Beyond the Age of Humanitarianism: Past, Trends and Future Challenges

Liesbet Heyse

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    The 20th century may well be described as the age of humanitarianism. In less than hundred years, a booming business of humanitarian aid providers developed that comprises of a broad variety of actors: governmental (USAid, Danida), intergovernmental (United Nations, European Union, International Red Cross), and non-governmental (Medecins sans Frontieres, Oxfam, CARE). In addition, the role of the military in humanitarian operations increased with the UN's growing interest in peace keeping and peace enforcement operations. Spendings on humanitarian assistance increased from $500 million in 1973 to a peak of $5.7 billion in 1994 on bilateral humanitarian assistance alone (Wood et al., 2001: 7). The 20th century is remembered by aid operations such as in Biafra (1968), Cambodia (1970s), Ethiopia (1985), Somalia (1991), and Kosovo (1999). Today, humanitarian aid operations are part and parcel of the daily newsflashes we receive from all over the world.

    This fast growth of the humanitarian aid sector has not been without problems. In the past decades, we heard about the problematic aspects of humanitarian aid provision through evaluations and research of crises in Somalia, Rwanda, Zaire, and Kosovo (JEARR, 1996; Sommers 1996; Surhke et al. 2001). Generally, and sadly, the lesson often was that humanitarian aid providers were good at providing aid too much, too late and too long. We learnt of aid diversion, selective aid distribution, overlap in aid in some places and lack of aid in others (Shiras, 1996). There were reports of destruction of local markets because of free aid distributions and aid organisations trapped into the politics of war (De Waal, 1997; Anderson, 1999). Aid organisations were confronted with looting, bribing, kidnapping and killing. And on top of that, there were stories of fierce competition between aid agencies. These factors did not slow down the growth of the sector.

    The end of the 20th century offered a natural turning point to reflect on these issues. What had the 20th century brought in terms of humanitarian action? What will the 21st century bring for humanitarian aid providers and receivers? Since the year 2000, we find publications that address these questions by describing continuing trends and future challenges (Aall, Miltenberger and Weiss, 2000; UNHCR 2000; West, 2001; Wood, Apthorpe and Borton, 2001; ALNAP, 2002). In this essay, I will discuss two trends and two future challenges for the humanitarian aid sector.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)178-183
    Number of pages6
    JournalJournal of contingencies and crisis management
    Issue number4
    Publication statusPublished - 2003


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