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Donor behaviour and the future of humanitarian action

By Anne Hammerstad


After a short lull in the late 2000s, global refugee numbers have risen dramatically. In 2013, a daily average of 32,200 people (up from 14,200 in 2011) fled conflict and persecution to seek protection elsewhere, within or outside the borders of their own country. On the current trajectory, 2014 will be even worse. In Syria, targeting of civilians and large-scale destruction have led to 2.5 million (and counting) refugees fleeing the country since 2011. The vast majority shelter in neighbouring Lebanon (856,500), Jordan (641,900), and Turkey (609,300). As I write, hundreds of thousands are fleeing the advancing forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in neighbouring Iraq. And civil wars and ethnic violence have resurged in many parts of Central Africa and the African Horn.

What future for humanitarian action in this dire scenario? This question was raised on the fifth of May by the UN Secretary-General, Ban-Ki Moon, when he launched a programme of global consultations, which will culminate in the first ever World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in 2016, poised to “set a new agenda for global humanitarian action”. The UN has raised four sets of challenges, to deliver humanitarian aid more efficiently, effectively, innovatively, and robustly.

The launch of these consultations is timely, but it avoids an important challenge to the future of humanitarian action: the policies of donor governments.

United Nations Geneva

At first glance, this may seem like a strange assertion. After all, although needs continue to surpass the ability to provide, donor funding for humanitarian operations has skyrocketed. From less than US$1 billion in 1989, the global humanitarian budget stood at US$22 billion in 2013. Most of these funds come from a small number of Western donor states. But coupled with this rise in funds comes a donor agenda that risks, even if unintentionally, undermining the humanitarian ideal. This challenge is far from the only one posed to humanitarian action — much worse for the security of humanitarian workers are the terrorist groups that target them, leading to the killing of an estimated 152 aid workers in 2013. But because humanitarian action depends on a moral consensus over its meaning and worth, the current trajectory of donor policies is worrisome.

The humanitarian ideal is based on international solidarity: that outsiders can and should provide aid and protection in a principled, non-partisan, needs-based manner to civilian casualties of war and political violence. This ideal of politically disinterested solidarity with fellow human beings caught up in war and violence, regardless of who or where they are, has always been at some remove from the reality of humanitarian operations, but a consensus has nevertheless existed that it is an ideal worth aspiring to. Recently, though, donor governments have been increasingly open and unapologetic about using humanitarian aid to further their own political or security objectives.

One such objective is to keep immigration down. Since most man-made humanitarian crises have displacement as a core component, one objective of Western donor support of humanitarian aid to refugees is to contain population movement. The vast majority of refugees — people who have fled for their lives across international borders — remain within their near region, in camps or regional cities. Only a small proportion attempt the long journey to Europe, Australia, or North America in hope of jobs and a better future. Western humanitarian donors would prefer that even fewer asylum seekers make it to their own shores, while refugee host states in the Global South would like burden-sharing and solidarity to mean more than monetary charity from the well-off to the poorer.

Containment strategies seem to be working. While refugee numbers are increasing overall, including in industrialized states, the proportion of refugees hosted by developing states has grown over the past ten years from 70 percent to 86 percent. In Lebanon, there are 178 Syrian refugees for every thousand Lebanese inhabitants (in Jordan, the number is 88 per thousand). But efforts by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to resettle particularly vulnerable Syrian refugees have had lukewarm responses. This donor attitude of charity from afar coupled with hostility to asylum seekers and unwanted migrants in general, undermines the moral underpinnings of humanitarianism. After all, the Good Samaritan, often put forward as the embodiment of the humanitarian spirit, did not leave a few coins with the battered traveller he found by the wayside. He took him home and nursed him.

Another trend undermining the humanitarian ideal is the increased, and increasingly unapologetic, strategic use of aid to further donors’ own foreign and security policy objectives. There is a clear increase in the past couple of decades in the earmarking of funds and channelling of resources, not necessarily to the neediest of humanitarian victims, but to those deemed more relevant to donor interests. The ‘hearts and minds’ campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s are the starkest representatives of this trend. As US-led intervention forces aimed to win over local populations by disbursing aid, the overall share of US overseas aid channelled through the US Department of Defense rose from 5.6 percent in 2002 to 21.7 percent in 2005.

These donor trends of openly pursuing domestic, foreign, and security policy goals through humanitarian aid are detrimental to the long-term future of humanitarian action, since they undermine the consensus and the ethical values underpinning the humanitarian ideal. While other challenges also loom, the strategies (and strategizing) of donors should have been included as a core topic of the Global Consultations.

Dr Anne Hammerstad, University of Kent, is author of The Rise and Decline of a Global Security Actor: UNHCR, Refugee Protection and Security. She writes and tweets on refugees, humanitarianism, conflict, and security. You can follow her on Twitter at @annehammerstad.

To learn more about refugees, conflict, and how countries are responding, read the Introduction to The Rise and Decline of a Global Security Actor: UNHCR, Refugee Protection and Security, available via Oxford Scholarship Online. Oxford Scholarship Online (OSO) is a vast and rapidly-expanding research library. Launched in 2003 with four subject modules, Oxford Scholarship Online is now available in 20 subject areas and has grown to be one of the leading academic research resources in the world. Oxford Scholarship Online offers full-text access to academic monographs from key disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, science, medicine, and law, providing quick and easy access to award-winning Oxford University Press scholarship.

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Image: United Nations Flags by Tom Page. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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One Response to “Donor behaviour and the future of humanitarian action”
  1. This is one of the most insightful articles on the dilemma of humanitarian aid system and the challenges it poses on humanitarian actors. The discourse between humanitarian aid and the foreign policy agenda that the respective major donor are inclined to serve, will always remain and as a challenge beyond the capacity of NGOs, in their current forms of work, to significantly influence and accordingly the humanitarian responses and interventions, in their most, tend to be opportunistic and mainly structured around what strategic objectives and preferences these donors set for each region, country, or specific complex or normal emergency. Humanitarian actors are mostly trapped between the rhetoric of being independent in their decision making and choices and the inevitable alignment with the foreign policy agenda of the donors.

    Rather than looking at the matter as the failure of the Humanitarian Summit Agenda to include the donor axis in the formula of challenges, let us look at it from these points:

    1. With regards to the Humanitarian Summit scheduled for 2016 in Turkey, it is a great step forward and victory for the humanitarian actors, which ultimately the next agenda for their work is going to be addressed in a consultative manner. NGOs such as Islamic Relief Worldwide, are already participating in the national-level consultations led by the Humanitarian Forum and OCHA, to properly engage the civil society organizations, the public and private sectors in the ownership of the process that is geared to define the future of the humanitarian aid around the selected 4 thematic areas for the summit: (1) Humanitarian effectiveness, (2) Reducing vulnerability and managing risk, (3) Transformation through innovation, and (4) Serving the needs of people in conflict. The greatest advantage that I can see in this process is that it is structured and geared quite properly to buy in the support and involvement of stakeholders beyond the mainstream humanitarian actors, which are the private sector and the national governments. National level consultations’ recommendation are thus expected to have the wider support of these stakeholders and will definitely incorporate other regional level structures as the process moves forward to the next levels.
    2. Tackling of the 4 thematic issues, and as I witnessed in some of the consultations in which I personally participated in the Middle East, always brings out most of the issue you raised regarding the “donor policies”. I expect also the upcoming consultations in Afghanistan and Pakistan for instance to equally highlight issues such as “unrestricted humanitarian access negotiation vs the terror agenda that restricts certain donors’ aid”. Let us hope that the ultimate outcomes of the summit and with the support and weigh they bring with them from the stakeholders that participated in their shaping, will provide adequate leverage to influence some of these donor policies to an acceptable level that meets the basic requirements and needs of the humanitarian actors and actions.
    3. Again, it is true that the conflicts, population displacements, and complex emergencies are in the rise, nevertheless, it is neither that the humanitarian actor as responsible for this rise, not that they will ever possess enough power to influence these realities and their root causes. We should believe in the existence of entities and bodies beyond the humanitarian actors that can influence this situation and which, the humanitarian actors can pressure through such events and opportunities as the Humanitarian Summit and its recommendations, to send clear messages that Globalization, foreign policy agenda, and international aid should consider and serve the peace and development agenda and work at that level to influence the root causes of these conflicts, displacements and complex emergencies.
    One should admit though, that this will remain as an issue for quite a while as part of the game and that change is possible, yet gradual and through buy-ins as there will never be a magic wand to reverse the setting of things due to the international and global interests involved.

    Elhadi Abdalla Mohamed
    Country Director in transition (Afghanistan/ Jordan)

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