happen.

Author: Darina Pellowska

About the Author: 

Darina Pellowska is a research fellow at the Centre for Humanitarian Action (CHA). Her research interests include local leadership and participation, humanitarian access and diplomacy, and data and information management in humanitarian contexts.


Trotz der Impulse aus der COVID-19-Response und der Black Lives Matter Bewegung geht die Lokalisierung der humanitären Hilfe weiterhin schleppend voran. Dieser Blog zeigt auf, wie agiles Management und eine Netzwerkperspektive helfen können, etablierte Governancestrukturen im humanitären Projektmanagement aufzubrechen und alle relevanten Akteursgruppen einzubinden.

Lokalisierung nach COVID-19 und Black Lives Matter: Warum agiles Management und eine Netzwerkperspektive nützen können
2021 jährt sich die Verpflichtung der Unterzeichner*innen des Grand Bargains zur einer stärkeren Einbindung lokaler und nationaler Akteur*innen in das globale humanitäre System bereits zum fünften Mal. Seither gab es viele Möglichkeiten zur Diskussion und Reflektion, vor allem über das Konzept der sogenannten „Lokalisierung“ an sich. Allein die Umsetzung erscheint vielfach noch schleppend. So weist die von VENRO im September 2020 veröffentlichte Handreichung zur Lokalisierung in der humanitären Praxis auf vielfältige weiterhin bestehende individuelle, institutionelle und externe Herausforderungen hin. Auch der Grand Bargain Annual Independent Report 2020 lobt zwar explizit Fortschritte im „Workstream 2“, unter den die Lokalisierungsverpflichtungen fallen. Diese werden jedoch im gleichen Atemzug als bloße normative Verbesserungen enttarnt. Degan Ali, Direktorin der Somalischen NGO Adeso, folgert scharf: “[Localization is] a lot of rhetoric — a lot of nice aspirational language, but no real action and substantive systems change.”

Vor diesem Hintergrund fragt dieser Blog: Wie können wir eine effektive Umsetzung der Lokalisierungsagenda unterstützen? Dazu werden mit der COVID-19-Response und der Black Lives Matter (BLM) Bewegung zunächst zwei wichtige Impulse des vergangenen Jahres resümiert, bevor sich der Blick auf zwei vielversprechende Ansätze für die Zukunft richtet.

COVID-19 – ein Gamechanger?
Die COVID-19 Pandemie zwang 2020 viele internationale Kolleg*innen in den Durchführungsländern dazu, ihre Einsatzgebiete zu verlassen. Zurück blieben hauptsächlich nationale Mitarbeitende internationaler NGOs, sowie nationale und lokale NGOs – eine gute Gelegenheit, so schien es, um lokalen Mitarbeitenden und Partner*innen nicht nur mehr operative Verantwortung, sondern auch mehr Entscheidungsgewalt zu übertragen.

Bei Organisationen, die einen solchen Übergang bereits langfristig geplant und mit entsprechenden Strategien begleitet hatten, gestaltete sich dieser vielfach so reibungslos, dass er Skeptiker*innen sprachlos zurückließ. So berichtet Win Tun Kyi, wie es der Karuna Mission Social Solidarity in Myanmar durch mehrjährige Förderung von Organisationsentwicklungsprozessen, sowie ein starkes nationales NGO-Netzwerk und einen stetigen Ausbau direkter Geberbeziehungen im Vorfeld der Pandemie gelang, die COVID-19-Response in Myanmar sehr erfolgreich zu bewerkstelligen. Ähnlich erfolgreich beschreibt die Humanitarian Advisory Group die Zyklon-Response in Vanuatu, die – lediglich begleitet durch Online-Beratungen internationaler Expert*innen – quasi im Alleingang verschiedenster lokaler Akteur*innen vor Ort erfolgte.

Viele Risiken und Befürchtungen traten nicht ein – was die Frage aufwarf, inwiefern internationale Akteur*innen vor Ort überhaupt noch gebraucht würden: “Covid-19 is […] forcing the humanitarian sector to ask hard questions about who is best placed to deliver aid given the local context, restrictions and needs – and even whether international actors are needed on the ground at all.”

Auf der anderen Seite konnten Organisationen, die (noch) keine Lokalisierungsschritte unternommen hatten, diese auch nicht mitten in der globalen Pandemie nachholen. Dies führte, wie in einem Online-Event des Centre for Humanitarian Leadership diskutiert wurde, zu zahlreichen Komplikationen. So hatten Homeoffice-Regelungen in den nördlichen Ländern und die Evakuierung internationaler Entscheidungsträger*innen aus den Umsetzungsländern erhebliche Verzögerungen in den Projektabläufen zur Folge. Statt sie zu vereinfachen oder gar Kompetenzen zu Gunsten lokaler Akteur*innen zu verschieben, wurden etablierte Entscheidungsprozesse beibehalten und lediglich durch online-Regelungen ergänzt.

Auch das globale humanitäre Finanzierungssystem blieb zu großen Teilen in alten Mustern verhaftet: Charter4Change berechnete im Juni 2020, dass nur 0,1 Prozent des Finanzvolumens aus dem COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan direkt an lokale Organisationen vergeben wurden. Der überwältigende Großteil von 95% floss über das UN-System – ein Wert weit über dem anderer humanitärer Responses. Auch wenn durch Remote-Programming und Sub-Contracting-Mechanismen lokale Partner*innen letztlich wieder in die Umsetzung der internationalen Hilfen eingebunden wurden, verblieb durch dieses System dennoch ein beachtlicher Anteil des Verwaltungsbudgets und der Entscheidungsgewalt weiterhin bei internationalen Playern. Gleichzeitig wurde der Hauptteil der operativen Arbeit vor Ort mehr als je zuvor von nationalen INGO-Mitarbeitenden und lokalen Organisationen geleistet.

Neue Impulse durch die Black Lives Matter Bewegung
Auch die globale Black Lives Matter (BLM) Bewegung ließ 2020 die Hoffnungen vieler lokaler Akteur*innen auf neue Impulse in der Umsetzung der Lokalisierungsagenda aufleben. Auch im humanitären Sektor wurden die Stimmen nach einer nachhaltigen und effektiven Bekämpfung rassistischer und kolonialer Strukturen entsprechend lauter.

So fragte sich Hugo Slim Anfang Juni 2020 fast rhetorisch: “Is racism part of our reluctance to localise aid?”, um dann selbstkritisch zuzugeben: „We can’t quite bear to share the system with ’them‘. We don’t really trust ‘them’ to get it right. […] And we like what we do and the rewards and reputation that it brings. Quite simply, we don’t want to give all this away.”

 Andere fühlten sich ermutigt ihre Diskriminierungserfahrungen zu teilen. Hajir Maalim von Action Against Hunger berichtete beispielsweise in einem TNH Artikel: “The due diligence by donors before funding a project is to cast the local in its own image – do you have a bank account, do you have a risk policy, a website, an email address?”. Und Jessica Alexander erklärte: “In other words, the aid sector extends an invitation to them to be like us, to take on our values, adopt our logframes and indicators, to implement our programmes based on our agendas.” Wale Osofisan ergänzte: „I have seen on numerous occasions, close to my two decades of working in the sector, where international organizations send young, inexperienced, Western-educated staff to run programs and manage people with over two decades of experience working within their own country.”

 Diese und andere Erfahrungsberichte mündeten in einem erstarkten Ruf nach einem humanitären „System Change“. Dabei wurde der Lokalisierungsgedanke, also das Empowerment lokaler Akteur*innen im Sektor, mit Konzepten wie Postkolonialismus, Diversität, Partizipation, Accountability to Affected Populations und People-Led Humanitarian Assistance verbunden. Diese sollen nun einen ganzheitlichen Blick auf strukturelle Ungerechtigkeiten im humanitären System erlauben.

 Die BLM Bewegung trug damit maßgeblich zu einer offeneren Diskussionskultur in der humanitären Hilfe bei. Um diese abzubilden und weiter zu stärken, hat das CHA Ende 2020 eine Reflektionsreihe ins Leben gerufen, in der Rassismus in deutschen Hilfsorganisationen reflektiert und gemeinsam bearbeitet werden soll. Ob und wie sich dies in konkreten Veränderungen materialisiert, bleibt noch abzuwarten.

COVID-19 und die Anti-Rassismus-Bewegung können also ein Momentum sein, das die Umsetzung der Lokalisierungsagenda und Bestrebungen zu einem gleichberechtigten humanitären System unterstützt und/oder gar beschleunigt. Gleichzeitig wurden Schwachstellen aufgedeckt und in manchen Fällen sogar, wie unter einem Brennglas, verstärkt. Das hat gezeigt: Es liegt noch viel Arbeit vor uns. Also, wo packen wir an?

Den Systemwandel im Management angehen
Eine der schwierigsten Herausforderungen für jede*n Einzelne*n ist sicherlich eigene Arbeitsweisen nicht nur in Frage zu stellen, sondern auch aktiv zu ändern – auch und gerade, wenn das bedeutet, etablierte Machtverhältnisse zu dekonstruieren, und es nachhaltige finanzielle und konzeptionelle Anstrengungen sowie erhebliche Investitionen in Zeit und Kommunikation mit sich bringt.

Charta4Change ist hierbei bereits mit gutem Beispiel vorangegangen. Das Berichtsformat für die C4C Progress Reports wurde 2020 dahingehend verändert, dass nun auch über die Umsetzung der Lokalisierungsverpflichtungen in den Länderbüros berichtet wird anstatt Fortschritte nur in den Headquarters abzufragen. Auch HPG geht neue Wege. Larissa Fast beschrieb in einem Paper bereits 2019 die Umsetzung einer partizipativeren Forschungspraxis in der Humanitarian Policy Group.

Dabei wird klar, wie schwer es ist, starre hierarchische Macht- und Governancestrukturen aufzubrechen und ein lineares Management sowohl innerhalb der eigenen Organisation als auch in der Zusammenarbeit mit Partner*innen hinter sich zu lassen. In vielen Unternehmen bereits praktizierte Ansätze aus der Unternehmens- und Organisationsentwicklung, wie agiles Management und Change Management (deutsch: Veränderungsmanagement), können helfen diese Hürden zu überwinden. Agiles Management meint dabei ein Arbeiten in kleinen Arbeitsgruppen und losen Netzwerken mit flachen Hierarchien und kurzen Umsetzungszyklen statt in starren linearen Projektabläufen. Der Fokus liegt mehr auf einem ergebnisoffenen flexiblen Wertschöpfungsprozess statt auf vorfestgelegten Zielmarken. Dabei wird hauptsächlich auf Vertrauensbasis und mit viel Entscheidungsfreiheit für die einzelnen Teams gearbeitet. Druck und Kontrolle durch Vorgesetzte werden im Sinne einer Plural Leadership durch Eigenverantwortung ersetzt. Das Veränderungsmanagement gibt zusätzlich Strategien an die Hand, wie solch ein tiefgreifender Wandel von Organisationsstrukturen gelingen kann.

Die Zusammenhänge zwischen der in vielen Organisationen und Kooperationen noch vielfach gelebten autoritären (Partner-)Managementkultur und der schleppenden Lokalisierungsumsetzung scheinen evident: Wo üblicherweise Vorgesetzte entscheiden und Weisungen erteilen und wenig eigenverantwortlich gearbeitet wird, hat ein Empowerment lokaler Akteur*innen keine Chance. So erlebte ich 2019 im Südsudan, wie Projektmanager*innen ihre Teams und Projektbegünstigte vor internationalen Partner*innenbesuchen instruierten und Projekte aufhübschten, damit bei dem angekündigten „hohen Besuch“ alles glatt verläuft und möglichst nur positive Projektergebnisse gezeigt werden konnten. Patricia Ward bestätigt diese Eindrücke in ihrem Paper über die Arbeitsbeziehungen in humanitären Organisationen in Jordanien.

Solche Arbeitsweisen sind kontraproduktiv und wirken einer partizipativen humanitären Hilfe entgegen. Wir brauchen eine Zusammenarbeitskultur, in der wir einander ehrlich und auf Augenhöhe unsere Erfolge und Herausforderungen gleichermaßen zeigen und gemeinsam an ihnen arbeiten können. Angst vor Autoritäten – egal ob innerhalb der eigenen Organisation, oder in der Zusammenarbeit mit Partner*innen – behindert dies nur. Wenn Lokalisierung ernst genommen werden soll, bedeutet sie nicht nur formell gleichberechtigte Kooperationen mit lokalen Akteur*innen. Sie beinhaltet auch einen Wandel in der Managementkultur insgesamt – sowohl im Umgang mit den eigenen Mitarbeitenden als auch im Umgang mit Partner*innen. Flache Hierarchien und agile Managementkonzepte sind gefragt.

Unterschiedlichste Akteur*innen mitdenken – eine Netzwerkperspektive
Bei allen wichtigen Bestrebungen die professionelle humanitäre Hilfe zu lokalisieren, das heißt besonders lokale Akteur*innen zu stärken, sollten die Komplexität und potenzielle Komplementarität der unterschiedlichen an humanitären Responses beteiligten Akteur*innen nicht vernachlässigt werden. Bei der Frage, wer am besten für die Übernahme bestimmter Aufgaben geeignet ist, sollte es nicht ausschließlich um humanitäre Organisationen und deren geographische Label wie „global“, „international“, „lokal“ oder „national“ gehen. Solche Kategorien sind allzu theoretisch und gehen an der komplexen Realität gemischter NGO-Teams und an den durchaus diversifizierten Unterstützungsnetzwerken Betroffener vorbei. Stattdessen sollte es um die Stärkung lokaler Strukturen gehen.

So konnten in der COVID-19-Pandemie zum Beispiel zunächst internationale, dann aber auch nationale Organisationen aufgrund internationaler und nationaler Reisebeschränkungen zunächst nicht mehr arbeiten. Das unterbrach, wie oben schon beschrieben, viele für die Umsetzung von humanitären Projekten wichtige Beziehungen und Arbeitsabläufe und führte zu erheblichen Verzögerungen. Lokale Gemeindearbeiter*innen konnten jedoch auch unter COVID-19-Bedingungen ihre Arbeit in den Projektgebieten weitestgehend fortführen, da ihr Einsatzort in etwa mit ihrem Wohnort übereinstimmte – ein strategischer Vorteil für alle Organisationen, die bereits umfassend mit Gemeindearbeiter*innen arbeiteten, egal ob INGO oder NNGO.

Doch nicht nur lokale Gemeindearbeiter*innen humanitärer Organisationen, auch unzählige weitere wichtige Akteur*innen werden in Lokalisierungsbestrebungen nicht genügend berücksichtigt. Neben den immer wieder genannten (lokalen) Regierungen, informellen Initiativen, Diaspora- und Geflüchtetenorganisationen sowie relevanten Wirtschaftsunternehmen sind dies vor allem die individuellen Unterstützungsnetzwerke der betroffenen Bevölkerung, zum Beispiel informelle Nachbarschafts- und Familienhilfen. Doch auch diese müssten mitgedacht werden, um einen möglichst konsolidierten positiven Effekt zu erzeugen. Denn wie ein HPG Bericht belegt, macht die professionelle humanitäre Hilfe allein (je nach Kontext) nur etwa drei bis 60 Prozent der gesamten Hilfe vor Ort aus.

Um all die an der Bewältigung einer humanitären Krise Beteiligten systematisch zu beteiligen, kann eine soziale Netzwerkperspektive hilfreich sein. Hierbei wird die Positionierung einzelner Akteure*innen im sozialen und politischen Beziehungsnetzwerk des jeweiligen humanitären Kontextes deutlich. So können nicht nur die Interessen und Kompetenzen verschiedenster Beteiligte, sondern auch die Art und Qualität ihrer Beziehungen untereinander und zu weiteren Unterstützungssystemen analysiert und berücksichtigt werden.

Für die Gemeinderarbeiter*innen in der COVID-19-Response wird zum Beispiel deutlich, dass diese in den ersten Wochen der COVID-19-Pandemie eine wichtige, krisenresistente Brückenfunktion zwischen ihren Organisationen und der lokalen Bevölkerung innehatten: Während ebenfalls gute Beziehungen anderer nationaler und internationaler humanitärer Helfer*innen zur lokalen Bevölkerung mit den entsprechenden Reisebeschränkungen wegfielen, konnten Gemeindearbeiter*innen ihre Position im humanitären Netzwerk behaupten. Diese wurde umso wichtiger, als lokale Märkte und andere Unterstützungssysteme für Menschen in Krisensituationen zumindest zeitweise ebenfalls wegfielen.

Es bleibt abzuwarten welche konkreten Fortschritte ein netzwerkperspektivisches Denken für die Lokalisierung bedeutet. Doch allein dieses Beispiel zeigt, welches Potential es bietet. Ein Netzwerkansatz bricht das Konglomerat internationaler und lokaler NGOs herunter auf kleinere Akteursgruppen, wie Gemeinderarbeiter*innen, und bewertet deren Kapazitäten im jeweiligen humanitären Kontext, unabhängig von der geographischen Verortung ihrer Organisationen. Dabei werden versteckte lokale Strukturen und Akteur*innen sichtbar, die beispielsweise durch den gleichzeitigen Einsatz agiler Managementstrukturen, besonders gefördert werden können.

Authors: Dr Katrin Radtke and Timeela Manandhar

About the Authors:

Katrin Radtke
is senior researcher and lecturer at the Institute for Law of Peace and Armed Conflict (IFHV) at the Ruhr-University Bochum (RUB) and scientific director of the academy for humanitarian action (aha).

Timeela Manandhar
is a Research Assistant at the Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict (IFHV) and at the Institute of Development Research and Development Policy (IEE) of the Ruhr-University Bochum. She has a Diploma in Law with her research focusing on human rights law, law and development and public international law. Currently, she is writing her PhD thesis in the field of Business and Human Rights.


Das Flüchtlingslager Moria auf der griechischen Insel Lesvos ist in den vergangenen Monaten zum Katastrophen-Hotspot geworden. Nach den verheerenden Bränden im September, in deren Folge beinahe 13.000 Bewohner*innen fliehen mussten, war das provisorisch wieder aufgebauten Lager im Oktober von erheblichen Überschwemmungen betroffen. Die übrig gebliebenen rund 10.000 Bewohner*innen mussten zum Teil knietief durch das Wasser waten und viele Zeltböden bestanden nur noch aus Matsch.

Zählt man die Corona Pandemie dazu, war das Lager in diesem Jahr gleich dreimal zum Teil zeitgleich von extremen (Natur-)Ereignissen betroffen. Und auch dass nun das neue Lager nur einen Steinwurf weit von Meer und Strand gebaut wurde, setzt die Geflüchteten erneut Gefahren aus. Wie groß das Risiko ist, zeigt das Erdbeben in der Ägäis Ende Oktober dieses Jahres, das einen Tsunami auslöste, der viele Küstenstädte überschwemmte.

Auf die besondere Vulnerabilität der Geflüchteten gegenüber extremen (Natur-)ereignissen weist auch der neue WeltRisikoBericht 2020 mit seinem Schwerpunktthema Flucht und Migration hin, den das Institut für Friedenssicherungsrecht und Humanitäres Völkerrecht (IFHV) seit einigen Jahren gemeinsam mit dem Bündnis Entwicklung Hilft herausgibt . Der im Bericht enthaltene WeltRisikoIndex beruht auf dem Verständnis, „dass das Katastrophenrisiko nicht allein durch das Auftreten, die Intensität und die Dauer extremer Naturereignisse bestimmt wird“. Vielmehr sind auch „soziale Faktoren, politische Bedingungen und wirtschaftliche Strukturen dafür verantwortlich, ob sich eine Katastrophe infolge extremer Naturereignisse ereignet oder nicht“.

Obwohl im Index Nationalstaaten im Vordergrund der Analyse stehen, lässt sich die Formel des Index (Risiko = Gefährdung x Vulnerabilität) auch auf Moria übertragen: zahlreiche Faktoren wie etwa der bereits erwähnte unsichere Standort, die nur provisorisch errichteten Unterkünfte, der enge Raum, auf dem die Geflüchteten zusammenleben, die unzureichende Versorgung mit sauberem Wasser, Nahrungsmitteln, Hygieneartikeln (auch Masken) und die unzureichende medizinische Betreuung erhöhen das Risiko der Geflüchteten ganz erheblich.

Der WeltRisikoBericht geht davon aus, „dass jede Gesellschaft in der Lage ist, direkt oder indirekt Vorkehrungen zu treffen, um die Auswirkungen von Naturereignissen zu reduzieren.“ Das gilt natürlich auch und besonders für Griechenland und Europa. Denn anders als die Länder aus Katastrophenhotspots wie Subsahara Afrika, Süd- und Südost Asien und Ozeanien trägt Europa im Vergleich der Kontinente das geringste Katastrophenrisiko und hat die geringste Vulnerabilität. Griechenland hat zwar insgesamt immerhin ein mittleres Katastrophenrisiko und hat sich gerade im Bereich der Bewältigungskapazitäten in den letzten Jahren verschlechtert, doch sind seine Kapazitäten im weltweiten Vergleich hoch. Was in Moria also erschreckend deutlich zu Tage tritt, ist, dass diese Vulnerabilität politisch gewollt ist. Moria mit seinen unwürdigen Lebensbedingungen und wiederkehrenden Katastrophen soll abschrecken.

Aus rechtlicher Perspektive stellen die Umstände, unter denen die Geflüchteten in Moria leben, eklatante Menschenrechtsverletzungen dar. Griechenland trägt die Verantwortung zum Schutz der Menschen und ihrer Menschenrechte in Moria. Auch die Europäische Union kann sich dieser Verantwortung nicht einfach entziehen, indem sie die EU-Länder an den Außengrenzen bei der Umsetzung einer gescheiterten Einwanderungspolitik alleine lässt. Die im Internationalen Pakt über wirtschaftliche, soziale und kulturelle Rechte sowie Konventionen zum Schutz von Geflüchteten verankerten sozialen und wirtschaftlichen Menschenrechte verbieten es, Geflüchtete in unmenschlichen Lebensbedingungen ohne ausreichend Zugang zu Wasser, Nahrung und medizinischer Versorgung unterzubringen. Staaten, die das Abkommen unterzeichnet haben, „verpflichte[n] sich, einzeln und durch internationale Hilfe und Zusammenarbeit, (…) unter Ausschöpfung aller [ihrer] Möglichkeiten Maßnahmen zu treffen, um nach und nach mit allen geeigneten Mitteln (…) die volle Verwirklichung“ der anerkannten Rechte zu erreichen“ (Art. 2 IPwskR).

In Moria wird auf eklatante Weise sichtbar, wie unwillig die Regierungen Griechenlands und anderer europäischer Staaten sowie die EU-Institutionen sind, ihrer Pflicht und Verantwortung gerecht zu werden, die Menschenrechte von Geflüchteten zu respektieren und zu schützen. Moria wird damit nicht nur zum Sinnbild der Vulnerabilität von Geflüchteten, sondern auch zu jenem Ort, an dem Menschenrechtsverletzungen in der Europäischen Union am deutlichsten zu Tage treten. Die Verletzung insbesondere der wirtschaftlichen und sozialen Menschenrechte führt faktisch zu einer erhöhten Vulnerabilität gegenüber Pandemien und extremen Naturereignissen und zu einem steigenden Katastrophenrisiko; dies führt wiederum bei unzureichenden Schutzmaßnahmen zu weiteren Menschenrechtsverletzungen – eine Abwärtsspirale, die es zu unterbrechen gilt.

Humanitäre Organisationen sollten erwägen – jenseits der klassischen humanitären Hilfe – verstärkt humanitäre Advocacyarbeit im Sinne des Schutzes Geflüchteter zu leisten und ihre Stimmen noch lauter zu erheben. Das internationale und europäische Menschenrechtssystem bietet Migrant*innen einen juristischen Anhaltspunkt, um gegen globale Ungerechtigkeiten vorzugehen. Auf dieser Basis haben Vertriebene nicht nur Ansprüche gegenüber ihrem Heimatstaat, sondern auch gegenüber ihrem Gaststaat. Humanitäre Organisationen müssen sie dabei unterstützen. Aufgrund der derzeitigen Rahmenbedingungen ist die Unterstützung von Einzelfall-Klagen durch alle Instanzen aus rechtlicher Perspektive ein guter Weg Druck aufzubauen, der bereits von Menschenrechtsorganisationen gegangen wird. Darüber hinaus sollte die europäische Asylpolitik auch von humanitären Organisationen immer wieder mit Bezug zu den sozialen und wirtschaftlichen Menschenrechten in Frage gestellt werden. Humanitäre Organisationen müssen dabei wie so oft die humanitären Prinzipien gegeneinander abwägen und im Sinne der Humanität kontextbezogen entscheiden, ob das Prinzip der Neutralität in diesem Fall zunehmend geopfert werden kann: Moria ist nicht Syrien oder Afghanistan.

Author: Sonja Hövelmann

About the Author:

Sonja Hövelmann is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Humanitarian Action (CHA). She researches the Shrinking Humanitarian Space, Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus, as well as German humanitarian policy.



With the end of Grand Bargain approaching, there is momentum to rethink how to move forward on one of its commitments: greater collaboration and coherence among the aid sector. The blog discusses perceptions of aid workers and affected populations on the Triple Nexus, the difficulty of easy solutions and proposes two ways forward out of the Nexus fatigue: local leadership and a call for small.

Ways forward on the Triple Nexus: stop or go?

With the end of the Grand Bargain swiftly approaching, humanitarian thinkers have already began to ponder over what’s next with those policy commitments to reform humanitarian action made in Istanbul. While there are positive developments, especially on the use of cash and localisation as a principle (while operationalisation is a different story), many practitioners and policy-thinkers alike are puzzling how to move forward on the initiative of greater collaboration and coherence among humanitarian action, development cooperation and peacebuilding (aka Triple Nexus). There are few topics as controversially discussed across contexts as the Triple Nexus, with positions ranging from fundamental critique and distancing to welcoming the shift and embracing it in practice

Looking at two different surveys that collected aid workers’ and organisations’ views on the Triple Nexus, interesting dilemmas emerge that underline the complexity of the (meta-) policy and explain why the Nexus will continue to face hurdles.

A CHA survey [1] conducted among predominantly German NGOs and INGOs with a basis in Germany revealed that respondents’ perceptions are divided if the Triple Nexus is indeed an opportunity or a risk. Judging on the overall debate, a majority of 51% views the Triple Nexus debate positively as a ‘chance’ or ‘vision’, while only 11% perceive it negatively as a ‘threat’ or ‘overload’ and 34% are dismissing it as ‘the next buzzword’.

Key Learnings from CHA Survey Results
1. The Triple Nexus debate is very relevant – a majority considers it positively as a ‘chance’ or a ‘vision’
2. 70% see the unclarity what Triple Nexus means in practice as the key challenge to implement it
3. Almost half of respondents see humanitarian principles at risk
4. The majority of respondents encourages their employer to expand efforts in the peace pillar
5. A majority sees their employers as ill prepared to engage with peace

However, interestingly, when asked to evaluate the threat to the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence directly, more respondents were concerned: 46% regard it as ‘likely’ or ‘very likely’ that the Triple Nexus will pose a risk to the humanitarian principles. When divided by professional background, it becomes clear that the scepticism is more prevalent in humanitarian organisations: two-thirds of participating humanitarians were concerned about this risk being ‘likely’ as opposed to only one third of development professionals.

This scepticism may also be driven by the perception of two-thirds (66%) of the respondents, who think that it is ‘likely’ or ‘very likely’ that the Triple Nexus blends concepts of peacebuilding with those of security, counterterrorism and stabilisation. At the same time, despite a blurring of concepts being identified as likely, the same proportion of respondents (66%) indicated that engaging in Triple Nexus activities did not lead to a reassessment of civil-military cooperation guidelines within their organisation.

Also, in terms of organisational preparedness results are mixed. Survey findings indicate that half of the respondents (49%) wish their employer would expand its engagement in peace efforts in future programming. At the same time, the same percentage of respondents regard their employer as ill prepared to do so in several survey items. While overall perceptions on linking relief with development activities were quite positive (two-thirds think that their organisation is performing ‘well’ or ‘very well’), few respondents named concrete intraorganisational changes that expand expertise into the peace pillar. In fact, 54% of the respondents perceive the preparedness of their organisation to engage in a Triple Nexus as ‘poor’ or ‘not well at all’. On the same note, almost half of the respondents (48%) stated that their organisation made ‘no changes’ since the initiation of the Grand Bargain to enable a Triple Nexus approach.  In sum, a majority of surveyed practictioners considers the Triple Nexus as an opportunity that aid agencies should embrace in spite of related risks, while few consider their organisations as well prepared to do so, and know how on the in practice is still limited.

A common factor underlying those perceptions seems to be that many respondents perceive the Triple Nexus as a top-down approach or as Tarek Tawil put it “a lot of talk in meetings and conferences”. And indeed, a large majority of 70% of the survey participants identified the unclarity of what it means in practice as the number one challenge to implement a Triple Nexus approach. Spelling out the details of implementation in practice as well as robust reflection and learnings from different countries and contexts are only slowly emerging [2].

Similarly, a survey conducted by Ground Truth Solutions[3] mapping field perspectives on the Grand Bargain state that humanitarian staff perceive a lack of progress on humanitarian development Nexus. For example, the Bangladesh study on the Rohingha refugee response indicated that 52% of the surveyed humanitarian staff expressed doubts on effectiveness of cooperation between humanitarian and development actors in the area. Also in Lebanon, 57% of respondents saw room for improvement to work together effectively. Reasons named that hinder effective collaboration include highly competitive environments, politicised agendas and a crowded donor landscape.

But also positive trends can be noted: Analysis by Ground Truth Solutions states affirmative developments especially on multi-year frameworks and joint needs assessments which form a basis for enabling Triple Nexus programmes. This is good news because a frequently named barrier to effective linking is indeed inflexible funding.

Nexus fatigue?
Progress is difficult to measure precisely because the (meta-)policy virtually covers all aspects of international cooperation – from technical, administrative to programmatic changes as well as reorganisation required by almost every actor involved. While collecting evidence on what works and exploring limitations and opportunities in operational context are at an early stage, more sceptical voices are coming to the fore.

Tarek Tawil (2020) argues that the Syria crisis debunks the Nexus as a myth and warns that the concept is closer to a fairy tale in highly politicised conflict contexts than the actual implementation in operational context is proving it doable. But even when looking at less controversial or complex contexts than Syria, Ed Schenkenberg (2020) constitutes that discussions on the Nexus are unhelpful because they are divorced from reality. Yet, he also opines that the policy debates have become so dogmatic that they are overseeing opportunities of on the ground practices that are being tried and tested, perhaps without having a Nexus pilot emblem attached to them.

Yet, this is precisely the stumbling block of the Triple Nexus. The quest for easy solutions, one-size-fits-all approaches and widely applicable lessons learnt is torpedoed by the complexity and comprehensiveness of the approach, which does not allow for easy derivation from pilots to be applied elsewhere. And it is this quest of a reform-ridden sector which stands in the way of nuanced analysis.

More local ownership, more local empowerment
A way out of that dilemma, to me, is a recollection of the main aim of the Triple Nexus. Is it to increase efficiency in times of overstretched aid budgets? Or is the aim to improve the aid system from the viewpoint of the affected populations living in complex and protracted crises towards a more customer-driven approach? A hint: the Ground Truth Solutions survey on the field perspectives of the Grand Bargain concludes: “The humanitarian system is still driven by international organisations’ mandates and programme, rather than by affected people at the centre of the response”.

A frequent wisdom quoted when talking about the Triple Nexus is that the closer to the actual implementation level, the more artificial those siloes and mandates are. That the needs of affected people do not neatly fall into categories of the aid sector was a recognition and that their opinion and dignity should matter more a promise of the Grand Bargain. Hence, Nexus in practice will also depend on the success of the participation revolution and on an uptake in locally-led humanitarian action. Without those closer to the implementation level in the driver’s seat, the Nexus will remain abstract and bloodless.

Research by Wilkinson and colleagues (2019) on local faith-based actors in South Sudan articulates this evidently. They conclude that almost 70% of the interviewed local organisations were active in multi-sectoral, integrated programs often involving humanitarian, development and peace activities. The research highlighted that their positioning due to the understanding of the local context, their proximity to local communities and the sustainability of their operations is particularly beneficial to Nexus approaches.

But it is not only their sustainability that is eroded by the existing siloes of the aid system. Instead, the pressure to so-called “professionalise” has forced them to fit their work into the siloes, leading to sectoral and non-integrated projects, whose division they regard as artificial. To reverse this trend, greater involvement of local actors in decision-making process is necessary. Local actors advocate for more leadership at every stage of the project cycle but particularly when it comes to context analysis and community participation.

How this could be achieved and what would be necessary at every step of the project cycle to has been mapped out in a guide put together by Kittaneh and Stork (2018) of CARE called ‘Doing Nexus Different’. They have identified key aspects that need to be considered by implementing organisations when designing localised, locally-owned, bottom-up and impact Nexus approaches. Among more concrete steps, the authors suggest taking the following three aspects as underlying principles:

(1) localisation: empowering and utilising local actors and structures through bottom- up approaches, 
(2) local ownership and participation: seek input at all steps of the project cycle to include the voices of all partners and impact groups,
(3) politically smart: actions should be taken with recognition of local power dynamics and the goal of reducing social tensions (Kittaneh und Stolk 2018).

This would naturally result in a plurality of approaches that are rooted in local empowerment, local ownership and participation. To determine the feasibility of Nexus approaches based on context and setting should, however, be guided by global criteria. These could include, as mapped out in a recent CHA paper, perceptions regarding risk of politicisation of the Nexus, availability of flexible, uncontroversial funding or capable coordination forums or consortia – and most of all a local request for a Nexus approach.

A certain Nexus fatigue can be stipulated due to overload and difficulty of measuring progress and success. A dilemma which is also attributed to quality of available data. The few quantifiable data available, some cited in this text, stem mostly from perception surveys which are quite susceptible to recent experiences and personal opinions of the respondents. This makes it difficult to assess positive change which may happen gradually without us noticing.

Instead, this blog calls for two ways out of the Triple Nexus fatigue. Firstly, Nexus success is also linked to success in power shift and locally-led humanitarian action. It calls for further joined up thinking of local leadership and Triple Nexus approaches. Secondly, it is a call for small. If we think the Triple Nexus like a global (meta-)policy, it risks becoming a ticking-the-box exercise. If we allow for more contextual linking-thinking and nuanced analysis filled by realities and lives of affected populations, the approach, instead of becoming a phrase, is filled with meaning.

[1] Survey results are based on 101 answers from predominantly civil humanitarian and development actors. As the sample number did not allow for regression or correlation analysis, it must be noted that quantitative findings are only indicative of respondents’ views and opinions and do now allow for a generalisation. More information on further results and methodology.
[2] See for example country studies on South Sudan Quack and Südhoff 2020; Pakistan Hövelmann 2020, Mali Tronc et al. 2019 or an assessment of the New Way of Working among UN actors Zamore 2019.
[3] To learn more about the methodology and further results, please consult Lives in Crises (OECD 2019).

Author: John Mitchell

About the Author: 

John Mitchell is Director of the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP). With over thirty years’ experience in humanitarian action, he is a leading exponent of humanitarian practice and policy and led the ALNAP network for the past 15 years in its mission to improve global performance of humanitarian aid. He is well known in the humanitarian community as a key-note presenter.



In the mid 1980’s, I was part of a small group who accompanied the UK Minister of Overseas Development (ODA), Timothy Raison, on a fact-finding visit to emergency feeding centres in East Africa where millions of people had been affected by famine. All of us were profoundly affected by what we saw, but one thing that surprised me was that the Minister always made a point of asking local government officials if, when things returned to normal, they were in favour of free enterprise.

To me it seemed like an incongruous question given the gravity of the circumstances, but at that time the ODA was part of the UK Foreign Office. The Minister obviously saw aid and global politics as inextricably linked, and part of his brief to defeat communism, save lives and enhance the standing of the UK abroad.

Now, after the recent announcement by the UK’s Prime Minister to merge DFID back into the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, we have returned to similar territory where UK humanitarian assistance and national/geo-political interests will become bedfellows once again. The above announcement was greeted with an avalanche of criticism from ex-prime-ministers, parliamentarians and UK aid agencies, all of whom were upset and justifiably concerned about a long list of issues.

But for us humanitarians, the real worry is that mergers like this could mean that the principled allocation of humanitarian assistance based on need is more likely to be trumped by national interests. This would directly contravene the Good Humanitarian Donorship (GHD) initiative, which has been widely embraced by donor governments, all of whom affirm the core humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence in the financing of humanitarian assistance.

If such fears are realised, there could be serious repercussions. Not only could it reduce humanitarian assistance reaching affected populations, it could also increase the risk of harm for front-line staff. As the UN Secretary General has emphasised, principled assistance is essential so that humanitarian organisations can earn trust and acceptance among State and non-State armed groups in order to gain and maintain access and operate in safety. Of course, negotiating humanitarian space has never been easy whatever the institutional arrangements. Crisis situations are almost always entangled with a myriad of political priorities – migration, counterterrorism, trade deals, arms sales and so on – but common sense suggests an independent office would have more autonomy to make principled decisions than a blended hybrid. 

Some donor governments have found that the aid function combined with a foreign service, development and trade can, when managed wisely, elevate the strategic importance of aid and enhance impact.

Or there again maybe it doesn’t? Some donor governments have found that the aid function combined with a foreign service, development and trade can, when managed wisely, elevate the strategic importance of aid and enhance impact. Experiences from both Canada and the Netherlands suggest that consolidated knowledge can lead to better policies and a more connected approach. As always, challenges need to be overcome – including harmonising different sorts of expertise and working cultures, and managing a range of policies that have different speeds of implementation and types of impact – but the experience shows that it is possible.

This begs the question: who is right? Are humanitarian principles more likely to be watered down by national interests in an amalgamated office, or can they be protected and enhanced in a consolidated approach?

Unfortunately, the evidence base for this is thin. The development sector has created a principled aid index which monitors and reports on 29 DAC donor’s adherence to principled aid but, apart from DARA’s Humanitarian Response Index (no longer in existence), the humanitarian sector has no equivalent. The Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) – a set of commitments founded on humanitarian principles – has provided much helpful evidence from NGOs in key operational areas, but is not designed to address donor adherence to principles.  This should be part of the job of independent evaluations – but a major evaluative gap exists when it comes to assessing the degree to which humanitarian principles are upheld in practice.

Recent work commissioned by the UN shows that evaluations do address critical issues of access, security and protection but only six evaluations out of a sample of 142, explicitly provided a link to humanitarian principles. And almost never do they look at how decisions about allocations are made and on what basis, or how administrative structures influence decisions.

On one level this seems surprising as the humanitarian community has been discussing these issues for some time. Nearly twenty years ago, members of the UK DEC took the initiative by using the Red Cross/Red Crescent Code of Conduct as performance criteria in their evaluations of the Gujarat Earthquake and the Southern Africa Crises. More recently, the UN has commissioned guidance material for specifically evaluating humanitarian principles – and this has the potential to be extremely useful – but apart from a few notable exceptions, agencies appear to be holding back when it comes to commissioning evaluations that will really focus on these questions. 

A major evaluative gap exists when it comes to assessing the degree to which humanitarian principles are upheld in practice.

We need to talk about how to protect principles and do so based on good evidence. The international aid architecture is changing at a rapid pace and many people are feeling that old certainties – respect for humanitarian principles and IHL, a workable level of international cooperation and access to people in need – can no longer be taken for granted. At a time like this it is necessary to clarify and re-emphasise the importance of our values, principles and purpose.

Evaluating how humanitarian actors can best live up to their principles would not only build trust across the system and strengthen accountability. Over time, it could provide an evidence base to help us understand how best to manage future mergers so that humanitarian principles can be protected and enhanced, rather than diluted.

Authors: Christos Stylianides and Prof. Dr. Pierre Thielbörger

About the Authors:

Christos Stylianides was European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management from 2014 to 2019. He served as the European Union’s Ebola Coordinator since 2014 after his appointment by the European Council. He was previously Member of the European Parliament, the Parliament of the Republic of Cyprus and Spokesperson of the Cypriot government. Since 2020, he is Visiting International Professor at Ruhr University Bochum.

Pierre Thielbörger is Professor of German Public Law and Public International Law and Executive Director of the Institute for the International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict (IFHV) at Ruhr University Bochum. He is President of the General Assembly of the Network on Humanitarian Action (NOHA) and Co-Convener of the Interest Group on Human Rights of the European Society of International Law. 


COVID-19 is a crisis of its very own kind. Comparing COVID-19, for instance, to the Ebola crisis of the mid 2010s, one difference is obvious and striking at the same time: the Ebola epidemic never became a pandemic. Very differently, COVID-19, as we now know, has shaken the European family of states to its core. In this post, we want to address four related points specifically: the role of the EU as a global leader in the global COVID-19 response; COVID-19 as a challenge to ‘solidarity’ between EU member States and with a view to non-European States; the EU’s institutional responsibility for the pandemic; and COVID-19 as a crisis for the EU in a broader sense.

Global Leadership
The EU is the biggest humanitarian donor globally. It has by now also taken a leadership role in the global COVID-19 response. The successful donor pledging conference initiated by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, that raised 7,4 billion Euro and the EU Communication on a Global Response to COVID-19 demonstrate this. Indeed, common European responses in times of public health crises are essential. Ebola is a good proof for this claim. By taking the political initiative to facilitate the crucial regional cooperation of the three affected countries in West Africa (Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea), by establishing a European Medical Corps back in 2014 and by deploying European medical teams with doctors from different EU member states, the EU contributed considerably to preventing the Ebola epidemic to spread further – even if it is also true that almost all actors initially reacted rather late in the Ebola crisis inclunding aid agencies the UN, donor countries and, of course, also the EU.

In the COVID-pandemic, the EU must make sure that it continues to live up to its humanitarian responsibilities and commit to further financial investments in humanitarian action that confirm its leadership role – but also its solidarity with the global south. Against the backdrop of the indirect and longer-term effects of the measures against COVID-19, it will also be important to adapt the nexus approach that was actually developed in the context of armed conflicts and fragile states in order to promote the link between humanitarian action, peace and development to this new context, and make sure that aid instruments are flexible and complementary.

European Solidarity IN NEED
In contrast, the EU’s internal measures to tackle the health emergency in response to COVID-19, in particular in the initial stages, were rather coy. When Italy activated the Union Civil Protection Mechanism on 26 February 2020 requesting help, other Member States stayed silent. It is true that the Commission immediately sat down to adapt its legal bases in order to coordinate management of stockpiles of medical equipment, like ventilators and masks. But these revised rules applied only as from 19 March, and brought little tangible support. In addition, the Emergency Support Instrument was re-activated to apply retroactively from 1 February 2020. Nevertheless, all of it appeared as too slow a reaction to an immediate and overwhelming need. Absent a robust and convincing Union response, European States focused on national responses, incoherent and fragmented, rather than a common European response, as a compliment to national actions.

Solidarity is more than a naive aspiration. The European treaties themselves stipulate ‘solidarity’ for its members. Article 222 of the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) contains a solidarity clause that can be invoked if an EU state is a victim, inter alia, of a natural hazard (like a virus outbreak). The states are then obliged to act jointly in a spirit of solidarity and to assist member states who ask for help. Germany had early onwards in the COVID-19 crisis suggested to make use of this clause, but it never officially happened. (Even if it had been triggered, with all the member states affected, its practical use remains, of course, hypothetical). Regardless of Art. 222 TFEU being triggered or not, the question whether member states showed enough solidarity to the most affected European States, like Italy and Spain, is a painful one for them. The President of the Commission Ursula von der Leyen apologized before the plenary of the European Parliament for a lack of solidarity of the EU with Italy in the early days of the crisis. We agree.

One might add that solidarity beyond its legal meaning in Art. 222 TFEU should not stop at the borders of the EU. For a global leader, the EU must also display such solidarity to its global (non-European) partners – which is currently lacking dramatically behind. EU solidarity is also needed with the Global South.

The EU’s Institutional Responsibility
But, in how far then is the EU really to blame for this lack of response among member states? According to Art. 168 TFEU, the EU can only complement national policies and encourage cooperation in the field of public health. The EU thus only has a supporting competence. True power in the field of public health lies with the member states. The EU can foster cooperation and make recommendations. Ultimately what matters, is the preparedness of member states to act on these recommendations. In light of COVID-19, a competence shift appears rather appropriate, if not necessary, in times of pandemics. Such competence shift is at the same time not likely in the near future. The national welfare state is an integral part of national identity. Given the high costs associated with it, a further transfer of competences (requiring Treaty change) is not to be expected. It remains crucial that the EU makes the most of its given role and its existing instruments (such as rescEU) in this difficult situation – as history tells, the EU can make a real difference, as it did during the previous Ebola crisis. And we must not underestimate the political clout that the EU has: in this sense, the EU can achieve a lot even in fields where it does not have exclusive or shared competences.

COVID-19 as a crisis for the EU in a broader sense
Does this mean that the EU now faces a broader (legitimacy) crisis beyond the field of public health? We believe there is indeed such a risk. Populism is on the rise in many member states. We witness that the “foreign virus”, as it is sometimes dubbed by populists, is used to increase xenophobia and strengthen sentiments of nationalism. We also have to note unprecedented restrictions of fundamental rights in almost all member states. Travel restrictions, curfews and restrictions on freedom of assembly go hand in hand with significant changes in parliamentary and judicial procedures. Oftentimes these restrictions rest on unstable legal grounds that were not made for the case of a pandemic – a scenario to which they are now nonetheless applied. In many cases the end of these restrictions is also not clear. The EU must continue to point to these restrictions and speak out loudly and clearly where such restrictions are too intense, where they last longer than required or where they are even only misused for other political purposes. At least since the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights has become part of primary EU law in 2009 with the Lisbon treaty, the EU has become a Union not only of States, but a Union for its citizens. The expectation to the EU is then not only to facilitate public health. It is equally expected to promote fundamental rights – mainly within the EU Members States, but, as we pointed out for the case of solidarity above, also on a global scale.

The best way forward for the EU to maintain its legitimacy in a broader sense is thus not to focus on the protection of public health alone, but to take a more balanced approach. Health is an important fundamental right, in Europe but also globally, but there are others that are also challenged during the COVID-19 crisis. The EU must be a champion of all fundamental rights. In doing so, the EU has proven its resilience in the past. In its short history, it has (sometimes better, sometimes worse) managed and mastered several crises. If focusing on its core values – the social market economy, rule of law, democracy, solidarity and, maybe most importantly, fundamental rights – it can also overcome this one. p However, as discussed above, solidarity cannot stop at the outer borders of the EU. The EU must acknowledge the shortcomings of its initial response and show leadership and solidarity equal to the task at hand. The human costs of further failure to act out of solidarity would be far greater given the reduced capacity of public health systems in many states of the Global South. Global superpowers like the United States and Russia have proven to be unable or unwilling to effectively address the public health crises in their own countries, let alone abroad. Given the competition for protective equipment and ventilators seen throughout the crisis, it is clear that such a response cannot simply be financial. There seems little point to giving financial support while simultaneously driving up the cost for life saving equipment. Instead, solidarity, with a neutral examination of where need and capacity are greatest at its core, is a must. This needs to be at the forefront of any coordinated EU response to future outbreaks worldwide and, hopefully, to the distribution of a potential vaccine.

Author: Charlotte Faltas

About the Author: 

Charlotte Faltas is an intern at the Centre for Humanitarian Action (CHA). Charlotte studies International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at the European University Viadrina. In her master’s thesis called “The Legal Architecture of Counterterterrorism Legislation and Sanction Regime: Impacts on Principled Humanitarian Action” she deals with the legal tension between principled humanitarian aid and counterterrorism measures.


Impacts on Humanitarian Action and Opportunities for Germany

Over the last years, more and more humanitarian organisations are expressing their concerns about the (unintended) consequences of multi-levelled counterterrorism legislation, measures and sanction regimes on their work.[1] Paradoxically, whereas counterterrorism and humanitarianism both aim for the protection of civilians and therefore have a shared objective, they at times oppose,[2] leaving the room for humanitarian activity  increasingly contested[3] or shrinking.[4]

The troublesome relation between counterterrorism and humanitarianism was identified as a key concern by Germany for its two-year elected membership to the UN’s Security Council.[5] Germany explicitly expressed to prioritise the strengthening of the humanitarian system,[6] to mobilise UN-members to implement IHL, protect civilians and humanitarian workers[7] and give access to principled humanitarian action,[8] especially when drafting resolutions and laws containing counterterrorism measures or establish sanction regimes.[9] Given the rapid expansion of counterterrorism measures whilst global humanitarian needs increased more than tenfold since the early 2000s,[10] this focus is highly pertinent. What are Germany’s current actions and positions and what are further steps to be taken in order to effectively safeguard humanitarian action?

Germany currently takes active part in a multitude of international, multilateral and regional forums concerned with counterterrorism such as the UN, the Council of Europe, the EU, the NATO, the OSCE and the Global Counterterrorism Forum.[11] Moreover, Germany is a leading member[12] of the Coalition against Da’esh, engaging in military intervention aimed to halt ISIS activities, a non-state armed group (NSAG) designated as a terrorist organisation. Germany is now also the second-largest donor state for humanitarian aid,[13] with overall humanitarian funds quadrupling since 2014. These parallel developments arguably make for interesting possibilities for Germany to position itself as an ‘honest broker’ within this matter. 

The danger of criminalising and politicising humanitarian action
Aims to strengthen the humanitarian system and respecting international law, however, do not happen in vacuum: they are increasingly subject to legal and politico-military dimensions, placing the relation between counterterrorism and humanitarianism in a highly criminalised and politicised context. Current legislation now prohibits ‘material support’ to designated groups, jeopardising the flow of humanitarian aid and compromising the humanitarian principles. Thus, it will be argued that tackling these issues is crucial in ensuring consistency and unity in Germany’s ongoing efforts. The question arises how to effectively address the skewed relation between counterterrorism and principled humanitarian action and how Germany can build upon its generated momentum and current influence[14] by setting new examples of good practice that put the current worrisome developments at a halt. 

The vast increase of counterterrorism efforts,[15] translated into an extremely complex, incoherent and multi-levelled collection of donor requirements, sanctions, blacklists and legislation, is difficult to navigate for humanitarian organisations and the consequences on their work are far-reaching. These regulations severely impede the flow of aid, posing bureaucratic hurdles for organisations and depriving civilians from humanitarian action. More so, humanitarian actors increasingly fear criminal charges or fines. The hardening and severe expansion of counterterrorism requirements through legal operationalisation and criminalisation leaves less room to manoeuvre[16] and, consequently, increases risk aversion.[17] This, finally, impedes the access and execution of principled humanitarian action itself. Therefore, an obvious first step Germany could undertake, is a clearer a priori identification of legal pitfalls on all levels of legislation, but at a minimum at its own State level, guarding aid organisations through the current complex judicial architecture.

The lack of definitional clarity and unity does not solely limit itself to the question how terrorism is defined. It also adds uncertainty about how and whether to classify (or designate) an individual or organisation as terrorist and when (if ever) this perceived threat no longer occurs and de-listing can be initiated. By consequence, organisations trying to offer humanitarian action are drawn into these unclarities and risk being accused of aiding organisations and regimes deemed as terrorist and being treated accordingly. Both procedures are therefore ununiform and differ greatly between the power levels of which Germany is also part. This heterogeneity highlights how politically dictated these practices are, enabling the use (or threat) of listing procedures as political leverage.[18] An example of how perceived threats of listed entities are subject to change is that until 2008, Nelson Mandela and his ANC party were still listed on the terrorist watch list by the US and travel restrictions applied.[19] This, although he was released in 1990 to assist in the peaceful transition to majority rule in South Africa, ultimately being elected president four years later. Classifying certain individuals or organisations as terrorist is thus a highly political and in transparent procedure that calls for urgent revision – a stance Germany could emphasise more thoroughly in its current position.

The missing definitional consensus allows for States to employ a self-serving definition and a broad scope for developing counterterrorism legislation[20] tailored around specific state interests in terms of security, military and/or political goals. Both receiving and aiding states and other multi-levelled actors seem to favour a broad as possible ‘working definition’, leaving room for manoeuvre between ‘state security obligations’ and humanitarian action. Humanitarian organisations are forced to play along and abide by the rules, thus compromising the humanitarian principles as well as their neutral mandate. The latter would  gain more operational room by humanitarian exemptions, a potential solution to enhance differentiation between humanitarianism and other forms of activities that might support terrorism. Legally safeguarding humanitarian action, however, is still contested and complex and therefore requires extensive research – another issue that Germany should advocate for. 

Generally, within the realm of politics, under the ‘War on Terror’-banner, much seems to be allowed. The demarcation between what is morally right, legally prohibited and what is politically justified is highly unclear, with the latter usually given prominence. It also raises the question whether counterterrorism regulations are sometimes employed to justify actions questionable or even prohibited under international law[21] whilst severely impeding humanitarian action. Although deploying political tools to de-politicise humanitarian action may seem a contradiction, Germany must continue putting this issue on the political agenda and lobbying for international support for this. Only stronger legal embeddedness and clarification of obligations under IHL and exemptions can improve the current context toward humanitarian action retaining a de-politicised and de-criminalised status.

Potentials and opportunities
The coalescence of criminalisation and politicisation of humanitarianism, forming a blur of uncertainty, could trigger future conflict between NSAGs and states and unnecessary prolongate suffering of civilians in conflict areas. Aid organisations are incurring ever greater political and legal risks while navigating (inter)national legal loopholes and experience structural, operational and internal obstacles[22] in executing principled humanitarian action. This marks the great importance of finding a way to truly set an example on how counterterrorism and humanitarian action can both be accommodated.

Germany’s attempt to elevate attention for the strengthening and protection of the room for humanitarian activity and consequent principles should be viewed as an important step in the right direction. However, itsefforts are ineffective and skewed as long as humanitarian action is linked to (inter)national security strategies. The blurring of lines between military, political and humanitarian goals enables humanitarian aid to be used as an instrument of foreign policy or employed as a mere political tool for conflict prevention and resolution,[23] such as with the rise of preventing/countering violent extremism (P/CVE) strategies, whose political objectives are adopted into the UN and EU.[24]  Currently, anti-terrorism policies maintain this development, for example under the EU comprehensive security strategy and the UN’s plan of action to prevent violent extremism.[25] This calls for some internal soul-searching as it could bolster further politicisation and criminalisation[26] and cloud over the distinction between security and humanitarian objectives,[27] affecting the perceived independence and neutrality of humanitarian organisations. Therefore, it is crucial to place humanitarian action outside this current framework. Addressing it calls for transparency, openness and clear guidelines on how to navigate this interlinkage. Here lies an example-setting role for Germany, that could openly address this uneven balance in its own foreign and donor policies by clearly differentiating between political and humanitarian goals.

Ideally, emphasis should be placed on providing more clarity on the facilitation of humanitarian action under counterterrorism requirements. The first step is for Germany to take stance in the debate about how to systematically and durably include humanitarian exemptions in (inter)national legislation. Such (sectoral) exemptions[28] will aim to exempt mandated humanitarian actors from potential punishment for violations imposed within sanction- and counterterrorism regimes.[29] Legal embeddedness can shield these exemptions from becoming political. Similarly, it would be recommended to secure efficient monitoring of how counterterrorism legislation and sanctions are implemented and truly affect humanitarian action. This could be achieved by stronger organisational reporting mechanisms as well as promoting in-depth and objective research and political analysis.

In conclusion, Germany would have the potential to be an ‘honest broker’ [30] by seizing the opportunity of its growing importance to continuously address and counteract the impact of both the political and legal counterterrorism-dimension and their negative impact on humanitarian action through consistent policies and legislation, a coherent and transparent political stance in the debate and ditto actions within the humanitarian space.

[1] See for example the positioning paper of the Norwegian Refugee Council of January 2019, available at and this 2019 Humanitarian Congress panel interview, last accessed 12.02.2020. 
[2] Parker for The New Humanitarian, 2019, see note 1. 
[3] A term borrowed from Collinson & Elhawary, 2012. 
[4] As stated in the speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the UNSC briefing on safeguarding humanitarian space on 01.04.2019, see, last accessed 12.02.2020. See also the positioning paper of the Norwegian Refugee Council of January 2019, endnote 1. 
[5] The German membership of the United Nations Security Council started on 01.01.2019 and lasts until the end of 2020. 
[6] Other priorities were, for example, advancing the women, peace and security agenda and climate change and security policies. 
[7] This was particularly emphasised by the French-German Call to Action, launched in April 2019. See, last accessed 12.02.2020. 
[8] See endnote 2.
[9] See, last accessed 12.02.2020. 
[10] Südhoff & Hövelmann, 2019, p. 4, available at, last accessed 20.04.2020. 
[11] See, last accessed 12.02.2020. 
[12] See, last accessed 12.02.2020. 
[13] See, last accessed 25.02.2020. 
[14] See, last accessed 12.02.2020. 
[15] This development was significantly boosted by the events of 9/11. 
[16] See for a more detailed analysis: Roepstorff, Faltas & Hövelmann, 2020, available at, last accessed 20.04.2020. 
[17] See, last accessed 12.02.2020. 
[18] Elliott & Parker for The New Humanitarian, 2019, see, last accessed 14.02.2020. 
[19] Decrey Warner in Humanitarian Gathering, as noted by Elliott & Parker, 2019, see endnote 18. See also the official FBI Watchlist,
[20] See endnote 18. 
[21] Be it under human rights law, ius in bello orutilised to qualify for ius ad bellum. 
[22] This trinity of impacts was identified in the 2018 NRC Study, see O’Leary, 2018, p. 8. 
[23] Dany, 2019a, see, last accessed 20.04.2020. 
[24] O’Leary, 2018, pp. 18-19 mentions the UN’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism (2016), the EU’s Comprehensive Approach in External Conflicts and Crises (2016) and the UN’s New Way of Working and the Triple Nexus (2017). 
[25] See endnote 23. 
[26] Dany, 2019b, pp. 25-26, see        , last accessed 12.02.2020. 
[27] See endnote 26. 
[28] However, its workability is currently still debated by scholars and practitioners as some fear further limitation of humanitarian action, encourage bribery or misuse of the mandate by terrorist groups, see King, Modirzadeh & Lewis, 2016, pp. 8-9, available at, last accessed 20.04.2020. 
[29] King, Modirzadeh & Lewis, 2016, p. 8. 
[30] Südhoff & Hövelmann, 2019, p. 23.

Author: Ole Hengelbrock

About the Author: 

Ole Hengelbrock is Humanitarian Policy Advisor at the Disaster Relief Coordination Department at Caritas international. His main work areas include humanitarian advocacy, lobbying, and policy work.


The Corona pandemic has disrupted humanitarian aid overnight. At the same time, old difficulties remain. After and during Corona, it will become clearer than ever what levels of inequality can be allowed, both nationally and globally. And how deadly this inequality is. 2020 will forever remain a reference for what is possible with the right political will.

Humanitarian considerations that were valid yesterday are null and void under present conditions. Planned aid projects are being cancelled. Activities already taking place must be reorganised or stopped. The dangers of the virus push the primary reasons for aid into the background. Dr Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the Health Emergency Programme of the World Health Organization (WHO), therefore calls for decisive and uncompromising action: “Be fast, have no regrets. You must be the first mover. The virus will always get you if you don’t move quickly.” Caritas international has never received so many requests for help from all over the world at the same time. Rapid action seems to be the imperative of the hour. The pandemic is enforcing new priorities under great time pressure, causing dilemmas for humanitarian actors. And even more so for the people who are currently receiving no aid.

The necessary focus on Corona has bitter consequences. Already existing emergencies and crises have almost completely disappeared from the radar. Already at the beginning of the Corona crisis, over a hundred million people were dependent on humanitarian aid. 71 million displaced persons are on the run worldwide. The level of hunger – which had been diminishing for many years – started rising again. More than two billion people have no access to clean drinking water. Droughts and floods are occurring with greater frequency and intensity due to the climate change. Instead of preparing people for natural disasters, 80% of the ever-increasing demands for humanitarian aid must reduce suffering in wars and conflicts. In contrast, the funding gap is constantly widening. In 2017, a total of USD 23.6 billion were estimated, but USD 9.2 billion were missing. In 2019, the humanitarian demands rose to 29.7 billion US dollars, and the gap to 13.7 billion US dollars. The largest donor countries have reduced ODA resources in relation to their gross national income (GNI). Now they are also facing debts as they must cope with the healthcare and economic consequences of Corona at home. According to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, humanity is currently facing its greatest challenge since the Second World War. In view of existing and past emergencies, can this be weighed with certainty? Think, for example, of the immeasurable suffering to which, according to estimates, more than 2 million people succumbed in the killing fields of the almost four-year-long reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge. Or the suffering by millions of people due to the ongoing series of wars in the central region of Africa since the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. The greatest challenge facing humanity is the humanity itself.

Considerations and prioritisation in humanitarian aid are not new. Inequalities in the distribution of financial resources and political or media awareness are a reality. In the worst case, the decision as to who is helped and where the help is provided means that this help simply cannot be provided elsewhere. This results in “forgotten crises”. While the Global Humanitarian Response Plan (GHRP) for COVID-19, launched in March, was 44% full within one month with around $879 million, since the beginning of this year the aid plans for 36 individual countries outside the Corona thematic have only been covered to a total of 12%. The GHRP – estimated at $7.3 billion since May – was set up to prevent other crises from draining the funds. No issue should be sacrificed to others. But that is exactly what happens implicitly. After the pandemic, governments will be asked what they have done. Their answer decides on international validity. The contributions into the “Corona pot” show what is possible with political will. In addition to urgency and necessity, the outlook for political dividends counts. In times of crisis, positions are created. This seemingly never-ending dilemma is, as Albert Camus said, a never-ending defeat. In view of the existing possibilities, it should not come to that: in 2019, 1,917 trillion US dollars were spent on armaments worldwide. What else could be done with an average of 218 million US dollars per hour? On the question of priority, we are the “developing countries”.

The shifts in standards and the new rules of the game always result in losers. For example, vaccine deliveries through cancelled charter flights have fallen by up to 80%. Almost 120 million children could not be vaccinated against measles because of the Corona measures. Last year alone, up to 6,000 children died of it in the Democratic Republic of Congo. For local people, interventions against a single virus are difficult to legitimize, while at the same time people die from untreated diseases such as measles, meningitis, polio, or diarrhoea. Already at the beginning of the year, up to four million deaths were feared from HIV, malaria, tuberculosis, hepatitis, and neglected tropical diseases. Corona has so far been the priority of the Western world. Thus, an EU donor conference can quickly raise at least 7.5 billion euros for the Corona vaccine.  The question of relevance always arises on the ground. This is one of the reasons why the Congolese population was very resentful during the Ebola outbreak in 2018, which was ultimately directed against international organisations.

Suffering cannot be outweighed, because “all tears are salty”, as Janusz Korczak said. But it is to be feared that the negative consequences of the prescribed measures will end up producing more suffering than the virus itself.  Billions of people who work in the informal sector are primarily affected. Half of the world’s working population works on a daily wage. In India, as many as 90%. There are no contracts, insurances and reserves, nor are there any government financial aid packages. Countless family members live from hand to mouth. In Germany and other European countries, shops were closed for several weeks. Fashion chains terminated contracts with textile suppliers in order to limit financial damage. Textile production is the key industry of Bangladesh. The income of many people is barely enough to live on in any case. Global poverty could rise for the first time since 1990. The notorious 1.90 US dollars per day, otherwise the lower poverty line and an expression of harsh reality, could temporarily become an unattainable resource. The world is becoming poorer primarily in places where people are already far too poor financially anyway. Development Minister Müller warns of a “hunger pandemic”. During the Ebola epidemic in 2014, 40% of the arable land in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia was not cultivated due to the effects of the measures. This initially affected small farmers. Then food prices on the market rose. Something similar could now happen again on a global scale. The concrete problem of hunger is being carried home. In East Africa, swarms of locusts are also destroying the harvest of the coming months and the feed for livestock, often the main livelihood of the people.  Malnourished or undernourished children are risk groups for all kinds of infectious diseases. However, there will be no statistics for these cases. And even if there will be any, who will notice them? The measures to contain the virus correlate with the issue of food security. It needs to be integrated urgently into all plans and guidelines regarding Corona.

The key term is context. Measures must not be understood universally and transferred categorically. What works here is utopian elsewhere. Around 1.2 billion people – about 15% of the world’s population, or almost one in six – live in informal, densely populated settlements. Several households are housed in tiny apartments, which makes social distancing practically impossible. In Dharavi, Mumbai’s largest slum, at least 700,000 people live in two and a half square kilometres. The demand for hand hygiene becomes a mere platitude here. Should implies can. That is the imperative of this pandemic!

From this point of view, humanitarian aid must come to terms with regional, country-specific, and local requirements. In other words, Corona measures must be designed more locally and accountable. The question of whether and how planned or existing activities should be stopped, postponed, or reprogrammed must be answered locally. It may sound unrealistic for us to give away the basis for decision-making, but there are actors who know better what support is needed on the ground, who benefits from it, and how the aid should be structured. In many cases, neighbourhood help and own aid initiatives already exist. Just think of the 1 US Dollar Corona test kit in Senegal. Relevance and context are questions about the priorities and possibilities for action of the people affected. This must be accompanied by a “right of protest”, which allows people to reject aid projects without having to fear disadvantages. The situation is dynamic. Aid projects can also grow organically. This requires more flexibility in all phases. We must constantly ask ourselves how our assumptions came about. And yes, revise, correct, and emancipate. Humanitarian aid is not just a service, but first and foremost, a social interaction.

Again, and again, the question arises: what could be different after Corona? There must be no “after Corona” because the pandemic should forever remain a reference for what is possible with the appropriate political will: That tomorrow the world will not allow the same level of inequality as today

Author: Ralf Südhoff

About the Author: 

Ralf Südhoff is Directior at the Centre for Humanitarian Action (CHA). Prior to joining CHA, he worked for the UN for 12 years, most recently in Jordan as the Director of the UN World Food Programme Regional Bureau for the Syria Crisis. Before he worked as Advisor to Ms. Uschi Eid, State Secretary in the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.


In the midst of the global corona pandemic, the German Federal Foreign Office is celebrating a milestone anniversary. But not only the pandemia highlights: There is little to celebrate for the ministry.

Seldom are international politics as ubiquitous as in the current climate. These should be high times for German foreign policy makers, with as of late migration policies, climate change, Brexit, and corona being at the forefront of the international agenda. The German Federal Foreign Office (Auswärtiges Amt – AA) is commemorating its 150-year anniversary these days. But is there reason to celebrate?

COVID-19: a mammoth foreign policy task
With border closures across Europe, EU video conferences, and virtual G7 summits, many adjustments are being made in the political environment in response to the corona crisis. Global collaborative efforts are as critically needed as seldom before. At the same time, Berlin is representing its foreign policy as guided by humanitarian principles rather than national interests, as defending a rule-based multilateral system. Berlin perceives itself as a global player, yet a mediator of foreign affairs, with ‘values, ethics, and a sense of responsibility at its core’. Measuring Berlin by its own standards however, it becomes clear that also beyond the challenges of COVID19, German foreign policy is failing to meet its own ideals.

This is evident when examining the actions of the German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, whose main focus in current times is on the crucial repatriation of German holiday-makers, while we hear very little on the nightmarish scenarios unfold in refugee camps in Greece and Syria, or the threats for well over 1 billion people who live in overcrowded slums globally. -While such conditions worsen, NGOs and aid organisations are imposing hiring freezes in anticipation of dramatic decreases in donations. The result? COVID19 could become another global crisis that hits the poorest of the poor hardest. The new public community spirit, which has arisen over the past weeks, could remain a humanism of the wealthy for the wealthy – overseeing or simply forgetting those who fall outside this bracket, unless we make quick and concrete measures now to protect the vulnerable.

The challenges that the Federal Foreign Office faces, the humanitarian projects and opportunities to implement new policies, call for concrete action in these troublesome times. And yet these times exemplify discrepancies between the major financial commitments made and the rarely strategic engagement of German foreign policy makers.

In the tradition of checkbook diplomacy?
Former Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher once personified ‘checkbook diplomacy’, which lay at the heart of German foreign policy for decades. During this time, while Germany engaged financially, it did not want to engage in other areas for historical reasons. Today, criticism arises that while Germany claims to engage on all levels, it is not able to do so. The best example of this phenomenon can be found in an area of which the German Federal Foreign Office is particularly proud, but is overlooked within discussions on the Corona pandemic: its humanitarian commitment.

Germany’s humanitarian aid has increased sixteen-fold in the last ten years, with funding increases of more than 400% since 2015 alone. Berlin is now the world’s second largest humanitarian donor, providing approximately 1.5 billion Euro yearly. This increase in financial aid has led to increased hopes and expectations regarding Berlin’s global role in major crises, the latter’s supra-regional impact, and on issues of life-and-death importance for those in profound need.

These expectations arise against the backdrop of the humanitarian principle of giving aid based on the core notion of providing unconditional, neutral support to those who are in greatest need, which is being threatened to an extent unseen since the end of the Cold War. A German foreign policy would be crucial to defend humanitarian values, following the most basic notion and belief that the life of every person has intrinsic value and should be protected, regardless of personal status, gender, religion, ethnicity, or identity.

The fact that this basic humanitarian principle is drifting into the shadows, away from sight and mind, cannot anymore be blamed solely on the elites in Damascus and Moscow, in Riyadh or Tehran. Governments in Washington, Brussels, Paris, Rome, and Athens have lately shied away from core humanitarian principles with their own policies. Experts for good reason speak of a ‘Shrinking Humanitarian Space’ even in the heart of Europe.

In 2019, it remained almost unnoticed how explicitly Washington was instrumentalising humanitarian aid simply for political reasons (see Venezuela), and refusing to adequately support even the most vulnerable, namely children on the Mexican border. Similarly, there was a short outcry followed by profound silence when the EU decided to stop rescuing migrants drowning in the Mediterranean prioritising migration policies over principles. Then those civilian agencies and ship captains who tried to help were criminalised. Now the situation in Greece: For political reasons, the EU let overcrowded refugee camps on the Greek Islands sink into absolute chaos. And now Athens is suspending the basic human right to seek asylum at its borders, with the explicit consent of the EU.

And Berlin? Promises are made to take in some underage refugees. Some funds have been made available. Plus, it emphasises how it is lobbying for more human approaches.

In view of the major crises: no progress at all
As we can be sure the right motives are in place, specifically in the humanitarian departments of the Foreign Office: What interests and internal power dynamics are at play when powerful Berlin cannot convince Athens to build toilet facilities for refugees? Or when the German UN Ambassador after a year as member of the UN Security Council sums up that ‘with regard to major crises, we could not initiate any progress’.

While on the one hand lack of progress can be attributed to external factors, such as the veto powers within the UN Security Council, the focus needs to be on the ministry with its systematic lack of strategic capacities and staff. For example, when negotiations began at the UN Security Council on the Syrian Crisis, the only competent German diplomat was on well-deserved leave. The issue at hand is not purely anecdotal. Structural overload is a problem. While the Office has almost twice as many resources available as ten years ago, the number of global staff employed has increased by less than 10% in the same time period. The personnel reserve needed for crisis missions is currently 1.7% of total staff, far from the necessary 8%.

Currently, 73 individuals within the entire ministry are responsible for humanitarian aid worldwide, and less than 1% of total staff control approximately 25% of the budget. According to the ministry’s internal calculations, other donors invest twice (Great Britain), three times (USA), eight times (EU) or even ten times (Switzerland) as much into their staff, in comparison to every Euro in aid they give. One consequence is that the Federal Audit Office (Bundesrechnungshof) has revealed almost 2.5 billion Euro from the total budget have been spent by the ministry in recent years without adequate auditing. The proposed solution to solve this issue is the establishment of a new federal agency.

Furthermore, hardly any other country today has such a centralised structure as the German diplomatic service, despite having 227 foreign missions located around the world. Even Niels Annen, Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office, has critically drawn attention to the issue, questioning ‘How can we involve our missions abroad in the decision-making process here at our Berlin headquarters?’. Other donors no longer make important decisions solely in the capital; rather they have decentralised processes and involve experienced humanitarian experts on the ground in Nairobi, Beirut or Bamako. But Germany? When questioned by the parliament, the Foreign Office could not name one specific expert in any embassy who is responsible for dealing with major crises on the ground.

Moreover, as all staff are rotated, all staff members start from scratch on a new subject area on average every three years. The result is an absence of local networks and a lack of expertise, weakening the sustainable impact of major German initiatives such as in the Libya crisis. An archaic concept of knowledge management further hinders decisive action from occurring.

While the Office is currently moving forward with its new humanitarian strategy, emphasising opportunities for innovation and digitalisation, and financing innovation labs with hip slogans such as ‘failing forwards’, it still lives in a world of paper files. Even the sharing and parallel processing of documents on ‘share points’, which is common practice in every small start-up today, is still in the pilot phase within an organisation that houses almost 7500 employees. -The issues within the ministry go beyond management, involving differing interests and structures within the AA and beyond. Representatives have conflicting standpoints within the ministry and even within single departments. As an example, Department S – ‘S for Stabilisation’ – oversees humanitarian projects. Germany’s stabilisation policy however follows its own guiding principles and is structured around pursuing German interests over humanitarian values, focusing ‘primarily on the crises and conflicts that particularly affect German and European security interests’.

Take the Sahel as an example. The Federal Foreign Office describes countries such as Mali as a prime example of how ‘diplomacy, armed forces, and police operations … work with stabilisation and sustainable development projects towards a common goal’. Meanwhile, humanitarian aid workers on the ground strongly challenge this view. They perceive international involvement to be related to the West’s politically-based interests regarding migration, military, and security in the context of the fight against the Islamic State. For humanitarians, this stands in the way of NGO mission’s impartiality and neutrality which helps protect employees in volatile situations. Besides, those involved in this field, such as the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University, lament that the necessary expertise for ‘impacting dynamics of conflict’ through stabilisation policies has not yet been developed, and is ‘often still unknown, perhaps also uncomfortable terrain’ for the Federal Foreign Office.

Plea for a value-oriented German foreign policy
A foreign office that has the authority to implement its own initiatives and is united on core issues would be of paramount value within the Federal Government, surely also in post-corona times, since the roles of the Federal Foreign Office, the Chancellery, and the Ministries of Defence, Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) are often contradictory, and conflicts between defence and foreign ministers are now being discussed on the public stage. Moreover, the German predilection for strict compliance to rules and regulations halts progress that could be made. For example, efforts for closer co-operation between the BMZ and AA are limited due to conflicting requirements of the Ministry of Finance. The latter’s response to calls for better cooperation is an insistence that budgeting laws be met and tasks be strictly separated, and the application of the same transparency measures for humanitarian aid in Syria bombing raids as applied for the construction of kindergartens in Munich-Pasing.

Who decides on how Germany engages on an international scale, in ways that some hope, while others fear? Foreign observers have raised the question as to whether Germany needs to have a national security council that coordinates government policy. After all, who decides the outcome of concrete questions, when it comes to defending ethical values against political interests? When it comes down to weighing up what matters more in the case of arms export to war-torn countries – the millions of civilians suffering in Yemen, or shipyards and jobs in German Wolgast? When the decisions relate to providing corona-specific funding to the world’s poorest and not to focus only on packages to support the German economy? Who is defending humanitarian priorities and prioritising these?

Today in Berlin, in Europe, and in the world’s major crises, a German foreign policy based on humanitarian values, and a ministry that is strategically, culturally, and in its human resource policies appropriate to the 21st century context might be more important than ever before. However, how long the path to this goal is and how fundamental the issues to be fixed, was recently highlighted by Minister of State Niels Annen: After 150 years of existence, he declared it is necessary to create a Federal Foreign Office that exemplifies ‘team spirit rather than autocratic behaviour, collegiality rather than believing in your own superior knowledge, and feminism rather than patriarchy’.

How will the Covid-19 pandemic reshape refugee and migration governance?

Authors: Dr Kristin Bergtora Sandvik and Dr Adele Garnier

About the Authors: 

Dr. Kristin Bergtora Sandvik is a Professor in the Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law at the University of Oslo and Professor of Humanitarian Studies at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). 

Dr. Adele Garnier is a Professor in the Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University (Australia). 


Synopsis:  The blog identifies marginalisation, legal distancing and the ambiguity of care as the key characteristics of the Covid-19 pandemic response currently reshaping refugee and migration governance.

Almost three months into the Covid 19-outbreak, the impact is becoming clear: the pandemic will reshape the governance of international migration and forced displacement. This piece provides some early reflections on the direct and indirect consequences and possible post-pandemic trajectories. The geographical examples are selective, but we hope, illustrative. While responses so far vacillate between care and control, with an emphasis on care for domestic populations and control of migrant movement and interaction, there is likely to be a long-term impact of the proliferation and routinisation of extraordinary practices. 

Direct consequences

The exacerbation of marginalisation through herding, lockdowns and de-facto expulsions
Those in an already precarious position are further marginalised in terms of removal/isolation from the rest of the population.  The first type of consequence is the herding and lockdown of migrants in confined and overcrowded spaces without adequate healthcare for public health purposes. The Greek government is imposing a curfew on refugees and migrants in the overcrowded Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, as part of its response against the Covid-19 pandemic. As is well known, camps on the Greek islands were designed for fewer people than currently occupy them  and health services are already inadequate. In Australia, fears have escalated as a guard at a migrant detention centre  tested positive for the virus. While there have been instances of prisons being opened to let out low-risk inmates, we have not been able to identify examples of migrants being released from detention centres. Governments have also taken active steps to remove poor migrants physically from their national territory. In Norway, the Oslo municipality recently flew 140 individuals of the Roma minority back to their homes in Romania. Foreigners without a residence permit can also be expelled. 

The ambiguity of care
There is news of the suspension of deportations and better health coverage for migrant populations. Several countries, including Canada, Germany and the US have stopped deportations. The reasons for this are not humanitarian but point to impracticability, such as travel bans and putting the health of immigration officials at risk. While the long-term fate of deportees is unknown – some might be able to stay on for humanitarian grounds – they are being put back into detention centres with the same risk of contagion and lack of health care discussed above. At the same time, Covid-19 is being used as an opportunity to resist deportations, as illustrated by Guatemala’s decision to halt US deportations. On a different note, a side effect of more intense screening is an expansion of health coverage for newcomers in Ontario and British Columbia. This is beneficial to the newcomers, who are usually excluded from universal health care coverage during their three first months in these Canadian provinces, but it also benefits the wider population.

Covid-19 is engendering the closure of programs on a massive scale. The most serious onslaught of the existing refugee protection regime has been the suspension of international refugee resettlement. Both UNHCR and IOM state that  they ‘look forward to resuming full resettlement travel as soon as prudence and logistics permit’. Yet until they do so, no refugees will be resettled by a state willing to admit them. Pronouncements about the ‘death of resettlement’ are a regular occurrence. This time, however, and despite the commitments and promises made at the Global Refugee Forum to expand resettlement, the suspension occurs in the context of: a sharp decline of US resettlement, the unwillingness of the European Union (EU) and its member states to redistribute refugees hosted by Greece and Italy to other EU countries, and the increasing ‘offshoring’ of resettlement through so-called Emergency Transit Mechanisms operated out of Rwanda and Niger. Resettlement is therefore facing a struggle to make a the comeback that was anticipated at the 2016 UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants.

The Rule of law in the centrifuge
Another issue of high importance concerns ‘legal distancing’, which further entrenches the marginalisation and exclusion of migrants. This happens with opposing cycles of speed: great regulatory haste on the one hand, and an institutional slowdown of due process mechanisms and bureaucratic processing on the other. At present, the US is imposing a growing list of restrictions that are being adopted in a haphazard manner, with migration courts being closed and hearings postponed.  An Italian example includes a drastic reduction of asylum processing as only one person is being let in at a time. Many countries now just turn people away at the border and do not accept visa or asylum applications. The potential consequence is that a growing list of restrictions combined with systems ‘going to sleep’ may be converted officially to temporary and then permanent halts across a broad swath of migration categories and administrative processes.

Indirect effects
There will also be further indirect consequences from the many examples of extensive emergency legislations being rushed through domestic parliaments, allowing governments to rule by decree or threatening human rights. The new laws may contribute to a general democratic backlash with direct policy and regulatory implication for the migration field. One danger of broad discretionary rules is that the margin of interpretation is left to executive authorities with limited legal oversight or opportunity for legal recourse, and, potentially, the arbitrariness of rules whose application varies on an individual basis. Importantly this also allows for bureaucratic discretion with little or no oversight. While the problem of underresourcing, capacity-deficits, intransigence and disfunction are familiar challenges for refugee and migration bureaucracies, the adverse impact on vulnerable refugees, migrants and asylum seekers will likely increase. Furthermore, many ordinary laws already in place can have serious knock-on effects. As time goes on, we will likely see these kinds of examples multiply, and it is important that they are recorded and analysed.

Untangling logics and moving forward
In conclusion, while thinking about migration as an issue of global governance has in recent years been shaped by concerns about rightwing extremism, populism and the decline of solidarity, the initial responses to the Covid 19 pandemic in many cases appears to have fast tracked this political agenda.

Many of the developments described above are well-known to observers of international migration governance. While the 2014 Ebola outbreak embodied a very clear North-South dimension with respect to othering and the initial phase of the Covid 19 outbreak was characterized by a focus on China, i.e. Trump’s insistence on describing this as the “China-virus”, the rapid global spread of the virus has mapped onto existing patterns of structural inequality. From a scholarly perspective, this reveals complicated interfaces that will require some careful untangling. We end with three observations.

1. The first concerns the kind of work ‘biosecurity’ will do in the migration context and how the merging of a biosecurity rationale with national security maps onto the migration context. With respect to border management, open borders have now been re-constituted as threat-objects. The closure of borders (including borders within federal states, such as in Australia) is done in the name of ‘flattening the curve’ (ultimately, ‘saving lives’) and thus protecting the local as well as the global population. Multiple border closures are seen as a ‘biological necessity’ and careful attention will be needed to the evolving justification of these closures as well as their popularity.

2. The second is about emergent new combinations of political rationalities: a widely reported upside to the outbreak is an improvement in pollution levels and air quality and due to collapse in industry and air traffic, while some report a renaissance of neighbourhood socialization due to the decline of ‘predatory tourism’. It will be important to investigate to what extent this is combined with demands to decrease international migration, or particular types of international migration.

3. The third observation points to the likelihood of a global recession or at least the prospect of increasing unemployment and significant reprioritisations in domestic budgets in the Global North. This dovetails with continued inaction on refugee and migrant protection by many higher income Global East governments. Globally, it is notable that individual states have announced considerable expansion of temporary welfare measures yet so far international collaboration has been scant, as have been considerations for the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on international solidarity.