The Skewed Motives Behind Humanitarian Aid

assignment 3-2

Outlining the ideal function of humanitarian aid, Jean-Hervé Bradol, President-Emeritus of Doctors Without Borders France says, “Humanitarian action, as we understand it, directly challenges the logic that justifies the premature and avoidable death of a part of humanity in the name of a hypothetical collective good… It is intended to reach those who are being robbed of life by violence and extreme privation” (Bradol 5,6). Continuing this train of thought, it is generally understood that the function of humanitarian aid is to respond impartially to the need of a community, or communities, following the aftermath of a crisis with complete neutrality.

Interestingly enough, however, it appears that those in the humanitarian sphere today have instead become socialized to distribute aid in a way that supports and perpetuates financial competition between individual aid organizations. There are so many humanitarian organizations competing to solve the many crises that occur in the world that economic competition against one another is inevitable. Humanitarian groups today do take actions that align with the motive that Bradol illustrates as responding to areas of violence and deprivation, but in the end, it appears that humanitarian aid is most heavily influenced by motives that are economically based. Linda Polman writes in her book, War Games, “…the most powerful link between humanitarian aid agencies is that of commercial competition. Aid organizations that fail to put in an appearance at each new humanitarian disaster miss out on contracts for the implementation of aid projects financed by donor governments and institutions, and are bypassed left, right and centre by competing organizations that do show up” (Polman 37). If aid organizations want to remain in the forefront of donors’ minds, they must be present at any and all crises locations so that they can attend to soaring logistical costs and fund future endeavors relevant to their specialized areas of concentration. There has also been an “…introduction of results-based management in humanitarian organisations” (Hofman 2) that emphasizes short-term economic benefits for humanitarian organizations for involvement.

Due to underlying economic motives, humanitarian aid plays into part of a large symbiotic system that includes several bodies in response to a humanitarian crisis. First a crisis occurs and the 17 main donor governments and other independent donors feel stirred to contribute financially to the cause. These donors contribute to and benefit the many independent, humanitarian organizations that respond to the crises. Aid organizations are in competition with one another for donations and so in order to ensure immediate and continued financial support, rely upon the press to provide coverage to donor audiences. The press then benefits from news that will tug at heartstrings and gain viewership. In Sierra Leone, when a civil war broke out in 1991, one of the tactics of the Revolutionary United Front was to dismember the limbs of the innocent who did not side with the opposition.“…Journalists from all over the world pounced on the story of the amputees… Partly as a result of media attention, Sierra Leone became the beneficiary of the largest UN peace mission and… the largest humanitarian aid operation anywhere in the world at the time. Even organizations that were not there specifically to help amputees used photos of people in Murray Town Camp in their fundraising campaigns” (Polman 61).

This leads me to ask the question that when aid agencies are in such staunch competition with one another for donations, are they really seeking to aid the areas and people most in need or are they seeking to aid the areas that will draw the attention of donors? An unfortunate result of the symbiotic relationship between specifically press and aid distribution is that the crises that receive the most press coverage are then the ones that receive the most attention from aid organizations and vice versa. Haiti received a staggering amount of press coverage and even more attention from aid organizations. Even three years after the earthquake in 2010, there are still 185 ongoing aid projects across the nation. 250 INGOs were in Goma after the genocide that occurred on April 6, 1994, and “The camp economy was flourishing compared to that of Rwanda, where hardly any aid organizations, let alone investors, had shown their faces” (Polman 22).

impacthiati (1)

Children who were beneficiaries of humanitarian food aid in Haiti after the devastating earthquake in January 2010

We are also forced to ask the question of whether or not the people being served are groups that should be served. The devotion by such organizations as the Red Cross to neutrality in a crisis situation has profound consequences on the beneficiaries of aid. A member of staff at an American organization called Refugee Help said, “Most of us gave no though at all to the ethics of our aid provision,” (Polman 34). Humanitarian territories are supposed to be areas where aid is provided that are “…enclaves in war zones… [that] “transcends all military and political imperatives,” (Polman 8) essentially meaning that it is the specific role of humanitarian aid groups to serve blindly to those who are in need. Humanitarian groups strive to aid people regardless of their affiliation with revolutionary or military organizations and will oftentimes end up extending wartime. Organizations have to pad the pockets of corrupt governments or warlords in order to achieve access to the vulnerable areas, which further perpetuates the state of corrupt or dangerous political climates in often unstable, undeveloped nations. “…In the 1980s, the Khmer Rouge found a safe haven in camps along the Thai border after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. The UN estimates that the Khmer Rouge managed to get its hands on 50-80 per cent of al the food aid and pharmaceuticals provided” (Polman 102). Refugee camps give a chance of new life through distribution of resources and a place for displaced peoples but blindly so. Refugee camps can give restorative life and resources to those who have committed crimes against their own people, such as the Hutu warriors in the Goma refugee camp. Rwandan President after the Rwandan Tutsi army invaded the camps in 1996 said, “I think we should start accusing these people,” invoking the aid community, “who actually supported these camps – spent one million dollars per day in these camps, gave support to these groups to rebuild themselves into a force.” (32)

All of this being said, how can we determine a more efficient system of aid that is based upon ethically-founded principles and that responds to a need, regardless of economic incentive? How can we design a system that will empower people from their vulnerable state following humanitarian crises and turn them into vehicles that will incite positive social and political change within their nations? It is a daunting series of questions I cannot begin to claim to have the answers to. However, it is a series of questions that needs to be answered by global citizens with urgency, before we become too far entrenched in a humanitarian aid system that oftentimes does more harm than good.

Works Cited

Bradol, Jean-Hervé. In the Shadows of ‘Just Wars’: Violence, Politics and Humanitarian Action. Ed. Ed Fabrice Weissman. N.p.: Cornell UP, 2004. Print.

Fallding, Harold. “Functional Analysis in Sociology.” American Sociological Association28.1 (1963): 5-13. Print.

Frerks, Georg, and Dorothea Hilhorst. New Issues in Refugee Research. Working paper no. 56. N.p.: Disaster Studies: Rural Development, Sociology Group. Wageningen University, 2002. Print.

Hofman, Charles-Antoine, Les Roberts, Jeremy Shoham, and Paul Harvey. “Measuring the Impact of Humanitarian Aid: A Review of Current Practice.” Humanitarian Policy Group. June 2004. Web. <>.

Polman, Linda. War Games. London: Penguin, 2010. Print.

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  1. Posted June 10, 2013 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

    More transparency would be great. People want to know where their money is going, how much goes to administrative tasks, how much goes to food, medicine, etc. Social media could be a way to influence congressmen and congresswomen in the US to demand more accountability. However, I don’t think a single entity to ensure ethical delivery of humanitarian aid will happen, and if it does I don’t think it will be effective. International politics is a morass of public perceptions and hidden agendas; certain outcomes in aid-receiving countries may be favorable to one country and not to another. For example, look at Syria. There are five countries with veto power in the UN security council and they can’t even agree about how to handle the situation, so basically nothing gets done.

  2. Posted June 10, 2013 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    We are faced with a problem in terms of the ethical delivery of humanitarian aid that, as you point out, will take concerted effort to address. We both know that at present there exists no single coordinating and policing entity that can be the point-person for this effort. What is the way forward? Perhaps to use social media to demand and create more transparency and hence accountability?