The constellation of UN agencies, non-governmental organizations and local  actors that respond when people’s lives are upended by a natural or manmade disaster is what we refer to as the humanitarian aid sector. Think:aid agencies that rush in supplies after an earthquake or provide food, shelter and medicine to people displaced by conflict.

That’s humanitarianism.  And in the relatively short history of modern humanitarianism, great crises have often inspired reform in how the international community approaches emergency situations.

My guest today, Jessica Alexander, wrote a sweeping review of how big crises over the last thirty years have compelled the humanitarian aid sector to change how it operates. Her article culminates with a discussion of how the current COVID crisis is forcing a new kind of reckoning in the aid sector.

Jessica Alexander is a longtime humanitarian worker and editor of The New Humanitarian’s Rethinking Humanitarian Series, which is where her article appears. Jessica Alexander is also the author of a book that I would highly recommend called Chasing Chaos: My Decade in and Out of Humanitarian Aid, which offers some really fascinating grounds-eye insights into the world of humanitarian aid.

We kick off our conversation discussing how the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide in the mid 1990s gave rise to a more formalized humanitarian aid sector. We then discuss how big crises like the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and the 2010 Haiti Earthquake forced changes to how international humanitarian relief operates, before having a conversation about how COVID might force some fundamental changes in the aid sector.

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