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The International Humanitarian Aid System

The International Humanitarian Aid System

Defining humanitarian aid

Nea with her daughter, Glory, in Estancia.Nea with her daughter, Glory (7 months old), in Estancia.
Photo credit: Save the Children

Save the Children has launched a US$30 million appeal to assist 500,000 beneficiaries. We believe 4.3 million people have been affected (including 2 million seriously affected). Immediate needs are water, hygiene and sanitation (WASH), food, medicines, shelter, psychosocial support, flashlights, debris clearance, logistics and communications. Access is a major challenge due to storm damage.

'Humanitarian aid' is aid and action designed to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain and protect human dignity during and in the aftermath of emergencies. The characteristics that mark it out from other forms of foreign assistance and development aid are that:

  • it is intended to be governed by the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence
  • it is intended to be short-term in nature and provide for activities in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. In practice it is often difficult to say where 'during and in the immediate aftermath of emergencies' ends and other types of assistance begin, especially in situations of prolonged vulnerability.

Traditional responses to humanitarian crises, and the easiest to categorize as such, are those that fall under the aegis of 'emergency response':

  • material relief assistance and services (shelter, water, medicines etc.)
  • emergency food aid (short-term distribution and supplementary feeding programs)
  • relief coordination, protection and support services (coordination, logistics and communications).

But humanitarian aid can also include reconstruction and rehabilitation (repairing pre-existing infrastructure as opposed to longer-term activities designed to improve the level of infrastructure) and disaster prevention and preparedness (disaster risk reduction (DRR)), early warning systems, contingency stocks and planning). Under the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC) reporting criteria, humanitarian aid has very clear cut-off points – for example, 'disaster preparedness' excludes longer-term work such as prevention of floods or conflicts. 'Reconstruction relief and rehabilitation' includes repairing pre-existing infrastructure but excludes longer-term activities designed to improve the level of infrastructure.

Humanitarian aid is given by governments, individuals, NGOs, multilateral organizations, domestic organizations and private companies.

The UN-Led System for Humanitarian Response

The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) is the primary mechanism for inter-agency coordination of humanitarian assistance. It is a unique forum involving the key UN and non-UN humanitarian partners.

International Humanitarian Response

The UN Cluster System and what it addresses

The Cluster Coordination

Cluster Constraints and Problems

The UN Cluster System is often criticized by members and others, as well as by those who are supposed to benefit from humanitarian response. It can be incredibly challenging to respond to a large-scale emergency, particularly one that has resulted in large-scale destruction of infrastructure, or where it is challenging to reach victims.

"Imogen Wall, a communications officer for the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Haiti: "The management involved in a response like this is phenomenally complex," said Wall, who worked in Aceh, Indonesia, after the 2004 tsunami. "A major event that causes such devastation, the government is weak, and there are underlying endemic problems. And you have the whole humanitarian world descending on the country."

Particularly challenging, said Wall, is that cluster groups have no formal decision-making mechanisms or mandates. This becomes problematic in the extreme at a shelter cluster meeting, for example, where there can be as many as 400 participants. The effectiveness of any given cluster often comes down to the personality or leadership skills of a single individual. "It's the collective action problem, which is a classic philosophical dilemma," Wall said. "How do you get organizations with wildly different mandates, funding mechanisms, skill sets, experience in the country, relationships with the government—how do you get all of them to work together when you have no power to make them do so?"

Nevertheless, the UN System has been criticized for being overly bureaucratic and inflexible; unresponsive to realities outside the UN base of operations; and exclusive of organizations that are not part of the UN system - even when these organizations are part of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) network.

Criticism of the cluster system, from its Haiti Response

Does International Aid Keep Haiti Poor?

Situation Reports

During emergencies, and other kinds of humanitarian responses, organizations file Situation Reports (SITREPs) to their organizations to inform headquarters and other organizations about the conditions on the ground, most urgent needs, and how the organization is responding. This is an example of a SITREP from Lutheran World Relief.

Professionalism in Humanitarian Response

Humanitarian Organizations demand a high level of experience and professionalism from their humanitarian responders, who are almost always part of a team of permanent staff members. Disasters and humanitarian emergencies are increasing in magnitude and complexity, and this presents a major challenge to the NGOs that respond to these emergencies. Given this, and the desire to continuously improve the effectiveness of response, there has been increasing investment in capacity building and standard setting across the sector.

The Emergency Capacity Building (ECB) Project started in 2004 when emergency directors from seven agencies – CARE International, Catholic Relief Services, International Rescue Committee, Mercy Corps, Oxfam GB, Save the Children and World Vision International – met to discuss the most persistent challenges in humanitarian aid delivery. The Project aimed to improve the speed, quality and effectiveness of the humanitarian community to save lives, improve welfare and protect the rights of people in emergency situations, focusing on three thematic areas:

  • Staff Capacity
  • Accountability and Impact Measurement
  • Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR)

A number of useful resources have been developed through this consortium. For example, The Good Enough Guide aims to measure impact and accountability in emergencies. It is "Practical wisdom for the busy field worker on how to be accountable to disaster affected communities and measure program impact in an emergency." For more resources, visit the ECB Project Resource Center.

The Sphere Manual

Established in 1997, the Sphere Project is governed by a Board composed of representatives of global networks of humanitarian agencies, the Sphere Project today is a vibrant community of humanitarian response practitioners.

The Sphere Manual: Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response puts the right of disaster-affected populations to life with dignity, and to protection and assistance at the center of humanitarian action. It promotes the active participation of affected populations as well as of local and national authorities, and is used to negotiate humanitarian space and resources with authorities in disaster-preparedness work. The minimum standards cover four primary life-saving areas of humanitarian aid: water supply, sanitation and hygiene promotion; food security and nutrition; shelter, settlement and non-food items; and health action.​