It’s happening, but the international community seems to remain oblivious to the ever more evident fact that the types of humanitarian crisis drivers, their dimensions and impacts, are growing, in some cases exponentially. The March 2011 Fukushima catastrophe and the more recent Horn of Africa famine are but two of an increasing number of complex crises that have exposed some of the more fundamental weaknesses of humanitarian prevention and preparedness. And, what in the foreseeable future might be the humanitarian impact of cybernetic failures, nuclear leakages and pandemics? And, what are the potential humanitarian implications of the recent power shut down in India or the drought-affected corn-belt of the United States?

The sorts of anticipation, strategic planning, innovations and partnerships that are required to meet such future threats have not penetrated the thinking of what all too often is the self-referential community, labelled the “humanitarian sector.” As the annual World Humanitarian Day approaches, one has to recognise the tremendous efforts of so many humanitarian workers, while at the same time recognising that much more attention needs to be given to the sorts of crises the world will have to face and the sorts of new humanitarians that will be required to deal with such potential threats.

Those planners and policy-makers with humanitarian roles and responsibilities are still making assumptions that crisis trends rather than new forms of disaster threats will determine the challenges of the future, and they still appear to treat humanitarian prevention and preparedness as well as response as issues that can remain divorced from development and sustainable growth. They, too, fail or remain unwilling to recognise that the conventional parameters of the humanitarian sector are inadequate to meet future challenges. There are new actors – the private sector, the military, the Diaspora to name but three – whose comparative advantages will be essential for dealing with the types of crisis threats that will have to be faced, but whose real value is not adequately understood.

There is, for example, a great deal of talk about the sort of support that the private sector can provide humanitarian organisations. Yet, beyond corporate social responsibility and philanthropy, there is a great deal of uncertainty not only about what the private sector can actually offer, but whether or not traditional humanitarian actors “understand” or wish to engage with the private sector. On the one hand, the private sector has a range of value-addeds that too often are lacking in the world of traditional humanitarian actors. Long-term strategic analysis, innovation and innovative practices are all aspects of private sector methodologies that can enhance humanitarian action. On the other hand, the sorts of work that the private sector undertakes as part of its core business can often be “humanitarian.”

In many ways, the private sector already is significantly engaged in reducing vulnerability to humanitarian crises and promoting resilience. It does so most consistently in its own right through its core business, described in such terms such as sustainability, business continuity and resilience. Anglo-American’s highly acclaimed Tripartite Health and Safety Initiative in South Africa is but one example; Unilever’s water and sanitation project that reduces health risks in the slums of Kumasi, in Ghana, while offering opportunities to promote Lifebuoy soap is another.

These sorts of socially-focused innovations and innovative practices appear to be on the increase. So, too, are private sector connections with an increasing number of governments concerned with humanitarian risks and solutions. In the context of core business focus, innovations and innovative practices, a wide spectrum of companies engage with governments to undertake activities that directly or indirectly reduce vulnerability and promote resilience. The engineering firm, Buro Happold, has specialized in long-term environmentally-sensitive approaches to urban development that, for example, has led to the creation of China’s Xinjiang New City, designed to meet the challenges of climate change and rapid urbanisation. In 2010 DHL introduced integrated procurement outsourcing designed to help amongst others public organisations to achieve substantial cost-savings. Not only will this provide a longer-term economic good, but it will also be of significant use in times of emergency logistics.

During the 2009 floods in Pakistan, VISA was a highly effective partner with the Pakistan government when it came to providing food credits [ie, “watan cards”] for affected populations. Similar innovations and innovative practices are seen in the various ways that the private sector and humanitarian organizations interact. Examples are legion, and involve in-kind inputs from a range of industries, including banking and telecommunications, extractive, processing and manufacturing industries.

And, yet with all these examples of the private sector’s growing impact upon vulnerability reduction and resilience – either through its own core business or in collaboration with governments and more traditional humanitarian actors – the reality is that there is no systematic, predictable or coherent way to identify private sector value-added and comparative advantages when it comes to humanitarian action. Certainly this is the case when it comes to private sector innovation and innovative practices that can be used for crisis prevention, preparedness, response and early recovery.

Approaching the 2012 World Humanitarian Day, it is increasingly evident that what will be essential in commemorating the efforts and sacrifices of the past is that the future humanitarian community will have to be radically different to meet the challenges of the future. It will have to be more strategic and speculative, innovative and experimental and ultimately will have to be configured in such a way that the barriers between traditional and new humanitarian actors will have to be dismantled. These are essential steps for preparing for future World Humanitarian Days that reflect vision and action to deal with the humanitarian needs of the future.