Humanitarian Needs and Priorities: Debates and Dilemmas

By: Katherine Marshall

March 18, 2024

Hugo Slim is a thoughtful scholar-practitioner and thought-provocateur who thinks deeply about ethical issues around humanitarian action, deeply rooted in his experience in the field. Formerly at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva, he is now at Oxford University where his current tasks include writing a book on humanitarian ethics and climate change.

In early March, with IMPACT Initiatives and sponsored by the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies (NCHS), he was in Geneva for a series of roundtable discussions. These were grounded in two recent documents: A paper published by the NCHS and a recent blog on humanitarian prioritization for the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin.

Slim was in Geneva for several roundtables, including a grouping of governments hosted by Norway. I participated in a robust discussion of humanitarian challenges and ethical and practical issues involved at the World Council of Churches (WCC). A “faith voice” was very much present at the table (with some joining online).

The WCC discussion focused on the views of faith-based organizations on what constitutes “humanitarian need” and how best to prioritize between different needs and different contexts. Slim’s introduction focused on the central dilemma of rising humanitarian needs and declining relative resources—a tragic comment was cited that organizations must cut support to the hungry to feed the starving. He posed the challenge that, while currently some 80% of humanitarian aid is linked to conflict situations, this can obscure the enormous future needs that seem inevitably on the horizon. Slim’s basic arguments, deliberately rather provocative in nature, argued for a sharper definition of “needs,” appreciating some merit in “proximity” as a legitimate ethical principle for providing assistance, and an urgent need to give far more focus to prevention than simply to responding to crisis after crisis.

Among Slim’s points:

  • Entrenched 30- to 40-year-old “habits” of the humanitarian institutions may prevent fresh thinking and needed adjustments.
  • The overlapping systems for humanitarian, peacebuilding, climate, and development support complicate assessments.
  • We need to “name the worms in the can” as we think about different and competing priorities.
  • “Needs” is a straightforward but also a tricky word, with weak and strong meanings. He sees danger in a “Christmas tree” of needs extending well beyond life-saving. He distinguished needs from wants, desires, and preferences.
  • Slim’s focus is on protecting life and health as the central humanitarian goal, together with ensuring respect for the human being. The goal is life saving and keeping, not life “making,” satisfying, or optimizing.
  • He stressed four needs: health, social, survival capability, and systems, in addition to the importance of looking to systems as well as individuals.

The meeting was well attended (in person and online), with resonance to Slim’s points but also sharp rejoinders. These focused both on the basic ethics involved in choosing among different demands and some of the optics of, for example, accepting proximity as a reasonable criterion (everyone is our neighbor, Luke, the Good Samaritan). Some are fearful of giving governments a way out, to reduce support.

  • Resistance to sharply defining needs as context matters so much; needs can’t be fit into “boxes.”​
  • “Everyone hates proximity” as a norm but it reflects, at least to a degree, a reality of human nature. Comment that what is of greatest concern is the three who simply walk by someone in need in front of their eyes.
  • Need to include those affected, amplify voices.
  • Real need for better data, more disaggregated.
  • Arguments made to focus on rights more than needs.
  • Focus on the importance of taking spiritual needs better into account.
  • Appreciation for dilemmas, including accusations of inflating needs and weak mechanisms to address corrupt practices.
  • Appreciation of need for accountability.
  • Urge to strengthen advocacy.
  • No good answers are available. Need to focus on what we do and how we do it, and to start principles applied at home.

Conclusions? Much more discussion is needed! There was also a call for a more intelligent, nuanced discussion about localization. While there has been progress, there is still a large need for better bridges among the different “domains” of humanitarian and development action, as well as agreement on sharper focus on prevention in all its dimensions.

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