Humanitarian in debate

Going beyond the “new” borders

At a time when international humanitarianism is more than 50 years old, when the Global Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) exceeds $50 billion for the first time in 2023[1], and when the conflict in Ukraine poses an unprecedented threat to the world, the humanitarian sector is confronted with a series of contradictory injunctions that weaken its capacity to implement a mandate that the “state of the world” seems to suggest has never been more necessary.

Syrie © Première Urgence Internationale

If the terrible earthquake that struck the Turkish and Syrian populations on February 6th of this year aroused a wave of global solidarity, offering a respite of unanimously shared emotion at a time when international relations are marked by a growing gap in war rhetoric, the underlying geopolitical realities of this region of the world very quickly (re)emerged and logically constrained the capacity of humanitarian actors to respond to the crying needs of the populations. Indeed, while the first criticisms about the time taken for the delivery of aid were being made, it is necessary to remember that this earthquake struck partly in a war zone and that the limits induced by this situation have unfortunately not disappeared, despite the intensity of the earthquake measured on the Richter scale. First of all, Turkey launched an appeal for international aid, but limited it to state-to-state aid. Then it is Syria, which makes access to the affected areas conditional on restrictive registration and authorization procedures. The borders, the real ones, are still there. Finding a way to access the most affected populations remains both an imperative and a complex and permanent challenge for humanitarians, whose question “but what is aid doing?” in the media time of emotion is a simplistic reading of reality. The earthquake has disregarded the geopolitical logic of this troubled region of the globe and has struck indiscriminately at the inhabitants of Hatay, Gaziantep, Idleb, Aleppo or Lattakia. Whatever the criticism, legitimate as it may be, of the speed of the response, the latter was only possible because of the prior presence of actors on the ground and therefore justifies the investments made by some in order to be registered in Turkey, just as the choices of others to have maintained operational positions in the “pocket” of Idleb and/or to have developed a framework for access to governmental Syria.

Reminding us of this obvious fact is nevertheless necessary, as equal access to humanitarian assistance for disaster-stricken populations is undermined by these famous contradictory injunctions. Saving lives, yes, but not (or less…) if the people who need this assistance are living under a despised regime, an area controlled by an enemy force or under the influence of a group considered as terrorist. In Ukraine yes, in the separatist Donbass no… In Idleb yes, in Aleppo it is less sure… In Gaza it depends for whom and in Kabul, it depends how… If the questions underlying these obstacles are understandable, they nevertheless constitute so many “new frontiers” that humanitarians must overcome in order to be able to face a reality that is unfortunately intangible, namely the indignation of seeing populations suffer from hunger, thirst, cold or the absence of a future for their children.

Afghanistan © Roya Heydari / Première Urgence Internationale

Humanitarianism in the era of sanctions

Amongst these different injunctions, which seem to be contradictory, we find the growing impact of international legislation against terrorism. Indeed, if it is not a question of commenting on the intrinsic merits of such measures in the fight led by a certain number of States in the face of this threat, it is necessary to illustrate how these measures hinder the capacity of humanitarian actors to operate in many contexts. First, in terms of principles, these measures directly contradict some of the four cardinal pillars of humanitarian action, namely the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. In this sense, the recent decision of the Conseil d’Etat[2] to annul the directives issued by the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs concerning screening is a reason for hope and legitimizes the fight led by the humanitarian community in France to ensure that the final beneficiaries of aid operations are excluded from the scope of application of these procedures and are therefore not subject to prior verification on the sanctions lists. Would one imagine imposing such a “screening” of persons residing in a building on firefighters before they intervene in a fire? Beyond the principles, these measures constitute a real operational obstacle to the implementation of actions, whether because of the limitations observed in bank transfers or those linked to the import of equipment and other humanitarian supplies (notably medicines). On paper, humanitarian operations can be exempted and operators can obtain waivers, but this constraint is extremely time consuming and directly affects the feasibility of an emergency response. As a concrete example, it takes six months to obtain authorization for the import of humanitarian goods from the United Nations Sanctions Monitoring Committee in New York. Finally, these measures pose a certain number of risks for actors, both in terms of criminal and legal law and security. These aspects have been widely documented and can be summarized by the fact that humanitarian operations find themselves in a kind of “hammer and anvil” situation. On the one hand, not complying with these laws exposes operators, at the very least, to exclusion from access to funding, and even to prosecution by the courts of the states that issued them. On the other hand, complying with them calls into question the principle of impartial and neutral aid and positions humanitarian actors as belonging to a “camp”, which can limit their access and/or increase security risks for teams in the field. While some radical armed groups have already clearly defined the issue, making humanitarian workers legitimate targets for their fighters by assimilating them to “crusaders”[3], the transfer of risk resulting from the imposition of these international (but often Western) measures on humanitarian operators is very real in many contexts. For example, the “vetting” measures which consist in collecting and transmitting to the American authorities a certain amount of personal information on different stakeholders, whether in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria or Afghanistan, clearly put field teams at risk of being accused of espionage by the authorities and/or a certain number of actors in these countries and also threaten the authorizations to operate obtained, sometimes with great difficulty. Insofar as the most vulnerable populations are very often located in conflict zones and/or affected by sanctions regimes that are increasing in scope, the probability of having to intervene while facing the complexities described above increases year after year.

Ukraine © Sadak Souici / Première Urgence Internationale

Sometimes, the contradictory nature of the injunction is expressed in a more direct and political way when, for example, certain major bilateral donors insist on the need for all actors to “rise to the occasion” of the major humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and at the same time exclude, for “obvious political reasons”, the financing of operations in territories not controlled by the Ukrainian government. From the humanitarian point of view, the “legitimate” needs are obviously wherever the victims of the conflicts are… Similarly, on the one hand, the international community is alarmed by the scale of the humanitarian needs in Afghanistan and, on the other hand, the American government (the world’s largest humanitarian donor) maintains the freeze on the assets of the Afghan government. In the same sense, the consequences of the crisis between the French and Malian authorities at the end of 2022 illustrate this form of “hostage-taking” that populations undergo when aid is used for political purposes. To say this is not to be falsely naive, as international relations have always been marked by a realistic approach that does not necessarily take into account the well-being of populations in the criteria that guide it.

Inflation of standards versus pressure on costs

This question of cost is not, in itself, free of contradictory injunctions. For more than twenty years, the necessary professionalization of the sector has produced a legitimate inflation of requirements that cannot be addressed at constant cost. We have to do better, faster and everywhere at the same time… while ensuring a work environment that meets the standards of an employer, a quality of programs that is in line with the values conveyed by the mandate and standards that the sector has set for itself, and while assuming an exponential workload related to reporting, control and compliance issues. How can we imagine that all this has to be “cheaper”? This is obviously not to argue for a “low cost” humanitarianism or to deny that there is a healthy search for efficiency, nor even to deny that abuses may exist, but to question the endless contestation of the “cost of humanitarianism”. If the 50 billion required to meet all humanitarian needs in 2023 represents a substantial and unprecedented sum, is it not paradoxical that the international community is not able to raise it[4] , given the world’s GDP[5]. Beyond the global cost and the associated discussions, it is in the details of this de-legitimization of costs that the real hypocrisy lies. Can we advocate for robust and structured procedures, allowing for traceability of expenditures and transparent use of aid, and at the same time denounce the burdens associated with their implementation? Can we regret the lack of resources, professional consideration, or the excessive use of motivation linked to commitment (to compensate for the fact that we cannot do more about the material conditions), and refuse the “support” costs associated with personnel expenses? Can we want to finance an immediate response to a cyclone in Haiti and refuse to cover the costs of transporting teams? Is it possible to encourage a transformation of practices that is sustainable in light of climate requirements and to recall that this must be done at constant cost? The list of these paradoxes is endless…

Coming from some of the main international donors, this inquisition on costs is nevertheless always draped in an ethical aura stemming from the necessary good management of public funds and the accountability that this induces towards the taxpayer. Therefore, unless they consider that these costs do not exist, NGOs are invited to find and use their own funds to cover these costs. This raises a new ethical contradiction for the actors. Indeed, is it not paradoxical to make the general public and/or other private funding sources bear the marginal costs of operations financed by institutional donors, even though a large part of these costs is directly linked to the requirements of these same donors? The question is worthy of debate…

République Centrafricaine ©Gwenn Dubourthoumieu / Première Urgence Internationale

As the global humanitarian response is now mainly financed by institutional funds, it is legitimate that a management and accountability framework be put in place to ensure its sound management. A problem arises, however, when this necessity undermines the effectiveness and efficiency that it was intended to address. For example, when all actors criticize the slowness and inefficiency of the humanitarian response in Ukraine, what are we to make of the fact that the final version of the document package submitted as part of an inter-NGO response consortium includes 137 documents that are complementary to the project document itself (with, of course, hundreds of associated working drafts) and that the contractual negotiations lasted more than four months…? Often, these prior compliance requirements, like the reporting requirements, are justified by the legitimate concern to promote appropriate and comprehensive monitoring of funded operations, but systematically overlook the perverse systemic effects of the resulting measures. This has been discussed for many years and was the subject of commitments made during the Grand Bargain resulting from the Istanbul humanitarian summit in 2016. The problem is not accountability, but that these reporting requirements are duplicated extensively, with ever-changing formats, criteria and modalities, and that for organizations, bringing their practices into compliance with all of them generates a phenomenal amount of work, with no real operational added value, and leads to ever more contested associated costs. To illustrate the sometimes ubiquitous nature of these developments, let’s take the situation of a project financed by a United Nations Agency, which was initially subject to two interim monitoring reports per year. This contractual framework evolved a few years ago by introducing a double requirement of monthly and formalized reporting per intervention site (7 in this case), thus increasing the number of reports to be submitted from two to… 84.

Impossible to locate?

It is obviously always possible to discuss the degree of reporting that is desirable, but not taking into account this global dimension and the necessary hindsight on the systemic effects of compliance requirements on the functioning of organizations does not allow for an objective and rational analysis of the cost of humanitarian response today.

This is one of the major limitations to the implementation of the “localization” objectives that the international community has set for itself, of which the Ukrainian crisis provides a particularly interesting example. Thus, while some agree that Ukrainian organizations are the vector of a large part of the response today, and that they are both more effective and in line with the needs in the most complex areas, they denounce the lack of funding directly allocated to them and the hypocrisy of donors in this regard. 7] Their call for a “cut of the bureaucracy” resonates with the description of the inflation of standards described above. Many international actors could easily subscribe to the same plea, without denying the principle of accountability and contravening the requirement for transparent aid and well-managed funds. Indeed, it is necessary to describe precisely what is meant by mechanisms for verifying the proper use of allocated funds. Call for expressions of interest, concept note, proposal, contract negotiations, ANO, interim (x??) and final reports, liquidation, audit, re-auditing… all these stages (and the associated mass of documentation) mark out and structure the life cycle of a project. One can consider that all of this is essential, but one must have the intellectual honesty to accept the organizational structure that supports it and recognize that this has an impact on the efficiency and/or the costs of implementation. More damagingly, it is obviously not accessible to all actors, without taking into consideration their real capacity to act in a relevant way in response to needs.

Redrawing a course

In the end, this non-exhaustive mapping of certain paradoxes and/or contradictory injunctions reveals the emergence of a number of new frontiers, certainly more insidious but nevertheless just as constraining in terms of the capacity of actors to deliver effective assistance to those who need it most. While the litany of examples could certainly continue, from a more optimistic perspective, this observation should above all lead us to refocus the debate and the issues at stake on the question of the meaning behind it all. Indeed, the challenges have always been numerous and they have most often been met. Therefore, such a denunciation only makes sense if it is directed towards solutions. Certainly there have never been so many needs, but there have never been so many answers either. And this is also what should be highlighted and thus better demonstrate the impact of the humanitarian response in its capacity to transform the lives of the most vulnerable. Similarly, questioning the accountability framework as it is structured today is not a question of questioning the principle of accountability per se, but rather a plea to reorient it towards what should be its primary purpose, namely to measure the operational relevance of projects carried out. This would also make it possible to better highlight the progress objectively achieved in the way actions are thought out, structured and implemented. While it is certain that many humanitarian workers and organizations share this ambition and are committed to it, putting it back at the center of the debate seems to be an essential vector for the sustainable implementation of dignified and adapted responses to the most unacceptable contemporary situations.

Olivier Routeau

After a university education in law and political science, Olivier trained in humanitarian project management at the Bioforce Institute. After graduating in 2007, he undertook humanitarian missions in various countries (Central African Republic, Lebanon, Congo Brazzaville, Tunisia), notably with the NGO Triangle Génération Humanitaire, before joining the headquarters of Première Urgence Internationale in Paris in 2011. He was first in charge of the NGO’s African missions as Desk Manager (DRC, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, South Sudan), and then headed the Emergencies and Operational Development Department from 2015 to 2018, working in some of the most acute crisis contexts of the period (Guinea, Ukraine, Balkans, Nigeria, Libya, Haiti, Bangladesh, Burundi, Niger). Since 2018, he has served as the association’s Director of Operations. In parallel to these functions, he has been collaborating with the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) since 2017, as the pedagogical manager of the “International Program Manager” training.

[1] Global Humanitarian Overview 2023 | Humanitarian Action


[3] A communiqué from the Islamic State in the Great Sahara formally stated this.

[4] The UN 2022 humanitarian response plan was only 55% funded Appeals and response plans 2022 | Financial Tracking Service (

[5] Over USD 100 trillion by 2023 World Economic Outlook (October 2022) – GDP, current prices (

[6] Note that this is not necessarily the only limitation, insofar as the legitimate patriotic commitment of many actors of the Ukrainian civil society raises a question about the dual mandate of some of them, combining humanitarian activities and support to combatants, to the question it is not morally and pragmatically so easy to answer.

[7] An open letter to international donors and NGOs who want to genuinely help Ukraine – GFCF : GFCF (