A Global Village
Issue 8 » Conflict and Warfare

Hope for Humanitarianism

Empowering Vulnerable Communities

Dr. Lydia Tanner & Jennie Thomas, Oxford University & HART

The concept of ‘complex emergencies’ has emerged to describe situations in which political, economic and social factors combine to form seemingly intractable violent conflicts. In this setting, international humanitarian organisations wish to deliver assistance apolitically. But can humanitarian aid ever really be non-political? How far should NGOs go to avoid being drawn into the power-struggles inherent to warfare? And what happens when international organisations are denied access, and local communities become the only humanitarian actors?

Western perceptions of humanitarian aid have traditionally been steeped in notions of almost unquestionable morality, self-sacrifice and human goodwill, inspiring visions of Florence Nightingale-style aid workers trekking to the far corners of the earth to assist far flung neighbours in need. Indeed, the founding principles of organisations like the International Red Cross – to treat victims from both sides of any conflict – suggest that humanitarian aid is the very antithesis of political agenda or imperial ambition.

Yet, by 1997, the new UK Labour government had begun to see regional stability as a central concern in the provision of humanitarian assistance. Almost simultaneously, the UK’s newly formed Department for International Development (DFID) became embroiled in a controversy that remains a sensitive issue today.

In response to a military coup that ousted the elected government in Sierra Leone, DFID suspended much of its humanitarian aid. DFID claimed that the civilian need was ‘unproven’, that aid would legitimise the military action, and that NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) on the ground lacked the capacity to ensure effective delivery. Other international actors, however, felt that this reflected a sinister shift in the mandate of humanitarian assistance. Aid, they argued, had become a tool to deliver the priorities of foreign states’ political institutions.1,2

9/11 saw a seismic shift in the way many aid-giving nations engaged with foreign states. A greater emphasis on the role of poverty and instability in the breeding of terrorism emerged. Governments began to put increasing pressure on international NGOs to assist in their strategic geo-political goals, a factor in the noticeable ‘securitisation’ of the international humanitarian agenda. A major dilemma for such organisations today, particularly during complex-emergencies, is how to effectively channel support to communities while maintaining an apolitical presence.

Humanitarian NGOs of major and minor international reputation face huge challenges when trying to uphold foundational principles of neutrality in the delivery of aid. The very concept of universal human rights is a product of a particular world view, and one that is not always welcomed by sovereign states – especially in cases where warfare is rooted in systemic discrimination against particular social, racial, religious or political groups. As such, humanitarian agencies are often unwilling players in the war for hearts and minds.

Moreover, governments shape the context and boundaries within which aid agencies work, sometimes making it difficult, or impossible, to deliver aid equitably. A notable example comes from Russia, who very recently introduced an NGO bill which requires NGOs receiving international assistance to articulate when their support is coming from ‘foreign agents’. The government has suggested that those NGOs dependent on international funding may instead receive increased state support if their organisation is seen to provide a “useful and positive” contribution to the country. The Russian government has claimed that the bill is a necessary measure to protect internal politics from foreign influence. Yet others fear it is a tool to ‘crush dissent’ by controlling the focus, values and interests of communities and civil society, and forcing them to align with the priorities of powerful state institutions.

As we write, despite commitments from the international community to provide significant aid to the Syrian population, delivery of humanitarian aid within Syria continues to be severely limited and subject to restrictive conditions. The Syrian government’s refusal to date to allow international assistance, unless an official Syrian body can control its delivery, has raised concerns that such aid will be manipulated by government forces to access opposition strongholds, or to deliberately deny the population in rebel-held areas access to humanitarian support.

In Sudan too, not far from the border carved out when South Sudan gained independence last year, for 14 months humanitarian access has been denied to conflict affected regions of South Kordofan and Blue Nile States where fighting and constant aerial bombardment has caused half a million people to be displaced. In Sudan’s western Darfur region, a more subtle manipulation has been in play for years where international NGOs face shifting bureaucratic barriers that would have frustrated even Florence Nightingale.

The Marol School in South Sudan is described as a ‘Girls school, to which Boys may come!’, emphasizing the need to increase female education. The academy caters for between 300-350 pupils, and is a locally run initiative supported by HART UK

Many organisations prefer aid to be delivered through an international agency, rather than through locally-based organisations, for fear of it being manipulated by political or criminal interests that they do not support. Yet attempts to remain entirely neutral are in vain. In such ‘complex emergencies’, allowing humanitarian access to communities affected by conflict can become little more than a political tool or negotiating chip in peace talks. The denial of humanitarian access, often in borderlands or ethnic minority areas, may be used to manipulate international actors and governments, or as a distraction from more long-term diplomatic efforts.

In situations like those in Sudan and Syria, local community actors may be left alone to single-handedly respond to a severe humanitarian crisis. This is a stark reminder that aid work is far from a technical endeavour that takes place in a social vacuum. Agencies are working with people – and the cultural, political and social context that comes with them.

Local Solutions
Looking to community-based organisations, including a range of actors operating at the local level, social networks, local organisations or charities, civil society organisations and religious or other groups, we ask what can they bring to the table?

Firstly, local organisations give communities the ‘dignity of choice’.

“Why do organisations always come and tell us what they are going to do; why don’t they ask? We know our priorities.”

Community leader in Sudan asks Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART).

It is not enough for local communities to be involved in the implementation of humanitarian support; they need responsibility for decision making and management too:

“First we lost our lives, then we lost our dignity – it seemed like international humanitarian agencies had their own agendas – they did not give attention to our own capacities to cope with the crisis.”

Local NGO volunteer in Gaza (Overseas Development Institute, ODI).3

When persistent conflicts form the backdrop of entire lives, or generations, retaining identity requires that the stories within a community, and the perspectives that they represent, are preserved.

Community-based organisations have the potential to develop genuine conversation between international actors and local people. Aid agencies cannot easily understand the subtleties of the environment within which they work without the input of people whose lives are bound up in the conflict.

Local organisations
give communities
the ‘dignity of choice’

Secondly, community actors are often more efficient and effective in their use of funding, while also avoiding causing further instability in an already fragile local economy. In devolving decision-making they can help ensure resource distribution is fair and popularly accepted.

It is worth noting that in complex emergencies, the lines between ‘aid’ and ‘development’ blur, with an emphasis not just on saving lives but on the rehabilitation of the community to promote livelihoods and reduce vulnerability. Moreover, protracted emergencies often experience ‘donor fatigue’ and a reduction of funds which necessitates a move towards more sustainable and rehabilitative programs. Community-based organisations are often well-placed to respond to this shifting landscape.

Thirdly, local actors can operate in areas with significant security risks or where the government has denied access to NGOs. They provide access to the most vulnerable populations, who might not otherwise be reached, and often continue operating long after international agencies have left.

Finally, in cases of prolonged conflict, community-based organisations can play a unique role in promoting democratic ideals and enhancing civil capacity, building up local leadership structures, protecting cultural identities, and enhancing community cohesion. The Karen of eastern Burma (Myanmar) represent a striking example of this. Camps along the Thai-Burma border have become a breeding ground for civil society institutions that preserve strong cultural identities and promote local language.

Local Complexities
Working with community-based organisations in prolonged conflicts, however, is not always straightforward. Government aid departments and major international organisations can be reluctant to partner with such organisations as they are often small and limited in geographical reach (a key consideration that plays a primary role in international organisations looking to distribute millions of dollars with minimal administrative demands). Monitoring can be difficult, especially in the context of conflict, and this gives rise to concerns over impartiality of assistance. Moreover, community-based organisations may operate cross-border without the permission of the host government thus disregarding issues surrounding national sovereignty.

More generally, there are concerns surrounding funding of community-based initiatives that may support a malevolent power structure that bears responsibility for the conflict in question. For example, in Burma, community-based organisations are virtually the only vehicle of support for heavily persecuted ethnic minorities. Historically, some pro-democracy groups in Burma voiced concerns over the use of western funds for providing developmental assistance, including access to water, sanitation and medical care. They feared that such assistance would stop the military regime and international governments from recognising the devastating impact of a national budget that dedicates almost a quarter to military spending, leaving only 1.3% for healthcare and 4.1% for education.

Local actors... provide
access to the most
vulnerable populations...

and often continue
operating long 

after international 
agencies have left


The efficacy and survival of community organisations can also be threatened by disconnects within a donor nation’s foreign policy and development strategy. The current emphasis on foreign investment to aid economic growth can undermine the impact of immediate humanitarian work. For example, until recently, plentiful oil, natural gas, and other resources of Burma had been sanctioned by most western states. Positive political changes in Burma have led to a major change in western policy, and today global businesses are scrambling to access these resource-rich regions. So far, however, rather than initiating a boom in local jobs and building the capacity of communities, local organisations are struggling to cope with escalating land-grabs and violence.

Local Conflict
The Local to Global Protection (L2GP) project at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) observes that, in prolonged conflicts, the distinction between protecting ‘human rights’ and ensuring livelihoods can seem less relevant. States may engineer famine as a means of controlling a population. Individuals and families may have to balance the need for survival – through farming or migration – with risks from landmines, armed attacks, or trafficking.

The protection of communities and their livelihoods is a political minefield. A seemingly humanitarian act, such as building a camp for the displaced away from fighting, becomes an inherently political act. On the one hand, it creates a greater opportunity for international awareness and media reporting in an area that is relatively safe. At the same time, it may enhance the military strategy of one of the parties. This can enable governments to seize land, exploit natural resources, remove populations or change the ethnic or religious make-up of the population. For example, in the 1990s in Sudan, the creation of camps for the displaced in Bahr-El-Ghazel and the Nuba Mountains ‘enabled the government to secure its military position… contributing to the government’s consolidation of territory.’4

Local approaches to protection can also sit uncomfortably with international humanitarian ideals, but they allow community-based organisations to continue operating in places where international organisations have limited access, where communities resist displacement, or where the state is threatening vulnerable populations.5 Such approaches may include paying power holders, temporary or permanent migration, providing labour or food to armed groups, or seeking assistance of local or religious leaders for behind-the-scenes advocacy with armed groups.

Local Peace
Community-based organisations can play a uniquely positive role in providing for vulnerable groups, enabling equitable opportunities and protecting or promoting human rights.

While acting as crucial actors in assisting international organisations to respond to acute situtations, community-based groups have also been found to have a subtle impact on development and stability over the longer term.

While peace cannot be imposed, this type of development aid can focus on building a local capacity for peace, restoring dignity and promoting the resilience of communities that might otherwise be forgotten.

Dr. Lydia Tanner is Advocacy Manager at Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART) and a researcher at Oxford University.

Jennie Thomas works with a community organisation for women in crisis in Manchester and as a researcher for an International Development consultancy. Jennie has been working with HART since early 2012 with a particular focus on Burma (Myanmar).

Leave A Comment

[1]   Macrae, J. & Leader, N. (2000) Shifting sands: The search for ‘coherence’ between political and humanitarian responses to complex emergencies. Overseas Development Institute UK
[2]  Young, M. (1999) Practicising principled humanitarian assistance in conflict: the experience of ActionAid-Sierra Leone. Humanitarian Practice Network.
[3]   Berry, K. and Reddy, S. (2010) Making Space for Community Based protection in the humanitarian protection landscape. Humanitarian Exchange, 46:5-7.
[4]   Macray, J. (1997) Conflict, the Continuum and Chronic Emergencies: A critical analysis of the Scope for linking relief, rehabilitation and development planning in Sudan. Disasters, 21(3): 223-43.
[5]   South, A., Perhult, M. and Carstensen, N. (2011) Self protection and Survival in South-east Burma. Chatham House.