Reflections on modern humanitarianism: 9 key thoughts


Every day, millions of people are assisted by humanitarian organisations.

However, despite its benevolent aims, humanitarian work is not straightforward. There is rarely a simple solution, and today, humanitarian organisations commonly find themselves working through complex political emergencies with overlapping disasters and conflict. Not only is the context complicated, but the intentions of humanitarian actors are not always clear as actors such as military, governments, and private business all have a role in providing humanitarian aid.

The following nine statements engage with some of these complications and issues, attempting to provide a very brief snapshot of a few of the debates and difficulties surrounding humanitarianism and conflicts. Along with each statement there is a reference which provides more depth to the discussion or an interesting perspective.

1. Humanitarianism is a movement of compassion for people whose defining relationship to you is their common humanity – although this may seem straight-forward enough, the boundaries of humanitarianism can be quite blurred. Is it humanitarian to help a homeless person down your street; for the military to provide aid in foreign countries where they have a strategic interest; or for people to help their friends and family after an earthquake? Humanitarianism is not a clear-cut activity and it is important to understand where the humanitarian mandate begins and ends.

  • Barnett M (2011). Co-Dependence: Humanitarianism and the World, in Barnett M (ed.) Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism. London: Cornell University Press, pp. 19-46.

2. Good intentions do not guarantee good results. There are many instances where humanitarian organisations have exacerbated (or even contributed to) conflicts or crises. Examples include paying militia not to steal aid supplies, hiring armed mercenaries for protection and feeding/caring for soldiers who then return to fight.

  • Anderson M (1999). Do No Harm: How aid can support peace – or war. London: Lynne Rienner.

3. Should humanitarians care about the long-term implications of their actions? Is humanitarianism only about helping people with their immediate needs regardless of what the long term consequences of this are? Without addressing the root cause of a crisis the people who are helped become the “walking dead”. Saved today, but with no change to their circumstances, they are likely die later. But is this outside the role of humanitarianism?

  • Rieff D (2002). A bed for the night. London: Vintage.

4. There is no peace without justice – How do you go about restoring peace after genocide or civil war when atrocities have been performed on such a large scale? How long does it take communities to reconcile, attain closure and establish peace? Is international peacebuilding effective at building peace

  • David C-P (1999). ‘Does peacebuilding build peace? Liberal (mis)steps in the peace process’, Security Dialogue, 30(1): 25-41.

5. The current humanitarian system reflects a corporate business model – Humanitarian organisations are beginning to function more like for-profit business that desire to provide a service to consumers (recipients of humanitarian aid) and remain accountable to one another through completion for funds. However , is this supportive of a compassionately motived endeavour, and does it improve effectiveness or merely feed into producing large organisations that are more concerned with sustaining themselves than those affected by crises?

6. Lack of viable employment produces a disempowered, frustrated population – Many people living in North Africa and the Arab peninsula felt disempowered by their inability to support themselves and their families despite being highly educated (particularly in Tunisia where 40% of university graduates are unemployed). This was one of the key factors leading to the ‘Arab Spring’. Do people in the UK feel the same way? Are some people/communities rejecting politicians and expert authority because they feel disempowered by their social circumstances?

  • Noueihed L (2012). Bread, Oil and Jobs, in Noueihed L & Warren A (eds.), The Battle for the Arab Spring: Revolution, Counter-Revolution and the Making of a New Era. London: Yale University Press.

7. Neutral humanitarianism is a necessary fiction – Is it possible for humanitarian organisations to remain truly neutral, caring for those in need without ever declaring someone is in the wrong? Either way, what is more important is that they appear neutral in order to maintain access to complex political crises and do not become part of the conflict – to become neither the enemy to be attacked or tool to further a military or political agenda.

  • Weiss T (1999). ‘Principles, politics, and humanitarian action’, Ethics & International Affairs, 13, pp.1–22.

8. The principles of humanitarian action were designed for the original context of the ICRC and are not directly relevant to the current context of modern humanitarian organisations – The core principles of humanitarian action are humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. However, are these principles still applicable today? Should they be adhered to as absolutes? Is it possible to adhere to them in today’s complex political emergencies?

  • Barnett M (2005). ‘Humanitarinaism transformed’. Perspectives on Politics, (3)4: 723-740.

9. Disasters are a market place – who makes a profit during disasters? Disaster settings have become an enormous opportunity for business to make money through subcontracting services and supply of aid resources. However, it is rarely the crisis-affected community who sees these profits (eg. 40% of all aid from the US to Afghanistan returned to the US as profits).

  • Klein N (2007). The shock doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism. New York: Henry Holt & Co.
  • Schuller M (2008). Deconstructing the disaster after the disaster: Conceptualizing disaster capitalism, in Gunewardena N & Schuller M (eds.), Capitalising on Catastrophe: Neoliberal Strategies in Disaster Reconstruction. Plymouth: AltaMira Press, pp. 17–28.

Overall, the BBC documentary ‘The Trouble with Aid’ provides an excellent overview of many of the key events in the history of humanitarianism that have shaped how we view crises today.

Joe Watson is a fourth year medical student at the University of Manchester who recently completed an intercalated MA in Humanitarianism and Conflict Response. He has a special interest in Public and Global Health and in the future, hopes to work in medical humanitarianism. Outside of his studies, as well as being an active member of  his local church, Joe enjoys playing a number of different sports, sketching, travelling and going on adventures.

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