Humanitarian action relies on the impartial and universal commitment of those involved, for the purpose of alleviating the suffering of populations in emergency situations. The transformation of contemporary conflicts, the evolution of international relationships, and the questioning of universalism have led to the operational contexts of aid workers being developed and the legitimacy of their interventions being challenged.

Dating back to 1863, when Henry Dunant and 16 European states founded the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), humanitarian action comes as an attempt to alleviating the sufferings of populations in emergency situations. It relies on the impartial and universal commitment of those involved and is based on a set of standards codified in international humanitarian law (especially the Geneva Conventions) and on the complementary involvement of public and private actors (NGOs, IOs, states). The changing nature of contemporary conflict, along with evolving international relationships and a questioning of universalism, are transforming the context in which humanitarian actors operate, while raising the question of the conditions for legitimizing their interventions.

Aid “without borders”

While the Red Cross and the first humanitarian NGO s intervened in cooperation with state actors, the 1970s saw the emergence of a “without borders” approach: a view of aid based on a commitment to serving universal causes and circumventing – indeed opposing – any state mediation. For the pioneers of this approach, including the Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) – established amid the emotions aroused by the Nigerian Civil War (1967–70) – humanitarian action is first and foremost a moral imperative. Its actors have a duty not just to help all victims of conflicts, whatever their identity and affiliations, but also to bear witness to situations in which abuses are perpetrated by states themselves. It was these working principles that gave rise to the idea of the right of humanitarian intervention, based on which the United Nations formulated the concept of responsibility to protect in 2005.

Doctors without Borders Areas of Intervention, 2016

Source: Doctors without Borders, 

Comment: The international humanitarian medical NGO Médecins sans frontières (MSF – Doctors without Borders), created in 1971, is organized into 24 independent sections (mainly located in the Northern countries, Brazil, and South Africa) and ancillary offices, also in countries of the Northern hemisphere or emerging countries. The NGO deploys volunteers who help with fundraising (over 90% of funds are private, guaranteed to be independent of states). MSF conducts awareness-raising activities, as well as communicating with and assisting those suffering threats to their life and health (because of conflicts, epidemics, natural disasters, of exclusion from care). The deployment of personnel shows the geography of action in the field, which is particularly focused on Africa, Western Asia, and Haiti.

The transformation of conflict, and therefore of the contexts in which humanitarian actors intervene, is changing the nature of their involvement and also raising questions about their ability to preserve neutrality.

Breaches of international humanitarian law, in contexts where the distinction between civilian and military personnel often seems tenuous, lead to a humanitarian presence in close proximity to the front lines. This creates new security problems for these actors, who are sometimes directly targeted by belligerents (MSF [Médecins sans frontières], for example, condemned such targeting after the Afghan army bombed Kunduz Hospital in Afghanistan in 2015). This raises the question of whether or not they should accept protection from regular armies or rebel movements – which might, at least in appearance, call the impartiality of humanitarian involvement into question.

Alongside this discussion on neutrality and how humanitarian actors should relate to armed organizations is the parallel issue of the increasingly integrated nature of international conflict resolution interventions, which involve both civilian and military personnel. This compounds the dilemma facing NGOs: should they place themselves under armed protection when operating close to front lines? And if so, whose protection should they accept: that of private security companies, militia, regular armies, international actors? This situation is increasingly frequent given that contemporary conflicts are characterized precisely by a blurring of the distinction between “front” and “rear.” This entanglement is causing some humanitarian actors to highlight the risks and potential compromises of “helmeted” humanitarian intervention, which they see as fueling the confusion of roles and thus the targeting of NGOs, who become perceived by some belligerents as the enemy.

Civilian actors involved in United Nations Peacekeeping operations, 2017

Source: United Nations, Peacekeeping,

Comment: This graph shows the importance of actors other than the military (Blue Helmets) and police in UN peacekeeping operations. There is a high proportion of civilians on the margins of operations where small ones are concerned (Kosovo, Pakistan, Middle East, Western Sahara, etc.), whereas in large operations (from 10,000 to over 2,000 participants), the number of civilians never exceeds a fifth of the total strength (DRC in 2010, Darfur in 2007, South Sudan in 2011, Mali in 2013, the Central African Republic in 2014, and Lebanon in 1978).

A drive to coordinate and contested universalism

In this context of changing relationships between humanitarian actors, state actors and international organizations, we are seeing heightened attempts to coordinate aid provision by international organizations. This is not a new phenomenon: an initial treaty in this area was signed under the auspices of the LoN (League of Nations) in 1927; in 1971 the United Nations established its Disaster Relief Organization, which was replaced in 1991 by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The UN’s humanitarian reform of 2005 took the drive to rationalize aid provision to the next level – and was perceived in some quarters as an attempt to take control.

There has also been a growing trend to question humanitarian universalism – with respect to both its principles and the practices of some actors. The debate around principles goes back to the 1990s, contrasting “Asian values” with a universalism regarded by its critics as an assertion of Western values. This debate led to the formation of NGOs established on the basis of identity or religious affiliation. They do not apply the principle of neutrality and their mode of operation is radically different from that of the first faith-based NGOs, which became involved in the humanitarian field at a very early stage, motivated by the principle of charity that all religious traditions share. Here we can make a distinction between conventional faith-based NGOs like Caritas and Secours Islamique, which see themselves as stakeholders in a pluralist humanitarianism, and community -based NGOs like BarakaCity and SOS Chrétiens d’Orient, whose fundraising activities and interventions stay within the bounds of their respective communities.

Islamic Relief (France) aid missions, 2016

Source: Islamic Relief (France), Rapport annuel 2016, 

Comment: Founded in 1991, Islamic Relief France is a French NGO for humanitarian aid and development. It is a signatory to the code of conduct of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. This NGO has a commitment to intervene independently and impartially, while being inspired by Islamic values. Its expenditure, which is 60% financed by gifts, mainly involves France, the Middle East, the Sahel region of Africa, and Southern Asia.

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