Humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence are the four basic principles of aid, on which many humanitarian organisations base their work. The question of the principle of humanity rarely arises: otherwise, the very idea of providing assistance to those in need would lose all meaning. This cannot be said, however, of the other three principles, which are increasingly put in doubt – by those who provide the aid, those to whom it is given, and those who monitor everything that happens. The politicisation of aid today is one of the most serious issues encountered by everyone involved in the humanitarian sphere, but how to deal with this issue is not as obvious as many would like it to be.
Humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence are the four basic principles of aid, on which many humanitarian organisations base their work (including the oldest of them, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)). The question of the principle of humanity rarely arises: otherwise, the very idea of providing assistance to those in need would lose all meaning. This cannot be said, however, of the other three principles, which are increasingly put in doubt – by those who provide the aid, those to whom it is given, and those who monitor everything that happens. The politicisation of aid today is one of the most serious issues encountered by everyone involved in the humanitarian sphere , but how to deal with this issue is not as obvious as many would like it to be.
Since when have politicians been worried about the actions of Good Samaritans?
It is difficult to say when the humanitarian sphere could be reckoned to have come into being: since its modern creation on the basis of the ideas of Christianity and the Enlightenment in the 19th century , since the first references to the Church insisting on increasing the role of state in helping those in need (this was in the 16th century, if not earlier)  or from the well-known parable in the Bible. One can say with some confidence that the politicisation of aid began approximately at the same time as the institution of humanitarian aid itself, i.e. actions by the state or by organisations/associations aimed at “relieving the suffering of those most in need” . One can read a political subtext even in the story of the Good Samaritan – the Samaritans and the Jews were at loggerheads at the time when the Bible was compiled , and showing goodwill could be interpreted as a move towards political reconciliation.
A very important aspect of humanitarian aid today is the needs-based approach.
One of the first driving forces in the humanitarian sphere was undoubtedly the Church – primarily the Christian church. It was on the foundational values of this religion (compassion, helping one’s neighbour, goodwill towards the needy), modified and supplemented by the humanists of the 18th and 19th centuries (A. Comte, J.S. Mill, P. Leroux), that the Sisters of Charity began to operate, as well as Caritas and in part the Red Cross (for example, this can be seen in its original symbol, which was only later expanded to include the crescent moon and other symbols) . In the case of religious organisations the politicisation (or rather, the selectivity in terms of both the recipients and the donors of the aid) is obvious: when aid is offered by Christian organisations, members of other religions either don’t always accept the aid or believe that the donors want to convert them to another religion.
Another side to this issue is organisations created by the state. A striking example is CARE International, which was set up in 1945 by the US government with the name “Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe” to provide post-war humanitarian aid to European countries on a temporary basis. Although the acronym is now interpreted as “Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere”, and the organisation itself says it has no links with the state and is politically impartial, it was originally an arm of US foreign policy acting through aid to Europe along with the Marshall Plan. Many of the first organisations were significantly dependent on their governments and were only later able to acquire a relative degree of financial independence, thus coming closer to the ideal of an impartial and neutral humanitarian organisation.
CARE is not the only organisation created by the state. A significant proportion of humanitarian aid was originally provided by similar organisations, which have now been replaced by fully-fledged state organisations (such as the American USAID or the British DFID). The trend towards increased importance of international organisations has been marked only in recent years: for instance, in 2013 about 56% of all aid was channelled through international institutions, and 6% through the ICRC, according to the Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2013. There is no doubt that the international organisations cannot cope with all the problems of politicisation and the mismatch between the amount of aid and the levels of need, but they are trying to even out the imbalance (the same report shows, however, that in 2012, 37.3% of needs went unmet).
Politicisation: a modern problem for humanitarian aid
Apart from the four above mentioned principles (humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence), a very important aspect of humanitarian aid today is the needs-based approach. When aid is politicised, too little attention is paid to at least one of these five elements. This leads to a shortage of funds, an imbalance in the geographical (for example, when aid is provided not to specific affected regions but to the country as a whole) and structural characteristics of the aid (when people need water, but the first thing they are brought is children’s toys), logistical complications, and an overall lack of coordination of the aid. Staff of humanitarian organisations is often associated with governments and becomes targets for armed groups. In addition, regarding aid through the prism of “winning hearts and minds” (for example in Afghanistan and Somalia) rarely achieves the desired results.
Not all organisations and states are politicised in the same way. There are two terms which are not very well known in Russian research – “Dunantist” and “Wilsonian” organisations – which differ according to their members typical conduct strategies and basic principles for providing humanitarian assistance.
The main part of the Humanitarian Response Index 2011 (HRI) begins with a description of the problem of politicisation as one of the most serious in the humanitarian sphere. However, despite the positive trends of the last decade (a reduction in the number of conditions for providing aid, the increased involvement of non-traditional donors, the growing role of international organisations as the main channels of finance, etc), the problem remains. The reason for this is that the concern with security (of a country and of its allies), as well as the political and economic interests of countries, still shape international politics to a significant degree; this in turn leads to aid being seen as an instrument of foreign policy.
White trucks with Russian humanitarian aid are
parked in a field Thursday in Russia about
18 miles from Ukraine border
Not all organisations and states are politicised in the same way. There are two terms which are not very well known in Russian research – “Dunantist” and “Wilsonian” organisations – which differ according to their members typical conduct strategies and basic principles for providing humanitarian assistance. The “Dunantists” (named after Henry Dunant, founder of the Red Cross) rely on the four humanitarian principles in their work, set long-term objectives and act more independently of the state: they include the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, Oxfam, Save the Children, Médecins Sans Frontières, etc. The “Wilsonians” (named in honour of Woodrow Wilson), such as CARE International and International Rescue Committee, gravitate more towards states, rely significantly on government finance for their work, set short-term objectives and do not always comply with fundamental humanitarian principles. These organisations also make their (sometimes quite significant) contribution, but they are much more susceptible to politicisation – to a large degree because of their links with government or their dependence on state finance.
States take a leading position in the politicisation of aid. However there are exceptions – the authors of the HRI call them “principled partners”. These are primarily the countries of Northern Europe (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and Finland) and the neutral states (Switzerland). To a lesser degree, this category includes EU institutions, France and the United Kingdom. A significant level of politicisation of aid is most strikingly expressed in countries whose foreign policy is most “traditional” and depends directly on economic and military-political interests – these include the US, all the so-called “new donors”  and other countries.
Economics, politics and security as driving forces of humanitarian assistance
The main reasons for the politicisation of aid are focused in three areas: economics, politics and security. This can be demonstrated by considering their influence on specific examples: the disaster in the Indian Ocean in 2004, Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 and the current situation in Ukraine and Syria.
Despite the widespread theses about the dependence of politics on economics, the latter has the least influence on decision-making about the provision (or non-provision) of aid. Thus one might compare the list of Indonesia and Sri Lanka’s partners in 2004, and also of the main donors who provided aid to these countries after the natural disaster: Tables 1, 2 and 3 show the interdependence of established trade links and the amounts of aid provided.
|Main donors||Humanitarian assistance in financial equivalent, million dollars|
Table 2. Indonesia’s main trading partners in 2004 
|State||Share of exports, %||Share of imports, %|
Table 3. Sri Lanka’s main trading partners in 2004 
|State||Share of exports, %||Share of imports, %|
Nevertheless this can hardly be called an exhaustive argument: firstly, significant amounts of aid from certain countries are conditional on extensive media activity to report the events in these countries, and also the personal interest of private individuals (in particular, in European countries, who often choose Indonesia and Sri Lanka as holiday destinations) ; secondly, many other natural disasters do not reflect the same dependence. For example, after the 2011 earthquake only four of Japan’s nine main trading partners (the US, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Thailand) provided aid to the country; those that did based their actions either on political interests (China – desire to build relations through “disaster diplomacy”) , or on existing alliances (US).
A good example of the use of humanitarian aid as an instrument of foreign policy is the supertyphoon Haiyan (Yolanda), which did enormous damage (2.86 billion dollars) to the Philippines in November 2013. The positions of the US and China are of most interest.
U.S. Foreign Assistance: Wherefore and
The US was not just one of the main donors (donating about 90 million dollars), but also used its considerable military capacity: by the end of November there were 13,000 military personnel, several cruisers, destroyers and other ships, including the aircraft carrier George Washington, off the coast of the Philippines, together with a strike group of nine warships. All the actions of the armed forces took place as part of Operation Damayan.
The PRC initially announced only 100,000 dollars – a negligible sum in terms of a contribution to the provision of aid and incompatible with China’s capabilities and ambitions. Later it increased to almost 2 million dollars, solely in order to maintain the image of “China’s peaceful rise” (concern for its status and image as a “benevolent power” – another motivation for donors, found especially among the “new donors”).
States take a leading position in the politicisation of aid. However there are exceptions – the authors of the HRI call them “principled partners”.
The reason is the interests of the countries: the Philippines is both an ally of the US and an opponent of China in the territorial dispute over the South China Sea. Obviously, both states used their actions to send a clear message to the Philippine government – for the United States, its intention to strengthen cooperation, and for China, its desire to show its neighbour the disagreement with its policy. Any aid is obviously better than none, but the use of political tactics and instruments in the humanitarian sphere leads to a reduction in the effectiveness of the aid, since the divergence of interests leads to problems in the coordination of humanitarian assistance.
The example of Syria and Ukraine illustrates the confrontation between the US and Russia. Both sides, fearing that providing humanitarian aid could lead to an undesirable change in the political situation, have refrained from supporting such initiatives. Thus Russia spoke at the UN against the provision of aid for Syria without approval of such aid from the Asad government, while on August 10, 2014 John Kerry expressed fears that Russia might invade Ukraine on the pretext of providing humanitarian assistance. The problem lies elsewhere – decisive measures are required in both cases: Syria needs 2.28 bln dollars of aid for 10.8 million people within the country and 6.45 outside it, while Ukraine needs work with more than 300,000 refugees and the subsequent restoration of the south-eastern part of the country. Unfortunately these costs are not quite included in the political agenda for potential donors, and the disagreements between them prevent an effective response to such crises.
How can aid be separated from politics?
Will NGOs Survive In the Future?
The problem of politicisation of aid is one of the most serious, and at the same time it does not have a single and all-embracing solution. The ideal reform strategy would probably be the vague concept of “harmonising the interests of donors and recipients”, but it’s not yet known how to achieve this. However there are some positive trends too.
Firstly, the international humanitarian community (and primarily the Red Cross movement) is seeking to codify international law in the field of humanitarian aid and to align it with existing humanitarian law, which only partly covers certain issues. The creation of this new branch of law – International Disaster Response Law – is largely based on the achievements of the Red Cross, but they are only enshrined in supplementary documents to the Geneva Conventions and UN General Assembly resolutions (for example, 63/139). Further work is required on the details, especially in the context of complex humanitarian crises, armed conflicts and an unstable political situation. The existence of a broad legal basis will increase the importance of the so-called “right to aid” and limit the possibility of aid being used for political purposes. This will also create an opportunity to promote the idea of a “humanitarian space” free of politics and conflicts, which is necessary for effective aid.
Secondly, the process of creating a “code of conduct”/”set of instructions” for humanitarian actors continues – this is the aim of the Sphere Project which includes a significant number of humanitarian organisations (UNICEF, the Red Cross, Oxfam, Caritas, etc). It started in 1997 and to date has published the Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response – a document devoted to describing the main humanitarian principles and standards of work in various spheres (food security, healthcare, etc), compliance with which is necessary for effective and impartial provision of aid. Unfortunately, states rarely refer to this document, but its inclusion in international and national law could solve part of the problems.
The problem of politicisation of aid is one of the most serious, and at the same time it does not have a single and all-embracing solution.
Thirdly, in order to provide the least politicised and most effective aid it is necessary to work not only with official government but also with local NGOs. It is not always possible to find suitable partners among such organisations, but it is this work with local NGOs which brings the greatest results through exchanging experience and involvement in international programmes. It is the local NGOs that know what the local population needs (needs-based approach) and cannot use aid for their own political aims, as certain recipient governments (for example, the DPRK) do.
Having emerged on the periphery of international politics, humanitarian aid has now become one of its important components. The growth of its role has led to increasing interest on the part of states, and correspondingly to its use as a political instrument. The problem also lies in the radical difference between the humanitarian sphere and international politics. The humanitarian sphere is not a political game, not a clash of interests, not an arena for promoting one’s image. It is the suffering of some people and the attempts by others to help them – idealistically and in the spirit of the Enlightenment’s humanism, but exactly this, and not politics, constitute “humanitarianism”. In the end, who needs politicians if a person has nothing to eat?
1. English-language literature uses the more general and pithy term humanitarianism to define it.
2. Humanitarian Intervention: A History / ed. by Brendan Simms, D. J. B. Trim. – Cambridge University Press. 2011 – p. 21
3. Stamatov P. The Origins of Global Humanitarianism / Peter Stamatov. – Cambridge University Press. 2013 – p. 27
4. Barnett, M. Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism / Michael Barnett. – Cornell University Press. 2013 – p. 17
5. Mark A. Powell, “Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey” ‘Ch.01 The People of Palestine at the Time of Jesus’, Baker Academic, 2009.
6. For more information about the symbols of the IFRC see François Bugnion. Red Cross, Red Crescent, Red Crystal. / François Bugnion. – ICRC, 2007.
7. “New” or “non-traditional” donors means countries which are not part of the OECD (or more precisely, the Development Assistance Committee): Russia, China, Brazil, India, Mexico, Indonesia etc. For more information about these donors see White S. Emerging Powers, Emerging Donors: Teasing out Development Patterns / Stacey White / CSIS Report, 2011.
8. “Humanitarian assistance” here includes financial and material aid and services provided by states directly and via inter-governmental and non-governmental organisations.
11. Compiled from: The World Factbook, 2006, World Investment Report, Sri Lanka / UNCTAD, Investment Climate Statement – Sri Lanka / U.S. Department of State., India – Sri Lanka Relations / Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India.
12. Stirrat J. Competitive Humanitarianism: Relief and the Tsunami in Sri Lanka / Jock Stirrat // Anthropology Today, Vol. 22, No. 5. 2006
13. “Disaster diplomacy” usually means selective use of natural disasters and other tragic events for country’s own purposes: either to improve relations (by providing large-scale aid) or to give another reminder of existing differences (by ignoring crises). This term is most often used in relation to the Chinese foreign policy. For more information, see: Yeophantong P. Understanding humanitarian action in East and Southeast Asia/ HPG Working Paper. – Overseas Development Institute. 2014