The Politicization of Humanitarian Aid; “Just” versus “New” Humanitarianism

Humanitarian aid has become a victim of its own “success”[1] which is partly responsible for its politicization. Since the onset of its provision by one organization – ICRC – humanitarian aid has evolved into a market with hundreds of actors involved. Its “success” caught the attention of politicians as an interesting concept to co-opt for the promulgation of their policies and in support of their military goals. The humanitarian aid community showed the usefulness and invited politicians to join, in exchange for funding and for politicians to deal with the source of the humanitarian problems. Humanitarianism transformed into “new” humanitarianism[2] and the related aid into a multiple-billion dollar market.

Those who promote, propagate and are active in this “new” humanitarian aid are guilty of not managing the success of humanitarian aid. Instead of managing the success and adhering to the humanitarian principles, the majority was seduced by funding provided and solutions promised by politics. Decades later, humanitarian principles are appropriated by politicians, the military and private sector and utilized for their own objectives. The strength of the humanitarian cannon – ensuring the vital recognition of need-based, independent and impartial humanitarian aid – has been diluted with political objectives endangering the effectiveness of humanitarian aid.  At the same time, politics has neither delivered sufficient independent funding nor solutions to the underlying problems that are the cause of human suffering.

The majority of “new” humanitarian aid is now a tool of western governments’ foreign policy or the objectives of the governments receiving the aid, significantly undermining the provision of humanitarian emergency aid. At the other end of the spectrum is “just” humanitarianism[3] providing need-based, independent and impartial aid in solidarity with those in need, with the primary objective to save their lives and relieve their suffering. As “just” humanitarianism has been almost silent in the past years it has been confused with “new” humanitarianism and suffered the consequences of politicization of aid. Instead of strong advocacy against politicization of aid, “just” humanitarianism chose to hold the damaging position to become apolitical and almost stringent in its adherence to the humanitarian principles.

Almost against all odds “just” humanitarian aid did continue to reach those in need. Nevertheless, this is not sufficient as “just” is increasingly confused with “new” humanitarian aid and this further undermines the provision of any humanitarian aid. Instead of being silent and apolitical, what is needed is a politically aware humanitarian aid with a strong voice. Humanitarian organizations need to master the appropriate amount of pragmatism towards humanitarian principles, while reclaiming their independence to regain the freedom to deliver aid according to need alone and in solidarity with those in need. Finally, they should take this regained freedom and utilize it to translate their witnessing into strong advocacy.


  1. In this part of the post “success” does not imply that humanitarian aid was immensely successful in addressing all the humanitarian needs in the world, but it refers to the successful growth expressed in the amount of organisations and the increase in financial resources consumed.
  2. See Mark Duffield, Global Governance and the New Wars, The merging of development and Security, Zed Books (2001), 3rd (2005). p 95, 98 and B.S. Chimni, Globalization, Humanitarianism and the Erosion of Refugee Protection, 13 Journal of Refugee Studies No. 3 (2000).
  3. “Just” humanitarianism is often defined as humanitarianism applied through providing unconditional assistance, universally to those in need, while upholding the principles of impartiality and neutrality by being independent. It is driven by the need of those in distress and not by politics. Its objective is to assist. It does not have to be apolitical, just not be used for political ends. For more references on the changes in humanitarianism where this definition is derived from, see; Joanna Macrae, Purity or Political Engagement?: Issues in food and health security interventions in complex political emergencies, The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance, (1998) and Fiona Fox, New Humanitarianism; Does it Provide does it provide a Moral Banner for the 21st Century?, 25 Disasters No.4, 275-289 (2001) and HPG report, The new humanitarianisms: a review of trends in global humanitarian action, edited by Joanna Macrae, HPG report 11, April 2002.

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4 thoughts on “The Politicization of Humanitarian Aid; “Just” versus “New” Humanitarianism

  1. So, how do you propose that NGOs and other aid organizations break off from politicized aid given the ever-present funding race? Let’s get practical here, what is a funding proposal if not an advertisement to “sell” a project/paper to a donor? In a lot of ways, I’ve come to see it similarly as advertisements in television and media (not to debase aid by comparing it with some so banal as blockbuster movies but there is a similarity); once you take their money, you have to please them to keep the money coming. Unfortunately this often means bickering over the narrative and or relinquishing at least some (for example, M&E) control over the project.

    Please do not misinterpret me, I think the politicization of aid is problematic. But realistically, how can we change this. Do you think that having a “politically aware” humanitarian regime with a strong advocacy wing is really enough to restructure the entire funding paradigm, given that most large donations ultimately trace back to governments who are intrinsically political? And how do we determine what is the “appropriate amount of pragmatism towards humanitarian principles?” As a whole community (or, depending on how you look at it, the whole aid/development monster?) Surely, the way my organization, TLO contemplates funding and politics differs dramatically from MSF or on the opposing end of the spectrum, development companies like LBG or DAI. Similarly, I’m sure there is a great deal of spectrum within the private aid/development community as well.

    I think this is a good post, and these are questions that AID/Development organizations and companies need to continually ask themselves and one another. Unfortunately, they’re tough questions. Perhaps, I’ll have to blog a more formal response on my own blog.

    • First, thanks for the great response. Your response refers to aid organisations in general. In my post I, on purpose, only refer to humanitarian aid. I have done this, because I am convinced that not all forms of politicized aid are bad. Development aid is inherently political and I think there is no way to change this. Nevertheless, I am still convinced there is a need for development aid, politicized or not. I am aware that, to a certain extent, all aid is politicized, but I do not accept the negative impact on those in need of the appropriation of humanitarian aid by governments and the purposeful incorrect use of the humanitarian narrative. I feel that many humanitarian organisations too often adhere to government policies without even speaking out about the negative impact.

      You are correctly referring to the “funding race” or “funding paradigm”, but I doubt that there is no way out. There is at least one humanitarian organisation with more than 90% of their funding coming from private sources. This shows that at least a certain amount of financial independence can be achieved. The problem, according to me, revolves around the saying; you do not bite the hand that feeds you. I feel that the majority of humanitarian aid organisations adhere too much to this saying. Instead of only receiving funding and ensuring they are in line with donor policy, humanitarian aid organisations have, I think, a duty to advocate for more independent need-based funding and challenge the policies of governments. By neglecting this duty humanitarian organisations undermine the legitimacy of humanitarian aid and its effectiveness.

      I agree that determining the appropriate amount of pragmatism towards humanitarian principles is a challenge. One of the first steps could be transparency. Humanitarian aid organisations should increase their transparency concerning the compromises they make in the field. Only transparency will enable further dialogue to determine what the appropriate amount of pragmatism is. A good example is the book: “Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed” by MSF. Sadly, too often funding and therefore the need to please the donor comes first.

      I hope we can continue this wonderful discussion.


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