This paper offers a synthesis of ideas debated at a one-day seminar examining international responses to humanitarian tragedies. With many regions of the world today caught up in a state of protracted crisis, questions are increasingly being asked about the international community’s commitment to respond to acute human suffering wherever it occurs and to address its underlying causes.

This assault on humanitarian values can be understood in terms of a growing disengagement by rich countries from crisis regions and the belief that saving lives can no longer be the sole justification for international interventions. On the ground, this has manifested itself in declining levels of relief assistance and the manipulation of aid by donor governments in support of strategic and geo-political objectives.

The new relief ‘agenda’ identified in various countries today has emerged on the back of a claim that at best relief aid does not contribute to solutions and at worst may fuel conflict. In response to such assertions, new ‘developmentalist’ models of relief are being implemented today which posit a quick return to ‘peaceful’ development. In some cases, it is argued, these are simply a cover for reductions in relief assistance. In a context of continuing violence, and with the additional resources needed to bring about genuine ‘development’ not forthcoming, populations are often left in a situation of extremely vulnerability.

The paper suggests that the shortcomings of current responses to crisis by the international community stem from a failure to recognise key features of the new environment in which aid is being delivered today. The ‘internal’ analysis of conflicts and the search for ‘local’ solutions tend to disregard the systemic and protracted nature of current armed conflicts. The gravity of the protracted crises in many countries today suggests that governments need to engage more actively and genuinely with the underlying causes. The humanitarian community itself has a key role to play in bringing about this political response.


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