Humanitarian agencies are an important international response mechanism to conflicts worldwide. The broad purpose of aid organisations is to relieve the suffering of victims, a worthy goal that may in theory sound simple enough but in practice can prove extremely complicated. Many conflicts are driven by years, perhaps decades, of tensions, and understanding the nuances of each situation is key in enabling an effective response. Similarly, disaster zones can give rise to complicated dynamics within the affected community and between locals and aid workers arriving from outside. As a result, humanitarian efforts need to be well-organised and carefully targeted towards the specific crisis, but with a multiplicity of actors this can be difficult to achieve.

Early understandings of humanitarianism focus on four key principles – known as the classical principles – that should be at the core of all humanitarian action: neutrality, impartiality, humanity and independence. Neutrality refers to avoiding taking sides or advancing the interests of a particular group, and building trust by staying out of political and ideological conflicts. Impartiality indicates the distribution of aid in response to need only, without bias or calculation due to other factors. Humanity refers to responding to the suffering of all people humanely and equally, respecting the value of each individual human life. Finally, independence denotes acting outside the control of government policies and politics. This classical understanding distinguishes sharply between the role of humanitarian agencies and peacebuilders, and emphasises staying out of politics (Slim, 1997).

The moral stance perpetuated by the classical principles has numerous benefits and has, in the past, been adopted by various NGOs and international organisations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United Nations (Slim, 1997). The ICRC still emphasises neutrality and impartiality today, citing these as key factors in enabling the confidence of all and “opening up” humanitarian space. By staying out of politics and refusing to distinguish between sides, the ICRC pursues a specific goal of gaining the trust of warring parties and providing aid to all in need (Harrof-Tavel, 2003). Due to its commitment to the classical principles, it is the only organisation that has been allowed into Guantanamo Bay.

Despite widespread support for the classical principles as the fairest framework for humanitarian intervention, a turning point in views on humanitarianism occurred as a result of the Rwandan genocide. Years of ethnic tensions between Tutsis and Hutus came to a head in the early 1990s, leading to violence against the Tutsi population; up to one million people are estimated to have been killed in 1994 (Lischer, 2003). Around two million refugees flowed into the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) and the international powers chose aid as an appropriate response over military or political action. As a result, agencies sheltered, treated and fed the perpetrators of the conflict alongside its victims, enabling power hierarchies from the genocide to be reinforced in the refugee camps (Ibid.). Diverted aid resources were blamed for fuelling the regime and prolonging the conflict. Humanitarian agencies were faced with the dilemma of whether to stay and alleviate suffering in the short-term or leave and reduce it in the long-term (Ibid.). Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) made the controversial decision to leave while other organisations defended the obligation to stay. Neither decision could have been taken lightly; withdrawing from the area meant leaving victims of the genocide without help, while staying meant sustaining the perpetrators. Attempting to pick out victims from perpetrators would have led to a serious moral dilemma, as the boundaries between sides are often blurred in conflict situations, not to mention the impossibility of qualifying someone as capable of making such life-altering decisions.

This realisation that humanitarian agencies could actually be causing more harm by attempting to “do good” is called the humanitarian paradox. Among other problems, aid can undermine local hierarchies, encourage more fighting over aid resources, and create aid dependency (Wood and Sullivan, 2015). Afghanistan, for example, is sometimes referred to as the “billion dollar black hole” because of the amount of aid resources that have disappeared into the hands of warlords and other questionable parties (Polman, 2010). Unfortunately, the aid industry can be profitable to warring parties or governments that can collect taxes or fees, or sell aid resources onward.

It has become clear that adhering to the classical principles is usually not realistic and certainly not always the most effective way of responding to a crisis situation. Instead of avoiding politics, many organisations have recognised that reducing poverty and intervening in conflicts or disaster zones is, by definition, a political act (Barnett, 2011). Consequently, new humanitarian approaches have shifted to being more “principled, human rights based and politically sensitive” (Fox, 2001). The “do no harm” principle is favoured as a method for evaluating each situation individually to determine a course of action that causes the least harm. This could also mean taking no action at all.

Part of the issue as to why humanitarian agencies are not as effective as they could be in a crisis area is that independent organisations usually work individually with their own agendas. Agencies are driven by and accountable to their donors, and often fail to work together against the main opponents or obstacles (Polman, 2010). Polman (2010) points to the fact that aid is an industry governed by market laws, where organisations must compete for donations to survive. This causes a risk of the victims’ needs being side-lined in favour of growth strategies (Ibid.). The aid scene in Haiti, following the earthquake of 2010, is a striking example of the struggles to coordinate aid action. The small nation has had over 10,000 aid organisations working within it, but with each organisation functioning to independent agendas nobody can force coordination or the prioritisation of specific projects. For example, though a cholera epidemic was predicted, organisations were free to choose whether to focus on preventing it or to pursue other projects (Ibid.). An epidemic did break out, and it is worth considering whether more could have been done to prevent this (and other challenges that still plague the country) with more cooperation and accountability.

Humanitarian aid provides important relief following disasters and conflicts where thousands of people can be caught in situations where food, healthcare, shelter and safety are jeopardised. However, the inevitably complicated nature of these situations means that responses by international actors must carefully acknowledge the ways in which outside help can fuel crises while attempting to alleviate them. It is clear that a single, rigid model for action, such as the classical principles, is not an answer to all situations. Each crisis must be evaluated individually to determine the best response. There are no easy answers in this dilemma, but a closer coordination of aid strategies would be useful in making sure that agencies stay on track to fulfil their primary goal of alleviating suffering.


Silja Lehtinen holds an MPhil in Development Studies from the University of Oxford. Her research interests include migrants/refugees, children/youth and education.




Barnett, M. (2011). Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Fox, F. (2001). “New Humanitarianism: Does It Provide a Moral Banner for the 21st Century?” Disasters, 25(4), pp.275-289.

Harrof-Tavel, M. (2003). “Does it Still Make Sense to be Neutral?” International Committee of the Red Cross, [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 22 March 2017].

Lischer, S.K. (2003). “Collateral Damage: Humanitarian Assistance as a Cause of Conflict”. International Security, 28(1), pp.79-109.

Polman, L. (2010). The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times, London: Vikings.

Slim, H. (1997). “Relief Agencies and Moral Standing in War”. Development in Practice, 7(4), pp.342-352.

Wood, R.M. and Sullivan, C. (2015). “Doing Harm by Doing Good? The Negative Externalities of Humanitarian Aid Provision during Civil Conflict”. The Journal of Politics, 77(3), pp.736–48.

One Response

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *