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From 2003 to 2023: some key elements of humanitarian action in the 21st century


Since the IECAH and MSF Spain began preparing and publishing the two-yearly Report on Humanitarian Action in the early years of this century, the international scenario has undergone significant changes, both geopolitically and in terms of the threats faced. With the climate crisis, extreme poverty and inequality, along with situations of fragility and violence as the most obvious, the world today is quite different from the one we used to know. This has had important repercussions in humanitarian affairs. While it’s true that “twenty years is nothing,” as the tango lyrics say, in certain areas, in the humanitarian field, things change rapidly. Looking back at the last 20 years, we can see that the necessary capacity for adaptation that humanitarian action has had since its inception has accelerated in these two decades, and many issues that were considered immutable or stable have been modified significantly.

Humanitarian action, as reflected in this year’s report, has grown in funds and institutional complexity and has been incorporating aspects such as decolonial approaches, intersectionality, or localization that were not present, or were a minority or testimonial, two decades ago. However, some debates persist, and issues related to principles, legal frameworks, protection of affected populations, and efforts to avoid instrumentalization, politicization, or manipulation of aid, among others, have had to be revisited.

Along these lines, this article aims to give a panoramic view, based on the experience and lessons learned in these years, on some of the key elements that allow us to understand the challenges that humanitarian action faces today, as well as some of the initiatives and proposals underway to address them. Over these years, we have encountered questions or doubts from some readers, journalists, or professionals from other areas of solidarity, related to preconceived ideas about humanitarian action. Some relate it only to emergency aid, others always link it with development efforts, some interpret it as short-term assistance, and some undervalue humanitarian principles or consider them outdated. In short, this article aims to respond succinctly to some of these concerns, defining the role that humanitarian action plays today.

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