Humanitarian aid

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File:Durres airport supplies.jpg
Humanitarian aid arriving by C-130 Hercules at Rinas Airport in Albania in the summer of 2000. Many organizations engaged in assisting refugees fleeing Kosovo.
A soldier gives a young Pakistani girl a drink of water as they are airlifted from Muzaffarabad to Islamabad.
A young Afghan girl clenches her teddy bear that she received at a medical clinic at Camp Clark in Khost Province.

Humanitarian aid is material and logistic assistance to people who need help. It is usually short-term help until the long-term help by government and other institutions replaces it. A report published by the network of European Universities on Professionalization of Humanitarian Action noted that humanitarian aid is a "fundamental expression of the universal value of solidarity between people and a moral imperative."[1] Among the people in need belong homeless, refugees, victims of natural disasters, wars and famines. The primary purpose of humanitarian aid is to save lives, reduce suffering and respect to human dignity. Humanitarian aid is material or logistical assistance provided for humanitarian purposes, typically in response to humanitarian crises including natural disasters and man-made disaster. The primary objective of humanitarian aid is to save lives, alleviate suffering, and maintain human dignity. It may therefore be distinguished from development aid, which seeks to address the underlying socioeconomic factors which may have led to a crisis or emergency.

Humanitarian aid aims to bring short term relief to victims until long term relief can be provided by the government and other institutions. Humanitarian aid considers “a fundamental expression of the universal value of solidarity between people and a moral imperative”.[2] Humanitarian aid can come from either local or international communities. In the Philippines various departments coordinate to provide relief, but the first response usually comes for the local government unit followed by NGOs. In reaching out to international communities, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)[3] of the United Nations (UN) responsible for coordination responses to the emergency. It taps to the various members of Inter-Agency Standing Committee, whose members are responsible for providing emergency relief. The four UN entities that have primary roles in delivering humanitarian aid are United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Programme (WFP).[4]

According to The Overseas Development Institute, a London-based research establishment, whose findings were released in April 2009 in the paper "Providing aid in insecure environments:2009 Update", the most lethal year in the history of humanitarianism was 2008, in which 122 aid workers were murdered and 260 assaulted. The countries deemed least safe were Somalia and Afghanistan.[5] In 2012, Humanitarian Outcomes reported that the countries with the highest incidents were: Afghanistan, South Sudan, Syria, Pakistan and Somalia.[6]



The beginnings of organized international humanitarian aid can be traced to the late 19th century. One of the first such examples occurred in response to the Northern Chinese Famine of 1876–1879, brought about by a drought that began in northern China in 1875 and lead to crop failures in the following years. As many as 10 million people may have died in the famine.[7]

A contemporary print showing the distribution of relief in Bellary, Madras Presidency. From the Illustrated London News (1877)

British missionary Timothy Richard first called international attention to the famine in Shandong in the summer of 1876 and appealed to the foreign community in Shanghai for money to help the victims. The Shandong Famine Relief Committee was soon established with the participation of diplomats, businessmen, and Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries.[8] To combat the famine, an international network was set up to solicit donations. These efforts brought in 204,000 silver taels, the equivalent of $7–10 million in 2012 silver prices.[9]

A simultaneous campaign was launched in response to the Great Famine of 1876–78 in India. Although the authorities have been criticized for their laissez-faire attitude during the famine, relief measures were introduced towards the end. A Famine Relief Fund was set up in the United Kingdom and had raised £426,000 within the first few months.


RAF C-130 airdropping food during 1985 famine

Early attempts were in private hands, and were limited in their financial and organizational capabilities. It was only in the 1980s, that global news coverage and celebrity endorsement were mobilized to galvanize large-scale government-led famine (and other forms of) relief in response to disasters around the world. The 1983–85 famine in Ethiopia caused upwards of 1 million deaths and was documented by a BBC news crew, with Michael Buerk describing "a biblical famine in the 20th Century" and "the closest thing to hell on Earth".[10]

Live Aid, a 1985 fund-raising effort headed by Bob Geldof induced millions of people in the West to donate money and to urge their governments to participate in the relief effort in Ethiopia. Some of the proceeds also went to the famine hit areas of Eritrea.[11]


The first global summit on humanitarian aid was held on May 23 and 24, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey. An initiative of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the World Humanitarian Summit included participants from governments, civil society organizations, private organizations, and groups affected by humanitarian need. Issues that were discussed included: preventing and ending conflict, managing crises, and aid financing.


Aid is funded by donations from individuals, corporations, governments and other organizations. The funding and delivery of humanitarian aid is increasingly international, making it much faster, more responsive, and more effective in coping to major emergencies affecting large numbers of people (e.g. see Central Emergency Response Fund). The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) coordinates the international humanitarian response to a crisis or emergency pursuant to Resolution 46/182 of the United Nations General Assembly.

Delivery of humanitarian aid

Truck for delivery of aid from Western to Eastern Europe

Humanitarian aid spans a wide range of activities, including providing food aid, shelter, education, healthcare or protection. The majority of aid is provided in the form of in-kind goods or assistance, with cash and vouchers only comprising 6% of total humanitarian spending.[12] However, evidence has shown how cash transfers can be better for recipients as it gives them choice and control, they can be more cost-efficient and better for local markets and economies.[12]

Humanitarian aid and conflict

In addition to post-conflict settings, a huge portion of aid is being directed at countries currently undergoing conflicts.[13] However, the effectiveness of humanitarian aid, particularly food aid, in conflict-prone regions has been criticized in recent years. There have been accounts of humanitarian aid being not only inefficacious, but actually fueling conflicts in the recipient countries.[14] Aid stealing is one of the prime ways in which conflict is promoted by humanitarian aid. Aid can be seized by armed groups, and even if it does reach the intended recipients, "it is difficult to exclude local members of local militia group from being direct recipients if they are also malnourished and qualify to receive aid."[14] Furthermore, analyzing the relationship between conflict and food aid, a recent research shows that the United States' food aid promoted civil conflict in recipient countries on average. An increase in United States' wheat aid increased the duration of armed civil conflicts in recipient countries, and ethnic polarization heightened this effect.[14] However, since academic research on aid and conflict focuses on the role of aid in post-conflict settings, the aforementioned finding is difficult to contextualize. Nevertheless, research on Iraq shows that "small-scale [projects], local aid spending . . . reduces conflict by creating incentives for average citizens to support the government in subtle ways."[13] Similarly, another study also shows that aid flows can "reduce conflict because increasing aid revenues can relax government budget constraints, which can [in return] increase military spending and deter opposing groups from engaging in conflict."[15] Thus, the impact of humanitarian aid on conflict may vary depending upon the type and mode in which aid is received, and, inter alia, the local socio-economic, cultural, historical, geographical and political conditions in the recipient countries.

Aid Workers

UNICEF humanitarian aid, ready for deploying. This can be food like Plumpy'nuts or water purification tablets.
Wanda Błeńska, Polish leprosy expert and missionary who succeeded to develop the Buluba Hospital in Uganda

Aid Workers are the people distributed internationally to do humanitarian aid work. They often require humanitarian degrees.[citation needed]


Bangladeshi citizens offload food rations from a US Marine CH-46E helicopter of 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit after Tropical Cyclone Sidr in 2007

The total number of Humanitarian Aid workers around the world has been calculated by ALNAP, a network of agencies working in the Humanitarian System, as 210,800 in 2008. This is made up of roughly 50% from NGOs, 25% from the Red Cross/ Red Crescent Movement and 25% from the UN system.[16]

The humanitarian fieldworker population has increased by approximately 6% per year over the past 10 years.

Psychological Issues

Aid Workers are exposed to tough conditions and have to be flexible, resilient and responsible in an environment that humans are not psychologically supposed to deal with, in such a severity that trauma is common. In recent years, a number of concerns have been raised about the mental health of Aid Workers.[17][18]

The most prevalent issue faced by Humanitarian Aid Workers is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Adjustment to normal life again can be a problem, with feelings such as guilt being caused by the simple knowledge that international aid workers can leave a crisis zone, whilst nationals cannot.

A 2015 survey conducted by The Guardian with aid workers of the Global Development Professionals Network, revealed that 79 percent experienced mental health issues.[19]


During the past decade the humanitarian community has initiated a number of interagency initiatives to improve accountability, quality and performance in humanitarian action. Four of the most widely known initiatives are the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP), Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP), People In Aid and the Sphere Project. Representatives of these initiatives began meeting together on a regular basis in 2003 in order to share common issues and harmonise activities where possible.

People In Aid

The People In Aid Code of Good Practice is an internationally recognised management tool that helps humanitarian aid and development agencies enhance the quality of their human resources management. As a management framework, it is also a part of agencies’ efforts to improve standards, accountability and transparency amid the challenges of disaster, conflict and poverty.[20]

Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International

Working with its partners, disaster survivors, and others, Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International (or HAP International) produced the HAP 2007 Standard in Humanitarian Accountability and Quality Management. This certification scheme aims to provide assurance that certified agencies are managing the quality of their humanitarian actions in accordance with the HAP standard.[21] In practical terms, a HAP certification (which is valid for three years) means providing external auditors with mission statements, accounts and control systems, giving greater transparency in operations and overall accountability.[22][23]

As described by HAP-International, the HAP 2007 Standard in Humanitarian Accountability and Quality Management is a quality assurance tool. By evaluating an organisation's processes, policies and products with respect to six benchmarks setout in the Standard, the quality becomes measurable, and accountability in its humanitarian work increases.

Agencies that comply with the Standard:

  • declare their commitment to HAP's Principles of Humanitarian Action and to their own Humanitarian Accountability Framework
  • develop and implement a Humanitarian Quality Management System
  • provide key information about quality management to key stakeholders
  • enable beneficiaries and their representatives to participate in program decisions and give their informed consent
  • determine the competencies and development needs of staff
  • establish and implement complaints-handling procedure
  • establish a process of continual improvement[24]

The Sphere Project

The Sphere Project handbook, Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response, which was produced by a coalition of leading non governmental humanitarian agencies, lists the following principles of humanitarian action:

  • The right to life with dignity
  • The distinction between combatant and non-combatants
  • The principle of non-refoulement

Humanitarian Encyclopedia

The Humanitarian Encyclopedia, launched in June 2017, aims to create "a clear and comprehensive reference framework, influenced by local and contextualised knowledge … [including] analyses of lessons learned and best practices, as well as … insights for evidence-based decision and policy-making."[25] A part of this mission will be to provide a centralised data base for defining or clarifying different understandings of key concepts in humanitarian aid. The need for this stems from the experience in Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, where international aid organisations pushed out local aid groups as a result of a lack of reflection and understanding of local contexts and aid concepts, making the relief effort less efficient.[25]

Free to access, the project is expected to be completed within five years, with the first parts slated to be published online by the end of 2018.[25]

See also



  1. "The State of Art of Humanitarian Action" (PDF). EUHAP. Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 February 2017. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (|url-status= suggested) (help)
  2. "The State of Art of Humanitarian Action, (PDF). EUHAP" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 February 2017. Retrieved 28 April 2018. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (|url-status= suggested) (help)
  3. "OCHA". Archived from the original on 19 March 2018. Retrieved 28 April 2018. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (|url-status= suggested) (help)
  4. "Deliver Humanitarian Aid". Archived from the original on 19 March 2018. Retrieved 28 April 2018. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (|url-status= suggested) (help)
  5. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 19 September 2011. Retrieved 13 December 2010. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (|url-status= suggested) (help)CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  6. "Highest incident contexts (2012 - 2012)". Archived from the original on 7 September 2015. Retrieved 11 December 2015. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (|url-status= suggested) (help)
  7. Edgerton-Tarpley, Kathryn, "Pictures to Draw Tears from Iron" "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 18 May 2016. Retrieved 25 December 2013. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (|url-status= suggested) (help)CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link), accessed 25 Dec 2013
  8. Janku, Andrea (2001) "The North-China Famine of 1876-1879: Performance and Impact of a Non-Event." In: Measuring Historical Heat: Event, Performance, and Impact in China and the West. Symposium in Honour of Rudolf G. Wagner on His 60th Birthday. Heidelberg, November 3rd - 4th, pp. 127-134
  9. China Famine Relief Fund Shanghai Committee, pp. 1, 88, 128, 157, "Epidemic Chinese Famine"[permanent dead link], accessed 6 Dec 2012
  10. Dowden, Richard (17 March 2010). "'Get real, Bob - buying guns might have been better than buying food': After Geldof's angry outburst, an expert on Africa hits back". Mail Online. London. Archived from the original on 29 May 2010. Retrieved 18 June 2010. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (|url-status= suggested) (help)
  11. "In 1984 Eritrea was part of Ethiopia, where some of the song's proceeds were spent". Archived from the original on 12 May 2009. Retrieved 8 May 2009. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (|url-status= suggested) (help)
  12. 12.0 12.1 [High Level Panel on Humanitarian Cash Transfers "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 23 September 2015. Retrieved 21 September 2015. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (|url-status= suggested) (help)CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) Doing cash differently: how cash transfers can transform humanitarian aid]
  13. 13.0 13.1 Berman, Eli; Felter, Joe; Shapiro, Jacob; Troland, Erin (26 May 2013). "Effective aid in conflict zones". Archived from the original on 23 May 2017. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (|url-status= suggested) (help)
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Nunn, Nathan; Qian, Nancy (2014). "US Food Aid and Civil Conflict". American Economic Review. 104 (6): 1630–1666.
  15. Qian, Nancy (18 August 2014). "Making Progress on Foreign Aid". Annual Review of Economics. 3.
  16. State of the Humanitarian System report Archived 14 December 2010 at the Wayback Machine, ALNAP, 2010, pg. 18
  17. "The university course giving aid to aid workers". BBC News. Archived from the original on 25 September 2015. Retrieved 11 December 2015. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (|url-status= suggested) (help)
  18. "BBC News - Health - Aid workers lack psychological support". Archived from the original on 26 December 2002. Retrieved 11 December 2015. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (|url-status= suggested) (help)
  19. "Guardian research suggests mental health crisis among aid workers". The Gurdian. Archived from the original on 28 April 2017. Retrieved 27 April 2017. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (|url-status= suggested) (help)
  20. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 8 May 2013. Retrieved 5 March 2012. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (|url-status= suggested) (help)CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) - Background to the People In Aid Code of Good Practice
  21. Archived 5 September 2008 at the Wayback Machine - A Gateway for Capacity Development
  22. The Economist Archived 14 April 2009 at the Wayback Machine - Certifying Aid Agencies, 24 May 2007
  23. Reuters Alernet Website Archived 11 November 2009 at the Wayback Machine - Can a certificate make aid agencies better listeners? 6 June 2008
  24. HAP-International Website Archived 16 December 2009 at the Wayback Machine - The HAP 2007 Standard
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 "What does 'shelterless' mean? Ask the humanitarian encyclopedia". Devex. Archived from the original on 19 June 2017. Retrieved 10 July 2017. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (|url-status= suggested) (help)


  • Larry Minear (2002). The Humanitarian Enterprise: Dilemmas and Discoveries. West Hartford, CT: Kumarian Press. ISBN 1-56549-149-1.
  • Waters, Tony (2001). Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan: The Limitations of Humanitarian Relief Operations. Boulder: Westview Press.
  • James, Eric (2008). Managing Humanitarian Relief: An Operational Guide for NGOs. Rugby: Practical Action.

External links

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Critiques of humanitarian aid

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