The Refugee Part 1: The Disruption Is Here

The international humanitarian system has been failing. Maybe now we can change.

Daniel Wordsworth
Becoming Alight


The Mahama Refugee Camp in Rwanda, home to more than 50,000 refugees from Burundi.

“It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” W. Edwards Deming

“Think about this, the twenty first century is an endless march against those who thought they were in power. From the music industry and Napster to politics today.” Bob Lefsetz

The international humanitarian system has been failing. Maybe now we can change.

Our industry is largely trapped in a past era. Our values and methods — well-intentioned and effective when designed in the 20th century — are now deeply disconnected from today’s realities and needs. Yet, for too long, we have been unable to imagine and articulate a radically more effective way of functioning. Instead, we keep employing many of the same basic approaches, too often only tinkering at the margins and calling it innovation.

But what if we had an opportunity to fundamentally change the basic assumptions from which we operate, and to “reboot the system?” What if we could look afresh at our traditional restraints?

I believe that today’s era of populism — the profound questioning of the establishment in politics, society, and the media — gives us this exact type of opportunity.

To understand this dynamic, I’ll borrow a story from the philanthropist and activist Farhad Ebrahimi about gravity. Those who have read science fiction know that people living in outer space rely on artificial gravity to get by. Without it, you couldn’t exercise, sleep or undertake those activities deemed “normal” for human life. But what happens when you turn that gravity off?

Well, you end up with a situation that looks a lot like what we have here on Earth, right now.

When you turn off the artificial gravity, you find, of course, that people and objects become immediately suspended in space. But you also find that, while the absence of gravity makes some activities more difficult (try exercising now), it can at the same time make other tasks much easier. Things that were previously totally immovable due to their weight can now be pushed, pulled, altered, or cast aside. When the entire system is pulled towards one center and you suddenly eliminate the restraint of gravity, the old rules no longer apply.

Right now, we are undergoing such an untethering. Publics are challenging traditional institutions — the United Nations, the EU, national governments. They are voting out incumbent politicians and questioning the very legitimacy of the post-war order and its values.

But, for the humanitarian community, this moment — as brutal as it is, and as harmful it may be to the world’s poorest — may offer a way to escape the ideological prison in which the industry has been trapped. At the American Refugee Committee, which I lead, we believe that if organizations like ours are going to make any difference, we need to embrace this disruption and use it to identify our flawed ways of thinking and doing, move them weightlessly aside, and replace them with a better model.

So what needs to change? I believe that we’ve gotten several assumptions wrong.

- I believe that it is not enough to meet refugees’ basic, physical needs — we must also ensure people are heard, are able to build connections with their new communities, and can find purpose in their existence.

- I believe that the focus on technocratic approaches is narrow-minded, oriented toward minimums, too divorced from human aspirations, and insufficient in the face of complexity.

- I believe that more money does not equal more impact, and that many of the system’s funding mechanisms have evolved to the point where they are devoid of soul, robotic in implementation, and wasteful through ambitions to scale.

- I believe that professionalization, specialization, and replication — the holy trinity of humanitarian response — are too often brutish in their distance, mundane in their design, and create programs that are fundamentally unaccountable to the people they attempt to serve.

- I believe we must challenge our dependence on our official donors — their funding, and more importantly, our dependence on their ideas. Instead we must recapture the pioneering spirit of the people that founded our organizations. We must create new venues for co-creation that allow our organizations, our funders and the people we serve to sit together and envisage something better.

We have an opportunity to remember and return to our best selves in service to refugees: to recapture our industry’s “soul”, to realign ourselves to our founding mission, to serve as a channel of idealism for everyday people, to define value and meaning the way refugees want it defined, and to see refugees as individuals with real aspirations and identities.

This moment will not last forever. The humanitarian community must use this time wisely, creating a new organizational configuration that would have been impossible to construct while gravity was still in effect — one that is designed to confront our field’s emerging problems in a way that is accountable to people, bold in scope and vision, and radically new. The organizations that can navigate this moment and use it to realign themselves to a person-centric vision and to find new engines of growth will survive. Those who do not adjust, will not.

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be posting more about what this new vision for what the humanitarian community could look like. Check back here next week.