Peace and Conflict

Why does humanitarianism often fail to achieve its goals?

‘International responsibility for the alleviation of suffering is one of the most noble of human goals. Nobility of aim does not however confer immunity from sociological analysis or ethical critique’ (De Waal, 1997: 65)

Broadly speaking, humanitarianism refers to an ethic of kindness and sympathy extended universally and impartially to all of humanity. Those who profess these values can arguably be termed humanitarian. In the academic literature, a more precise definition remains problematic as it can be interpreted as humanitarian assistance, humanitarian intervention or a conflation of the two. I will be focusing on humanitarian assistance, which refers to the ways in which helping others is done (Allen and Schomerus, 2008: 45). The fundamental principles espoused by most aid agencies under the name of humanitarianism focus on four key areas: universality, impartiality, neutrality and independence. These are arguably aspirations and powerful critiques have been made against aid agencies as to their ability to fulfil them. Furthermore, it has been argued that the action of aid agencies often leads to perverse outcomes, for example prolonging the war e.g. Biafra (Smillie in De Waal, 1995: 77), or becoming complicit in abuses of human rights e.g. The World Food Program in Ugandan refugee camps (Branch, 2008). In defence of humanitarians, however, they have set themselves very high principles, which will always be impossible to entirely achieve. Some like Zoe Marriage advocate that it would be better for NGOs to commit to limited but doable tasks than to express universalist aims that perpetually founder (Marriage, 2006: 137). This would make it easier to assess agencies. Nevertheless, in acknowledging that humanitarians face huge problems, there is space in the discourse to promote better strategies. Therefore the key way to make humanitarian aid more effective would be to focus not simply on deficits and needs but also on strategies – facilitating the (non-damaging) strategies of disaster victims and counteracting the strategies of those who manipulate disasters for personal or political gain (Keen, 2008: 148). Contemporary humanitarianism must be viewed through an evolving lens and in order to better live up to their principles, aid agencies should acknowledge their limitations, endeavour to be more accountable and learn from past mistakes. In this way, they may avoid complicity in causing the very human suffering that they are committed to resolve (Branch, 2008: 170).

The way I will structure this essay is to critically analyze the principles espoused by aid agencies by considering how these principles are carried out. There is clearly a gap between rhetoric and practice which exposes aid agencies to criticism. Additionally, I will convey how the actions of aid agencies often lead to perverse outcomes. However, it is necessary to take into consideration that on the ground things are always more complex and the costs of inaction could also be very high which does leave humanitarians in a difficult moral dilemma which starkly shows the divergence between humanitarian aspirations and humanitarian realities.


This is one of the fundamental tenets of aid agencies which have been questioned by a number of critical authors (Marriage 2006, De Waal 1995). For example, DFID in 1998 claimed that it ‘sought to promote a more universal approach to addressing humanitarian needs wherever they arose. People in need wherever they were – should have equal status and rights to assistance’ (DFID in Marriage, 2006: 15). This was seriously brought into question, for example, in Sierra Leone where aid agencies such as DFID showed a capital city bias. This was due to the differing priorities between principal and beneficiary. Put more starkly, the aid agencies were primarily concerned with their own safety and Freetown was the only evacuation point for foreign workers. This meant that NGOs tended to only provide assistance to those in Freetown as assisting became more difficult outside the city. These practicalities may have been understandable due to the dangers these humanitarians would have faced, but what became very questionable was the way they tried to claim universality by ignoring people informally or by introducing categories that excluded them (Marriage, 2006: 4) in order to stay ‘true’ to their stated objectives. De Waal expands upon this and posits that the demands of fund raising and institutional survival make it imperative not to admit failures (De Waal, 1997: 80). Additionally, concern with organizational growth tends to encourage a concentration of NGO efforts on high profile cases and even those parts of crisis areas that are easily accessible to the media (Keen, 2008:134) further undermining the aspiration of universality to the practical realities of chasing funding. Therefore the dual incentives of humanitarianism and institutional survival are often conflated in order to justify to humanitarians and their backers their strategies, which may in fact not lead to the most humanitarian outcome. This is a legitimate criticism and continued adherence to institutional survival over humanitarian principles is likely to lead to cynicism within the aid industry.

Impartiality and Political Neutrality?

These two principles arguably overlap, with the former entailing the distribution of aid according to need to those on all sides of a conflict, regardless of race, religion or ethnic group; and the latter entailing not taking sides or contributing/strengthening any side of the conflict (Allen and Schomerus, 2008: 182). However, aid is inherently political and to suggest that it is not is simply disingenuous. It is plainly impossible to remain politically impartial and neutral. In remaining silent in order to adhere to these principles, one de facto supports the status quo and can arguably be condemned as ‘complicit in the systematic massacre of a population’ (Kouchner, 1968). The ICRC would likely retort that in order to protect lives it must remain impartial and neutral in order to have continued access to victims. However, following the ICRC’s silence with regard to the Holocaust, this method is clearly problematic. Unfortunately, either action or inaction on behalf of humanitarianism can often have negative implications.

A clear example of the perversion of ‘neutrality’ occurred in Uganda in 1996. Branch argues that humanitarian agencies were directly responsible for enabling the government’s counterinsurgency, in particular its policy of mass forced displacement and internment of a large proportion of the Acholi population. He justifies this by stating that internment camps were only able to be created because humanitarian agencies moved in at their conception to supply them with relief aid and that if they had not, the policy of forced displacement would have been a failure (Branch, 2008: 151-173). Aid agencies, in not speaking out against the government became complicit in its displacement policy. This critique falls into the arguments of aid sustaining wars and propping up governments. However, it is difficult to imagine that had they not intervened the Acholi population would have been better off without aid, as many were coercively driven into camps suggesting that their capacity for exit was clearly not particularly strong. This follows Slim’s reasoning who posits that it is dangerous to withhold a definite good or benefit for the sake of an unknowable future good (Slim in Keen, 2008: 141). Counterfactuals aside, this example shows that the actions of humanitarians can lead to unintended, perverse outcomes, demonstrating that the high aspirations of aid agencies in theory differ from on the ground where moral dilemmas abound in practice.

In addition, the mere presence of relief aid often can perversely lead to the strengthening of rebel forces. This moral dilemma was very clear in the Zairian camps after the Rwandan genocide. For example, emergency aid to Hutu refugees in Zaire was notoriously manipulated by militia fighters who had participated in the 1994 Rwandan genocide…helping the Hutu extremists to recover and rearm. This diversion of relief by warring parties served to undermine the political neutrality of agencies. (Keen, 2008: 126, Allen and Schomerus, 2008: 183). Then, there is the moral dilemma of whether aid should be withheld in order to prevent sustaining killers at the expense of innocent lives within the camps. Aid agencies have been criticised for sustaining war but arguably in this case the blame should lie with the international community. By failing to send a multinational force to separate and disarm the Hutu extremists, aid agencies were put in an impossible position. (Keen, 2008: 127). Such moral complexities show how humanitarian rhetoric can very often in reality not live up to its high aspirations. Arguably the challenge for relief agencies is to determine the proper limits of their moral responsibility for the negative impact of emergency aid and then make all efforts to mitigate against it in their programmes (Slim, 1997: 245).


This refers to the independence of agencies from the political or other objectives of donors and governments. This is a very questionable principle as in practice many humanitarian agencies receive funding from donors who want an influence over the strategy undertaken. This may also have the unintended effect of making an NGO a target in a complex emergency as it is perceived as being unduly influenced by governments, rather than independently pursuing its humanitarian mandate. For example, in 2004 Care USA received 75% of its funding from the US government. This put its operations in Iraq at risk due to its close association with the US. This was demonstrated by the abduction of the local director who was later killed (Keen, 2008: 135).

Furthermore, the independence of humanitarian agencies can be undermined in complex emergencies if they are critical of the incumbent government. For example MSF were forced out of Ethiopia when they denounced the Soviet backed Mengistu government for being responsible for the famine. Many donors were wary of supporting humanitarian agencies in Ethiopia due to Cold War politics but once the famine story flooded the media they had little choice but to acquiesce to public pressure. This shows that donors, as well as humanitarian agencies, do not have a carte blanche to act.  However, this support for humanitarian agencies to pursue independent agendas was also problematic with Rieff arguing that guilt stricken donations helped to fund a brutal resettlement program that may have killed up to 100,000 (Rieff, 2005). This links back to the perverse outcomes of aid giving by obscuring the politics behind an emergency and allowing donors to believe there is an easy solution where they are the most important actors (De Waal, 1997: 83).


There is clearly a gap between rhetoric and practice which exposes aid agencies to criticism. The high principles that are espoused are often difficult to fulfil in practice and aid agencies may often mislead in order to stay technically within their publicly stated objectives – a criticism that Marriage specifically levelled at DFID in its Sierra Leone operations. Furthermore, institutional survival often makes it impossible to admit failures, jeopardising future funding. This often allows for unworkable practices to remain for the benefit of the aid agency, trumping the needs of their alleged beneficiaries. Moreover, these principles are very different once on the ground as aid agencies have to contend with moral complexities and whether their action is helping or in fact worsening the situation. Critiques abound centred around arguments of aid sustaining wars and propping up governments. But the reality is often very difficult and the cost of inaction could also be very high. Such moral complexities show how humanitarian rhetoric can very often in reality not live up to its high aspirations. Nevertheless, in order to move forward, humanitarianism must be viewed through an evolving lens. Hence, in order to better live up to their principles, aid agencies must acknowledge their limitations, endeavour to be more accountable and learn from past mistakes. In this way, they may avoid complicity in causing the very human suffering that they are committed to resolve (Branch, 2008: 170).

Felix Baden-Powell read Politics at the University of Edinburgh and is now reading Development Management at LSE.


Allen, Tim and Schomerus, Mareike (2008) ‘Complex Emergencies and Humanitarian Responses’

De Waal, Alex (1997) ‘Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa’ Indiana University Press, Indianapolis

Keen, David (2008) ‘Complex Emergencies’ Polity Press, Cambridge

Kouchner, Bernard (1968)

Marriage, Zoe (2006) ‘Not Breaking the Rules, Not Playing the Game: International Assistance to Countries at War’ Hurst and Co Publishers, London

Rieff, David (2005) ‘Cruel to be Kind?’ in The Guardian<>

Slim, Hugo (1997) ‘Doing the Right Thing: Relief Agencies, Moral Dilemmas and Moral Responsibility in Political Emergencies and War’ Disasters, Vol 21, No. 3.