Humanitarian, but how far?

Ruins in Yarmouk in Syria, humanitarian, but how far ? ©OMAR SNADIKI/REUTERS

Humanitarian appeals follow one another. The worst humanitarian crisis in the world in Afghanistan, the worst humanitarian situation in Yemen, the worst economic crisis in Lebanon. Beyond the infinite amount of individual suffering and unnecessary deaths, the inflation of international appeals since 2011 illustrates several aspects of the evolution of what humanitarian aid has become and how it is thought of.

Whether in Afghanistan, Yemen or Lebanon, many of these humanitarian needs are no longer directly created by a conflict, bombings, displacements, but by one of its consequences, the decay of the economy. Bank failures, shortage of foreign currency, fluctuating exchange rates, sanctions, all this destroys the means of subsistence of a population sometimes well integrated in the formal economy. Urgent action is needed. Debt relief, payment of civil servants’ salaries, and macroeconomic stability may be urgent in some contexts. While urgent, these actions are not humanitarian. At the other end of the spectrum, at the individual level, the line between humanitarian needs, severe poverty and social action is gradually blurring. Not all humanitarian aid is urgent.

Yemeni children play in the rubble of buildings destroyed by an airstrike. In 2019, an estimated 24 million people – 80 percent of the population – are in need of humanitarian assistance or protection. ©2019 European Union (photographer: Peter Biro) licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

As we know, the spectrum of humanitarian action has never ceased to expand, which partly explains the increase in the amounts involved. Thirty years ago, for example, education for children in crisis was not considered by donors or humanitarian actors; today it is a complete cluster, with its own committees and sub-committees. The emphasis on cash distributions has forced humanitarian actors to understand the complex workings of banking systems and their risk aversion, to grasp the different dimensions of eminently political social mechanisms.  Few would have predicted this at the time, in Biafra or in the Ogaden.

How to cooperate without confusing humanitarian and development issues.

For donor countries, this humanitarian inflation is also a sign of the impotence of political action, which in itself contributes to prolonging crises, requiring in return humanitarian support over several decades. Who can imagine the end of humanitarian needs in Yemen before ten years, even if peace were signed tomorrow? Humanitarian assistance should be seen in this time frame, yet it is still thought of and constructed as an accident on the way to ongoing development. Very few donors integrate humanitarian assistance into their engagement strategies. Humanitarian assistance is programmed and financed, even massively, on short consecutive cycles, by dedicated budgets and often by separate agencies or ministries.

Despite this dichotomy, much effort has been made to better combine ‘humanitarian’ and ‘development’.  So many initiatives, new acronyms and meetings have been initiated to better align these two aspects of international engagement in crisis areas and times. But it is mostly in the absence of alternatives that humanitarian actors get involved in structural programs. “We can’t leave because development is not there” is sometimes heard from some humanitarian actors. As a result, ‘extended humanitarian assistance’ is deployed. This can become dangerous, as it leads to a confusion between aid effectiveness principles and humanitarian principles that are not very complementary. One presupposes that the state is a primary vehicle for development and the other that it is the cause of most problems. Humanitarian aid and development can be complementary and coherent, but one is not the solution to the other’s problems. Development cooperation is not an extension of humanitarian aid.

Emergency food aid distribution, Afghanistan winter 2022 ©Oriane ZERAH

Humanitarian action at the risk of politicization.

This differentiation is important because while development aid pursues a fairly consensual objective of fighting poverty, the choice of means to achieve these objectives implies societal changes, and these are by definition political choices. Humanitarian actors, by extending their field of action, are committed to the operationalization of these political choices. One may consider that feeding a starving population or treating destroyed bodies does not fall within the political field. But for example, the goal of increasing girls’ education does not only require building classrooms in remote areas: it requires a long-term engagement with political, military, administrative, religious and civil society groups that can make girls’ education a national priority.

So when does a need cease to be humanitarian? This question becomes crucial, and the increasing difficulty in answering it shows that humanitarian aid has reached a kind of crossroads. Organizations must define what they are, what model they follow, what “needs” they respond to. For humanitarian NGOs, on the face of it, if one stays and works on a daily basis with the populations one serves, and not only for these populations by implementing programs, these questions are perhaps simpler.

Cyprien Fabre


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Cyprien Fabre is the Head of the Crisis and Fragility Unit at the OECD. After several years of humanitarian missions with Solidarités, he joined ECHO, the European Commission’s humanitarian department in 2003, and held several positions in crisis contexts. He joined the OECD in 2016 to analyze the engagement of DAC members in fragile or crisis countries. He also wrote a series of “policy into action” and then “Lives in crises” guides to help translate donors’ political and financial commitments into effective programming in crises. He is a graduate of the Faculty of Law of Aix-Marseille.