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.

An example of the networking between humanitarian aid and development in Mali

Jean-Bernard Veron, the author of this text, is a long-time development specialist within FAD and now in several NGOs. He has played an important role in bringing humanitarian and development closer together to better meet the needs of populations in crisis zones that he also knows as a man in the field. The case study presented here, which dates back a few years, is a good example of the diversity of possible modes of intervention and their complementarity. 


This networking, in a crisis context, between humanitarian aid for displaced populations and host communities and the revival of economic activities, took place in Mali in the Mopti region, more precisely in Konna and Barygodonga, as well as in Gao and Timbuktu.

Funded by the Foundation of France, these projects were implemented on the ground by the APFO [1]

Animals around the troughs of a water tower in rural Mali ©Solidarites International 2019

1. Purpose and objectives

The selection of projects was based on a twofold observation.

On the one hand, the security crisis has jeopardized the coverage of the needs of IDPs and has led to an overload in host communities, particularly in the area of food.

On the other hand, IDPs have had to interrupt the activities that enabled them to be economically self-sufficient. Moreover, their return, once security was restored, would be hampered by the deterioration of their means of production: looted seed stocks, bunds on irrigated perimeters and degraded contour lines due to lack of maintenance, slaughtered or stolen livestock.

These projects therefore aim to help populations affected by the crisis by targeting rural activities, agriculture and livestock breeding, and by combining humanitarian aid and the revival of the beneficiaries’ economic activities.

They are therefore multi-objective projects, in line with this dual purpose.

The first of these objectives is to cover the basic needs of IDPs. To this end, food supplies, impregnated mosquito nets against malaria and, where necessary, the care of malnourished children have been financed.

The second is to relaunch activities that will enable beneficiaries to do without humanitarian aid and regain their autonomy when the security of their region of origin allows them to return.

To this end, the projects have financed :

  • for agricultural activities: seeds and inputs, shovels and wheelbarrows to rehabilitate the dikes of irrigation perimeters, donkeys and carts to transport crops and manure;
  • for livestock: sheep and ewes for the benefit of the women who were engaged in this activity, in addition to market gardening, as well as cotton cake for animal feed.

The third objective, and this is one of the specific features of these projects, is to strengthen the resilience of the beneficiaries in the face of risks, particularly climatic risks. Thus :

  • the seeds provided are selected seeds, particularly wasa rice, combining good yields, adaptation to sometimes erratic rainfall, favouring short-cycle varieties that are resistant to parasitic weeds such as striga ;
  • the women who are to take care of the animals receive training in fattening and care.

The fourth objective, and this is another specificity, is appropriation, according to a bottom-up approach that favours the use of local structures. This is how projects are proposed and implemented by FOs (grassroots farmers’ organisations) without recourse to foreign actors, such as humanitarian or development NGOs. The content of the projects and the choice of beneficiaries is made through discussions between the members of each of the FOs concerned.

As regards the relationship between the beneficiaries of irrigated rice projects and their FOs, the latter provide seeds, inputs and diesel for irrigation pumps and collect a fee at harvest time to cover these costs. FOs can also buy the crops from farmers and sell them on wholesale markets.

Regional APFOs provide technical support [2] and make available to FOs the financing delegated to them by the national APFO [3]. As for the latter, it centralises the requests coming from the grassroots, which it compares with the available resources. It is also responsible for the capitalisation and dissemination functions among member organisations, in particular by resorting to exchange visits between FOs.

Farm in Mali, ©MINUSMA/Harandane Dicko

2. The projects and their results

A point to be underlined is that these projects, with few exceptions, include components implemented by men, in this case rice growing, and others devolved to women in the form of market gardening and/or livestock farming.

As a result, they are in line with a principle of diversification of activities that enables families to better cope with possible hazards, particularly climatic ones.

It should also be noted that in this respect they are based on precautionary practices that predate the current political and security crisis.

There are two projects in the Mopti region.

The Konna FO project targets rice cultivation. It is an irrigated perimeter comprising 300 plots of land of between a quarter and a hectare each. The first harvest shows quite respectable yields, varying between 40 and 50 quintals of paddy per hectare.

The Barygondonga FO combines a market gardening component, carried by the women of this village and focused on the production of onions and potatoes, and a fish farming component implemented by young men (production of fry and a grow-out basin). It should be noted that the women of the FO borrowed from a microfinance institution to build two storage sheds and they repaid this loan without difficulty.

There are also two projects in the north of the country.

The one in Gao has an agricultural component, centred on rice cultivation with the provision of seeds and inputs, as well as wheelbarrows and shovels to repair the dikes, and a livestock component with the provision of two sheep/sheep per woman, cotton cake as animal feed and basic training in veterinary care and fattening.

The rice farmers benefiting from this project have recorded a satisfactory harvest, while farmers in the surrounding area, who grow rainfed or bank crops, have suffered from the lack of rainfall during the last winter.

The project in Timbuktu has the same irrigated rice and livestock components, to which is added a market gardening component for women.

The results obtained by these projects are interesting :

  • yield of 50 to 60 quintals of paddy per hectare;
  • increase from 2 to 8 beds for each of the women beneficiaries of the market gardening component;
  • earlier calving of the ewes;
  • revival of the seed dynamic [4], it being specified that the seeds used are of good quality, adapted to the climatic context and supplied by specialised FOs supported by a project financed by IFAD;
  • securing part of the income from the sale of market garden produce, by selling on credit to civil servants who are more reliable consumers because they receive a salary to guarantee payment of their purchases.

As for the choice of beneficiaries by the FOs concerned, it targeted either the most vulnerable, especially widows, or some particularly efficient actors, in order to serve as examples for the other members of the FO.

3. Conclusion

Each of these projects can be considered technically successful in view of the yields obtained or the fact that the ewes have already had a first calving. They are also in line with the target number of families affected.

Moreover, where there have been cost overruns as mentioned in the call for projects, these overruns have been borne by the PDOPA without reducing either the volume of supplies or the number of beneficiaries.

Market gardening project in the Mopti region of Mali ©AFD

However, this does not mean that they do not face various difficulties. These are of two kinds.

Difficulties due to the vagaries of the weather and, more specifically, the mediocrity of the last wintering, resulting in reduced water availability and the impossibility of linking two crop cycles together. Irrigation pumps have been able to partially overcome these problems, but at the limit of their capacity. And some of them look dangerously old.

More worrying is the question of crop marketing. Indeed, their marketing may have locally and temporarily unbalanced the supply-demand ratio and thus had a depressing impact on sales prices.

To cope with this, storage and conservation capacities for perishable foodstuffs, such as onions or milk, need to be set up. These will make it possible to spread out the flow of products over time. In order to meet this challenge, contacts have been established with a system of collective granaries financed by Swiss Cooperation under the Pana Go project.

Jean-Bernard Véron

Who is Jean-Bernard Véron?

Jean-Bernard Véron - BabelioJean-Bernard Véron is currently a member of the editorial team of the magazine Afrique Contemporaine, after having been its editor-in-chief for 12 years. He is also a member of the Nepal and Emergency/Post-Emergency Committees of the Fondation de France, after having been the director of the International Solidarity Committee. Finally, he is a member of the bureau and the board of directors of the Franco-Laotian NGO CCL (Committee for Cooperation with Laos) and a member of the board of directors of the Franco-Afghan NGO AFRANE.

He has spent most of his professional career at the French Development Agency, where he held the positions of :

  • project manager at the Brazzaville agency
  • project Manager in the Economic Studies Division
  • geographical desk officer Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea
  • geographical desk officer Madagascar, Somalia, Djibouti
  • project manager in the Macroeconomic Studies Division
  • head of the Macroeconomic Studies Division
  • head of the Agricultural and Rural Development Division for Central, Eastern and Southern Africa
  • director of the Asia, Caribbean, Pacific Department
  • adviser to the Director of Strategy
  • head of the Crisis Prevention and Post-Conflict Unit

Jean-Bernard Véron is a graduate of the Institut of Political Science of Paris (International Relations section), holds a DEA in Economics and a DEA in Political Science and B.A. degrees in History, Geography, Anthropology and American Literature.

[1] The APFO (Association of Professional Farmers’ Organisations) brings together some 200 organisations, which may take the form of associations, cooperatives or farmers’ unions.

[2] With the exception of projects implemented in Gao and Timbuktu, where, given the insufficient capacities of the two regional AOPPs. Support was indeed provided by the National AOPP.

[3] The National AOPP also carries out advocacy work vis-à-vis the public authorities, in particular to operationalise the agricultural orientation law passed by parliament or to denounce land expropriations. In addition, it has set itself the complementary objective of strengthening grassroots organisations and empowering them financially.

[4] Several POs have therefore embarked on the production of improved seeds, adapted to the different ecosystems of Mali and duly certified.