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Feminist Humanitarian Response: an approach to dismantle the humanitarian-industrial complex

As crises continue to compound and grow, girls and young feminists - who are disproportionately impacted by crises- are leading powerful frontline emergency response efforts while advancing systemic change. To mark World Humanitarian Day on August 19th, we published an article entitled Beyond Crisis: A Feminist Humanitarian Response that Centers Girls and Young People to amplify the perspectives of girls and young feminists responding to and organising during crisis, and urge funders and the broader humanitarian sector to act, organize, and respond more effectively through a feminist lens.

In this second article, woven through discussions and reflections from feminist organisations and activists responding to crisis, we highlight the ineffective ways in which the humanitarian sector is working. And, dive into a deeper exploration of the organizing principles of feminists' humanitarian response efforts and share some examples. Both offerings demonstrate how a feminist ecosystem approach, which has a track record of creating transformational change, can contribute to dismantling the humanitarian-industrial complex, and bring forth sustainable and systemic social change. With the ongoing urgent, compounding, and interconnected crises we are facing across the world, this is a call to action we cannot afford to ignore.

Illustration that has  5 hands holding a crop together. On one side, there are people planting seeds, and on the other a drought. The title of the illustration says: Feminist Humanitarian Response: an approach to dismantle the humanitarian-industrial complex.

Girls and young feminists are responding to every crisis globally. For some, responding to crises is a part of their long-term movement work and broader efforts to promote social justice. For others, their activism is sparked as a result of a crisis, activated because of deep needs in their communities and the failure of governments or organisations to respond quickly and in relevant ways, if at all. Drawing from our experience funding girls and young feminist-led movements over the years, we see that funders and the broader humanitarian system, including ourselves, need to urgently do more to transform how we resource their work and get creative to ensure we are reaching those organising at the frontline of emergency and movement-building efforts during crisis. We must look internally at our practices to understand how they might be perpetuating systemic inequalities and work to address them at the root.

"large-scale institutional humanitarian responses often miss how they may exacerbate existing inequalities on the ground and are not set up to respond to the interconnection of crises globally. This is a lens that I'm not sure the sector is yet talking about with the depth that we need to shift the sector to understand and respond to crises occurring in one place that have direct implications and connections to another." Divya, MADRE

This kind of examination and transformation in the ways we work requires us to take an intersectional feminist approach. One that addresses the systemic injustices creating crises and oppression, recognizes and supports those most impacted by injustice as the experts of solutions, and works through a reparative and ecosystem framework that provides a pathway for how we can collectively work to address the challenges we are facing. As the recently published State of the Humanitarian System report reflects, the humanitarian sector is highly resistant to change and has not kept up with the needs of a rapidly changing world in the midst of crises.

Even with the vast amount of funding - over $31 Billion- going into the humanitarian sector, those most impacted by crises and closest to the solutions are often ignored, undervalued, and left out of traditional humanitarian systems. This is especially true for girls and young feminists, who are both marginalised in critical response efforts, despite being disproportionately impacted during crisis, and sidelined in funding opportunities, despite the powerful and brave emergency response work they lead. The evidence demonstrates that feminist efforts continue to be underfunded and girls and young feminists are excluded from decision-making spaces that directly impact their lives and communities. Less than 5% of humanitarian funding is reaching women's rights organisations and, we suspect, an even smaller fraction for girl and young feminist-led emergency response work- shining a light on how the current system is failing to reach those most impacted by crisis.

“Foreign aid workers and international donors from the Global North, believe they are doing good, with a saviour mentality, yet their actions create unintended consequences of power abuse and exploitation.” Chernor, Purposeful

Feminists Organising Principles for Humanitarian Response Efforts

The current system is failing and we must work together to transform it. Woven together through conversations with feminist activists and partners working on emergency response, we have gathered some of the feminist organising principles that can guide the way we think, design, and implement humanitarian response efforts. As our partners, The Feminist Humanitarian Network, shared: “Whenever and wherever crises strike, feminist organisations and movements play a crucial role in the frontline response. Using feminist approaches and principles, grassroots and community-based groups around the world ensure that the needs of women, gender-diverse people and marginalised communities are meaningfully addressed, and that their rights are protected. Collective and collaborative ways of working that are central to this approach make them even more powerful.” Echoing these reflections and based on our work to respond to COVID-19 and intersecting crises, moving away from singular organisational priorities while supporting and resourcing girls and young feminists who are most impacted by crises and leading frontline response, is at the core of a feminist humanitarian approach.

  • Decolonise the humanitarian sector and efforts: the humanitarian sector was imposed through a colonial and imperialist approach that continues to be held today and ignores the accountability of colonial and imperialism extraction and oppression in creating and exacerbating humanitarian crises. This is demonstrated clearly by who receives the vast amount of humanitarian funding, with “almost half of the humanitarian aid directed to organisations went to just three UN agencies” as well as the role of climate change in perpetuating crises. “Acknowledging the colonial and patriarchal dynamics that have shaped the existing system, feminist humanitarian response works to dismantle practices within the sector that exclude women and gender-diverse people. The movement recognises that there is no one-size fits all approach. It aims to shift power to women-led and feminist organisations in order to create safe spaces to plan and coordinate responses, inclusively. Supporting the collective efforts of place-based, diverse, feminist actors is critical to ensuring that crises do not further entrench and deepen inequalities. Feminist humanitarian response has the potential to be catalytic and transformative - creating a system that has justice for all at its heart." Feminist Humanitarian Network

  • Respond to crises through movement-building strategies: Responding to crises is part of and inherently interconnected to long-term movement work and broader efforts to promote social justice- both support and sustain each other. Chernor of Purposeful expands: “The best emergency response would build on movement work. Response to any crisis requires some level of understanding of power relationships, social connections and a commitment to treating affected people as “human beings”. All of those are essential features of movement-building work. Humanitarian response must be both responsive to immediate needs and strategic in addressing root causes and preventing future occurrences. Movement building work lays the foundation and is critical to effective emergency response.”

  • Embrace trust-based relationships: “Our goal is not to put ourselves on a pedestal but rather grapple with our accountability, knowing that is not our job to be the experts but to listen to those in the context and with the lived experiences, working in the ambiguity of crises and the way real life works.” Divya, MADRE. This is why it is so essential to guide humanitarian responses through trust-based relationships that set a strong foundation and allow us to move with speed and agility. “But trust-based relationships need time, intention, and space to get to know each other, our realities, needs, as well as dreams for the future. A funder-grantee relationship is inherently infused with power dynamics that are hard, but not impossible, to tackle. We need consistency in building relationships so we can trust each other better. Accompaniment is one of the ways in which we do this at the Global Resilience Fund. This allows us to be in constant relationship with our activist advisory, and co-create spaces for learning and sharing with our grantee partners. This in turn offers the opportunity for us all to get to know each other better, and understand our perspectives and realities. This feeds right back into our future accompaniment and grantmaking.” Dani, Global Resilience Fund

  • Centre solidarity and humility: “To me, solidarity, humility and generosity are core feminist principles we should rally around when we support girl and youth activists in humanitarian crises and beyond. We must assume that young activists know their situation – and that of their peers – best. That means deferring to their expertise in analysing the context and recommending action. Their funding priorities should be our funding priorities. Where we can link these groups to other resources, for example to policy makers and larger organisations working with and for young people, we should do so; harnessing the power of collective voice and advocacy. I like to think of our work at UNICEF as partly being a bridge, linking diverse actors to each other for joined-up action, reflection and learning. And of course, we must be humble. Our systems are so complex to access for grassroots organisations, and we run the risk of tasking these organisations with far too much bureaucracy. Nor should we assume we are the authority on what works best for programming. Listening carefully to the feedback of girls and young feminists, and the networks they associate with, should be at the heart of the way we work.” Lauren, UNICEF

  • Move from organizational priorities to an ecosystem approach: Through an ecosystem approach, we are able to build on each other's strengths, amplify the power of our work, strategize more effectively, reduce duplication of efforts, and ensure we are centring the work of those most impacted by injustices. As the Feminist Humanitarian Network describes: “During Covid-19, members of the Feminist Humanitarian Network documented how by joining forces they were able to overcome barriers presented by the current humanitarian system. Working cooperatively - sharing strategies and resources, both financial and human - feminist actors ensured that gender-based violence was prioritised across response efforts and essential sexual and reproductive health and rights services were maintained. Banding together to campaign and advocate, they also secured vital changes in humanitarian policy. Their efforts ensured that women and marginalised groups were included in emergency response committees, where they had previously been excluded, and that women’s needs and rights were addressed in emergency response plans.”

“We need to dismantle the idea that scarcity and competition are the only options. If we believe that, we communicate that- either directly or indirectly. We can create cultures of collaboration as we build relationships: from funders collaborating with each other, to making space for networking where activists support each other and share resources and opportunities. From ensuring that information circulates in the ecosystem, to making sure more voices get to be heard.” Dani, Global Resilience Fund
  • Prioritise collective care: One in five people who experience crises and conflict will have depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. For communities already experiencing marginalization and intersecting systems of oppression, the impact of crises on their mental, physical, and emotional health is chronic and a crisis in itself. When responding to crises, it's incredibly important to prioritise collective care by providing flexible resources to support these efforts and explicitly encourage people to support this need. As Manar from Al-Manar Society مركز المنار, one of the GRF grantee partners, shares:Aida camp is one of the most dangerous areas in Palestine, because of its location near the apartheid wall. It is also classified as one of the areas that receive the most tear gas around the world. Refugees from 80 villages live in the camp that were displaced due to the Israeli occupation in 1948. My group and I work with women inside the camp because of the difficult situation they live in there. We conducted a study on women's psychological, social and economic health. We interviewed the women, and based on that, we decided to conduct therapy and discharge sessions for the women.”

A Feminist Humanitarian Response is Already Happening

Against the backdrop of bursting crises, we know that a feminist humanitarian response is not far away. It is already happening - with minimal financial support but vast creativity and community power. “A new just reality is possible through feminist humanitarian response that is grounded in reciprocal understanding, bold actions, political will, and transformative solidarity. Moving away from centralization, the white gaze and supremacy, and transactional neo-liberal funding, a new world is by default in the making and the needs of marginalized communities and victims of conflicts are at the heart and centre of resource distribution and power collectivizing. “ Sandie, Purposeful

As the Feminist Humanitarian Network shared, the seeds of a feminist humanitarian response are being sown across the ecosystem, building new ways, and setting up new structures. Here are some more of these seeds:

  • Disability Rights Fund - “As the crisis in Ukraine has unfolded, the Disability Rights Fund and Purposeful came together quickly to move resources to organisations of persons with disabilities with a focus on young disabled activists and disabled women-led groups – as their lives are disproportionately impacted and deprioritized in crises. We moved together with speed, trust, and solidarity to do what neither could do alone.” Jen Bokoff and Rosa Bransky - Read the full article published in Alliance Magazine.

  • Global Resilience Fund - through an ecosystem approach to funding, the GRF works with donor partners and activist advisors to identify and move resources to those who are best positioned to resource girl and young feminist-led work in any given context. This approach centers on the needs of movements rather than raising resources for one organisation. For example, in our 2021 response to the crisis in Afghanistan, Purposeful moved money to MADRE to resources girls and young feminists because of their history and deep connections in the region. Not too long after MADRE funded Purposeful, through the GRF, to resource girls and young feminists responding to the crisis in Ukraine. By focusing on the ecosystem, rather than one specific organization, we can better meet the needs of girls and young feminists on the front lines in agile and relevant ways that meet them where they are. Throughout the pandemic, the GRF worked with women's funds such as Fondo Semillas in Mexico and the Fondo Centroamericano de Mujeres in this same way. GRF’s activist advisory was set up with the purpose of ensuring that we include diverse voices and expertise from the ecosystem. We have been working closely with activists from across the globe not only to ensure that funding follows regional and local priorities, but also to co-create activist accompaniment with and for activists.

  • ISDAO - Initiative Sankofa d'Afrique de l'Ouest is a philanthropic organization dedicated to funding the LGBTQI movement in West Africa. Stéphane reflects on their COVID-19 emergency response efforts: “we awarded what we called Resilience Grants to partner groups/organizations in the sub-region. This grant portfolio came as a kind of feminist response for us in the face of an emergency humanitarian situation where we learned more about the importance of building a strong and sustainable movement that can withstand crises. These resilience grants also responded to the need to challenge the industrial, bureaucratic, and service provider complex of the humanitarian sector. Finally, these resilience grants have allowed groups/organisations to obtain resources at a time of uncertainty, and also to decide for themselves what urgent questions these resources should answer during this time of crisis.”

Together, we can transform the humanitarian sector through a feminist humanitarian response that is rooted in empathy, powered by solidarity and our commitment to our collective humanity while centring the people most marginalised and impacted by crises as they hold the solutions. As Divya shares: “There's so much possibility for us to reimagine the humanitarian sector through a movement-building approach, bringing in people power rather than bureaucracy.”



Chernor Bah is a feminist activist who has dedicated his life to building the power and amplifying the voices of girls and young people across the globe and in his beloved Sierra Leone. At the age of just 15, Chernor founded and led the Children’s Forum Network, a mass movement of children who organized and mobilized to demand their voices be included in peace and reconciliation efforts after Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war. When Ebola struck Sierra Leone, Chernor co-launched Purposeful to support the emergency response and long-term recovery in his beloved home.

Dani Prisacariu is a queer feminist coach, facilitator, and consultant working with changemakers across the globe to create sustainable inside-out change. Most of their work so far has been in LGBTQI+ activism in Romania and in community organising for social justice. They coordinate Gender Talk, a community initiative of gender explorers and rebels that works to create more space and possibilities for us all to exist and thrive outside the gender binary. They are part of the team of the Global Resilience Fund where they coordinate the fund's activist-led accompaniment for young feminist activists. Divya Sooryakumar is a South Asian feminist with roots across India, Sri Lanka, and the United States. Divya is deeply interested in the power of intergenerational connections and how individuals at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities understand their own lived experiences within the broader context of historical and current injustices and use that awareness to drive their activism. She is the Associate Director of MADRE's VIVA Girls Initiative. The VIVA Girls Initiative funds programs by and for girls supports and builds adolescent girls' leadership and co-creates space for girls' voices in social movements. Feminist Humanitarian Network is member based, comprised of local and national women’s rights organisations, national and regional women’s networks, international NGOs, academic organisations, funding institutions, and individuals. Jody Myrum has a lifelong commitment to the dignity, safety and freedom of all girls and young people. Grounded in social work and a deep commitment to racial, gender and youth justice, Jody is a feminist activist, strategist, and centers lived experience in research and storytelling to transform narratives. She works across movements, organizations and philanthropy to center girls and young feminists and to move resources and power to those working to build their collective power. Jody co-leads the Global Resilience Fund.

Lauren Rumble, PhD has been working as a child and women’s rights advocate with the United Nations and other organisations for the past 15 years. She is passionate about using evidence to influence policy and leverage greater investments for women and girls, including to end poverty and violence. An experienced feminist leader of people, she enjoys the challenge of creating lasting solutions across teams to translate powerful ideas into practical action. Laura Vergara is a cuir (queer) Colombian feminist activist sprouting collective action through the power of storytelling. Impacted by continuous generational displacement in Colombia due to systemic injustices and violence, her activism began over a decade ago through her work within the immigrant and refugee rights movement and expanded across feminist and intersecting social movements. She finds inspiration in social movements, collective care, art, and those that root themselves in solidarity and love.

Manar Qaraqe is the CEO of Al-Manar Society مركز المنار. Al-Manar Society is a community cultural association that seeks to improve the lives of refugee women in the community through effective community activities. And al Manar society is led by girls from 18-35 years old. Ruby Johnson is a feminist organiser, strategist and researcher, committed to redistributing resources and power to girls young feminist movements. Ruby has experience advancing gender justice and human rights with grassroots groups, feminist organisations, womens’ funds, foundations, NGOs, and UN agencies with a focus on women, girls, trans and non binary people. She collaborates with organizations to build strategies and funding approaches and design programs in participatory and creative ways. She works to build bridges and deepen accountability between movements and philanthropy and has a passion for collaborating with artists and storytellers to build narrative power. She co-leads the Global Resilience Fund.

Sandie Hanna is a feminist, human rights and anti-imperialist activist from occupied Palestine. She is the founder of Feminist Diaries, an intergenerational collective of young women and girls who analyze and produce art to share stories about their lived realities under settler-colonialism and patriarchy, activism journeys and the feminist world they dream to co-shape. She is the Arab States Program Officer of With and For Girls Fund, the world’s first Africa rooted global fund for girl activists and their allies. Stéphane Simporé is a queer feminist from Burkina Faso with a passion for communication, literature and political conversations and innovative social research on gender, queer movement development in Africa. With over 10 years of experience engaging with the West African LGBTQI movement, Stephane has led or contributed to several feminist community-based research and documentation projects and communications at the country (Burkina Faso) and sub-regional (West Africa) level regarding the sexual and reproductive rights of the LGBTQI movement, gender workers and people who use drugs. Stephane is defined as a "disruptive feminist" because he asks questions and brings reflections and alternatives on social movements in Africa, decolonization, masculinity, power analysis in his work. Most importantly, he reflects on how best to equip LGBTQI communities to make their voices as audible as possible on their own. Stephane has been the Director of Communications and Knowledge Management at ISDAO since September 2019.

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