Introduction to Humanitarian Aid and Intervention: The Challenges of Integration

Ethics & International Affairs, Volume 18.2 (Fall 2004)

October 14, 2004


The basic idea of humanitarian assistance—delivering medicine, food, and other supplies to relieve suffering and save lives—appears to be a simple one. Yet, there is a serious debate between different humanitarian organizations, official donors, governments, and the United Nations regarding the operational approach to the delivery of aid that ought to be adopted.

In recent years, harmful side effects of humanitarian aid, such as the strengthening of the grip of armed groups over the population, various forms of aid diversion, and the fostering of dependency among beneficiaries, have been widely discussed. In the starkest cases, some humanitarian organizations have made the decision to withdraw from crises altogether because, in their judgment, continuing their operations on the ground in the particular political environment would do more harm than good to civilians in need.

Recognition of these potentially harmful effects took place amid an unprecedented number of complex international interventions in intrastate conflicts in the 1990s. From these experiences, many concluded that the lack of, or difficulties in achieving, success in efforts to bring peace and long-term stability to conflict-ridden regions could be attributed to the fact that interventions involved multiple actors with varying mandates undertaken in uncoordinated fashion. In response, the United Nations articulated an “integrated” approach, under which military interventions to bring stability, political efforts to introduce democracy, human rights attempts to prevent impunity, and humanitarian endeavors to save lives were to be managed within a common institutional framework mindful of these broader concerns. With respect to humanitarian action, the integrated approach aimed to coordinate the efforts of UN agencies, NGOs, and other components of the “humanitarian community” in order to avoid duplication or gaps and to make humanitarian assistance more effective.

The role of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has become key in this regard and its approach is widely supported by official donors. OCHA aims to ensure that all humanitarian issues are addressed, including those that fall outside of agencies’ existing mandates, such as protection and assistance for internally displaced persons; it is responsible for advocacy of humanitarian issues with political organs, notably the Security Council; and it coordinates the humanitarian emergency response. In UN missions, OCHA’s resident humanitarian coordinator reports directly to the secretary-general’s special representative, who is entrusted with the overall political leadership.

The motivation behind an integrated approach is a concern for helping people. Even so, and despite the apparent virtues of the integrated framework, some humanitarian organizations have sharply criticized it. The contributors to this section represent different sides in this debate about the integration of humanitarian assistance. Their positions highlight at least three contested operational approaches to the delivery of aid: one in which humanitarian organizations make their own decisions regarding allocation of aid; another in which they retain their decision-making independence but collaborate systematically and on an equal footing with other actors; and a third in which there is a coordinated and centralized mechanism that integrates all components of an intervention into the pursuit of a single strategy aimed at peace, stability, and security.

These disagreements highlight differences among NGOs, donors, the United Nations, and governments in both the principles and the practical goals of their approaches to humanitarian assistance. At stake is striking the right balance between helping all human beings in dire need according and proportionate to need alone, and helping to build structural conditions for a stable peace. How priorities are established will determine how aid will be allocated among possible recipients—which involves trade-offs between many individual human lives.