Humanitarians’ funding rises, but credibility, autonomy undermined

by Anne Hammerstad
Wednesday, 4 June 2014 13:03 GMT

Syrian refugees register their names at the UNHCR office in Amman. Picture April 21, 2014, REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed/Pool

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The idea of humanitarianism is under threat, corroded by its misuse in emergencies arising from violence

On the fifth of May, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched a programme of global consultations on the future of humanitarianism, which will culminate in the first World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in 2016. The ambition is to “set a new agenda for global humanitarian action”. The timing of this launch is pertinent. Humanitarian action is in crisis, challenged from several directions. The UN convenors of the global consultations have raised four sets of challenges, all related to how to deliver humanitarian aid to those who need it more efficiently, effectively, innovatively and robustly.

These are certainly important challenges, but there are strong reasons to argue that – at least in the case of humanitarian action in response to man-made, rather than natural, disasters – humanitarian action is in crisis for more fundamental reasons than inefficiency or the need to innovate. In humanitarian emergencies caused by war, communal conflict or generalised violence, the very idea of humanitarianism is under threat, normatively, politically and physically.

The humanitarian industry as we know it is simultaneously expanding and corroding. Globally, funding for humanitarian action has increased from less than US$ one billion in 1989 to US$10 billion in 2004 and US$20 billion in 2010. In 2013, the UN launched its largest appeal in history for a single emergency, asking for US$5.2 billion for the victims of Syria’s civil war. This rapid growth of the humanitarian industry is epitomised by the transformation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from a relatively small advocacy-orientated agency in 1989 to a vast, operational humanitarian organisation with a record budget in 2012 of US$ 4.3 billion and 8,600 staff working in more than 125 countries.

At the same time, humanitarianism as an idea – and an ideal – is corroding. The challenge is political, and it questions the possibility of principled, non-partisan, needs-based humanitarian action in the current international climate. As the humanitarian industry has grown, it has become more politicised and fraught, because of both the actions of humanitarian donors and the behaviour of warring parties in humanitarian emergencies.

Turning to donors, the same North American and European governments that have generously funded the expansion of humanitarian aid (they funded 94 percent of global humanitarian activity in 2012) are simultaneously honing humanitarian funds to support their domestic, foreign policy and security interests. This is not new, but is taking place in an unprecedentedly open and frank manner.

Domestically, a core interest of donor countries is to keep displaced populations from seeking asylum on their own shores, A Syrian refugee living in Zaatari camp in Jordan is a worthy focus of humanitarian attention, but a Syrian refugee who aspires to a better life and crosses the Mediterranean in a leaky boat (because there is no legal way in which he can travel to Europe), is an illegitimate and unwanted immigrant. This logic of compassion from afar and hostility up-close weakens the normative moorings of humanitarianism. 

Turning to foreign and security policy, a post-9/11 aid paradigm has emerged to align aid allocations strategically to foreign policy objectives, earmarking funds and channelling resources not necessarily to the neediest humanitarian victims, but to those deemed more relevant to the donor country’s own interests. One result of this is the militarisation of aid. According to the OECD, the overall share of US overseas aid channelled through the US Department of Defence rose from 5.6 percent in 2002 to 21.7 percent in 2005, while USAID’s share has shrunk. This militarisation of aid has been particularly visible in the anti-insurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, partly because it is too dangerous for civilian humanitarian workers to move freely around the country, partly because the Pentagon has pursued a strategy of winning ‘hearts and minds’ through strategically disbursed humanitarian good deeds.

The Pentagon is not the only military actor viewing humanitarian action through a strategic lens. In conflict zones, combatants and terror groups view humanitarian aid as intrinsic to conflict dynamics, and view humanitarians as actors that can be co-opted or attacked – in order to achieve political or strategic aims. This trend in return has forced civilian humanitarian actors to seek physical protection from iternational intervention forces, whether UN peacekeepers or NATO war fighters.

Attacks on aid workers by insurgents and terror groups have also been fuelled by the militarisation of aid delivery in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. One senior humanitarian worker posted to Baghdad in the mid-2000s lamented his organisation’s dependence on Coalition protection to move around the country and asked me: ‘How objective can you be when you fly in a Black Hawk?’

The result is a ‘humanitarian squeeze’: There is little space for manoeuvre for non-partisan humanitarians who base their work on their assessments of needs and vulnerabilities rather than in support of political agendas or war-fighting strategies. What humanitarian space there is has become dangerous territory. 2013 was a record year of attacks on humanitarians, with an estimated 152 aid workers killed.

In the short term, there is little the World Humanitarian Summit can do to stop insurgents and terrorist organisations from attacking humanitarian workers. But it can shed light on the unprecedented politicisation, and militarisation, of aid among the main aid funders. It can discuss the unintended effects of integrating, in the name of coordination and efficiency, the work of the UN’s humanitarian and political/military arms, which has undermined the autonomy and credibility of the former. It can investigate the longer-term damage to the humanitarian ideal caused by the eagerness of military actors to use aid to win over ‘hearts and minds’. It can debate whether bilateralism, earmarking and targeting of aid pursued in the name of foreign or security policy interests have gone so far that it is in danger of corroding trust in humanitarianism. Professional humanitarians must be allowed more operational space and autonomy – financially, politically and physically.

Dr Anne Hammerstad (School of Politics and IR, University of Kent, Canterbury) is the author of The Rise and Decline of a Global Security Actor: UNHCR, Refugee Protection and Security