The Humanitarian System: Trends and Innovations

International Relations (IR) theories have extensively debated the ways in which the world governmental system has tried to provide security by managing emergencies and assisting people. The set of tools and mechanisms that have been developed are far from ideal. Rather, they are pervaded by the main contrast between the responsibility to manage human suffering and the need to safeguard state interests and priorities. The end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War era saw an enormous proliferation of actors in the humanitarian movement. After the Cold War, a big ‘community’ comprising individuals who work around the world for a wide variety of organizations appeared and gathered strength, requiring some effort to define (Irrera 2013). The more diffuse definitions stress, on the one hand, the ‘environment’, that is to say, the framework of competencies and rules which govern relief activities. In this case, scholars use the concept of humanitarian space, as ‘an environment where humanitarians can work without hindrance and follow the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and humanity’ (Spearin 2001, p. 22). It is also a conducive operating environment, in which a clear distinction between civilian and military actors should be maintained in terms of competencies. On the other hand, definitions also focus on the nature of the actors involved and the amount of interactions among them. The term network, particularly a ‘network of actors’, labels an ‘amalgam of non-binding contacts, sustained by various channels of communication and by awareness of who is around’ (Kent 1987, p. 69). Additionally, practitioners started to discuss the ‘humanitarian enterprise’, describing a multi-valent machine in which different actors encounter each other on the approach to facing current challenges, with some of them striving to maintain fidelity to their ideals (Minear 2002). The debate is controversial and the peculiarity of this topic contributes further to divide scholars. Even though there is no consensus, constant interactions between academics and practitioners are lending interest to the term ‘humanitarian system’.

Given the fact that the context is more than a set of technical competencies and that it is shaped by its actors, and that the level of relationship between mainly NGOs and IGOs cannot be easily summarized through the network structure alone, ‘humanitarian system’ can be considered a more effective and comprehensive label. In this chapter, the term is used to indicate a set of principles, actors, policies, practices, rules, and procedures which is shaping interventions as a result of recent global trends (Irrera 2013). This term does not avoid criticism, but it helps to operationalize them.

The principles of ‘classical humanitarianism’ are based on the thought of Henry Dunant who, in his book A Memory of Solferino, described the violence and suffering inflicted on soldiers and people. After this experience he decided to promote the provision of aid through neutral civilian agencies. This approach was developed through the Red Cross Movement and humanitarian law and was officially declared as policy in the UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182. According to this resolution, humanitarian assistance should be provided in accordance with the principles of humanity (to be addressed to the most vulnerable, wherever they are), neutrality (without engaging in hostilities or taking sides) and impartiality (without discrimination). The IR literature has discussed the ways through which such principles have been applied and interpreted. The majority of international humanitarian organizations espouse them as fundamental principles that underpin their activities. However, the need for humanitarian action to be as independent as possible from political processes posits an implicit dichotomy between politics and humanitarian- ism. Actors’ reactions to world events continued to affirm and consolidate principles, making them universally accepted. However, the constant recourse to interventions exhibited some of the most glaring problems and failures, in addition to the realization that principles can contradict each other in practice. Therefore, the humanitarian system started to be characterized—especially since the end of the Cold War—by a process of re-definition which, although faithful to its principles, tries to manage the most salient political aspects, namely power relations, questions of response effectiveness, and the ethical, legal, and moral consequences and challenges of humanitarian crisis response. This ongoing process may produce new practices and is strictly linked to actors’ interactions and, as a consequence, to practical interventions.

The first definitions of humanitarian intervention have been shaped by the state-centric realist doctrine. According to this doctrine, states are the most important actors, since intervention is the threat of use of force across state borders by a state (or a group of states) aimed at preventing or ending widespread and grave violations of individuals’ fundamental rights without asking for the permission of the state within whose territory force is applied (Holzgrefe 2003, p. 18). Other approaches introduced additional actors and engaged new debates on the roles different kinds of organizations can play within the humanitarian system. The relevance of IGOs is at the core of the literature on the UN as the formal peace provider, as officially stated in the charter, but interest in regional organizations and their ability to promote stabilization is increasing (Attina 2012). Dunant’s call ‘to form relief societies for the purpose of having care given to the wounded in wartime by zealous, devoted and thoroughly qualified volunteers’ is at the basis of the ‘special identity’ of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which is not an IGO or a non-state actor, but derives its legitimacy from international law. Even humanitarian NGOs have been shown to be able to occupy a specific place within the system, thanks to their own organizational capacities.

This wide range of actors and the variety of multi-layered interactions they can produce are also due to the different nature of emergencies over the years and the responses they require. Attina summarizes emergencies in four categories, each of them having different implications: (1) manmade disasters, namely, large-scale human violence like war, genocide, and mass persecution; (2) massive poverty in a society, causing little or no means for decent life in terms of food, shelter, clothes, healthcare, and education; (3) natural disasters, like floods, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, droughts, wildfire, and geologic processes and (4) systemic-risk problems, that is to say the breakdown of important infrastructures and technological systems, or such as the last global crisis in the financial sector. Even though they are quite different, such emergencies are able to produce problems which have many aspects in common and require response policies, actions, and measures able at the same time to assist victims, strengthen political order and security, rebuild infrastructure, and relaunch the local economy (Attina 2013). Additionally, beyond traditional interventions in the post-crisis phase, they also require work on preparedness and prevention of emergencies and the strengthening of states’ resilience (Attina 2015).

Within the humanitarian system, and facing old and new implications of emergencies, the roles played by NGOs have increased and developed in parallel with other actors. Therefore, their performances should be analysed within the broader framework of relations with international and regional organizations and states. The EU example is particularly interesting and constitutes the focus of the next section.

 
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