What is a humanitarian need?

A UN Security Council convoy drives through the streets of Mopti, northern Mali. @UN Photo/Marco Dormino (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The other day, while preparing a note on aid funding, I was reading some consolidated humanitarian appeals from the UN. I was trying to understand why the appeals were always getting bigger and bigger, why humanitarian aid was getting more and more expensive.

First and foremost, it is true, there are more crises. People caught up in these consecutive or cumulative crises quickly exhaust their capital, and when there is nothing left, they need external support to preserve their livelihoods, or even their lives. This external support is at first local, community-based. The family, the neighbourhood. It can also be national, such as the introduction of subsidised prices to make food or energy more accessible, or social protection measures. When these mechanisms do not work or are too weak, humanitarian aid is a measure of last resort.

The UN estimates that 306 million people are in need of some form of humanitarian assistance – 1 in 29 people worldwide. This year, twelve appeals are asking for more than $1 billion each. All of these appeals are based on the number of ‘people in need’.

I wonder then what a “person in need” really is in the current humanitarian framework. In Pakistan, Ukraine and Yemen, the humanitarian nature of needs is clear. But what makes a “need” humanitarian or not, who decides this and when is a need no longer considered humanitarian?

Reception of TDC in Titao by UNHAS flight @SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL

What qualifies a need as humanitarian is the fact that only an operation guided by humanitarian principles can access and serve the populations concerned, or is it the fact that there is no financial or political alternative to offering more sustainable national or external development projects?

Many humanitarian organisations are reluctant to coordinate their actions with development programmes, and are often reluctant to talk about politics, peace or security, out of respect for humanitarian principles. So if the marker of aid is the application of humanitarian principles, every project should be thought through in terms of these principles. But who really asks before a humanitarian intervention if the response to the needs of the population can only be guided by humanitarian principles, or if on the contrary the principles of aid effectiveness could be applied, even partially? Which donor is asking this question? Needs’ have multiple causes beyond conflict, including socio-economic crises such as in Venezuela or Lebanon.

In many contexts, scarcity and lack have become the norm and vulnerable people find themselves at the intersection of chronic poverty, exposure to regular stresses and sudden shocks such as conflict or flooding, as in Pakistan. The definition of ‘humanitarian need’ becomes complex. If support for access to health, water, education or food is still needed several years after the start of a crisis, should humanitarian budgets – which are supposed to be based on exceptionality and speed of execution rather than sustainability – cover the costs in all circumstances?

Lady watering a plot of land in Goundam, Mali. @Solidarités International 2021 (Photographer: Tiecoura Ndaou)

Yet this is what is happening, probably partly explaining the inflation of humanitarian appeals. For the members of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) who fund the majority of global humanitarian aid, humanitarian assistance is a sub-division of Official Development Assistance (ODA). The share of humanitarian ODA remains limited, but it is growing much faster than overall ODA. Between 2010 and 2020, the total ODA of DAC members increased by 33%, while their humanitarian ODA increased by 73% over the same period. By 2020, in some of the most fragile contexts, particularly where political dialogue is stalled, the share of humanitarian aid exceeds that of development cooperation. This means that for donor countries, the response to crises is increasingly about ensuring that the most vulnerable populations survive.

However, when we talk about humanitarian crises, we are talking about political crises that create humanitarian needs. The humanitarian prism through which crises are viewed leads policy makers to believe that more humanitarian aid is the best response to the crisis. This doxa has allowed humanitarian funding to be the fastest, most flexible and, indeed, the easiest to access. NGOs struggling to find funds will object, but most humanitarian funds go to UN agencies without too much scrutiny. Humanitarian money is easy, which is why even the UNDP now fits into consolidated humanitarian appeals, or why food security, traditionally a very political development sector, has become one of the most important parts of humanitarian aid, merging for some with food aid.

Humanitarian aid is designed to focus on the civilian victims of crisis and conflict, but the victims of conflict, or the ‘furthest behind’ in the sector’s terminology, are generally not those who have the political power, social standing or economic capacity to bring about the societal and political transformations necessary to influence a way out of the crisis. As such, humanitarian aid saves lives but is not transformative. It is therefore not sufficient on its own to respond to needs that go beyond the immediate. To meet multiple needs, humanitarian aid must be part of a combination of interventions designed to create the conditions for peace, to create the conditions for economic and social development, and to meet the most urgent needs.

Our collective way of looking at crisis response in a third country remains myopic because of this dichotomy between humanitarian aid which is deliberately separated from the economic and political context and development cooperation which is instead handcuffed to political dialogue. Whether we call it a ‘Nexus’ or simply coherence, a balance remains to be found, and specific types of funding need to be invented, regardless of the sectoral labels of ‘humanitarian’ or ‘development’ needs.

Cyprien Fabre


Cyprien Fabre is the Head of the Crisis and Fragility Unit at the OECD. A former Solidarités volunteer, then head of several offices for DG ECHO, he joined the OECD in 2016 to analyse the engagement of Development Assistance Committee members in fragile countries and refine the contribution of development assistance to peace objectives in crisis contexts.

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.