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Canada’s Humanitarian Sector Gears up to Adapt and Innovate


By Ruchika Arora

Adaptation. Innovation. These two words are usually associated with the private sector. It’s a well-practiced mantra that business, management and employees must adapt and innovate in order to thrive in the frenetic global marketplace. Now there are signs that the humanitarian sector is cautiously following suit.

Made up of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that deliver aid and assistance during human-made and natural disasters, the sector is vast. Ironically, it’s also at a crisis point: It not only faces more demands on its resources, but more complex problems related to climate change, conflict and extremism that simply have no easy solutions. To weather these changes, the Canadian humanitarian sector is coming together to learn how adaptation and innovation can improve its ability to respond effectively to the record number of people in need of assistance.

The second annual Canadian Humanitarian Conference, held at the Aga Khan Foundation of Canada in Ottawa from Dec. 4-5, was the result of intense collaboration led by the Humanitarian Coalition and its five core member NGOs: Care, Oxfam Canada, Oxfam Quebec, PLAN and Save the Children. Founded in 2007, the the coalition “brings together Canada's leading aid agencies to finance relief efforts in times of international humanitarian crises”; it calls itself a “one-stop shop” for individual Canadian donors. The conference is also emerging as the one-stop shop for Canadian humanitarians to meet and exchange knowledge and know-how; yet, it’s also where humanitarians can build relationships with practitioners from vastly different sectors that wish to support humanitarian goals.

Accordingly, cross-sector collaboration was a recurring theme of the conference. As experienced as they are, humanitarian organizations can still afford to learn from the private sector. Assembled for the second opening plenary, delegates heard Valerie Amos, U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs & Emergency Relief Coordinator, declare: “We must reform.”

Humanitarian workers restore lives and dignity, Amos reassured delegates, but changes in the world demand that the sector reform itself to stay relevant. As she pointed out: Over the last 10 years, the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance has tripled; displaced people spend an average of 17 years in displacement; attempts to politicize humanitarian work has become all too common; and, finally, women and children are the face of the crisis. Inviting businesses to help it respond better to emergencies by sharing “resources, expertise, and technology," the conference would put the Canadian humanitarian sector on a path of genuine adaptation and innovation that -- one hopes -- results in greater, sustained impact on people’s lives.

I’m not a humanitarian worker. I’m a budding sustainable development researcher who wishes to understand why humanitarian crises happen in the first place; that’s a challenging task. However, the sectors are undeniably linked as both pursue an international development agenda that aims to basically improve people’s quality of life. Of course, this aim is highly political as everyone will not agree on what constitutes “quality of life.”

I attended the conference to learn how my colleagues, bound by the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence, perceive the impact of their work. There is no question that we both wish crises could altogether be avoided. The reality is that we are both - researcher and practitioner - needed to help untangle the problems and identify root causes. There remains a development-humanitarian divide that needs to be bridged.

The cross-sector partnership panels provided highly interesting perspectives on how NGOs can deepen their collaborations with urban planners and engineers, on the one hand, and corporations like MasterCard and Ericsson, on the other. Panelists demonstrated respect and openness yet remained grounded. Reminding delegates that NGOs possess “reputational capital,” Rosemary McCarney of PLAN Canada warned that they would need to choose partners wisely if they wished to protect that capital. The issue of mutual benefit is central to these partnerships, perhaps more so if businesses wish to do more than offer cash donations. Sorting out those benefits shouldn’t serve as an obstacle to working together though it might mean that trust and understanding among partners needs to be built up first. This inevitably takes time and perseverance as misunderstandings surely will occur; however, if CHC2014 is any indication of the humanitarian sector’s desire to reform, it will, in due course.

The conference energized delegates, many of whom were returning to the field that very week. We should see the dynamic conversations begun inside the conference hall develop outside, where, let’s face it, adapting and innovating really matter. The CHC, in spite of being just 2 years old, is creating the foundation for a new chapter in the decades-long story of Canada’s contributions to the global humanitarian system. Canadians should be proud that their NGOs see generous collaboration as the way forward.

Ruchika Arora is a former activist-teacher trained in the International Baccalaureate system. In 2013, she took the bold step of launching a freelance writing and research career whilst enrolled as an MSc sustainable development student with the Centre for Development, Environment and Policy at the School of Oriental & African Studies (UK). Ruchika is presently involved with strategy development for the Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series. She is keen to see how the private sector expresses its commitment to genuine sustainability in Canada and abroad. Ruchika is also an Associate at Open Spaces Learning, a Canadian change management firm helping companies realize business and social impact. Twitter: @Oh_Womyn. @OpenSpacesLearn

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