Humanitarian Assistance

Thomas G. Weiss is Presidential Professor of Political Science at The CUNY Graduate Center and Director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies and also research professor at SOAS, University of London. He is the author most recently of "Humanitarian Business" (Polity Press, 2013).

“Humanitarian” and “business” are juxtaposed above and in the title of my new book for two reasons: provocation and accuracy.  It jars those who idealize the humanitarian enterprise because the adjective has uncontested positive connotations while the noun is associated with wheeling and dealing and thus at odds with the self-image of true believers. The adjective is rooted in morality and principle—the parable of the “Good Samaritan” jumps to mind—because humanitarians are only interested in the welfare of those in their care and are unaffected by political and market factors in the countries that provide or receive relief.  If humanitarian action claims the moral high ground, “business” is customarily seen to reside on less lofty territory. In contrast to humanitarians, businesspeople operate in an arena where deals are routinely cut, money buys access, the common good is ignored, talk is cheap, and tough decisions about profit margins overlook human costs. 

Reality is otherwise, of course. Humanitarians are steeped in politics. The day-to-day functioning of aid agencies intersects in a myriad of ways with home and host governments, with armed insurgents as well as military peacekeepers and local populations; and most crucially, these agencies confront the priorities of funding sources. As agents engaged in resource acquisition and distribution, where they get their resources and how and to whom they deliver aid can have significant political consequences.

Over the last two decades three transformative trends have had an enormous impact on the international humanitarian system: militarization, politicization, and marketization. Many analysts have written about the impact of the first two: boots on the ground and humanitarian intervention (or “responsibility to protect”) and the post-9/11 world in which humanitarians are viewed, by Colin Powell and others, as “force multipliers.”

While militarization and politicization have made humanitarian action more dangerous and yet more necessary, the third factor is no less central to explaining the ongoing humanitarian identity crisis—namely, the impact of the marketplace.

The thawing and end of the Cold War opened the latest chapter in the history of humanitarianism, and one distinguishing characteristic is the dramatic expansion of “suppliers” in terms of numbers, diversity, and resources. While the number of UN organizations has not grown, their budgets have—and at least 2,500 international NGOs are in the business even if only a tenth of them are truly significant.  UNDP estimates that there could be 37,000 international NGOs with some relevance for what Linda Polman calls “the crisis caravan,” and that on average 1,000 international and local NGOs show up for any contemporary emergency. 

The current global bottom line is some $18 billion (with the UN accounting for some $11 billion of the total). This number would strike most MBAs as a substantial commercial opportunity. Some individual agencies (like the International Rescue Committee) or federations (like Oxfam and Save the Children) are big businesses while others are far smaller, and include some mom-and-pop enterprises. The market drives businesses, but it also drives humanitarians; and Naomi Klein has described the business model behind providing emergency relief as “disaster capitalism.”

What is to be done? As improbable as it sounds, we need to reverse a familiar adage: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” More reflection and less reaction are in order because aid agencies face a steep learning curve in war zones.  Responding effectively requires a heightened degree of knowledge and professionalism. There have been a number of international initiatives designed to improve the quality and reliability of humanitarian action by enhancing the training, preparation, and qualifications of aid workers—in short, “professionalizing” their sector in the same way as associations of accountants and physicians. 

Progress has not been insignificant, but an entirely different level of openness to evidenced-based action is required. Responding from the heart remains a humanitarian trademark, but effectiveness in today’s complex emergencies requires an equal dose of well-informed tough-mindedness. Humanitarian personnel are specific targets of warring parties; insignia no longer affords protection, and emergency responses are but one element of the complex processes of conflict resolution and reconstruction.  The dominant culture is rapid reaction rather than reserved reflection 

But humanitarian impulses and goodwill are no longer adequate, if indeed they ever were. We require the humanitarian equivalent of military science.

Careful research could bring substantial benefits to victims. This recommendation is not a self-serving justification by a researcher but a conviction that more data-based social scientific reflection and less visceral reaction would help the humanitarian business function better. The strength of social science lies in its ability to gather, organize, interpret, and disseminate evidence-based recommendations. Humanitarians require discrete and usable knowledge that reformulates how to think about the marketplace and that better specifies cause-effect relationships. Delivery and protection is the business of aid officials and properly preoccupies them, but processing information, correcting errors, and devising alternative strategies and tactics could be the value-added of social scientists.  A partnership would be beneficial for aid agencies and academics as well as the denizens of war-torn societies.

As a result of ongoing transformations, civilian humanitarians are arguing among themselves about first principles—independence, impartiality, and neutrality—and undergoing a collective identity crisis in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Those who are clear about the costs of deviating from these principles will be more successful in helping victims than those with no principles or with inflexible ones (otherwise known as “ideology”).

Modesty is a virtue for aid workers and social scientists.  Many observers, and among them many of the most committed humanitarians, would have us believe in the humanitarian “imperative,” the moral obligation to treat affected populations similarly and react to crises consistently wherever they may be. No two crises are the same, however, and such a notion flies in the face of politics, which consists of drawing lines as well as weighing options and limited resources to make tough decisions about doing the greatest good or the least harm.

A more accurate and laudable description of contemporary efforts to come to the rescue would be the humanitarian “impulse”—sometimes we can act and sometimes we cannot.  Humanitarian action is desirable, not obligatory. The humanitarian impulse is permissive; the humanitarian imperative is peremptory. The transformation of war and the marketplace requires the transformation of humanitarianism as well. Altering the slope of the curves for demand and supply necessitates hard-headed analysis rather than the rigid application of moral absolutes.

Frequently, the word “dilemma” is employed to describe painful decision-making, but the word “quandary” is more apt. A dilemma involves two or more alternative courses of action with unintended, unavoidable, and equally undesirable consequences. If consequences are equally unpalatable, then remaining on the sidelines is a viable and moral option rather than entering the scrum. Humanitarians find themselves perplexed, or in a quandary, but they are not and should not be immobilized by contemporary wars. The key lies in making a good-faith effort to analyze the advantages and disadvantages of any military or civilian course of action and opt for what often amounts to the least-worst option.

The calculus is agonizing but inescapable for those working in today’s humanitarian business.

Opinions voiced by Global Minds do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Global Journal. 

Photo © 2000 Dana Palade/World Vision