Over the past few decades, the nature, place and understanding of humanitarian response has evolved significantly. In an ever-shrinking globalized world, there is now a wider recognition for humanitarian response that is being fueled by the democratization of information through the internet and in particular social media. The challenges that affected humanitarian response in the 80s and 90s still persist and in many instances have evolved. New challenges have emerged – non-state actors such as terrorist groups who are not governed by international law, and natural disasters exasperated by climate change, to name a few. The following are some of the most important barriers to effective humanitarian action that exist today.
The number and variety of humanitarian responders is ever-growing. Gone are those days when humanitarian response was as apparatus of aid programs of developed countries, or within the domain of large multinational aid organizations able to mobilize large amounts of funds. Today, the burden of response is shared between a wide variety of entities such as the host country government, the military, bilateral agencies (USAID, DFID, etc.) multilateral organizations (UNHCR, Red Cross, UNRWA, etc.), both local and international aid organizations (MSF, CARE, Save the Children, etc.) as well as diaspora and the civil society. Having many cooks in the kitchen inevitably introduces coordination failures resulting in bottlenecks and poorly orchestrated response, faulty allocation of aid and gaps in distribution which is subject to bias, corruption and unethical conduct. The response to the Haitian earthquake of 2010 is case and point for this coordination failure, unraveling serious flaws in evidence-based decision-making in the humanitarian sector, lack of leadership and cohesion within the responding entities. There is now an increasing recognition for the importance of learning from past failures and successes as well as understanding the unique nuances of responding to different crises.
Limiting aid as a political strategy
In recent years, we have witnessed a rise in the politicization of aid and a tendency of humanitarian services falling victim to political interests. In armed conflicts, relevant parties have refused access to humanitarian aid with impunity, stifling aid flows to parts of a population on the opposing side of the conflict. While this is a strategy openly employed by non-state entities, such as ISIS and their blockade of aid to the Yazidis of Iraq, nation states also engage these tactics, such as in the case of the Israeli government restricting humanitarian response following the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict.
Internationalization and Institutionalization of Humanitarianism
Humanitarianism and human rights have become institutionalized and internationalized by the United Nations and its structures. Increasingly, humanitarian response is part of the Security Council’s agenda, as they debate what constitutes a legitimate threat to international peace and security, and find justification for involvement in the internal affairs of a state on humanitarian grounds. The international duty to protecting civilians (enshrined in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide) has failed to be realized, leaving humanitarian response vulnerable to the political machinations of a few elite countries who have the higher seat within the UN. A structure that formalizes humanitarian response as a tool of foreign policy, creates major barriers to effective response that is based solely on the humanitarian principles of humanity, independence, neutrality and impartiality.