Humanitarian Aid

The purpose of humanitarian aid is helping those in need and those less fortunate and “is intended to be governed by the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence” (Global Humanitarian Assistance). Unfortunately, successfully aiding those in need is much easier said than done. Charities are oftenfunneling millions of dollars into less fortunate societies only to leave them off worse than before anyone came to help. One of the keys perspectives in sociology, functionalism takes into account the pros and cons of aid projects. A functionalist would state that any kind of giving will help as well as hurt, the keys is figuring out these side effects before acting.

There are two main types of aid – development aid and emergency assistance. Development aid usually deals populations in poverty with poor economies. Emergency assistance is response-based aid, usuallyafter natural disasters that have caused widespread destruction. Of the two, emergency assistance is the more common form of aid. In her video, Polman uses the example of the earthquake in Haiti – billions of dollars were raised and thousands of aid organizations helped the citizens of Haiti. As she talks about in “War Games” as well as her Ted Talk, disaster situations attract a myriad of different organizations as well as commercial attention. In fact, much of the money donated by people around the world goes towards the press and increasing the exposure of the situation.

Development aid isn’t as widespread commercially as emergency assistance because it usually isn’t in response to any certain event. One of the main problems with development assistance is figuring out where aid goes, and what form it comes in. Development assistance can cover anything from giving money to local businesses in a poor economy to building hospitals in an area with high mortality rates.

There are a number of reasons that certain organizations decide who to give aid to and how they do it. Because of this, many organizations are biased in the aid they give to certain populations. This range of different reasons is appropriately called “development biases.” A bias isn’t an idea perpetuated by lack of knowledge or unawareness, but rather an “overgeneralization of some decision rule that might be useful in one context but is ill-suited or even harmful when applied in another”  (Baron & Szymanska 215). One of the most common development biases is “person bias,” meaning organizations will choose to work with certain people because they are easier to work with. Another one is “special bias,” meaning it’s easier to do work in more accessible urban areas than a small poor society that might live in the mountains. One last bias is concerns previous work. It’s much easier to find a place in need of aid if a number of different organizations have been there already. There are a few other project biases that reflect how our own cultures and differences will often interfere with how we aid other countries.

Humanitarian aid is meant to be neutral and equally help everyone in a society, though this usually isn’t the case. Sometimes donations will be spread so thin that it only ends up in the hands of the higher-ups, not reaching everyone in the population. Often, charity is made much more into a business and is abused. This is talked about a lot in Polman’s “War Games.” People need to understand that groups can’t fix an economy just by giving a poor society money. Charities need to fuel businesses, helping the economy from the ground up. After all it is called development assistance; we need to learn how to properly assist these societies instead of blindly throwing money at them.



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

Baron, Jonathon, and Ewa Szymanska. “Heuristics and Biases in  Charity.” 11 June 2010. Web.

Global Humanitarian Assistance. “Defining Humanitarian Aid.” Global Humanitarian Assistance. 2013. Web.

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  1. Posted June 11, 2013 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    I really liked how you included different types of bias here, that helps us understand some of the flaws of aid organizations. These types of bias make us wonder- is humanitarian aid really going to those who most need it? Also, that Calvin and Hobbes cartoon works perfectly with the post!

  2. Posted June 11, 2013 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    I agree with the PR campaigning of humanitarian aid organizations being ridiculous and the fact donors get to pick where aid goes is, as well. The organizations rely on the media to help bring donors in and the donors want their money associated with aid being offered to the most publicized effort, which can lead to the bias you talked about. As pointed out in Polman’s book, aid doesn’t always go to the people who need it and this, to me, seems like the biggest problem with the current setup of humanitarian aid.

  3. Posted June 11, 2013 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    I agree that it is an unfortunate reality that humanitarian aid groups have to focus as heavily on public relations as they do, and although I think many wish that they could operate independently, the bottom line is that they must treat their program like a business because at the end of the day it is one. They must always place their donors above all else if they hope to stay an organization, regardless of the actual victims needs.

  4. Posted June 10, 2013 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    I also see the problem with allowing donors to pick and choose who they give aide to. I liked that you included the different types of biases that can influence the distribution of aide. I think going more in depth into this concept, maybe with examples or more studies, would be very interesting.