Aligning to the times: Bridging the humanitarian and development divide

By Dr. Tessie San Martin
July 15, 2021

In March, the international community marked the 10-year anniversary of the Syrian War. Sadly, Syria is far from the only place where children and families live in perpetual states of emergency. We live in a world in which the effects of protracted ideological conflict, natural disasters and climate change are shaping the daily existence and future lives of tens of millions of children, especially girls, who already face the greatest risk of physical, emotional and gender-related harm.

The death, destruction and human suffering created by persistent conflicts in places like Syria, Sudan, Somalia and so many other places require emergency responses that provide food, shelter and medical aid. And the humanitarian aid community has long responded, delivering vital assistance.

However, long-term civil conflicts and major population displacements caused by complex and natural disasters and climate change also raise questions about how best to address the cascade of longer-term economic, social, health care, civil rights and other challenges that emerge from, and in many cases perpetuate, the state of emergency. In brief, how can we address these key development issues in the context of such emergencies, ideally even as the emergency is still unfolding? To meet this challenge, Plan is collaborating with Relief International as part of a broader effort to explore how short-term relief and longer-term development programming can work together to serve vulnerable populations and build more resilient futures in the most fragile parts of the globe.

Humanitarian assistance: International development

Over the last 10 to 15 years, there has been a growing recognition that it is essential to think longer-term while addressing emergency needs. And we have a growing body of evidence that provides sound approaches to managing immediate response tools, like cash-for-work, in a way that supports longer-term efforts to sustainably rebuild infrastructure and labor markets. But making these programs work well requires more than new ideas for programming and thinking differently about “what” we do in emergencies. It requires thinking differently about the “how” we do it, including whether and how humanitarian and development actors are able to work within and through government systems and structures in places where government is often seen as part of the problem. Hence, the question is as much, if not more, about how we do the programming rather than just what programming we can do.

Humanitarian assistance is supposed to be apolitical and strictly needs-based. Development is by definition a political process and often builds off rights-based approaches to determine priorities. Humanitarian assistance and international development programming often have different funding sources, budgets, and timelines; the former characterized by 12- to 18-month interventions and the latter by three- to five-year projects.

In the face of modern challenges, the rules and lines that divide humanitarian relief work and development need to be rethought. As a former Plan colleague noted, “People don’t live their lives in silos, so we shouldn’t respond that way…” Moreover, the divide may itself be contributing to the endless nature of the crises. My colleague has it right: “If you want to change anything in this crisis, you need to address the root causes, while at the same time making sure you cover humanitarian needs.”

It’s time for change.

Talking about change is easy. Figuring out the mechanics of how to bring about such change in challenging contexts is something else entirely, but we believe a solid first step is through partnership. As a first step, Plan International USA has begun collaborating with Relief International to explore how our two organizations can leverage our complementary missions, expertise and geographic footprints.

For Plan, partnering with a humanitarian organization like Relief International means expanding our programming reach to more vulnerable children and girls in some of the most fragile areas of the world — including the Middle East, where historically our access and resources have been limited. It also expands our capacity and ability to influence government policies around child protection, gender-based violence and expanded access to sexual and reproductive health and rights in emergencies. For Relief International, collaborating with Plan strengthens the child protection and gender-sensitive elements of its broader humanitarian assistance. The partnership offers the opportunities to collaborate on essential relief and development programming critical geographies including the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin, Central Africa, and the Americas.

The world’s challenges in 2021 will not be solved with funding and programmatic divisions founded for another time. We hope that cooperation between two organizations like Plan and Relief International and their combined 140 years of experience — responding to the world’s greatest needs and partnering with communities to build stronger futures — helps bridge the perennial, and increasingly problematic, development-humanitarian assistance divide, creating more relevant and impactful programming for the world’s most fragile populations. Watch this space for more news as we continue to collaborate and learn.