Humanitarian Surge: Stuck in a rut?

By Nigel Timmins, Manisha Thomas, Manuela Kurkaa Bejarano
June 2024

Increasing numbers of people are being affected by conflicts and disasters, resulting in greater humanitarian needs. Already stretched thin by the large number of chronic crises requiring an aid response year after year, the humanitarian sector is further challenged when new emergencies demand rapid scale-up in the form of ‘surge’– the ability to quickly mobilise and deploy additional financial, human, and material resources to meet needs where the existing response capacities are insufficient. Under the prevailing conditions of scarcity, surge responses to one emergency almost inevitably come at the cost of operations in another.

Governments and civil society actors in the global South are pushing back against the idea that surge capacity is something to be located at the global level – that is, within the international organisations that already control most of the world’s aid resources – calling instead for investments in local, national, and regional surge capacity and more locally-led responses.

This report examines the current state and perceptions of surge in the sector, the structural and organisational challenges to effectiveness, and the potential opportunities for reconceptualising surge capacity more broadly. The study is based on research involving key informant interviews, data scoping, and a desk review of grey literature and agency documents. While there are a range of definitions of ‘surge’, for the purposes of this study, it is taken to mean the provision of necessary additional capacity in the event of a crisis to alleviate human suffering to agreed standards. Surge capacity includes people, logistics capacity, assets, and finance.

The rising number of emergencies suggests that future humanitarian responses will require more flexible surge capacity, which can respond within a fundamentally overstretched and underfunded system. Investments in international surge and localised capacities and responses are often framed as ‘either/or’. Developing a ‘both/and’ approach, which better supports local and national capacities to respond, while maintaining international capacity to surge, when necessary, will require a fundamental reorientation with international surge supporting and reinforcing local capacity rather than displacing it.

Suggested Citation


Timmins, N., Thomas, M., & Bejarano, M. K. (2024, May 6). Humanitarian Surge: Stuck in a rut?. Humanitarian Outcomes, United Kingdom Humanitarian Innovation Hub,