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A New Age of Humanitarianism

A new report by Dr Simon Western (Eco-Leadership Institute), commissioned by the Humanitarian Leadership Academy and Save the Children.

From Paternalism to Eco-Mutualism

Author: Dr Simon Western, The Eco-Leadership Institute. Report commissioned by the Humanitarian Leadership Academy and Save the Children.

Part One

Part one sets out the aims, and then summarises the humanitarian sector, placing it within a broader social context. Our entangled environmental, technological and social ecosystems are continually disrupting our world and we move towards a new paradigm, from late modernity to the Precarious-Interdependence Age (P.I. Age). The report navigates this process, setting out the challenges and identifies EcoMutualism as a new age of humanitarianism that can address these challenges.

Modernity’s Gaze

Humanitarianism has had many successes and has grown exponentially. However, there are many critiques and concerns about the future of humanitarianism. This report shortcuts the critiques, setting out an argument that the biggest challenge the sector faces is to transcend its attachment to the ideology of modernity. The current state of humanitarianism is pervaded by modernity’s discourses such as, rationalisation, control, hierarchy, bureaucracy, centralisation, paternalism, instrumentalism, audit and target culture, neo-colonialism and so on.

In recent years, humanitarian governance has also become entangled with the desires of big government donors. This results in a lack of agility, innovation and of positive relational engagement with many local actors. The sector feels ‘stuck’, unable to escape limited and binary ways of thinking, such as localisation versus centralisation or global north versus global south. Disenchantment sets in as leaders and humanitarian workers feel trapped within the machinic organisations and the modernist processes that humanitarianism has unwittingly created. The report believes that the P.I. Age demands very different understandings, practices and approaches. These cannot come from existing paradigmatic ways of thinking, and the sector has to transcend modernity’s gaze in order to engage in the radical new age of humanitarianism that is urgently required.

Eco-Mutualism: A New Age of Humanitarianism

Drawing on Michael Bartlett’s work on the ages of humanitarianism, the report expands on his work, first adding two new forces that have shaped humanitarianism over the ages i.e., interdependency and modernity. Secondly, it adds a new age of Eco-Mutualist Humanitarianism that can unleash new leadership, new energy and engagement throughout humanitarian ecosystems. The report explains Eco-Mutualism and how it can re-energise the humanitarian sector.

Part Two


The report moves into the leadership space, recognising that any radical change demands new leadership. It sets out the four dominant discourses of leadership that appeared over the past century, mapping these to humanitarianism over the ages. This gives insights and a shared language as to what leadership is, and how the different discourses and approaches apply to humanitarianism.

Eco-Leadership Formation to deliver Eco-Mutualist Humanitarianism

The report shares insights from our research, theory and practices of Eco-Leadership, offering a clear way forward to deliver Eco-Mutualist Humanitarianism. This approach changes the very co-ordinates of how leadership is thought about, developed and taken up in practice. We also share five months engagement and research in the sector that reveals alignment and support for our Eco-Leadership approaches. We finish with a manifesto of Eco-Mutualist Humanitarianism, to capture the essence of the approach and then conclude the report.

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