FEEDBACK – “Are Humanitarian NGOs going extinct?”

Posted by: on May 19, 2017 | No Comments

On May 11th 2017, a Paris-based think-tank organized a conference, followed by a debate, entitled “Are humanitarian NGOs going extinct?” Handicap International Foundation was present to challenge that assumption.


L’Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques (IRIS) is a French think tank, entirely private and thus entirely independent. The Institute has set up its own network of specialists, a pool of researchers whose expertise spans the realms of humanitarian action, development, security issues, energy policies and many more. Since May 2014, IRIS regularly organizes within its premises what it calls “Stand’Up on humanitarian issues” (Les Stand-Up de l’humanitaire), a space for discussion and vivid debates, open to all, and led by experts in their field.

Facilitator Michel Maietta standing in front of the three speakers

12th “StandUp de l’humanitaire” with Michel Maietta, IRIS Senior Research Fellow and facilitator, Bénédicte Hermelin, Executive Director of Coordination SUD, Eric Berseth, Director of Philanthropy Advisors and Vincent Taillandier, former Director of operations at Action contre la Faim © IRIS

On May 11th 2017, the 12th edition of IRIS’ Stand-Up revolved around the idea humanitarian NGOs were going extinct. Eric Berseth, Director of Philanthropy Advisors, and Vincent Taillandier, a former Director of operations at Action contre la Faim (ACF) defended this idea, claiming that the private sector will eventually replace humanitarian actors since it was, among other things, less avert to change, more prone to embrace new technologies and overall more likely to adapt to the challenges of tomorrow. On the other hand, Bénédicte Hermelin, Executive Director of Coordination SUD, defended humanitarian NGOs highlighting the fact that not all NGOs are alike : some do take great risks, including financial risks, to ensure they can deliver emergency relief; others are incorporating new technologies into their strategy, or develop new, advanced tools; some even do both… and more !

Sonia Zdorovtzoff, Watch and Policy Officer at Handicap International Foundation, seconded that assumption, providing examples from Handicap International’s activities. Among other things, she mentioned the work of HI’s Innovation and Knowledge Management Unit, whose ground-breaking app (usable on cell phones and tablets) facilitates collecting data on beneficiaries’ background and needs.

But more importantly, the Foundation’s position was to discuss what it really means to work hand in hand, or alongside, the private sector. This relatively new actor of the humanitarian and development sector can be a partner. Handicap International is financed by numerous private companies; it also works alongside large corporate groups to develop forward-looking initiatives such as FABLife, launched twenty years ago with Leroy Merlin, a French home improvement and gardening retailer. If the private sector can foster initiatives driven by NGOs, by providing financial support for instance, it can also be a competitor, especially when it captures public development and humanitarian aid NGOs could have used to provide emergency relief to those in need.

The Foundation is currently drafting a position paper on this issue, and thus warmly welcomed IRIS’ initiative to discuss the impact of the private sector on the development and humanitarian field. However, it may be slightly more critical than some of the speakers in its final findings. Until then, feel free to watch the video broadcast available here.


Eric Berseth speaking in front of the audience at IRIS

12th “StandUp de l’humanitaire” with Eric Berseth, Director of Philanthropy Advisors, taking the floor © IRIS