Humanitarian Aid: Conflict Resolution

Humanitarian Aid functions as a way for governments and people all around the world to contribute to those in need.  “Humanitarian aid’ is aid and action designed to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain and protect human dignity” and “is intended to be governed by the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence” (GHA).  Violent conflicts produce some of the most abhorrent conditions that such aid aims to alleviate.  Children can become soldiers and casualties, entire ethnic groups may be targeted, and these are just a few of the many horrors that occur.  Aid in such situations needs to be held to a higher standard.  These aren’t education mission; lives are at stake.  Wasted time and money could otherwise save those caught in conflict.  However, not only does aid in its current form function inefficiently, its short-term mindset can also produce long-term problems.


Administering aid in conflict zones is a precarious ordeal; organizations have to deal with foreign governments, local leaders and hostile conditions.  This is not an excuse for poor performance, though.  We are in an age of smaller margins and greater efficiency, so there has to be a viable solution for delivering greater help, but first humanitarian organizations need to ensure that they aren’t doing more harm than good.  For example, if an organization desires to deliver aid to people suffering under an abusive group, then it most likely will have to negotiate with this group to be able to do so.  But, as Professor Keen of the London School of Economics points out, “providing aid in this way without drawing attention to human rights abuses tends to legitimize this underlying abusive process” (Keen).  So now, instead of helping those in need the agency has already given power to the abusers.


This added legitimacy, combined with the power of controlling when, where and how much aid can be delivered, can actually fuel conflict.  An armed group persecuting civilians is a huge problem, but give this armed group access to clean food, water and medical attention and that problem skyrockets.  Not only can this directly benefit the abusers, but it can also serve as a source of power.  If locals need clean water or food, then they may have to go through the same group that is persecuting them.   Linda Polman in War Games asks “Should international non-governmental organizations carry on providing relief if warring factions use aid for their own benefit, thus prolonging the war?” (Polman)  Global Aid in 2011 was 15.1 billion dollars (US), isn’t it time we spent some of that money finding a better solution?


Humanitarian Aid groups rely on one thing to operate: donations.  This is their most important resource and many times the main influence for their direction.  This is in direct conflict with the goals of humanitarian aid.  If the goals are to save lives and alleviate suffering, shouldn’t that dictate where aid is given? Instead, organizations flock to the latest crisis instead of focusing on their current task.  Linda Polman describes this as “contract fever” (Polman).  This behavior shifts the focus from providing help to generating donors.  Another problem with this behavior is that it relies on the ‘trendy’ crisis, yet public attention is usually short-term and fairly fickle.  Everyone may be talking about the earthquake in Haiti today, but if a Tsunami strikes in Indonesia tomorrow then Haiti will be on the backburner.  Tiger Woods’s affair alone took attention completely away from many world events.  Another example of the pitfalls of operating in such a way is education. A UNESCO report found that “education accounts for just 2% of humanitarian aid, and only a small fraction of requests for humanitarian aid for education are met” (UNESCO).  Education is one of the building blocks for long-term, peaceful solutions.  Education helps those in need be better able to provide for and protect themselves. Education isn’t sexy, though.  Children reading in a new school doesn’t catch attention like refugees missing limbs or aid workers handing out boxes of food.


The last major problem with humanitarian aid in conflict areas in that of politicized influences.  Neutrality is crucial to successfully delivering aid in both the short-term and long-term.  That abusive group won’t be as willing to let you into their territory if they think you are wing of the US military. Political relationships, just like public attention, can wax and wane.  An aid group from a particular country may be loved one day and despised the next completely because of unrelated actions by their government.  Referencing US aid work in Mali, William Moseley writes, “recipients sense that their welfare is not the real priority and fear political interference. Development aid for its own sake is the best way to maintain strong allies in the region and foster healthy, pluralistic societies” (Moseley).  Locals won’t be as willing to cooperate if they know that aid is just a tool for some greater goal.  The welfare of the people must be the ultimate goal.  Without trust these aid programs have a much larger chance of being unsuccessful.  Why would you wholeheartedly change your lifestyle if you thought those helping you were only using you for their own means?


Aid in conflict zones by its very nature is difficult, but we have to do better.  Those trapped in war torn areas need help and may have no other way of escaping the atrocities.  Aid organizations need to be smarter about how they spend their money.  If they were more efficient with their money they wouldn’t need as many donations to perform the same job, and maybe then the new disaster wouldn’t take precedent over the current one.




Beaumont, Peter. War zone aid ‘fuels more conflicts.’ The Guardian. January 13, 2007. Web. June 30, 2013.

Data and Guides. Global Humanitarian Assistance (GHA). Web. June 30, 2013.

Keen, David. Aid and Development in the Context of Conflict. Food Insecurity in Protracted Crises. September 14, 2012. Web. June 30, 2013.

Moseley, William. Stop the Blanket Militarization of Humanitarian Aid. Foreign Policy. July 31, 2009. Web. July 1, 2013.

Polman, Linda. War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern times. 2010. Print.

Spang, Lyra. The Humanitarian Faction: The Politicization and Targeting of Aid Organizations in War Zones. International Affairs Review. Web. July 1, 2013.

World Humanitarian Data and Trends. OCHA. 2012. Web. June 30, 2013.



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