The end of the new age of humanitarianism: Insights from the Skoll World Forum

Bono, lead singer for the band U2, speaks with tech entrepreneur and billionaire Jeff Skoll at the 2017 Skoll World Forum in Oxford, UK

The world is in crisis, a loss of confidence in fundamental institutions and humanitarian values once thought widely shared that has confused those who want to emphasize global progress against poverty and inequity.

As one of the thousand or so attendees at the Skoll World Forum in lovely old Oxford last week, I went as a journalist hoping to gain some reassurance that the emphasis on progress was justified – that there was consensus on the cause of this turmoil, and on the best strategies for moving forward out of crisis.

Alas, I was not reassured.

In the interest of full disclosure, and fairness, I regard the Skoll World Forum as perhaps one of the better humanitarian confabs. Sure, it’s somewhat elitist (invitation only), with too much credence given to the views of celebrities (Bono was honored this year, as was Don Henley of The Eagles) and probably too much trust in rich philanthropists as saviors.

And, yes, few still seem to know what the term social entrepreneurship actually means. But unlike most such gatherings of do-gooders, a high proportion of participants at Skoll do venture out of – and challenge – traditional humanitarian comfort zones.

They feature speakers who move beyond the tendency for feel-good self-congratulation and thinly veiled organizational promotional blather to tackle some of the frequently neglected, disturbing or highly politicized issues of wealth and power inequality, corrupt business practices, failed governance or other structural drivers of poverty and inequity.

For example, here are a few comments from this year’s gathering:

  • Winnie Byanyima

    “As much as my heart asks me to be optimistic, I am uneasy about the world forming before us. I see the foundations of global cooperation, of global decency, that our world built not so long ago as shaky as ever,” said Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International. “We must break free from this economic model that’s rigged against the majority.”

  • Anne-Marie Slaughter

    “Right now, we are seeing more destruction than renewal,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, a foreign policy expert and CEO of the New America foundation, who contended the political lack of response to disenfranchised people in the U.S. is “tearing us apart.” Slaughter said the American political system is completely broken.

  • Michael E Porter

    “It’s not broken,” said Michael Porter, a Harvard business professor and co-founder of the Social Progress Index (a way to measure progress beyond just economics). “Our political system is not broken; Washington and our political system is designed NOT to deliver solutions…. It is designed to advance the interests of the system (those already in power).” Porter, ever the data geek, backed up his claim displaying a number of disturbing trends showing a highly unequal America in decline.

  • Jim Yong Kim

    “Unless we move more quickly in fighting poverty, in creating jobs, thwarted aspirations could move to something really negative,” said Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank. Echoing a concern raised by many at Skoll, Kim said a more globalized world has, among other things, exposed for everyone to see the massive and growing gap between rich and poor. “If we don’t meet those aspirations, you’re going to see some very ugly situations in the world.”

While Kim appeared to believe we can prevent such global ugliness by working within the existing economic-political system as against Oxfam’s Byanyima, who is among those who argue for major overhaul of a ‘rigged’ system, nearly everyone at the Oxford gathering agreed we are today in an urgent crisis.

It is important to note that we, the world community writ large, certainly have made progress on some fronts and in isolated regions. Progress is indeed possible and is happening, in places.

Many have heard of dramatically reduced ‘extreme poverty’ rates worldwide. Some critics contend this is a statistical manipulation using an arbitrary and absurdly low-bar definition of poverty, or mostly because of China’s economic growth. But most experts – or at least the most prominent pundits – contend the proportionate number of those living in the most extreme forms of poverty has declined, whatever the reason.

Many have also heard about how maternal and child deaths have been reduced, about how millions of deaths from HIV/AIDS, TB or malaria have been prevented due to expanded access to treatment and prevention. The field of global health, focused mostly on diseases of poverty, has had some fantastic successes.

At the Skoll forum, we learn every year of individuals and organizations doing extraordinarily good (and sometimes dangerous) work – fighting human trafficking, exposing corruption, scaling up simple methods that prevent death or disability, empowering the poor to stand up for their rights and so on.

Humanosphere has reported on many of these inspiring individual efforts aimed at making the world a better place – and will continue to report on them (to the extent we can within a media industry in financial free fall from a failing business model, lack of public trust and uncertain impact … but that’s another op-ed).

So why say we’re at the end of some new age of humanitarianism?

Obviously, humanitarians – simply defined as those who seek to help others as much as themselves – have existed in some form since humanity began. Religious organizations have done this for a long time. Governments have done foreign aid for some time as well (though not always for purely humanitarian reasons). Secular humanitarian organizations, like Oxfam, Care or the International Red Cross, have also been active for, well, I don’t know … a long time.

But I would argue that at the beginning of this new millennium, or just before it in the mid-to-late 1990s, we saw a new movement or era for humanitarianism. The number of NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) working in this arena exploded in the 1990s from several thousand worldwide to tens of thousands. Humanosphere was launched, in large part, to report on this burgeoning ‘industry’ and also make it more accountable.

As a journalist based in Seattle, I followed the rise of the Bill & Melinda Gate Foundation – now the world’s largest philanthropy and, arguably, the most notable example of a more business-minded approach to fighting poverty and inequity advanced these days by tech billionaires (and many who follow their lead).

At the same time as the Gates Foundation was rising to become a dominant force mostly in global health, an American political party hardly known lately for this sort of thing jumped on the bandwagon. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that President George W. Bush’s support for getting anti-AIDS drugs to Africa under the program known as PEPFAR, along with U.S. government support of the Global Fund, was globally transformative – making aid and development politically bipartisan cool.

Jeff Skoll

Jeff Skoll, who made his nut with Pierre Omidyar launching eBay, later launched the Skoll Foundation to make the world a better place through social entrepreneurship – by which he adamantly does not mean social enterprise, which usually means finding a business solution to social challenges. Skoll says social entrepreneurship includes social enterprise but is not limited to that. Yes, it’s a bit confusing.

So if I haven’t made it clear: The terminology in this community is incredibly fuzzy and fraught. It’s not just at the Skoll forum where well-meaning people use terms that sound wonderful and then seem to vaporize into thin air (the meaningfulness of the terms, that is; not the people) when you ask for precise definitions or specifics. This is a semantic ailment that afflicts the entire humanitarian community.

Why does this matter? Well, I think the fuzzy language problem is inherent to what I will call Humanitarian Agenda 2000 (to mark it as taking off around the new millennium) and derives from this new contingent of anti-poverty and pro-equity advocates seeking to emphasize that these endeavors are not charity. This is not about simply doing the right thing. It’s not about your personal beliefs.

Advocates of Humanitarianism 2000 generally wanted to transform the thinking around poverty and inequity to fit something closer to an investment mindset – an investment in peace, stability and (as Jim Kim likes to say) shared prosperity. Some have always felt this way; but the lingo has really taken off in the last few decades.

Such thinking is laudable and it has been a great ride, the last 20 years more or less of Humanitarianism 2000, full of hope and excitement, of innovation and ‘positive disruption.’ But is there convincing evidence to show it’s been successful overall, as a strategy? Or is it just rhetoric masking business-as-usual leaving unresolved some of the more fundamental drivers of poverty and inequity?

Put another way: Has something been revealed lately that requires a re-think of the fundamental assumptions in Humanitarianism 2000? There is, as Harvard’s Michael Porter will argue, plenty of evidence to show that we’ve not only not made progress but have been losing ground on many of these fronts in the U.S.

The regress Porter cited at Skoll didn’t start with this most recent election. So gaining back a stable, fair and truly democratic American society, he says, won’t be achieved just by getting rid of one fairly controversial president or defeating a particular political party. Something much bigger has gone wrong in the U.S., Porter says, that will require a new mindset – and some painful political and economic changes that may threaten those in power now.

Though Porter focuses mostly on how we’re losing ground in the U.S., it would be myopic to view it as confined to the U.S., or to national borders. There’s clearly a global sense that something’s gone off the rails, at least insofar as the world appears to be moving away from what might be labeled traditional humanitarian values.

Extreme forms of nationalism, isolationism, xenophobia and us-vs-them hate speech are some of the behaviors indicative of this anti-humanitarian trend on the rise worldwide. These disturbing trends may explain why, at the Skoll forum this year and in stark contrast to last year’s celebration of progress, so many attendees devoted to bettering human welfare and believing in progress looked a bit shell-shocked. I admit I am a bit dazed and confused myself. Kim warned of ugliness to come; some would say the ugliness is already here.

Again, there have been great gains made. At Skoll, participants explored new efforts launched to deal with critical issues from climate change to the flood of refugees – and even rescuing a struggling (or, some would say, largely failing) news media. But such efforts often seem isolated and reactive, with no coherent strategy – and sometimes appear to involve inherently contradictory political or economic assumptions.

The current era or strategy of many humanitarian organizations appears to have been based on the assumption that most social problems had technical or apolitical solutions.

The private sector approach generally was assumed to be favorable to shoring up governments’ role in ensuring human welfare, opportunity and equity, even though it’s clear that some things are more efficiently and fairly done through the public sector (such as basic health care, as cost-benefit analyses nearly always show).

Humanitarianism 2000’s basic assumptions of charting a better way also were informed by the rise of the web, the Information Age, and the win-win belief that we can fight poverty and inequity without having to resort to politics, without having to deal with truly redistributing wealth, with little (until recently) attention given to inequality or power imbalances – or other notions that require a messy disruption of the established order of things.

The Skoll World Forum’s theme this year, Fault Lines: Finding Common Ground, comes from the scientific field called tectonics – the tearing apart and collision of the massive crustal plates on Earth. We are definitely dancing on some big social and political fault lines these days.

But perhaps it’s worth noting, as we seek common ground, that tectonics wasn’t accepted for a half century or so as the primary cause of our earthquakes and volcanoes. Scientist Alfred Wegener first proposed this causal explanation around 1912. But it wasn’t until the 1960s or even later that most in the scientific community accepted tectonics.

So maybe there’s a need for this community to engage in some self-critical analysis, to decide if we should reboot humanitarianism, moving on from Humanitarianism 2000 to version 2.0, or 3.0 or whatever.

Perhaps we should start by identifying the fundamental driving forces behind this crisis, without taking the easy way out by simply blaming it on external forces of darkness and addressing only the cracks appearing on the surface. You can’t arrive at a solution, as they say, if you don’t first accurately define the problem.

If my sense of the community at the Skoll forum is any indication, it may be time for a new theory of change.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.