What Is Humanitarian Aid

IMG_0571Humanitarian aid is a complicated topic and there is a lot of debate about its value, effectiveness, how it is delivered, by whom, and under which circumstances. We’re not entering into those debates here rather we’re going to take a brief look at what it is and what it seeks to achieve.

In general, humanitarian aid, or assistance, is given in times of human suffering and need due to natural or man-made disasters. These can be earthquakes, monsoons, or civil wars.

In principle, every state/country has a responsibility to provide relief and assistance during these to their citizens. However, often governments become overwhelmed at the sheer size of the disaster, or are unable, or unwilling, to help or protect all the citizens in their country. In this case, humanitarian aid from the ‘international community’ can be requested – or provided – by other persons, states and organisations.

Usually, the people who coordinate and deliver the response work for either the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – like Doctors without Borders, or Oxfam. However, civil society organisations – like churches, mosques, and individuals also contribute in delivering aid in emergencies.

Humanitarian aid is often confused with development assistance as places where humanitarian assistance is necessary usually have underlying factors which contribute to the severity of a disaster. Also, many organisations which deliver humanitarian aid are ‘multi-mission’ meaning that they do both humanitarian aid and development work. However, to differentiate, humanitarian aid is generally short-term and responds to an immediate need – such as famine, displacement, etc. Humanitarian aid doesn’t seek to fix the underlying causes or address issues – like poverty – which might be contributing to, or exacerbating, the current disaster and critics of humanitarian aid cite this as one of its primary flaws. Development aid, or assistance, tends to be longer-term and seeks to address more of these underlying issues.

At its core, humanitarian aid is based on humanitarianism – the principle, or ethic, which states that all human beings are worthy of respect and assistance simply because they are human. In times of emergency humanitarian aid seeks to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain human dignity. Organisations delivering humanitarian aid seek to uphold three key principles

  1. Humanity: This means that every person should be respected and protected. When facing suffering the ‘humanitarian imperative’ holds that every person has a right to give and receive humanitarian assistance.
  2. Neutrality / Impartiality: All assistance provided must be impartial and not based on a person’s nationality, race, religion, gender or political stance. Aid must be based on need alone.
  3. Independence: Organisations delivering assistance must act independently of governments and their policies.

The professional code of conduct by which most humanitarian aid organisations abide is the Red Cross Code of Conduct. You can read more about it here.

If you’d like a brief overview of humanitarianism Wikipedia has a good article here.