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What is humanitarian aid ?

What is humanitarian aid ?


It all started in 1859, when Henri Dunant, a Swiss businessman,   the 3rd. When he reached his destination, he arrived on a battlefield where he found out tens of thousands wounded and dying soldiers. The terrible Battle of Solferino took place just few hours before the businessman arrived, letting him witness the horror of war and its aftermath, where soldiers are left in agony without assistance of any kind. From that moment on, Henri Dunant mobilized the civilian population in order to provide medical assistance to the injured soldiers and he insisted for making no distinction between French, Italian and Austrian combatants. In saying this, Henri Dunant just laid the foundations of humanitarian action, which must be done impartially, without discrimination and with a sole aim: providing assistance to the most vulnerable persons.

After this traumatic event, Henri Dunant dedicated his time and his energy in advocating for these principles and founded in 1863 with four other persons, the International Committee of the Red Cross, a humanitarian organization still very active in contexts of armed conflict. So, from the beginning, humanitarian action is dedicated to providing assistance and relief in situations of armed conflict, and World War II contributed to the emergence of many other humanitarian organizations in order to provide assistance to civil populations, such as Save the Children, Oxfam or Care International… Over the same period, the Swiss government also proposed to reconsider the laws of war so that the conduct of hostilities in armed conflict is no longer unrestricted. This resulted in the adoption of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, which are still in force today, and have been complemented in 1977 by two additional protocols related to the protection of civilian persons. This legal corpus is best known as the International Humanitarian Law, or IHL.

In 1971, when war was raging in Biafra, a southern region of Nigeria, several doctors working for the International Committee of Red Cross criticized its mandate, considering that it was not effective enough for providing assistance and protection to civilian populations in a country where gross violations of IHL where observed. They then decided to found a new organization : Doctors Without Borders, also known as Médecins Sans Frontières in French. This brand-new organization revolutionized the humanitarian world by establishing a new paradigm: the “sans-frontiérisme” whereby the confidentiality principle is put aside in favor of the mediatization of their action. They also consider that the right of humanitarian intervention is justified by the duty of assistance to people in danger and it is based on this philosophy that others humanitarian organizations will be founded, like Doctors of the World/Médecins du Monde for instance.

The humanitarian world also evolved significantly in the 1990s as natural and human-made disasters became more frequent and the number of victims increased drastically. As a consequence, humanitarian aid organizations came to the conclusion that they should not only provide assistance to the persons affected by armed conflicts, but also to the victims of natural disasters.

I must mention as well the increasing role that United Nations played in the humanitarian sector, most especially since 1991 and the creation of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, also known as OCHA. In practice, this agency is in charge of coordinating the humanitarian response from all the NGOs and other relevant actors in each specific context. For this purpose, OCHA uses a cluster approach, meaning that all the needs are classified in specific sectors, such as food security, water sanitation and hygiene, shelter, health, etc… In that way, all the needs are clearly identified and shared among the different humanitarian actors, in order to ensure a better coverage.


In order to fully understand what is humanitarian action, it is essential to know in what kind of context it can take place. In fact, any sort of humanitarian assistance can be implemented:

  • Following a natural disaster: That’s the case when a tsunami, a hurricane, a drought or an earthquake occur…
  • Following a man-made disaster: such as war, environmental pollution or an industrial accident for instance.

In both cases, we’re talking about emergency, and in this kind of situation, there is one sole objective: to save lives, to alleviate suffering and to assist the victims of the catastrophe. And for that purpose, you must act rapidly in order to reduce rates of disaster-related mortality. This is one of the reasons why emergency humanitarian aid’ projects are implemented over a short timescale, from 3 to 12 months that may be renewed depending on the evolution of the crisis.

But humanitarian action can also take place for a poverty reduction purpose. In that case, the idea is to work on the causes that impede the social and economic development of a population group, with a training on agroecological technics for instance, or a project which focuses on women empowerment and their professional autonomy. And for these programs, stable conditions are mandatory, so no war nor natural disaster and that’s the reason why we refer more to development aid rather than humanitarian aid specifically speaking. The other difference is that development aid’ projects are implemented over a longer timescale, as they can be 1 to 3 years long. 

However, that would be very simplistic to summarize humanitarian action to this basic dichotomy, because between an emergency situation and a more stable context, there is what we call the rehabilitation and recovery phase. The concept of rehabilitation and recovery comprises the restoration and reconstruction activities of basic services and facilities and is generally carried out weeks or months after the disaster. In other words, the objective of rehabilitation and recovery activities is to return to pre-crisis levels in terms of development. And for that purpose, reconstruction and disaster risk reduction activities can be implemented, as well as public awareness campaigns about disaster management.

But here again, it is not that simple, as the boundary between emergency response, rehabilitation and development aid has become increasingly blurred for a good reason: humanitarian crises are becoming more diverse and complex with a coexistence of short-term and long-term needs. In fact, there are more and more regions in the world that are not only affected by a man-made disaster like a war for instance, but also by one or several natural disasters as a drought or a locust plague. And for that reason, an increasing number of emergency humanitarian aid projects are now prepared with tools and methods that were originally development aid projects. In any case, the objective remains the same: to alleviate the suffering of people affected by conflicts and natural catastrophes, to save lives and to preserve human dignity.


In order to ensure its quality and effectiveness, humanitarian action is subject to a lot of principles, and for that reason, I shall limit myself to pointing out the most important ones, starting with THE four founding principles that are:

  • Humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence.

Many other codes of conducts related to humanitarian action have also been issued, such as the one for “the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Disaster Relief” which includes 10 clauses like for example:

  • Aid must not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint,
  • Or humanitarian organizations must hold themselves accountable to both those they seek to assist and those from whom they accept resources.

We can also mention the SPHERE project, which is a set of principles and standards governing humanitarian action. And one among many is particularly important, namely the do no harm duty, which requires humanitarian organizations to strive to minimize the harm they may inadvertently cause through providing aid.

In any case, these numerous principles have once again, only one purpose:  To deliver quality assistance to the people in need and to keep the humanitarian organizations accountable to the people they assist as well as all the stakeholders involved in this assistance.


There is a lot of stakeholders involved in humanitarian action at various levels, starting with States which have the primary responsibility for carrying out disaster relief and initial recovery assistance. That is often referred to as civil protection and it is supposed to be operational in preparation for or immediate aftermath of a disaster. In some cases, it works just fine, as in Japan after the earthquake of 2011, but in other situations, States and governments have no choice but to get support from non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

NGOs operate on a non-profit basis and independently from States and governments in terms of strategy and they deploy national and international staff for implementing humanitarian assistance programs directly in the field. Some NGOs focus on a specific sector (such as food aid or provision of health care services) whereas some others are able to provide a multisectoral assistance.

NGOs can implement assistance projects from their own funds or from external funding. These external funding may come from the private sector, a foundation or a company for instance, but may also come from the public sector, such as the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office in United Kingdom, the United States Agency for International Development (USAid) or the Canadian Humanitarian Assistance Fund (CHAF).

At inter-State level, the Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations also known as ECHO, is one of the major institutional donors for humanitarian assistance. The same goes for the United Nations, but with one specificity: the grants from the UN can be cash or kind. For example, UNICEF can provide NGOs with hygiene kits while the World Food Programme can provide food items and FAO with seeds and tools.

Last but not least, is a humanitarian stakeholder as well. Yes, you read me well, people just like you can be part of humanitarian action! First through the donations you can make to an organization of your choice. By the way, donations are the best support you can provide to NGOs, so that they can be financially independent and act rapidly when a crisis occurs. Otherwise, they must wait for a public grant and this can take up to several weeks and be really problematic when lives are at stake.

Also, the public like you and me can be part of humanitarian action just by sharing interest in this specific topic. Because it is public opinion that can bring to light forgotten crises and, in that sense, urge policy makers and others to act quickly. For that reason, stay informed and go get information by yourself. You can follow any humanitarian organization on social medias and get information related to their activities on their respective website as well.

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