Beyond a list of resources for inquisitive designers, this page is an introduction to some of the major actors in the humanitarian design world. Over time we will add an array of vetted organizations, foundations and designers who are actively engaged in humanitarian action.

The current humanitarian ecosystem began after the 1906 earthquake and in the wake of World War I (see History of Humanitarian Design). There were major reforms after World War II and again in the 1990s and 2000s. For the architecture and design world, one of the pioneering organizations Architecture for Humanity ran during this third phase of reform (1999-2015).

Architects and designers were often seen as the 'outsiders' in this system and are often the community advocate or liaison with these larger actors.

Humanitarian action is the interplay between laws, official and non-mandated organizations, systems and processes. Often the affected community is not centered in the response and often contracts are dictated towards external players. 

The main players

  1. UN agencies
  2. Governments
  3. Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement
  4. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs)
  5. Social Impact and Humanitarian Designers
  6. Communities and Mutual Aid Organizations

The Ugly Truth

The humanitarian world is highly siloed and runs from highly bureaucratic levels. Chances are, you are probably upsetting someone just by responding!

If you are unfamiliar with the humanitarian environment, understanding the roles of each group will help navigate who to work or partner with and what their role is during a response. NGOs, CSOs, the Red Cross and some UN agencies are the most likely to be operational on the ground. They can be key partners or hurdles in field testing ground-level innovations.

You will often need to liaise with the major players at both HQ and local levels, for example, you may need to get authorization or access from the organization's head office, and then work with the local field staff for day-to-day operations and collaboration.

Basically the more radical or renegade you are, the more people are going to resist your actions - even if it is in the best interest of the community. 


Humanitarian action is primarily sector-based. The key sectors in most humanitarian responses are:

Livelihoods (immediate)
Food security
Water and sanitation and hygiene
What is often missing is economic and sustainable development. After the emergency relief and recovery phases funding begins to run out. Organizations are forced to use sub-standard or unsustainable short term solutions in order to fulfill their promises.