The Changing Landscape of Humanitarian Aid
The mobilization of resources to a humanitarian disaster zone is as much political as it is logistical. Recent conflicts have called into question the neutrality principle to which humanitarian actors traditionally adhere. But delivering assistance in times of crisis depends largely on gaining access to reliable resources and information – often from biased actors.
As the media continues to roll out scenes from Japan and Libya, the complexity of delivering humanitarian aid in times of crisis – be they natural or man-made – is abundantly clear. Each year, approximately 500 disasters kill an average of 75,000 people and affect nearly 200 million more. In 2009, the international community contributed a total of $15.1 billion to humanitarian efforts through government and private channels.
The alleviation of human suffering during humanitarian crises is largely an exercise in the efficient and rapid mobilization of material resources and human capacity. As a logistical exercise, humanitarian efforts require the synchronized delivery of human resources and both durable and perishable goods in difficult and uncertain environments. But the complexity is more than merely logistical. While resource mobilization has obvious human and economic implications, humanitarian efforts often have less evident political implications. Access to and allocation of resources and information is contingent on the cooperation of those wielding power.
Prior to the 1990s, relief work was confined to a relatively small number of organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF), operating according to widely held principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality. These organizations were allowed to operate in ‘safe zones’ because of their perceived independence from political and military motivations. However, this philosophy has come under scrutiny in the last two decades, as both the scale and complexity of crises have increased, while, at the same time, the number and variety of organizations have proliferated, creating a cacophony of players and motivations.
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