The humanitarian industry is a relatively new one in its current form. This makes it an interesting, frequently exciting one to be involved with, as it’s constantly changing. This can be a challenge, too.
I like to joke that the earliest disaster preparedness and response on record is Noah’s Ark. Then of course there’s the story of Joseph (he of Technicolour Dreamcoat ™ fame), who interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams of skinny cattle devouring fat cattle as an impending famine and subsequently requisitioned harvest surplus which he then redistributed to the hungry when said famine eventuated.
Humanitarianism as we know it today has, for better or for worse, become an industry, and has developed quickly from a relatively fringe activity best left to hippies and missionaries, to a multi-billion-dollar a year sector attracting a wide range of skilled and experienced professionals. It’s unique, dynamic and, certainly from an insider’s perspective, fascinating. But the way things look today haven’t popped out of nowhere. Over the last century and a half, the humanitarian industry has been shaped by a number of key events and moments that have given rise to its current dynamics.
1. The Battle of Solferino (June 24th 1859)
At the height of the Austro-Sardinian war, a Swiss businessman by the name of Jean-Henri Dunant travelled to the small Italian town of Solferino, where he witnessed the aftermath of a battle that left forty thousands dead and wounded. So struck was he by the plight of the casualties, many of whom were abandoned and left to die, or executed by the enemy, that he forewent his business plans and spent the ensuing days helping to organize medical care for the survivors.
The experience so moved him that upon returning to Geneva, he wrote up his memories, recommending the establishment of a movement of trained and neutral volunteers who could administer medical aid to the casualties of battle, and treaties offering such people protection. His recommendations became the foundation for what was to become the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), as well as the first Geneva Conventions.
The Committee’s proposals, initially signed and endorsed by 12 nations in 1864, recognized the need for national committees of volunteers to provide medical assistance on the battlefield, but also enshrined the neutrality of wounded soldiers. The agreed international symbol, as laid out by the signed agreements, was a red cross on a white field- the inversion of the Swiss flag, itself a symbol of neutrality.
This notion of neutrality, and of non-combattants offering non-partisan support to the injured victims of warfare, became the founding tenet of modern humanitarian organizations, and the ICRC continues to this day to occupy a unique status under International Humanitarian Law and within the rules of warfighting. The Red Cross Code of Conduct forms the guiding set of 10 principles that most major NGOs voluntarily adopt as their core values, particularly enshrining the primacy of the humanitarian imperative, neutrality and impartiality.
2. The Aftermath of World War II and the Marshall Plan (1945, 1948-51)
Following the victory of the allied forces first in the European theatre, and subsequently in Asia, most of Europe in 1945 had been devastated. The extent of destruction caused by warfare and bombardment, the loss of millions of men at the peak of their economic productivity, and the diversion of years’ worth of resources into the machinery of war, meant that both society and economy across the continent was decimated.
Conversely, because it had stimulated its economy through the production of wartime assets without suffering any destruction of its mainland infrastructure, the USA had become the first country in history to economically thrive under conditions of warfare (a dynamic that has echoes today in how the economy operates while America is at war). In order to shore up its wartime allies, to assist with the vast humanitarian needs of post-war Europe, and no doubt to maintain the health of its key trading partners, Harry Truman’s government put together an economic recovery package of unprecedented proportions. It would see some USD 13 billion invested across western Europe.
Whether due to the plan itself, or due to the simple mechanics of post-war recovery, industrial output did increase substantially during the plan’s lifetime, and was deemed in many corners to have been a great success. The Marshall Plan laid out a framework for international foreign assistance that became increasingly the norm, with large bilateral or multilateral grants or loans provided to countries with struggling economies in order to lift their productivity and stability.
As well as normalizing the concept of foreign assistance on such a large scale, another interesting side-effect of such a large humanitarian crisis was the need to have capacity to deliver support, and so the US government agreed to allow private charitable organizations provide emergency relief to war survivors. Although the charity was not a new concept, this gave new impetus to non-governmental relief agencies, and many of today’s largest NGOs appeared around this time. CARE, which is an acronym for “Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere”, in fact originally stood for “Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe”.
A third impact of the end of the Second World War was of course the founding of the United Nations (UN), to replace the defunct League of Nations that had failed so miserably to prevent World War II in the first place. This occured in 1945. As well as spawning a host of international agreements on everything from trade to human rights, the UN also gave birth to a spread of sub-organizations with specific mandates. Among the most pressing in the post-war years was the plight of the tens of millions of refugees forced from their home in the fighting- and thus was born the International Refugee Organization (IRO) in 1947, which three years later became the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), one of the most dynamic and critical international organizations in the humanitarian field today.
3. The Biafran Airlift (1967-70)
In 1967, civil war broke out in Nigeria following a series of coups, counter-coups and ethnic killings, and the ethnic Igbo in the south of the country declared their own homeland, the state of Biafra. The Nigerian government responded by blockading Biafra, and a humanitarian crisis resulted, with millions of civilians caught up without food and medical supplies.
In response, a huge humanitarian operation was launched, and a mix of well-meaning volunteers and mercenaries, funded by charity organizations, began flying food and medical supplies into Biafra. The mission was fraught with danger- the Nigerian airforce would shoot down any relief flights claiming (most likely accurately) that weapons were being smuggled to the resistance. Flights were flown in at night, without lights, and landings orchestrated on roads in the bush where supplies could then be delivered to starving civilians.
By war’s end as many as three million people may have died, mostly due to a mixture of starvation and disease. The involvement of humanitarian actors, however, has subsequently been condemned. Not only did the relief flights facilitate the smuggling of weapons to the Biafran rebels, but some critics claimed that the relief assistance merely gave the Biafrans the resolve to hold out longer, exacerbating the humanitarian situation rather than surrendering and allowing the seige to end. One report put the toll due to humanitarian action at 180,000 dead. This was the largest and most high-profile instance to that point of humanitarian intervention being arguably partisan, and also contributing significant harm, not just good.
Another important cameo played out in the Biafran civil war. Red Cross workers were allowed to work in the war-affected areas to provide medical assistance, but under the guise of neutrality were not allowed to speak about what they were seeing. Witnessing atrocities against civilians committed by government forces, as well as attacks against humanitarian staff, this enraged some of the volunteers. Most prominent among these was Frenchman Bernard Kouchner, who felt strongly that the Red Cross’s stance on neutrality was an ethical compromise. He determined to establish an organization that was free of any government influence and could speak out on behalf of those affected by crisis, and the NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) was born. MSF remains one of the foremost NGOs to this day, and is fiercely independant and proud (to a fault…?) of its independence from government, military and even international organizational influence. The actions of Kouchner and his peers also set a precedent for relief agencies advocating on behalf of the rights of the victims of conflict and injustice, not simply being silent responders.
Biafra introduced a whole new complexity to the idea of ‘neutral’ aid agencies on several fronts.
4. The Ethiopia Famine (1983-5) and Live Aid (1985)
From 1983, a combination of failed rains, civil warfare and the purges and collectivist policies of a communist dictatorship had pushed Ethiopia into one of the worst famines of the 20th century. By its end, 8 million people would be affected by famine, with between 500,000 and one million deaths. Images of its victims, made famous by BBC reporter Michael Buerke’s dispatches from the field, were broadcast onto TV screens across the western world, making the Ethiopian famine the first to really be witnessed by a western audience.
Galvanized by public sympathy, a group of some of the most popular musicians of the day joined together, led by the enthusiastic Bob Geldof, to form Band Aid. They recording a song to raise funds for Ethiopian famine victims, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ which became a Christmas Number One in the UK charts in late 1984. In 1985, Geldof again coordinated efforts for a fundraising concert, held simultaneously in the UK and the US, which ultimately garnered an audience of a little under 2 billion people worldwide and raised an estimated $150 million.
The Ethiopian famine and the subsequent fundraising efforts marked a watershed moment in the history of aid fundraising. Large amounts of fundraising money were no longer just the domain of governments, nor were charities restricted to small pockets of whatever they could raise through collection baskets and faithful donors. Furthermore, the idea of a world out there- the third world- experiencing hardship was suddenly projected into peoples’ homes and made a part of their day-to-day consciousness. Since that time, people- particularly in the west- have remained aware of third world disasters. It is part of the collective experience and expectation that there is a poor world out there that suffers things that people in the west do not tend to.
On the up side, this has made the job of convincing people of the need to give easier. There is also a downside. Since Live Aid and many of the confronting images that were broadcast to shock people into giving, people have slowly become increasingly desensitized to images of suffering. The awareness-raising and media campaigns for the Ethiopia famine also represented the major incursion of shocking images into the public space, to the detriment of the dignity of survivors which has taken years to break down (and is still a challenge in some sectors).
5. The Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2004) and Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS)
The civil war between the Government of Sudan (GoS) and the southern-based Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) ultimately resulted in two million deaths and four million refugees. Africa’s longest-running civil war, and possibly the most destructive, it too resulted in devastating images of famine as population groups were forced from their homes to settle in large, unsanitary camps where food supplies were precarious and disease rampant.
The international community established Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS), a consortium of UN agencies and three dozen NGOs, in 1989, with the aim of delivering assistance to the mainly southern displaced people in camps both within and outside Sudan itself. A logistics airhead was set up in the small Turkana town of Lokichoggio, in Kenya, from which a vast operation of airdrops and relief deliveries was flown into Sudan. At the height of operations, Loki was the second busiest airport in Africa. OLS remains functional today, although not to the extent it was through the 1990s.
The civil war in Sudan was in part a proxy of the Cold War, and as such western allegiences found themselves favouring the southern rebels, both in terms of ideology and in terms of potential access to oil and mineral revenues in the long run. This was reflected in the huge amounts of funding that were invested in OLS, enabling such a massive aerial logistics operation. The offshoot of this was the explosion in budget of many of the NGOs party to OLS, catapulting some of them into the massive organizations they are today.
OLS also became an unwitting party to the conflict. Food aid became a weapon in the war on the ground, and was used to tactical advantage by both sides. By feeding humanitarian information to OLS, belligerents could influence where food drops were headed, and because populations would move to where the food was, they could thus influence the movement of people to their advantage in the field. It was an ugly ploy that cost the lives of thousands.
OLS’ involvement in the Sudanese civil war was a turning point in the humanitarian industry. As it became clear that the impact of food aid was having a detrimental effect on the people it was supposed to be helping, it began to become clear to the aid industry as a whole that they could no longer act out of the right motivations and still be operating with a clear conscience. The aid industry could no longer feign innocence- it was clearly becoming complicit in the conflict- and nowhere has this been more obviously demonstrated than in the Sudan civil war, and the ultimate secession of South Sudan as a state. With the humanitarian sector essentially propping up the southern government- even to this day- there is little doubt that South Sudan is a state that was created by the intervention of humanitarian actors. I have not seen any studies that suggest what the humanitarian impact might have been without OLS intervention, but I wonder whether the war would have lasted as long or cost as many lives, and I am utterly convinced that, for better or for worse, South Sudan would not be a state today.
The high profile of OLS, particularly the drama of large-scale airdrops, also had the unfortunate side-effect of cementing in the donor public’s mind that this was what aid was about- truck-and-chuck. It’s an assumption that twenty years on, the aid industry still struggles to re-educate the public about, making it hard to raise funds for other less appealing but often far more relevant issues such as human rights, advocacy and institutional capacity-building.
6. The Rwandan Genocide (April-July 1994)
During a hundred day period in mid-1994, Hutu extremists slaughtered over 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in a calculated, cruel campaign of extermination. Based on old ethnic tensions, a history of tit-for-tat killing sprees, a hate-fueled propaganda message, and the meddling and inaction of international powers, the Rwandan genocide remains one of the darkest stains on the concience of modern history.
The Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front, at the time a rebel army, swept across Rwanda and eventually brought the killing of Tutsis to something of a denouement. The Hutu extremists, together with nearly two million ethnic Hutus, fled ahead of the advancing front and found themselves in dire camps on the rocky lava flows of eastern Zaire. Unable to dig pit latrines, and living in deplorable conditions, cholera broke out and killed tens of thousands of the refugees in a matter of weeks.
While the international community had stalled and stalled again during the genocide, images of Africans dying by the thousands on TV screens now galvanized them to action, and millions of dollars worth of aid was flown into the Hutu camps around Goma- while survivors of the genocide were still receiving scant attention. As dollars flowed into the camps, the orchestrators of the genocide and their militias consolidated control over the population (and the aid resources), preventing the return of Hutus into Rwanda to begin a reconciliation process, and even launching attacks back into Rwanda (which the newly-installed Rwandan government returned with gusto). Eighteen years on, fighting continues to plague the forests of eastern DRC (as Zaire has since been renamed), with vicious slaughter of civilians and proliferation of horrific rape a daily occurence, while old scores are settled by both sides. The invasion of Goma by the Tutsi-backed M23 rebel group this week is the latest chapter in this story.
The failure of the international community to act to stop the genocide (something that could have been done with the right political will), and then the subsequent outpouring of international sympathy and support to the very purpotrators of that genocide- all in the name of impartiality and the primacy of the humanitarian imperative- remains the blackest spot on the history of the aid community. The concepts of neutrality, impartiality and humanitarian imperative all took a beating, and where at one time they might have been considered black-and-white standards, since Rwanda there has been a new appreciation for the shades of grey they embody.
The Rwandan genocide was one of three humanitarian interventions that went horribly wrong in the early 90s- the others being Somalia (1993) and the former Yugoslavia (1992-95). In the former, aid was appropriated by warlords and used as a weapon against a suffering populace, ultimately leading to a catastrophic peace-enforcing intervention. In the latter, UN forces with a sketchy mandate struggled to make sense of the deep-seated hatred of the belligerents, their biggest failure being the murder of 8,000 men and boys by Serb extremists in the beseiged muslim enclave of Srebrenica- even while a battalion of dutch peacekeepers stood by and did nothing.
The aftermath of these failed interventions gave rise to a whole new understanding of the complexity of aid and the potential for humanitarian assistance to be outright unethical. Approaches such as Do No Harm, which are mainstream today, were birthed from the Goma debacle, while standards such as the Sphere Project arose, in part to try and ensure that humanitarian actors were singing from the same songsheet and not tripping over each others’ toes.
In addition, the highly complex nature of operations following Rwanda began to make it clear that aid work was no longer just about well-meaning do-gooders with a social conscience. Humanitarian actors needed to be able to work within the highly complex contexts which aid found itself being delivered in- to be able to work both with the technical aspects, and also the political ones. Where up to and throughout the 1980s it was generally enough to have a heartbeat and a willingness to work in the field, the fallout from Rwanda, Somalia and Yugoslavia saw a push towards the ever-increasing professionalisation of the aid sector.
Ultimately, Rwanda served as a deeply humbling experience for the humanitarian industry. If nothing else, it robbed the industry of the moral high ground, and forced it to accept its place as a player within a political landscape, often to the detriment of the people it purports to support. No event before or since has communicated this message so clearly.
7. The Bombing of the Canal Hotel (August 19th 2003)
Following the September 11 attacks on US soil, the United States led a ‘coalition of the willing’ against alleged terrorist targets, first in Afghanistan from late 2001, and subsequently in Iraq from early 2003. While the aerial assaults and troop incursions quickly broke the conventional forces of both nations (where they existed), the result was a bitter and drawn-out insurgency overlaid on a highly complex set of tribal and sectarian divisions that has turned both nations into two of the most unstable places on earth today.
As coalition forces swept through different parts of each country, the UN and NGOs flooded in behind them to pick up the pieces- providing humanitarian assistance to areas that had been difficult for them to reach in prior times due to political and security restrictions. With pro-coalition governments in each nation ostensibly supporting the foreign presence, humanitarian space opened up rapidly, and was quickly filled by humanitarian actors.
The net effect of this to the anti-western belligerents- who saw the coalition invasion of their homelands as an occupation and who framed it as an attack on Islam- was to view (not entirely without cause) the presence of western aid workers as simply a second wave of the occupation. While the first was a military presence, the second was a cultural colonization that sought to unravel conservative social norms with western notions of human rights, gender equality, tolerance and so-forth. The humanitarians became the enemy.
On August 19th 2003, a truck bomber drove into the compound at the UN headquarters in Baghdad, based out of the Canal Hotel. 22 people were killed, mostly UN staff, among them Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN Special Representative to Iraq, whose office was allegedly specifically targeted. One hundred were wounded. The attack was claimed by al Qaeda in Iraq. It was followed a month later by another bombing at the same site, and then a month after that, by a coordinated series of bombings that also targeted the Red Cross compound, killing 12. When it became clear that the humanitarian industry was no longer considered neutral by the belligerents but was being specifically targeted, NGOs and the UN withdrew rapidly from Iraq and began remote operations, based mostly from Jordan.
While aid workers had suffered incidental attacks, particularly while carrying out operations in active conflict zones, and had even suffered occasional deliberate attacks (for example the killing of six Red Cross workers in Chechnya in 1996), this was the first time that the industry had been targeted by a high-level campaign sending such a clear message. It did not mark the end of such attacks, either. Among other subsequent high-profile deliberate targeting of aid workers include the murder of 5 MSF staff in Afghanistan in mid-2004, the abduction and execution of CARE’s Iraq program director Margaret Hassan in November 2004, and the murder by militias of 17 ACF workers in Sri Lanka in August 2006. Roughly two hundred aid workers a year are victims of violence while on operations.
The Canal Hotel Bombing essentially set a precedent that said the humanitarian industry was no longer a neutral, impartial body but a party to the conflict, and as such a legitimate target. The industry has not been the same since. Aid workers now go through intensive security training before deploying to insecure areas. Aid agencies are jumpy about pulling their staff from hostile situations. Where once an aid agency’s logo might have protected them from violence, there are many places in the world where it is now seen to be something that puts them at risk. Significant portions of NGO and UN aid budgets are now spent on security, and in some parts of the world, NGOs struggle to differentiate themselves from military actors and government contractors who are agents of foreign policy and do not hold to humanitarian principles. No single event in the last ten years has had a bigger impact on the landscape of humanitarian action in insecure environments than the August 2003 bombing.
8. The South Asian Tsunami (December 26th 2004)
Early in the morning on December 26th, an enourmous tectonic rupture beneath the Indian Ocean triggered an earthquake of magnitude 9.2, generating a gigantic tsunami. The wave struck the Indonesian region of Aceh first, where the wave height was estimated at as high as twenty metres coming ashore, before other devastating waves washed up against southern Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, and eventually even the east coast of Africa. More than 230,000 people died and five million were impacted.
The event made the term ‘tsunami’ a household word as shocking images of destruction emerged on television sets and the toll grew almost hourly, almost defying belief. Western audiences, particularly struck by the devastation on the tourist beaches of southern Thailand, where thousands of European holiday-makers were among the casualties, poured sympathy and money into the subsequent relief response. Ultimately, $14 billion would be provided in international humanitarian assistance.
The public response to the disaster was unprecedented and overwhelming. NGOs quite literally received more money than they knew what to do with- and while one (MSF) publically closed its appeal once it had reached an amount it felt it could work with, most others continued to allow the funds to flow in, creating a massive surplus. The result was an organizational disaster as agencies tripped over themselves to try and spend their funds in a timely manner, squabbling over response sectors and geographical areas in order to stake out their territory and not dissapoint their donors. Many smaller NGOs popped up specifically in response to the tsunami with no knowledge of the humanitarian sector or its standards, and coordination across the board became at points nearly disfunctional.
The massive response to the tsunami- an admittedly enourmous natural disaster- occured against the backdrop of a number of other major world crises, particularly the war in Darfur, but also a devastating conflict in DRC, both of which were suffering from a paucity of international attention and funding. This frustration was exacerbated by the fact that the actual humanitarian needs following the tsunami were not as great as the scale of the event itself might suggest. While the death toll was high, the damage was limited to relatively narrow coastal areas, and the countries most affected (Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India and Thailand), while overwhelmed, all had some national capacity to cope. Nor were the majority of survivors at the same level of risk as those in IDP camps in Dafur or eastern DRC.
This reality led NGOs into a period of considerable soul-searching, and the revamping of fundraising processes, particularly around the concept of raising too much money for a crisis that did not need the funding, and how that funding might be redirected. The issue of transparency around NGO spending became a prominent theme.
The single biggest criticism, however, remained that of coordination. Although the UN’s cluster system had begun to be piloted, the failures within the humanitarian community in this regard created a renewed impetus for focusing on collaboration. In the years following the tsunami, the UN’s Humanitarian Reform program has become mainstreamed, and coordination between major humanitarian actors is now the norm- if at times still flawed- in any significant humanitarian response, and the central role of UN OCHA is largely undisputed.
The vast amounts of money raised and the numbers of humanitarian actors involved did however create a prime testing ground for a number of cross-agency initiatives. Humanitarian accountability, for example, was piloted across a range of response programs, while the notion of interagency evaluations also gained traction. Existing humanitarian standards such as Sphere were given a rigorous outing, and found to be largely robust.
Other knock-on effects of the tsunami response relate particularly to donors. The disaster set a new precedent for a shocking event against which all other disasters would be measured. It demonstrated just how fickle western donors could be (not a new truth)- the outpouring of assistance was demonstrably linked to people’s identification with Thailand as a holiday spot. It also raised the issue of donor fatigue. So many people had given significant amounts to the tsunami response that it became difficult to fundraise for any other disasters, including areas of arguably greater need, such as Darfur.
9. The Haiti Earthquake (January 12th, 2010)
When a large (7.0) and shallow earthquake struck near Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, it was that city’s vulnerability rather than the enormity of the quake itself that resulted in the scale of catastrophe that ensued. Between two and three hundred thousand people died, as many more were injured, and a third of Haiti’s population affected. Against the backdrop of a fragile political and economic state with entrenched poverty, and the intensity of destruction within the city itself, the impact was devastating.
Because almost all major infrastructure in Port-au-Prince was damaged or destroyed, aid floundered reaching the survivors. Reporting on the disaster was fast. Within a couple of hours of the quake, it was headline news, and details were pouring out aided by social media. Within twenty-four hours, most major networks had journalists and film crews on the ground filing reports, and the world’s giving public, again shocked by the scale of the tragedy, began to give.
They also began to ask questions. Within seventy-two hours, criticism was being ladled out that the emergency response was too slow, that international responders were not doing enough to get aid to the victims. The ever-accelerating news cycle, aided and abetted by Web 2.0, was looking for ways to build on the story. People, not understanding the complexity of aid as anything more than truck-and-chuck logistics, grew rapidly frustrated with what they saw as unacceptable delays.
The Haitians too played to the media. Savvy and well-connected themselves, they understood the potential of broadcast images to rally support for their crisis, and there were numerous reports of crowds playing up and becoming aggressive only once the news cameras were on the scene.
Crowdsourcing of disaster response information came in to play. Use of text messaging, combined with web-based crowd-sourcing platforms, triangulated the location of trapped victims and directed search-and-rescue teams to dig them out. The question of whether this was a good thing or not remains unanswered.
Haiti became the world’s first participatory disaster in many ways. Not only were people following along with information in near-real time- and contributing to it- but so too people felt that they had a right to get directly invovled. While the South Asian Tsunami had generated a lot of startup NGOs, the scale paled compared to what happened in Haiti. Due to its proximity to the US, as well as strong ties through the Haitian diaspora there, thousands- literally- of well-meaning but thoroughly unqualified citizens filled suitcases with money and flew on over to Haiti to contribute to the relief efforts. At one point, there were reported to be over ten thousand NGOs operating in Port-au-Prince.
While the UN coordination mechanisms had become well established by the time of the Haiti earthquake, they were insufficient to deal with the sheer number of ‘humanitarian’ actors, leading to accusations of poor coordination. In fact, most major humanitarian actors were coordinating reasonably well under the circumstances. The problem was, the influx of do-it-yourself do-gooders had no knowledge of the standards of behaviour developed to manage exactly this sort of issue, and simply did their own thing. Ironically, despite nearly thirty years of increasing standardization and professionalisation of the aid sector, Haiti marked a return to the days where anybody with a heartbeat, a will, and a wad of notes could carry out aid work.
From its humble beginnings as a simple set of agreements around the treatment by volunteers of wounded soldiers a hundred and fifty years ago, the humanitarian sector has ballooned into a high profile, multi-billion-dollar and increasingly professional industry. The clear-cut principle of neutrality has been built upon, and then increasingly nuanced as the implications of high-value aid resources flowing into conflict and post-disaster settings has become increasingly understood. Aid workers have gone from being unsung heroes protected by their badges, to targets in an increasingly violent playing field.
Increased critical awareness of the impact of aid has led to the development of more and more standards and tools to unpack that complexity, while tragic mistakes have lent a sombre, self-critical and often cynical edge to the notion of international do-gooders.
The expectations of a giving public have shifted too, from a time when charity was the domain of churches and old ladies, to today where major emergencies become causes celebres among teenagers or corporate businessfolk, and revenues are measured in the billions. So too as the world has shrunk, ease of travel has increased, and communications media has accelerated, the giving public is increasingly interacting with disasters in near-real-time as they unfold, creating expectations often unrealistic at best, very often ignorant.
Aid now operates in a highly politicized environment with rapid changes, almost incomprehensible flows of information, and a vast and shifting range of constituents, all of whom require satisfaction on one level or another. With every major disaster or event, the aid world changes, and the goal-posts shifts.
For all its failings over the decades, one thing that stands out is that the aid industry- like many of the people who have to respond on the ground- is by very nature flexible and adaptable, changing as its circumstances change. It’s made its mistakes, and it remains a deeply flawed sector. But for all that, I couldn’t see myself in any other.
What do you think? Are there any other key events in the history of humanitarianism that you feel have had a major impact on the development of the sector?