The Limits of Humanitarian Aid
by Ferdinand Smit, Crisis Management and Humanitarian Aid Department June 2003

In July 1997 the Netherlands government requested opinion from the Advisory Council for International Affairs (AIV) on humanitarian aid in conflict situations. The Advisory Council was asked to shed light on the dilemmas confronting donors and implementing agencies when executing humanitarian programmes and projects, often of a political nature. The questions were, inter alia, what role can humanitarian aid play in severe conflict situations in addition to political/military interventions or in the absence thereof? How far should humanitarian aid go; should it include rehabilitation? How can the negative side-effects of humanitarian aid, possibly in prolonging conflicts, be avoided? How can the neutrality of humanitarian interventions be ensured, while accepting simultaneously that some form of advocacy is often needed as well?

The Advisory Council, chaired by former prime minister Ruud Lubbers, published its findings in October 1998. The most significant element of the document is the plea for a more restrictive interpretation of humanitarian aid. The council claims that less than half of Dutch humanitarian assistance is not spent on humanitarian aid in the strict sense, but rather on more structural development. The Netherlands government reacted in May 1999 by nonetheless advocating for a more flexible, wide-ranging and integrated approach of humanitarian aid to include elements of more structural rehabilitation as well as elements of conflict prevention, reconciliation and reconstruction.

The report was discussed by parliament on 3 November 1999. The vast majority of political parties support the broader interpretation of humanitarian aid as advocated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Directorate General for International Cooperation. Humanitarian aid should be part and parcel of a more complex approach and cannot be limited to a set of ‘basic needs’ aimed at the mere physical survival of the beneficiaries. Much of the debate revolved around the need to build in time to discuss on a case basis the transition from emergency aid/rehabilitation to a more structural form of development cooperation. The minister for development cooperation argued that some of the concerns of parliament had already been addressed and that the programme for post-conflict areas such as Bosnia/Kosovo and Rwanda will be transferred from the humanitarian aid budget to other budgets aimed at more structural forms of cooperation. The minister also vowed that humanitarian aid budgets should not come at the expense of budgets for structural development, and that Africa should not suffer at the expense of increased donor attention on the Balkans.