The humanitarian sector has been operating according to four core humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence since the creation of the Red Cross in the late 1800s. While these principles represent admirable aims, it is worth reflecting on whether they are still fit for purpose and realistic in the current humanitarian sphere, almost 200 years later.
The European Commission defines the humanitarian principles as follows:
Humanity relates to the duty to address human suffering wherever it occurs, with particular attention to the most vulnerable. The neutrality principle highlights that humanitarian aid must not favour any side of the conflict. Impartiality refers to the provision of aid solely on the basis of need. Lastly, independence refers to the autonomy of humanitarian aid from other political, economic or diplomatic goals.
A missing principle: accountability
One important area of improvement of the humanitarian sector is its lack of accountability and transparency. This includes consistent and transparent monitoring of delegated activities to subcontracted organisations and local partners in crises-affected areas. Humanitarian organisations face increasing pressure to be ever more accountable to donors, especially given the challenges in securing funding. This not only places a strain on the capacity available for humanitarian interventions, but also leads to a considerable lack of downward accountability to beneficiaries and members of the public. Additionally, there are often strategic influences on humanitarian aid which must be exposed more transparently, as aid is increasingly politicised and instrumentalised. Conversely, larger agencies and institutions often require a high level of accountability and transparency from small local actors, which puts pressure on their resources. This lack of capacity has been used as an argument against localisation by the EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management. Due to the salience of this problem in the current humanitarian sector, accountability and transparency must be reflected in the principles guiding humanitarian work.
Increasing challenges to the humanitarian principles
Beyond this missing principle, the world of humanitarian work and the problems it responds to have evolved greatly since the creation of the humanitarian principles. Working in the humanitarian sector is inherently political. The Centre for Humanitarian Leadership highlights several ways in which the world has changed. First, there is a structural dimension to complex emergencies. This raises the question of whether aid should focus solely on immediate needs or look at the bigger picture. Some argue that humanitarian action needs a broader vision, and to engage with the whole of society. This would entail the inclusion of development considerations and most importantly constructive engagement with communities.
Second, aid is embedded in the politics of conflicts which no longer have two clear sides, as they did when the humanitarian principles were created in the late 1800s. Armed violence is becoming increasingly diversified. Crises are becoming chronic and convergent: the humanitarian sector is faced with sizable challenges it may not be able to cope with. In a 2012 article, Rachel Poffley pointed out that modern conflicts involve fragmented parties, making it difficult for humanitarians to stay neutral, and multiplying the unintended consequences of humanitarian action, which can exacerbate conflict by providing resources to different parties or sending unintentional messages.
Poffley further argues that a need for humanitarian intervention reveals a missed opportunity for prevention, revealing another issue in the current sector. Indeed, she highlights that, while humanitarian agencies and the international community often express a desire to assist in humanitarian emergencies, little attention is paid to the root causes or to the prevention of the crisis altogether. Therefore, there are challenges and changes to the humanitarian sector which reveal several weaknesses in the principles: crises have a structural dimension, neutrality is very difficult to maintain, and prevention is insufficient.
How the principles undermine diaspora humanitarians
The operationalisation of the humanitarian principles has contributed to the professionalisation of the sector as it is today. Uncritical adherence to principles can lead major humanitarian actors to operate in isolation, undermining localised knowledge and expertise, including important diaspora humanitarians. The Swiss model of neutrality may indeed not suit all humanitarian actors, and is a difficult expectation to fulfil, especially for smaller organisations which don’t have the resources to uphold them.
This does not mean that smaller actors such as diaspora humanitarian organisations should not aim to reach a high standard in humanitarian activity. Rather, the current standard may not be the right one, and is exclusionary. Smaller organisations can, or may have to, take sides: community-based humanitarian intervention may not always be neutral, and local and diaspora actors are often the most connected and impactful in an emergency. The principle of neutrality and impartiality can therefore undermine localisation.
In a policy paper for the Humanitarian Working Group, Marc DuBois argues that the humanitarian sector needs to change to reflect a culture of connectivity, placing the focus on the local context and the community rather than bureaucracies and administrations. Larger humanitarian agencies must engage with all the different actors in the response and connect with diverse stakeholders.
Conclusions and way forward
The Centre for Humanitarian Leadership proposes new values around which the principles could be remodelled: equality, solidarity, compassion and diversity. Indeed, the ‘traditional’ humanitarian principles arguably do not address the new realities and challenges facing the modern humanitarian sector. They do not reflect the need for greater accountability, transparency and prevention, or a structural approach to complex emergencies. Lastly, they can be exclusionary of smaller but crucial actors such as local civil society and diaspora responders. This raises many difficult questions to which there are no clear answers. All actors within the sector should strive to envision a better approach to these modern challenges: it must be more accountable, inclusionary, visionary and connected to responders with localised knowledge.
Leila Monteiro is a graduate student in International Migration and Public Policy at the London School of Economics (LSE). With a first degree in Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and professional experience in the field of migration and asylum, she is particularly interested in refugee support and border policies.