- History and Origins
- Other Humanitarian Agencies
- Defining Characteristics
- Humanitarian Policy Debates
Humanitarian aid is assistance provided directly to people affected by conflict or disasters. Traditionally it is in-kind material assistance food, shelter, or medical care but it also can take the form of cash assistance. The primary intent of humanitarian aid is to save lives, reduce suffering, and protect human dignity in times of crisis. Often, additional objectives are to protect people’s livelihoods and assets or other indirect life-saving goals. Humanitarian aid is different fromdevelopment aid, which has longer-term objectives and sometimes greater conditionality but the distinction is not always clear, and in chronic emergencies may become quite blurred.
History and Origins
Although there are humanitarian antecedents in many different religious and cultural traditions, the history of modern independent humanitarian aid traces to the Battle of Solferino in 1859. There, Swiss businessman Henri Dunant was horrified by the impact of industrialized warfare and organized a local effort to assistwounded soldiers on the battlefield.Dunant essentially struck a deal with the belligerent armies that he would not interfere with their conflict provided they would grant him safe passage to assist the wounded who were incapable of continuing to fight. In 1863, Dunant founded the InternationalCommittee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva, based on the same principle. The ICRC is the organization mandated by international humanitarian law to provide protection and assistance to wounded or captured soldiers, and especially to civilians and other noncombatants caught in conflict. National chapters of the RedCross soon grewup aswell, usuallymandated by lawinthe host country. In Islamic countries, these are known as Red Crescent societies. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is made up of these national chapters.
Other Humanitarian Agencies
Under international law, the state has the first responsibility for the protection and provision of assistance to citizens within its borders. But often the government of an affected country either cannot provide adequate assistance or, in some cases, may be one of the parties causing a humanitarian emergency in the first place. In such cases, other agenciesmay be called on (or take it on themselves) to provide assistance. Following each of the major crises of the 20th century, other agencies were founded to provide humanitarian assistance for the victims of war as well as people affected by natural disasters or other crises. These include specialized UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). UN agencies mostly formed in the aftermath of World War II include the United Nations Children’s Fund and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The largest of the UN humanitarian agencies, the World Food Programme was founded in 1963, and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs was founded in 1998, reorganized from the former Department of Humanitarian Affairs.
Major NGOs were also formed in response to the crises of the 20th century: Save the Children was formed in the aftermath of World War I, CARE and Oxfam in response to World War II, and World Vision in response to the Korean War. Medecins sans Frontie`res was formed in 1969 after French doctors split with the ICRC over the issue of raising public awareness about the plight of civilians during the Biafran war. More recent crises have seen the advent of increasing numbers of nontraditional providers of humanitarian aid including the military, private for-profit companies, and contractors.
In principle, humanitarian assistance is based on the premise that no human caught in a life-threatening situation should be denied assistance (or conversely and more controversially that all humans in a life-threatening situation have a right to receive assistance). This was formalized by the ICRC in 1965 as the principle of humanity or the humanitarian imperative. This principle now informs humanitarian assistance across most if not all humanitarian agencies.The ICRC also formally articulated six other principles on which it had based its work for nearly a century and which followed logically.The first is impartiality, or the imperative to provide assistance on the basis of need alone, without respect to nationality, race, religion, gender, or political point of view. The second is neutrality, or a refusal to take sides in a conflict or to engage in ‘‘political controversies.’’ This was seen as a principle in its own right and themeans to gain access to conflict-affected populations. A third principle is independence,meaning that the offer of humanitarian assistance should be independent of government policies or actions. Voluntary service, unity, and universality are the other principles. These principles are codified for the entire humanitarian community in the Red Cross Code of Conduct and the Sphere Guidelines.
Humanitarian Policy Debates
Up to the 1980s, humanitarian action was seen to be largely beyond reproach a form of altruism that was neither a threat nor of serious political consequence. After the end of the cold war, humanitarian action became, for a time, a substitute for major powers’ political engagement in problems affecting other countries for example, in the Balkans wars of the 1990s. Since the onset of the global war on terrorism, humanitarian action has come to be seen, both by major powers and, in some cases, by popular perception in host countries, as part of a larger political and security agenda. Most humanitarian agencies still refuse to take sides in conflicts, but neutrality especially the admonition against ‘‘political controversy’’ is the subject of intense debate and many humanitarian agencies do not claim to be apolitical (although the ICRC still does).And aspublic sources of funding for humanitarian aid becomemore andmore dominant, the capacity for independent humanitarian action has declined.
The principle of impartiality is intended to govern the provision of humanitarian aid in all circumstances, but political considerations often trump humanitarian principles in practice, and there are large discrepancies in the level of response by the humanitarian community to similar levels of human suffering by affected populations from as little as a few dollars per person in some forgotten crises in Africa tomore than $7,000 per person affected by the IndianOcean earthquake and tsunami emergency in late 2004.
With larger budgets and greater scrutiny have come calls for the humanitarian enterprise to bemore accountable not only to the donors that provide funding, but for the behavior of agency staff in emergencies, for the development of industry standards for humanitarian response to which all actors should be held responsible, and to the recipient communities that are affected by war and disaster. To this end, in the early 21st century several interagency initiatives, including the Sphere Project, the Action Learning Network for Accountability and Performance, and the Humanitarian Accountability PartnershipInternational, developedtoholdhumanitarian action to higher standards of accountability. See also aid, international