Back to the Drawing Board: The Challenges of Humanitarian Action

By Amos, Valerie Ann | Harvard International Review, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Back to the Drawing Board: The Challenges of Humanitarian Action


Amos, Valerie Ann, Harvard International Review


Disasters are not only increasing in number, they are becoming more complex as natural and man-made crises combine to cause mega-disasters. Rapid urbanization, population growth, political unrest, and migration have created fragile environments in many countries, and boundaries are blurring between complex emergencies and chronic vulnerability in places such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia. These factors have resulted in intense pressure on the UN's humanitarian organizations and partners to respond more quickly when disaster strikes and to be more effective in its response.

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In 2012, the UN coordinated nearly US$9 billion dollars of humanitarian relief to support 54 million people affected by the worst crises. Overall needs were much greater. The number of recorded disasters has doubled over the past two decades, From around 200 to more than 400 a year, and in some parts of the world, like the Sahel region of West Africa, climate-related crises such as prolonged and frequent droughts are becoming the norm rather than the exception.

As humanitarian agencies do all they can to respond to these crises, there are new challenges which are having an impact on our work: violence linked to organized crime, (such as piracy off the coast of Somalia or gang activity in the world's largest cities), the proliferation of non-state armed groups in many internal conflicts, rising levels of internal displacement, and the ongoing use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.

Globalization, urbanization, the effects of climate change, and asymmetric warfare mean that humanitarian actors must adapt their methods of aid delivery to ensure that the UN continues to work in a coherent and principled way. We also face other challenges: fragmentation in the way people connect with each other at the same time as we are seeing greater connectivity--people talking directly to each other and bypassing their governments as well as how-to make the global humanitarian system more inclusive and durable, given die range of new actors, including the military.

In 1991, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution which remains the framework for multilateral humanitarian action today. At its heart are the core principles which underpin humanitarian work--impartiality, neutrality, humanity, and independence--which are enshrined in the 1949 Geneva Conventions. But those principles are being challenged today more than ever before, and prompting the UN to ask some difficult questions. For example, given the multiple mandates of UN organizations and the role of the UN to maintain peace and security and protect civilians in areas of conflict, can the UN really remain neutral? And should it? After all, isn't the UN on the side of the ordinary women and girls, men and boys who are caught in the midst of conflict? And sometimes, to protect them, doesn't it need to take sides? These are questions which have become part of a wider debate about the role of die UN in today's world--a world which is very different from that in which the UN was established, but where the principles of the UN Charter remain as relevant and important to the people of the world today as it did in 1945.

One major concern for humanitarian practitioners is that the UN is operating in increasingly politicized environments where humanitarian action is used to pursue political or security ends, particularly when political solutions to conflict remain elusive.

The politicization of aid has a long history but as die size, scale, and centrality of humanitarian aid have grown and as governments work to show their citizens that they are doing something in the face of intractable and difficult, humanitarian aid has been used as part of a broader campaign to win hearts and minds. Some governments also argue that Member States of the United Nations have used aid as a substitute for die political will needed to end a crisis, in an effort to stabilize unsustainable situations and to placate global public opinion. …

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