Humanitarian policy and practice in a changing climate

Climate change is expected to cause an increase in extreme events such as droughts, floods and cyclones. Traditional humanitarian assistance has primarily focused on short-term relief and recovery in the immediate aftermath of disasters. However, this approach neither addresses the underlying causes of vulnerability nor sufficiently supports adaptation to a changing climate.

The project “Courting Catastrophe? Humanitarian Policy and Practice in a Changing Climate”, led by Siri Eriksen at the Department for International Development and Environment (Noragric) at the University of Life Sciences, addresses this gap.

The research gleaned several key findings:

  • First, vulnerability is complex, dynamic and specific to each situation, and may vary greatly between individuals within the same villages. Thus, our approaches need to integrate a sound understanding of the environmental, social and political factors shaping vulnerability in each particular context.
  • Second, the root causes for vulnerability must be addressed. This implies that humanitarian interventions must be conceived as a part of, and contributing to, ongoing development processes and this must be reflected in their planning and design.
  • Third, power relations are important drivers of differential vulnerability patterns at the local level. This underscores the importance of socio-political factors in determining local vulnerability and how these shape humanitarian policy processes and their outcomes.
  • Fourth, poorly designed humanitarian interventions risk reinforcing local vulnerability patterns. Importantly, such interventions are never neutral but interfere with the pre-existing social and political structures by which some people may benefit more than others. In consequence, also programs that are primarily designed to respond to acute humanitarian needs, need to take possible implications on longer term vulnerability patterns into account.
  • Fifth, preparedness and planning are key for avoiding protracted crises and ensuring early response. Investing in crisis prevention and preparedness pays off, and knowledge about the local vulnerability context before the crises hits buys time and is key when designing a humanitarian response.
  • Humanitarian actions potentially open up new opportunities for transformational change.  Humanitarian organisations have vulnerability reduction and vulnerable groups as their main focus and mandate and humanitarian actors often have deep understanding of the vulnerability context. Several organisations are shifting towards linking shorter term measures with longer term vulnerability reduction. Nevertheless, Rigid funding mechanisms tend to reinforce the sector wise approaches to vulnerability reduction. Donors often focus on measurable results from certain sectors, each with their own priorities and reporting requirements. The focus on measurable results also tends to favour technology type and short term ‘measurable’ measures rather than longer term vulnerability reduction. Through their principles of humanitarian principles and humanitarian exceptionalism - implying political neutrality – there are able to engage in conflicts zones and in order to reach victims from different sides of a conflict.


These lessons are being used to help develop guiding principles for future humanitarian interventions that can better contribute to climate change adaptation by using information about the complex climate and local vulnerability contexts in operational decisions.

International Conference: Humanitarian Policy and Practice in a Changing Climate


Published 2. December 2016 - 12:59 - Updated 2. December 2016 - 14:07