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Aid focused on violent conflict relief

August 17, 2018

Increasing numbers of people depend on humanitarian aid due to natural disasters and political conflicts. Aid expert Martin Quack explains why more crisis prevention and a long-term development policy are needed.

Face of a smiling man
Image: DW/M.Quack

DW: What has changed in humanitarian aid?

Martin Quack: It has been growing very much. There is now much more humanitarian assistance than in the past. And also the system has become very big and complex.

One important change related to the first humanitarian summit in 2016 is the recognition of the important role of the domestic actors, be they locally or regionally or nationally organized actors. And there have been some agreements for those domestic actors to take a stronger role in the humanitarian system. It's about more direct funding for those important actors. But progress to reach those goals has been somewhat slow so far.

Are there other changes that have come about since the summit?

The largest part of humanitarian action is related to violent conflict. Only a small part is related to national disasters and discussion about better cooperation toward the prevention of humanitarian crises in that respect. And  the problem is that for the prevention of conflicts  you don't mainly need humanitarian organizations,  you need political actors such as governments, and the EU or the United Nations together with organizations focusing on crisis prevention. Many humanitarian organizations are hesitatant to be put in a role of preventing any crisis because they come into play when there is political failure and then they can and should take the role of humanitarian actors.

Soldiers in DRC look on as women walk past them carrying large sacks
Armed conflicts displace millions of people across the worldImage: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images

Humanitarian principles include neutrality and impartiality. So organizations giving humanitarian aid should not get involved in politics as per the definition. But is that possible at all?

Personally I think humanitarian action is very political because political failure is the reason that you need humanitarian action most of the time and then you need some political framework to do it well.  Humanitarian action has political consequences. We need a lot of political analysis when intervening in other societies . And humanitarian action should be based on need alone. I think that's the core and this is the principle of impartiality — that means all groups should get equal access.

That means there should be no discrimination?

No discrimination according to ethnicity or age or gender or religion or whatever. And the other aspect of it is that if needs are bigger somewhere else then there should be at least as much aid there as well. I think organizations are trying to do that within a respective crisis, but it's much more difficult at the global level where we see some crises where there is a lot of aid. The big example was the tsunami which was a huge humanitarian crisis and there was also a lot of aid.

Woman and children sit on a plastic tarp with the inscription 'UNHCR' in a hut at a refugee camp for Rohingya-widows and orphans
Many humanitarian crises are not visible and don't receive enough fundingImage: Reuters/D. Sagolj

On the other side, we have crises where there is very little aid, so-called forgotten crises, often related to violent conflict and to displaced people. For example the Rohingya crisis already was a huge humanitarian crisis a few years ago and nobody knew about it here in Europe. And nobody knew about the crisis that existed in the Central African Republic before the war started.

Private donations mainly go there where the people in need are very visible and where they are clearly only victims.

Can you give an example of what kind of humanitarian cause private donors prefer to fund, and what they tend not donate money for? 

With natural disasters such as the tsunami or an earthquake it's clear that people are victims. Also there are impressive pictures in the media. So there are a lot of private donations usually for such kinds of crises. Also in conflicts, if people think that it's very clear who was the victim and who was the perpetrator. But in other conflicts it's not so clear who's doing what and why this is happening and who are the victims and who perpetrators and then usually there's very little private funding.

I think that that's the case in Yemen, and it has been the case for Syria for some time. That's typical for most wars.

Last year, more than $27 billion were put in humanitarian aid. How difficult is it to get these funds, apart from private donations?

Yes it's difficult to get that money. Last year it was only 59 percent funded of the UN- coordinated appeals and the increase in money for example now comes from Germany and Europe. I think it's also related to strong political interests for example to keep refugees away from Europe. So when there's a domestic political interest then it's easier to get human money for humanitarian action.

Boy and man at a wrecked beach after a tsunami
Private donors are more likely to help victims of natural disastersImage: AP

But that's against the principle of impartiality, the idea that humanitarian assistance should be based on need alone and not based on other political interests.

So where does that money come from? Do countries pledge a certain amount every year?

It's still the case that neither the UN agencies, humanitarian aid entities, nor other organizations get huge budgets in advance to plan for the medium and long term. They still have to find most of the money each year. And as most humanitarian crises go on for several years, that's a huge problem and it's also not efficient.

So that's for instance the case when the World Food Program (WFP) launches an urgent call for funds because they will run ouf of food for people in Yemen or South Sudan within a few weeks?

Exactly. Lately this has become a bit more visible in Germany, since there was the problem that WFP had to reduce the food rations in refugee camps for refugees from Syria, and a few months later many more people started to come to Germany and Europe in 2015.  Then it became very clear, at least for many politicians here in Germany, it's not only ethically bad but it's also politically, domestically stupid when WFP has to reduce even the food rations, the most basic human need. Not talking about education and work and all the other needs.

Some people have argued that the global humanitarian system is breaking down because when it was set up it was to provide short- term assistance. Now the crises are much more long-term and more complex. How can the system be fixed?

That a very big question. The core issue is the prevention of violent crises. And that's not the responsibility and not the capacity of humanitarian actors.

I feel that some governments and international organizations are not able to solve big political problems and then they put more responsibility on humanitarian action. And I think humanitarian action should resist that and not let governments off the hook which are in charge of preventing violent conflict and preventing the climate crisis as well.

We need more public support for humanitarian action that is based on need alone. And talking about Germany, I think there's still very little understanding about the specifics of humanitarian action and why it's so important to have that based on need alone. Instead we now have a discussion about blocking humanitarian rescue actions in the Mediterranean.

A small boat with two dozen refugees in the sea.
Humanitarian principles do not discriminate between people in needImage: picture-alliance/dpa/AP/E. Morenatti

Thats why we are now working towards establishing a new humanitarian think tank in Germany: the Center for Humanitarian Action which maybe can play a small role in the political analysis and also those political debates that we need to make humanitarian action better.

Martin Quack is an expert on peacebuiliding and humanitarian assistance. He is the coordinator for new Berlin based think tank The Center for Humanitarian Action that is due to start operating at the end of 2018. Quack also works in the evaluation of development and aid projects. 

Anke Rasper
Anke Rasper Anke is a senior editor with DW's environment team.