The Humanitarian’s Dilemma: collective action or inaction in international relief?

September 2, 2010

Source: Overseas Development Institute (ODI), Date: Aug 2010

Following the devastating earthquake in Haiti in January of this year and the intense media coverage of the subsequent aid operations, the UK’s The Lancet journal published an editorial entitled ‘The growth of aid and the decline of humanitarianism’. The piece described aid agencies as:

‘…highly competitive with each other. Polluted by the internal power politics and the unsavoury characteristics seen in many big corporations, large aid agencies can be obsessed with raising money through their own appeal efforts. Media coverage as an end in itself is too often an aim of their activities. Marketing and branding have too high a profile. Perhaps worst of all, relief efforts in the field are sometimes competitive with little collaboration between agencies, including smaller, grass-roots charities that may have better networks in affected counties and so are well placed to immediately implement emergency relief…’ (The Lancet, 2010)

The article concluded: ‘…But just like any other industry, the aid industry must be examined, not just financially as is current practice, but also in how it operates from headquarter level to field level.’

The supposed lack of examination of the aid sector is also a key theme in a widely publicised critique of aid agencies published in 2010 by Linda Polman, a Dutch journalist. In War Games, Polman cites numerous examples of humanitarian aid agencies making things worse in the countries in which they operate by furthering war economies and sustaining the need for aid (Polman, 2010).

What is perhaps most surprising to many of those working within aid agencies is that these arguments have been presented as breaking scandals, as if the messages were new insights. Despite the rather sweeping accusations to the contrary, humanitarian aid organisations do examine their work. Many of the critiques cited above were first identified in efforts that were commissioned, funded and managed by the humanitarian system itself – from the Rwanda evaluation published in 1996 (Danida, 1996) to the Tsunami evaluation published in 2006 (TEC, 2006). For well over a decade now the humanitarian sector has been exploring various dilemmas of aid, and doing so in a way that is arguably much more systematic and less anecdotal than Polman, and less partial and sensationalist than The Lancet editorial.

That is not to say that the anger and frustration expressed in The Lancet and by Polman is not understandable. However, the question that humanitarians should be asking themselves is not how to defend the sector against these critiques – although of course this may be necessary. The burning question is: why do these findings, many of them identified by aid agencies over a decade ago, still have traction?

This is what we explore in this Background Note, first by examining the stated reasons for the apparent lack of change put forward by those within the sector. We then move on to introduce analytical frameworks which we believe will help uncover some important underlying and often neglected issues. Following a preliminary application of these ideas to the sector, we reflect on the implications for its future and suggest how change might be brought about.

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