Humanitarian Aid and Development Assistance

Amelia Branczik

February 2004

"Although aid agencies often seek to be neutral or non-partisan toward the winners and losers of a war, the impact of their aid is not neutral. ...When given in conflict settings, aid can reinforce, exacerbate, and prolong the conflict; it can also help to reduce the tensions and strengthen people's capacities to disengage from fighting and find peaceful options for solving problems. Often, an aid program does some of both. But in all cases aid given during conflict cannot remain separate from that conflict." -- Mary Anderson

As protracted internal conflicts have become more common and more deadly, the impact on civilians has multiplied. Post-Cold War conflicts have caused over five million casualties, and 95 percent of these have been civilians. In 2001, it was estimated that 35 million people were affected in different ways by conflict worldwide. According to Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, it is increasingly true that "the main aim ... [of conflicts] ... is the destruction not of armies but of civilians and entire ethnic groups."[1]

These disturbing developments have necessitated extensive humanitarian relief efforts and development assistance to rebuild war-torn countries after conflict has ended. Development assistance is also a long-term strategy for violence prevention. Although they are presented separately here, humanitarian aid and development assistance often overlap.

What Is Humanitarian Aid?

Conflicts adversely affect civilians both directly, and indirectly, through the resulting "complex emergencies" that protracted conflicts create. In the immediate area of conflict, the primary aim is preventing human casualties and ensuring access to the basics for survival: water, sanitation, food, shelter, and health care. Away from the main fighting, the priority is to assist people who have been displaced, prevent the spread of conflict, support relief work, and prepare for rehabilitation.

What Is Development Assistance?

Additional insights into humanitarian aid and development assistance are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

External development assistance, to reconstruct a country's infrastructure, institutions, and economy, is often a key part of the peace accord in the aftermath of war. This assistance ensures that the country can develop, instead of sliding back into conflict. The key requirements include:

  • Reconstruction of property and infrastructure: to facilitate return of the displaced security, governance, transport of food and supplies, and rebuilding of the economy.
  • Transition to normal security conditions: demilitarization, demobilization, reintegration of ex-combatants and an adequate police force.
  • A functioning judiciary to enforce the rule of law.
  • Governance and government services.
  • Democratization: representative government to moderate conflict.
  • Economic development and a stable macroeconomic environment to promote political stability and facilitate a solid financial base for government.
  • Local capacity building: once the donors leave, the country needs to function independently of aid.

The link between underdevelopment and propensity to conflict makes development assistance important also in violence prevention. The structural factors contributing to conflict include political, economic, and social inequalities; extreme poverty; economic stagnation; poor government services; high unemployment and individual (economic) incentives to fight. Development assistance must attempt to reduce inequalities between groups, and reduce economic incentives to fight, by controlling illicit trade, for example in arms, drugs, and diamonds.

Perhaps the most important principle of development assistance is the use of aid conditionality to promote economic and political practices that strengthen peacebuilding. Donor assistance is often conditional on acceptance of a peace settlement by all sides, and continued commitment to implementing and consolidating peace.

Who Does It?

The four main actors in humanitarian aid and development assistance are:

  • International (IOs) and Regional Organizations (ROs) (or Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs)): The most important actor in the provision of humanitarian aid and development assistance is the United Nations (U.N.) and its various agencies, funded by member states. The World Bank and regional development banks also fund development projects.
  • Unilateral assistance: As well as multilateral assistance, many countries also direct aid unilaterally through their own foreign-aid and development agencies. In addition to a sense of moral obligation, aid can be part of foreign policy.
  • Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs): NGOs increasingly play a key role in providing humanitarian aid and development assistance, both directly and as partners to U.N. agencies. They often have advantages over IOs or foreign governments. For example, they are less limited by political constraints and their diversity and independence allows them to work in very difficult places.
  • The Military: The military acts primarily to ensure a secure environment in which relief agencies can operate. In some circumstances, the military may also provide aid directly, usually when IOs and NGOs find themselves overstretched or unable to deal with security problems. The military can be used to manage and coordinate the overall humanitarian response and to deal with technically and physically demanding needs, such as restoring communications and supply routes.

Coordination and effective leadership of the humanitarian relief effort is extremely important in order to minimize duplication and conflicting activities and to maximize the exchange and flow of intelligence in an extremely difficult and stressful working environment. Coordination is usually provided by the United Nations.

Funding for humanitarian aid and development assistance comes mostly from foreign governments. Approximately 50 percent of funding is channeled through U.N. agencies. Much of this is then allocated to partner agencies that implement the programs.

Issues and Challenges in the Provision of Aid

The greatest challenges for humanitarian aid and development assistance are efficiency, effectiveness, and the extremely complex political, economic, and social side effects associated with them. It has become increasingly clear that aid is not a panacea. Although externally driven, humanitarian aid and development assistance programs inevitably take on roles within the conflict and in the societies in which they operate.

Problems with Humanitarian Aid

1. Efficiency and Effectiveness

  • An effective and timely humanitarian relief operation has the capacity to save thousands of lives. It is also, however, an extremely difficult undertaking. Potential beneficiaries may be located within a zone of conflict or in areas with poor infrastructure, making it difficult and dangerous for humanitarian agencies to deliver assistance. As a result, help may reach only the most accessible areas, with other potential beneficiaries being neglected.
  • The ever-increasing number of agencies on the ground, the difficulty of obtaining accurate intelligence, and the unpredictability of humanitarian crises make effective management and coordination extremely difficult. Solving this problem requires improved intelligence gathering and sharing, as well as tight management and coordination.

2. Political Dilemmas

"Sadako Ogata, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, crystallized the dilemma of the humanitarian alibi and of the United Nations, when it is held responsible for solving humanitarian crises such as that in Rwanda: 'No international humanitarian organization or NGO can solve political conflicts. We need political will, the involvement of government and their leaders, of the U.N. and regional organizations, to maintain and build peace.'" -- William Shawcross
  • The 'humanitarian alibi' has been defined as "the misuse of the humanitarian idea and humanitarian workers by governments eager to do as little as possible in economically unpromising regions like sub-Saharan Africa."[2] Humanitarian aid gives the appearance that the international community is at least doing something, but "humanitarian intervention in the absence of a political solution solves nothing."[3] In the case of Sudan, relief efforts have been called "an excuse to do nothing," a result of the fact that the West has "no great interest" in political intervention to end the fighting.[4]
  • Humanitarian aid that ensures that non-combatants are fed, sheltered, and healthy, but does not alleviate the violence around them, can lead to the "specter of the well-fed dead." Even more disturbing, the provision of humanitarian assistance can give non-combatants a mistaken sense of security and protection by the international community, with tragic consequences.

    Humanitarian aid can prolong and fuel conflicts, undermining its ultimate goal of saving lives:

    • For fighting parties, aid can become a resource to be fought over. Aid leakage, or 'political taxation' of aid, refers to situations in which a portion of the aid goes directly to the fighting parties, who then use it themselves or sell it to buy weapons.

    • Aid is fungible; because populations and troops are being fed by aid, fighting parties no longer have to worry about providing for this need themselves and are thus able to put more resources into fighting.
    • Aid that helps only one side in a conflict can fuel tensions and competition between the sides. Simply ensuring equal distribution to different ethnic groups can reinforce divisions and 'labels' and make the groups less dependent on each other.
    A commonly cited example of aid perpetuating a conflict is that of Sudan, where civil war has lasted for well over a decade, and over two billion dollars have been spent on humanitarian aid. Both rebel leaders and aid workers openly acknowledge that humanitarian aid, in addition to saving many lives, is a large factor in making it possible for the belligerent groups to continue fighting.
    • Aid can create private incentives for continuation of the war, for example by paying relatively high wages to local people employed by aid agencies. Imported food aid can undermine the local economy and make an activity like agriculture less profitable.
    • Solving these problems through aid conditionality carries the risk of harming the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. 'Smart aid' responds to this dilemma by applying the principle of conditionality to aid that is of greatest benefit to warlords and political leaders.
    • Incursions on national sovereignty: Governments may refuse to allow humanitarian agencies to assist their citizens and may object to conditionality of aid and development assistance, citing defense of their national sovereignty. However, there is a growing acceptance of the changing norm of sovereignty to "sovereignty as responsibility," which implies a government's responsibility for the well being of its citizens.

3. Criticisms of Humanitarian Organizations

In Cambodia, UNTAC's 1991-93 20,000-person, multi-billion-dollar mission brought high inflation, social dislocation, and a large increase in prostitution and HIV/AIDS cases in Phnom Penh.

In Afghanistan, Kabul rents have increased fivefold since the fall of the Taliban. The prices of staples such as rice have doubled, or even tripled, while most salaries have remained the same.

  • There is little accountability in the humanitarian and development industry. There are no barriers to becoming an NGO and no comprehensive or enforceable performance standards for NGOs. Codes of conduct have been developed, such as the Red Cross Code of Conduct (1994), but compliance is voluntary.
  • Because of the high staff turnover in humanitarian organizations and the different nature of conflicts in different countries, it is hard to build institutional memory to improve the efficiency of aid operations and to implement lessons learned.
  • Competition for 'humanitarian market share.' The need to maintain a high profile in order to secure funding can influence NGOs' decision making, they cannot afford not to be seen at a disaster. This situation is aggravated by the impact of uneven media coverage of disasters.
  • The dilemma of neutrality: The 1994 Code of Conduct of the International Federation of the Red Cross explicitly states that NGOs' work must be neutral. However, it is rare for the effects of aid to be neutral even if the provision of it is neutral. Furthermore, it is frustrating to give humanitarian aid to people without being able to protect their human rights.
  • In working with the military, humanitarian agencies, especially NGOs, risk losing the neutrality that gives them their advantage. In addition, being associated with one side can endanger the work and the staff of NGOs.
  • An influx of aid and aid workers can create huge interferences in the local economy. Services such as restaurants, hotels, and brothels tend to spring up as soon as a humanitarian or development operation begins. Houses are built in anticipation of the high rents that foreign aid agencies will pay and prices for commodities and rents inflate.
  • Lifestyle and budgeting issues: A lot of the money for aid programs, particularly with international organizations like the United Nations, goes toward staff salaries and technical requirements, rather than to the intended recipients of aid. This can create tensions in relief programs. However, as aid workers often risk their lives in extremely difficult and stressful conditions, this is a difficult issue to resolve.
Of two billion dollars spent on the UNTAC mission in Cambodia, most was spent on U.N. staff salaries (an estimated 118.5 million dollars) and travel costs (62 million dollars). Almost 9,000 new vehicles were purchased at a cost of approximately 81 million dollars, and all senior U.N. bureaucrats were given a daily hardship allowance of 145 dollars to supplement their salaries. At the time, the average annual income in Cambodia was 130 dollars.

Problems with Development Assistance

Many of the challenges listed above for humanitarian aid apply equally to development assistance. There are also issues that apply exclusively to development assistance.

"One of the most controversial examples of a humanitarian aid operation was in the case of Hutu refugee camps in Goma, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) following the Rwandan genocide. Fearful of retaliation by the Tutsis, two million Hutus fled to neighboring countries for protection. In the Goma camps, Hutu militia members responsible for the genocide against the Tutsis continued to wield considerable power, terrorizing refugees, forbidding them to leave the camps, distributing anti-Tutsi propaganda, and recruiting and training troops from among them. Because of their position of authority, many aid agencies used the Hutu leadership to distribute food. This reinforced their power and enabled them to buy weapons, which they used for attacks on Rwanda. In early 1995 two major NGOs, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and International Rescue Committee (IRC), withdrew. MSF reported that, 'The continued diversion of humanitarian aid by the same leaders who orchestrated the genocide, the lack of effective international action regarding impunity, and the fact that the refugee population was being held hostage, presented a situation contradictory with the principles of humanitarian assistance.' The president of IRC said, '[T]he whole aid community has been overtaken by a new reality. Humanitarianism has become a resource and people are manipulating it as never before. Sometimes we just shouldn't show up for a disaster.'" -- William Shawcross, p. 142-143

1. Development assistance is not designed to prevent conflict

Development assistance can promote conflict when it is administered without considering social and political conditions. It is very difficult to ensure that the effects of 'apolitical' aid are politically or ethnically neutral.

Problems arise primarily due to the institutional cultures and organizational dynamics of donor agencies, which are not geared to dealing with the needs of deeply divided societies. Success is often measured in terms of the amount of money disbursed, rather than the outcome of programs. The mandate of these donor agencies is to promote economic growth and development "without regard to political or other non-economic influences or considerations."[5] Policies are aimed at improving overall macroeconomic stability and economic growth, irrespective of potential income-distribution effects. However, as James Boyce writes, to concentrate solely on increasing the size of the economic pie, without considering how that pie is divided, is an approach "singularly ill-suited to war-torn societies."[6] As all peace settlements are based on a balance of power between warring sides, any measure that disproportionately benefits or hurts one side can make both sides reassess their positions, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the peace.

The policies of these lending agencies are based on neoclassical economic ideology and fail to take into account the needs of deeply divided and politically unstable societies. Policies such as liberalization of trade may cause short-term hardships such as increased unemployment, and through their uneven distributive effects can exacerbate cleavages between groups. Cutting government services to reduce budget deficits can weaken the social contract and the ties between citizens and government. Aid administered through government will favor those in power, while channeling aid in a way that bypasses central government can decrease a government's leverage, also causing problems.

Lending agencies are gradually reforming to take into account lessons learned, and are forming conflict-prevention and post-conflict reconstruction units, as with the Conflict Prevention and Reconstruction Unit at the World Bank. Increasingly, agencies take into account the potential for conflict when designing their programs and adjust the programs accordingly. There are calls for projects to undergo conflict or ethno-national impact assessments (i.e., analyses of the affect of a proposed action on different ethnic or national groups and/or the conflict itself), in addition to the usual cost-benefit analysis. Another important measure is to involve these agencies more closely in the peace negotiations, as a means of bridging the gap between peace building and economic reconstruction and of improving overall coordination of post-conflict development.

It has been suggested that International Monetary Fund (IMF) reform measures in the former Yugoslavia helped to reinforce group dynamics that were leading to conflict. Robert Muscat writes about a similar situation in Rwanda, which before the 1994 genocide was seen as one of the most successful recipients of aid. There, all aid resources flowed through the central government, and aid was therefore a factor in the institutional discrimination against Tutsis. The World Bank later acknowledged that it had been aware of the growing discrimination against Tutsis, but had always attempted to take an apolitical stance toward provision of aid. With hindsight, such a stance can seem naive and even irresponsible.

Bilateral development assistance also carries problems. Donor governments inevitably have competing multiple interests, only one of which is peace building. During the Cold War, geopolitical concerns were paramount. Economic and commercial interests are at stake, with roughly half of all bilateral aid tied to imports of goods and services from the donor country.

Inadequate funding mechanisms: Most donors award funding on a year-by-year basis, making forward planning very difficult for agencies. In general, each year's funding has to be used up before the next year's funding can be obtained, even if that money could be more usefully spent at a later date. In general, the international community tends to take a fairly short-term view of post-conflict reconstruction, although in reality it takes years for reconciliation or refugee returns to occur.

2. Aid Conditionality

Although conditionality can be very effective, those enforcing it may face significant difficulties. Donors must coordinate so that they don't undermine each other. Alternative sources of revenue that might weaken donors' leverage, such as recipients' access to natural resources, must be cut off. The potential cost to more vulnerable members of society must be alleviated if necessary, through the use of 'smart sanctions' with humanitarian exemptions. Careful use of carrots and sticks can involve slicing the carrot -- providing aid in installments, to maintain leverage.

3. Efficiency and Effectiveness of Development Assistance

Development assistance may interfere with local capacities to deal with problems. This can make recipient countries dependent on aid, and encourage development techniques that are unsustainable when foreign aid dries up. In addition, the most educated and capable members of the local population are often employed by foreign agencies, where they are paid high salaries to work as drivers, translators, or administrative staff. As well as wasting valuable human capital and expertise, hiring these skilled people for relatively low-level jobs detracts from local initiatives to govern and develop. If local NGOs are encouraged to undertake development programs, they are often provided with monetary grants, encouraging more costly initiatives than are unsustainable in the long run. Often, NGOs will focus their resources on winning such grants, rather than helping the local communities. In addition, instead of working together to increase their effectiveness, they will be locked in competition against one another. What civil society initiatives really need is less expensive, long-term commitment.

There is great debate over the best theoretical and practical framework for aid to help poor countries develop. Some economists argue that aid is only effective in a good macroeconomic policy environment: foreign aid must complement, not substitute, domestic measures to improve the economy. Others argue that, as long as agriculture and industry in developed countries are still heavily protected through subsidies and trade barriers, less-developed countries will never be able to fully participate in the world economy and achieve economic development.


The debate over how to improve the effectiveness of humanitarian aid and development assistance and minimize their potentially negative consequences, is ongoing and intense. Initiatives such as Mary B. Anderson's Collaborative for Development Action [7] attempt to promote discourse on this subject, and to question the role that humanitarian agencies play in conflicts. As humanitarian aid and development assistance work becomes more professional and more academic institutions offer these topics as fields of study, now is an important time to develop these subjects further.

Humanitarian aid and development assistance are not straightforward, and they mask many political failures. Ultimately, however, they play a crucial role in saving lives, and a role that can be continually improved as lessons are learned and applied.

[1] "Secretary-General Says Proposals in his Report on Africa Require New Ways of Thinking, of Acting," United Nations Press Release SG/SM/6524 SC/6503 (16 April 1998, accessed 30 January 2003); available from, Internet.

[2] Rieff, David, "Charity on the Rampage; The Business of Foreign Aid," Foreign Affairs (January/February 1997); available at; Internet.

[3] Rieff, David, "Charity on the Rampage; The Business of Foreign Aid," Foreign Affairs (January/February 1997); available at; Internet.

[4] Raymond Bonner, "Perpetuating an 'Emergency' in War-Torn Sudan," New York Times (October 11, 1998); available at; Internet.

[5] World Bank Charter, Article III Section 5

[6] James K. Boyce, Investing in Peace; Aid and Conditionality After Civil Wars, Adelphi Paper 351(New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 67.

[7] Anderson, Mary B. 'Collaborative for Development Action.' [article on-line] accessed February 14, 2003; available from; Internet


Use the following to cite this article:
Branczik, Amelia. "Humanitarian Aid and Development Assistance." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: February 2004 <>.

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