By Obi Anyadike in Nairobi

Humanitarianism has a long history: the imperative to help those in need is ingrained in all major religions, altruism seemingly celebrated by all communities.

Even humanitarian conferencing, the bread-and-butter of the United Nations system, made its debut a century earlier with the first International Sanitary Conferences on cholera in the 1850s.

Then, as now, the goal was to deal with a humanitarian emergency (a series of cholera epidemics sweeping Europe and North America) via international cooperation. And, as with current humanitarian crises – Ebola included – vulnerability then was as much about inequality as the virulence of the water-borne bacillus. Simply put, the poor got hit hardest, a reality that has not changed.

The modern roots of humanitarianism are in the 19th century, including an enduring paternalistic notion towards those in need. The regulation of conflict was also a key driver – the International Committee of the Red Cross regarded as the first international humanitarian organisation.

Birth of the UN

The end of the Second World War is key to our current architecture – with the legal frameworks and moral impulse to protect human dignity enshrined in the creation of the UN. But despite the lofty vision of its founding, “humanitarian action has always been political, it’s always been about national as well as international interests,” Eleanor Davey, lecturer in history of humanitarianism at Manchester University, told IRIN.

A good example is food aid. “International coordination and regulation according to universal need gave way to a system driven by surplus production and Cold War imperatives,” Davey has written. Food producing developing countries were to be encouraged to import American wheat – a “Food for peace” initiative supported by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Later, the World Food Programme owed its origins to a proposal by US President John F. Kennedy aimed in part at benefitting American farmers.


There continues to be a belief in the Global North that “Western approaches to dealing with crisis is well-intentioned, welcomed, and reflects a moral dominance” – a hegemony not always appreciated by the rest of the world, Randolph Kent, director of the Humanitarian Futures project at King’s College London, told IRIN.

While the language is now about accountability, “there is a sense of a cozy oligopoly to the system composed of the main UN agencies and federations of INGOs, who set the rules, have the network power, through which humanitarian assistance works,” noted Antonio Donini, senior researcher at Tufts University’s Feinstein International Center.

“It’s also in the interests of donors who want to channel their resources to trusted international partners while at the same time – from the other side of their mouth – talk a lot of rhetoric about accountability to beneficiaries. But the system is still very top down, very supply driven,” he added.

The “war on terror” has also had a long-lasting impact on the humanitarian enterprise.

“The counter-insurgency stabilisation agenda has sought to co-opt humanitarianism in such a hardcore way since 9/11 that the humanitarian community has pulled away. Those tensions have led to greater fragmentation,” said conflict and emergencies researcher Ashley Jackson.

“The fear among NGOs is to be seen to be working with any military agenda or associated with even the political side of the UN. It has all these knock-on effects, with a much less cohesive aid community on the ground in places where you should have much greater dialogue.”

A challenge to neutrality

Reaching people in need in conflict zones often means “talking to the other side”. But US and European counter-terrorism legislation seems to forbid (the wording is opaque) negotiating access with the likes of the Taliban in Afghanistan or al-Shabab in Somalia.

“Agencies have fought back a little bit, but not as much as they could have done,” Jackson told IRIN. “They’ve distanced themselves from armed groups. They’ve abandoned the idea of neutrality in practice because they’re afraid to work on both sides, because they think it’s illegal.”

Their perceived lack of impartiality can heighten insecurity, forcing them into risk-reducing strategies like remote management and “bunkering” (living in fortified compounds), which lessens their accountability to the beneficiaries they aim to help.

Syria offers an important case. There are competent and sophisticated local NGOs that do most of the actual work and assume most of the risks for their international partners – but they have none of the decision-making power.

“What we see again and again is international organisations, not willing to give up contracts they can’t implement because they aren’t present, take a huge cut, and subcontract to local organisations – and that is so incredibly inefficient,” said Jackson.

The missing reform agenda

“This tension between the political agenda of the West and the functioning of the aid enterprise is here to stay,” said Donini. “My sense is the system has become too big to change and too big to fail.”

While sympathetic to the “localisation” debate emerging in the consultations ahead of the World Humanitarian Summit next year – which calls for a shift in focus to local NGOs – he worries about what happens on human rights and protection issues “where internationals have a better chance to be heard”.

Humanitarian expenditure hit more than $25 billion in 2014, according to ALNAP’s The State of the Humanitarian System 2015 report. It employed approximately 450,000 professional aid workers in nearly 5,000 aid organisations.

“How big the aid industry should be is a sort of chicken and egg situation,” suggested Kent.

“I think reform is necessary, to create buy-in from the countries of the (Global) South, but there haven’t been too many interesting ideas on the table in the run-up to the WHS,” Donini noted. “It’s difficult to gauge what the appetite for reform really is.”

As the UN celebrates its 70th anniversary, see below a timeline of humanitarian milestones.

Cover photo by Andras D. Hajdu, edited by Andrew Gully