Issue 26 - Article 13

Iraq and the crisis of humanitarian action

April 2, 2004
Antonio Donini, Larry Minear and Peter Walker, Feinstein International Famine Center

The Iraq crisis has contributed to a deep malaise in the humanitarian community. Agencies are confronted with major policy quandaries, including a contested environment, a security crisis and a host of issues arising from interaction with coalition forces whose intervention is seen as illegitimate by significant segments of the population. With the lines between political and humanitarian action blurred, humanitarian principles have been eroded and the credibility of the humanitarian enterprise has been devalued. The UN and other humanitarian agencies are seen as taking sides, with tragic consequences for the security of staff and ongoing humanitarian operations. The Baghdad blast in August 2003, which killed Special Representative of the Secretary-General Sergio Vieira de Mello and 21 of his colleagues, and attacks against the ICRC and NGOs have brought home the risks and the consequences of the choices made.

Coming shortly after the Afghanistan and Kosovo crises, the issues highlighted in Iraq are profoundly troubling. This was the broad consensus of a series of meetings held during the final quarter of 2003 in Boston, Geneva, London, and Washington. The discussions were facilitated by Tufts University’s Feinstein International Famine Center in collaboration with the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, the International Council of Voluntary Agencies, the InterAgency Standing Committee, the Overseas Development Institute, and the Brookings Institution. Participants included over 200 UN and government officials, NGO and Red Cross Movement members, and academics. The consultations were laden with political sensitivities and unusually high levels of tension between principles and institutional interest. Views diverged widely, even within individual agencies. This article recaps the recurring themes of these meetings which, taken together, map out the key issues that face the humanitarian enterprise.


Most humanitarian actors are in broad agreement that the Iraq crisis has resulted in a dangerous blurring of the lines between humanitarian and political action and the consequent erosion of core humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence. Well-established NGOs, particularly in the US, have faced stark choices and considerable pressure from their governments as well as competition from less principled quarters in the community and from for-profit contractors. In contrast with their European counterparts, many US-based NGOs have not felt that they could afford to say no. Before the intervention, few in the humanitarian community were prepared to say openly that their agency should not be in Iraq, deferring instead to the occupying power to deliver on its responsibilities under international humanitarian law. However, many now privately question whether NGOs should have relied on the UN as a ‘buffer’ between themselves and the occupying power, and whether the UN’s humanitarian apparatus should even be operational within Iraq.

The murkiness of the situation was compounded by two additional factors. First, the situation on the ground was arbitrarily defined as ‘humanitarian’, reflecting both an absence of knowledge and a felt need to justify the presence of the UN and NGOs in the absence of a UN mandate. Pockets of need did exist, nor was it wrong to plan for a possible deterioration in the situation. However, agencies felt they needed a humanitarian ‘cover’ in order to be present. The UN’s Consolidated Appeal for $2.3 billion was driven by political considerations, institutional interest and the sheer magnitude of the funds that were being made available. Second, humanitarian, development and advocacy agendas were conflated in order to justify agency presence. Both considerations were viewed by discussants as illuminating the extent to which humanitarian agencies have strayed into a political thicket.

This is not the first crisis in which the lines between humanitarian and political action have been blurred. Afghanistan and Kosovo provided a foretaste of unpalatable pressures on humanitarian action. From Angola to East Timor, humanitarians have often functioned in highly politicised landscapes or in lieu of political action. Yet the Iraq crisis was viewed as representing a new level of instrumentalisation, differing in degree and kind from its predecessors.

Moreover, the global war on terror now casts a sombre shadow over the prospects of principled humanitarianism, leaving little space for independent, neutral and impartial humanitarian action. Decisions on humanitarian issues by the major donors are made in the context of their foreign policy and security agendas. There is a readiness to ignore humanitarian principles and international law, in general and in specific incidents such as the detentions in Guantanamo Bay. The perception that double standards are being applied is reinforced by the wide disparity in funding patterns. High-profile crises attract funds, while forgotten – but more deadly – crises languish.

Events in Iraq, hard on the heels of Afghanistan, have confronted the humanitarian community with the unpalatable truth that Western aid agencies are seen as the ‘mendicant orders of empire’ – the compassionate face of a hard-nosed globalisation. So-called humanitarian assistance is funded by a small club of Western donors and implemented by agencies and individuals based primarily in donor countries and who by and large share the values of these countries. Even the UN is unable to broaden humanitarian action significantly: unlike peacekeeping operations, which are funded by assessed contributions from the entire membership, funding for humanitarian assistance is exclusively voluntary. The scores of member states not part of the ‘donors’ club’ have no visible stake in the policies and implementation of UN humanitarian assistance.

The nature of the aid apparatus thus calls into question the actual universality of humanitarianism. At the same time, other forms of action with major humanitarian implications go unnoticed and unreported: the contributions of Islamic countries and charities, the remittances of diasporas, the involvement of countries in crisis themselves and the coping strategies of affected communities. These unrecorded flows are sizeable but largely ignored. The increased disaffection with humanitarianism in large swaths of the South and the Islamic world should thus come as no surprise. The fact that aid workers are seen as ‘the enemy’ by extremist groups in Islamic countries and beyond is only one example of the extent of this disaffection.


While the discussions suggest that there may be the beginnings of some consensus on what has gone wrong in Iraq, the bigger picture and its evolution are more difficult to assess. While it is still too early for certainty, the future of humanitarianism is likely to be shaped by how the following questions are answered in the months and years to come:

  • Is the subordination or instrumentalisation of humanitarian action to the political objectives of the remaining superpower an aberration or the harbinger of things to come?
  • Has the push for ‘coherence’ and ‘integration’ in crisis management resulted in a temporary or permanent eclipse of the humanitarian dimension in the UN response to crises?
  • How will the tension between ‘the UN as Security Council’ and ‘the UN as We the peoples’ be resolved? Are reforms possible that would give higher priority in the Council’s deliberations to human rights and human needs, wherever they exist?
  • Is a two-tiered crisis-response regime emerging in which the US harnesses humanitarian action in the high-profile situations where it is directly involved, while elsewhere humanitarians are better able to go about their business in principled ways?
  • Are the devaluation of humanitarian emblems and the threats faced by humanitarian personnel qualitatively or only quantitatively different from earlier experience? What is known about the motivations of ‘extremist groups’ and their grievances?
  • Is it necessary to redefine humanitarianism? Is it truly universal? What is its essential core and how does it connect with other forms of international engagement: development, human rights, trade, investment and political/military action?
  • Is it possible or desirable to decouple humanitarian action from Western values and approaches to security? What are the indigenous values and traditions that a more universal humanitarianism might tap into?

The current push for programme integration in high-profile crises carries crucial policy and institutional implications for the humanitarian enterprise. UN humanitarian bodies are confronted with a stark choice. One option involves full membership in the UN conflict management and conflict resolution machinery, with a potential loss of their independent and neutral humanitarian voice. The other embraces some degree of separation or insulation from that machinery so as to nurture policy and partnerships in the wider humanitarian community, with the risk of being less able to ensure that humanitarian concerns are given equal prominence in the overall response. Regardless of whether the question of the UN’s institutional architecture is reopened, many feel that efforts should be redoubled to influence decision-makers in the Security Council and elsewhere on humanitarian and issues. The establishment by the Secretary-General of a panel on the reform of the UN’s political/security role provides one such opportunity. The objective from a humanitarian perspective would be to humanitarianise politics without politicising humanitarian action.

A call for action

What is the future of humanitarianism? Does it still have meaning in its classical sense? Most participants seemed to agree that the humanitarian enterprise is ailing. The consensus among those who believe that humanitarianism as a universal ideal is worth fighting for is that the time has come to sound the clarion. A recurrent theme of the meetings in the four cities was that no outside body – donor governments, the general public, the UN General Assembly – can take the lead in revitalising humanitarian action. This must be an initiative led by humanitarians themselves. Humanitarian agencies around the world can form a powerful constituency. They can influence public opinion, parliaments, the media, communities, affected populations and, last but certainly not least, governments.

Various groups, agencies, community-based institutions, research bodies and professional organisations are in a position to join forces around the defence of core values. The resulting movement would represent a range of views, including those not part of the mainstream Judeo-Christian tradition but with their own valuable traditions of humanity. Such a transnational and transcultural mobilisation would put issues on the table and challenge the humanitarian community to test itself. Are humanitarians clear on their value set? Are they putting this value set and consequent actions unashamedly before governments and international civil society? The active involvement of groups and constituencies in the South is crucial to the success of any reform process.

One can envisage many different structures for driving such a reform process. These include a small coalition of like-minded agencies, as happened with the Ottawa landmines campaign; an internally commissioned but externally conducted holistic evaluation akin to the multidonor evaluation on Rwanda in the late 1990s; and an independent commission, like the Bruntland Commission on development or the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. Detailed proposals will no doubt emerge in the coming months.

Since the Second World War, humanitarianism has moved forward through phases of opportunistic growth followed by piecemeal and largely reactive reform. There is a sense, however, that the ‘system’ is now beyond further patching up. One-off studies and fix-it remedies, however well-intentioned, cannot redress the fundamental problems of humanitarianism today. Now may be the time for those who are serious about preserving humanitarianism and who are able to see a future different from yesterday to set aside their institutional differences and to start to rebuild this enterprise with humility, principle, and a sense of rekindled universal mission.

This article summarises a longer paper entitled The Future of Humanitarian Action: Implications of Iraq and Other Recent Crises. Report of an International Mapping Exercise by the Feinstein International Famine Center at Tufts University. The paper is available, along with supporting documentation, at and Antonio Donini acted as a consultant to the Feinstein Center, conducting interviews prior to the four discussions, participating in the meetings themselves and drafting the report. Larry Minear, the director of the Center’s Humanitarianism and War Project and Peter Walker, who heads the Center itself, were also engaged in the discussion process and report writing.

References and further reading

Feature on neutrality in humanitarian action, Humanitarian Exchange 25, December 2003,

Joanna Macrae and Adele Harmer (eds), Humanitarian Action and the ‘Global War on Terror’: A Review of Trends and Issues, HPG Report 14 (London: ODI, 2003),

Henry Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, Politics and Humanitarianism: Coherence in Crisis, February 2003,


Comments are available for logged in members only.