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The Changing Landscape Of Humanitarian Aid – Analysis


The mobilization of resources to a humanitarian disaster zone is as much political as it is logistical. Recent conflicts have called into question the neutrality principle to which humanitarian actors traditionally adhere. But delivering assistance in times of crisis depends largely on gaining access to reliable resources and information – often from biased actors.


By Cynthia Schweer for ISN Insights

As the media continues to roll out scenes from Japan and Libya, the complexity of delivering humanitarian aid in times of crisis – be they natural or man-made – is abundantly clear. Each year, approximately 500 disasters kill an average of 75,000 people and affect nearly 200 million more. In 2009, the international community contributed a total of $15.1 billion to humanitarian efforts through government and private channels.

The alleviation of human suffering during humanitarian crises is largely an exercise in the efficient and rapid mobilization of material resources and human capacity. As a logistical exercise, humanitarian efforts require the synchronized delivery of human resources and both durable and perishable goods in difficult and uncertain environments. But the complexity is more than merely logistical. While resource mobilization has obvious human and economic implications, humanitarian efforts often have less evident political implications. Access to and allocation of resources and information is contingent on the cooperation of those wielding power.

Changing landscape


Prior to the 1990s, relief work was confined to a relatively small number of organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF), operating according to widely held principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality. These organizations were allowed to operate in ‘safe zones’ because of their perceived independence from political and military motivations. However, this philosophy has come under scrutiny in the last two decades, as both the scale and complexity of crises have increased, while, at the same time, the number and variety of organizations have proliferated, creating a cacophony of players and motivations.

The changing landscape of humanitarian aid is driven by several forces. Katrin Radtke of Welthungerhilfe presents three theories for this change. First, aid has increasingly been ‘co-opted’ by non-humanitarian actors for military or political purposes. The blurring of lines between military operations and humanitarian assistance is most significant in Iraq and Afghanistan, where traditional civilian activities, such as the provision of relief supplies, water and sanitation have been taken on by military actors and, in many cases, private military contractors. Second, traditional humanitarian actors such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN are facing increased competition from newer entrants, who may or may not uphold the values and standards of the older cohort. Finally, war has increasingly shifted from conflict between nations to intra-state and civil conflict. Rebels and militia groups have less to gain by following international law, so they therefore feel less bound by conventions governing the humanitarian sphere.

The changing landscape has a number of implications for providers of humanitarian assistance. Blurred military-humanitarian boundaries, increased competition and changes in the nature of warfare make the provision of humanitarian aid more risky, which is manifest in increased violence against humanitarian workers in recent years. Less statistically evident, however, is how humanitarian efforts have been hindered when those wielding power in disaster zones restrict access or information flows to aid workers.

Humanitarian aid ‘flows’

Luk van Wassenhove, professor of Operations Management at INSEAD and author of Humanitarian Logistics, describes three types of “flows” that support a supply chain: material, information and financial. In an environment with perfect ‘flow,’ the right goods get to the right people at the right place and time. In the case of humanitarian assistance for health, there is also the critical importance of delivering the appropriate human resources.

When the flow of material, human, informational or financial resources is impeded, the humanitarian mission experiences a bottleneck. A highly visible example was provided by the humanitarian effort in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, when poor infrastructure, such as landing space for aircraft, significantly delayed the flow of materials and people into the country. In many cases, bottlenecks are structural and can be alleviated through disaster preparedness and disaster response activities, as described by van Wassenhove. Less studied, however, are the actions and remedies that can be taken if the bottleneck is politically induced.

Flow distortion

Politics plays a role in both the delivery and receipt of aid. In the delivery process, politicians must mobilize financial and material resources. In an ideal situation, the resources would match the needs and magnitude of the crisis, delivering the right amount of aid at the right time. Unfortunately, this rarely happens. The ‘strategic’ value of countries and regions often affects the amount of international aid that is mobilized and a perceived lack of importance can keep a crisis off the map and vice versa. The strategic allocation of aid has even been described as bribery, or more charitably, as “strategic investment”.

The media also plays a significant role. Nearly one-fourth of humanitarian aid is generated through private donations, often motivated by media attention to specific crises. In isolation, this focus is positive, since without the spotlight such donations might not have been made. On the whole, however, the flood of donations to a specific crisis can easily overwhelm the aid delivery infrastructure, distorting the overall system. This happened with the 2004 tsunami, when a deluge of material donations created a “tsunami of misguided goodwill” that hindered relief efforts and, in one case, led to mountains of pricey pharmaceuticals being “dumped outside to rot under the monsoons and tropical sun.”

The governments of those meant to be beneficiaries of aid can also distort resources and information, using aid as a tool of conflict. In many situations, the wounded are denied humanitarian and medical assistance for purely political reasons. This political angle has also been a critical issue in the current Libyan crisis. Humanitarian personnel, prevented in large part from entering the western part of the country – and unable to glean information from citizens fearful of reprisals – are seriously hindered in their efforts to gauge and prepare for the worsening medical crisis. The Lancet recently quoted Duccio Staderini, Médecins Sans Frontières’ deputy program manager for emergencies, saying that “It is virtually impossible to enter or find out information about conditions in western Libya […] it reminds me of the second war in Chechnya, in which we had no access.” Libyan officials have subsequently used images of civilian casualties and the wounded as tools to increase international pressure to end Allied support of the resistance.

Restricted access is only one way that aid can be used as a tool of conflict. Relief organizations can also become inadvertently  associated with military operations through the misuse of resources, or even the misrepresentation of a brand or logo. Recent reports from the ICRC in Libya have showcased allegations that the emblems of the red cross and red crescent (used by ICRC workers to symbolize their commitment to neutrality and humanity) have been misused by military operations to transport of arms and soldiers.

Standards and technology

Many observers believe that new rules must be developed in response to this evolving humanitarian environment. The Sphere Project, a movement that emerged in response to the Rwandan genocide, released a new set of humanitarian standards this April. The Sphere Handbook is a response to the increasing number of players in the humanitarian sphere, designed to codify a set of standards to which actors can be held accountable. Matthias Schmale, Under-Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, describes the standards as a “key input for dialogue with new actors in humanitarian response who are not necessarily driven by the humanitarian imperative, such as the military and private sector.”

Others are counting on technology to reframe the debate on humanitarian access, allowing citizens and non-traditional informants to play a key role in providing information in times of crisis. Social media platforms like Twitter, and crowd-sourcing software such as Ushahidi, played a role in recent crises, providing timely information to activists and humanitarian agencies that need it to perform their activities.

The blurring of boundaries, a confluence of actors and changing norms in warfare presents a new set of challenges for those engaged in humanitarian activities. The flow of resources to areas of crisis will be impeded if information and access are increasingly denied. It is crucial that practitioners and politicians acknowledge the changes in the humanitarian environment, and create the policies and infrastructure necessary to ensure that aid will be available when needed most.

Cynthia Schweer is a consultant and writer specializing in global health, public policy and scalable models for positive social change. She is based in Cape Town, South Africa and is the lead blogger for Global Health on the Foreign Policy Association’s Foreign Affairs Blog Network ( Published byInternational Relations and Security Network (ISN)

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The ISN is one of the world's leading open access information and knowledge hubs on IR and security issues, based at ETH Zürich, Switzerland.

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