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Brussels, November 2007

The role and potential of Humanitarian aid and development organisations : characters, goals, activities, outcomes and impact

How humanitarian aid and development agencies relate to peace teams and CPS

Humanitarian aid and development work

There has been an increasing recognition of the relationship of both humanitarian aid and development aid with conflict and conflict transformation. This is partly (1) due to the growing number of humanitarian catastrophes in the last 10 years, creating an enormous challenge for both humanitarian aid and development aid. Most of these catastrophes were human-made, caused by civil wars or protracted (2), stale-mate conflicts. As a result, many resources that formerly went to longer-term development aid must now be diverted to first aid measures; and, in consequence, efforts of longer-term development projects have been destroyed.

In the case of humanitarian aid, the discussion centres mainly on the negative and positive impacts which humanitarian aid may have as a by-product of conflicts.(3)

In development co-operation, the issue is more complex.(4) Though many organisations in this field have always seen peace and development as two sides of the same coin (5), in practice dealing with conflict did not play a major role until perhaps 10 years ago. Now more and more development and aid organisations recognise that the sustainability of their efforts depends on a safe environment.(6) While some of them see conflict as part of the environment to be taken into account when planning a project, others have started projects concentrating on conflict transformation itself. Conflict Impact Assessment research, a new branch of peace research, evaluates the impact of these kinds of projects on conflict.(7)

There are many lessons to be learned from humanitarian aid and development work, concerning mainly the Do No Harm approach and other issues of impact by presence in the field; the question of partiality and impartiality; and several issues concerning organisational structures (8) and activities, e.g. combining conflict transformation work with material support.(9)

Character and goals

Many different organisations are working in the field of development, aid and conflict transformation. These include:

  • 1. International/intergovernmental agencies such as the UN agencies (e.g. UNDP, UNHCR, World Food Program, UNICEF), and the World Bank.

  • 2. International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Red Crescent are in their own category due to their special status in International Humanitarian Law.

  • 3. International NGOs (e.g. Médecins sans Frontières; Oxfam), NGOs based in one country (e.g. Norwegian Refugee Council), and church/religious-based NGOs (e.g. Caritas or Catholic Relief Services in the Catholic Church);

  • 4. State institutions and organisations in the target countries;

  • 5. NGOs in the target countries.(10)

A growing number of organisations world-wide are concentrating on humanitarian aid. In addition to the older ICRC, Save the Children Fund, Oxfam, etc., new organisations (11) were founded in the 1970s and 1980s, many due the impact of the Biafra war 1967-1971 (12). Though it would be wrong to generalise, at least some of these have broken with the ethical and behavioural codes of their older siblings in regard to absolute neutrality in the field. They do not hesitate to confront local actors with criticism of human rights violations, and define a right or even duty to intervene. Organisations like Médecins sans Frontières (13) publish regularly on human rights issues, and base their decisions on active involvement in a crisis area more on a day-by-day risk analysis, than on the formal invitation or permission of the government of the respective country in which they want to work.

Many of these organisations also run development programs. In addition, there are various other types of organisations that do not deal with emergency aid at all.

Humanitarian aid organisations base their work on international law, in particular the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the various covenants and conventions on civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights; the status of refugees; discrimination against women, etc.; and the four Geneva conventions of 1949. (14) International development organisations often refer nowadays to Agenda 21 formulated at the UN Rio Conference 1992, and Christian-based development services (which many are) to the Ecumenical Conciliatory Process. Both share aspects in common: the unity and interdependency of all parts of the world and the responsibility of all citizens of the world to counteract the destructive processes currently under way in the context of industrialisation and globalisation.(15)

At the same time, the number of personnel the organisations maintain in the field varies substantially. The large international NGOs easily reach numbers in the hundreds if not thousands. (16) One typical difference between aid and development organisations is that the former works in larger, specialised teams, while the latter often send single experts to work as consultants in a local environment. These single experts are typically Northerners sent to the South, although some organisations (e.g. United Nations Volunteers)(17) try successfully to avoid such a relationship that prompts images of colonial times.

The borders between humanitarian aid and development work tend to dissolve increasingly as the same organisations engage in both. There is growing agreement among the organisations that aid and development are more an issue of emphasis than two absolutely separate activities.(18) Some even speak of a “continuum concept”: Development Co-operation - Emergency Relief - Rehabilitation - Development Co-operation, with the principal focus on the use of emergency relief and rehabilitation to support development of local structures and capacities capable of sustainable development.(19)

Many humanitarian and development organisations have developed codes of conduct (20) which outline principles of approach as well as more pragmatic do’s and don’ts.


Emergency aid provides relief to victims who are unable to deal on their own with the emergency situation - food, medical aid, shelter, etc. In a later stage, it might mean assistance with physical reconstruction, resettlement of refugees and reintegration of former combatants. Some of these activities have a direct bearing on conflict–for example, the two last activities. But reconstruction work in general may also be important for dealing with conflict, as shown in the examples of activities of the Civil Peace Services in the last chapter.

In some cases the presence of humanitarian aid and development organisations may play a more general protective function: Mahony/Eguren give the example of Sri Lanka where “according to one confidential source who had worked with both the UN and large international humanitarian NGOs in Sri Lanka, this sort of implicit protection was an even more important service to Sri Lanka than the actual material aid offered by either the UN or the NGOs. In his opinion, humanitarian aid is acceptable in the eyes of the authorities, whereas protection is politically controversial; most massive NGOs are aware that they are providing protection with their presence but do not make this claim publicly.”(21)

Development co-operation entails many activities, for example: technological support, rural development, livelihood support projects and the like, which may have only an indirect impact on conflict. In regard to conflict and peace, some fields of activities for development organisations have been described by the OECD in their recommendations on conflict, peace and development co-operation. (22) According to these recommendations, development co-operation might contribute to good governance, respect of human rights, and the reform of police and juridical apparatus, by training personnel and counselling those responsible for such reforms. Secondly, it might contribute to the support of civil society and the civilising of attitudes, values and institutions. To this field belongs the support of traditional mechanisms of dealing with conflict, of NGO networks and peace constituencies, education and independent media.

Fields of conflict-related activities in development co-operation are identified in greater detail below:

  • 1. Cultural work/media, e.g. support of independent journalism, of cultural activities (e.g. theatre, music) and of ethnic pluralism in the media;

  • 2. Demilitarisation (e.g. arms buy-back programs), demobilisation and reintegration programs for soldiers, non-violence training for police and army;

  • 3. Support of civil society, including election monitoring, education of voters, support of national conferences, support of NGOs working on conflict resolution, support of human rights organisations, support of ethnically or socially marginalised groups to articulate their interests;

  • 4. Support of judicial system, e.g. development of mediation programs on local level, support of marginalised groups to gain access to justice, support of truth commissions;

  • 5. Education, including non-violence training, work with youth on prejudice reduction, and help to come to grips with the past.(23)

  • 6. Another fairly typical service offered by development agencies as well as by the Civil Peace Services is trauma counselling for children and refugees.(24)

  • 7. In some cases, development organisations have also engaged in peacekeeping activities. The German Dienste in Übersee (Services Overseas), for example, accompanied a threatened bishop in Guatemala.(25) Another organisation (AGEH) sent a development worker to support the landless movement in Brazil where his presence clearly served the additional function of deterring armed attacks.(26)

Outcomes and impact

An elaborate project entitled Local Capacities for Peace has been carried out by a coalition of aid and development organisations under the leadership of the US-based Collaborative for Development Action. It has dealt with the question of what impact humanitarian aid might have on conflict, and eventually formulated a set of issues for awareness, based on a number of case studies–usually known as the Do No Harm approach. (27) According to this approach there are two ways by which aid may affect conflict: first, through resource transfers and, second, through implicit ethical messages. The challenge for humanitarian aid is to plan and carry out its missions so as to avoid these negative by-products.

Resource transfers may feed into, prolong and worsen conflict in the following ways:

  • 1. Theft: Very often aid goods are stolen by armies to support the war effort either directly (as when food is stolen to feed fighters), or indirectly (as when food is stolen and sold in order to raise money to buy weapons).

  • 2. Distributional effects: Aid is usually targeted to certain groups which means that other people do not receive it, thereby tending to reinforce the conflict, especially if one of the groups is identifiable with pre-formed sides in the conflict. On the other hand, aid that is given across subgroups can serve to lessen the division between groups.

  • 3. Market effects: Aid affects prices, wages and profits, and can either reinforce the war economy (enriching activities and people that are war-related) or the peace economy (reinforcing “normal“ civilian production, consumption and exchange).(28)

  • 4. Substitution effects: When aid agencies assume responsibility for civilian survival in war zones, the aid they give frees up whatever internal resources exist for the pursuit of warfare.

  • 5. Legitimisation effects: Aid legitimises some people and some actions, and de-legitimises others. It can support either those people and actions that pursue war, or those that pursue and maintain non-war.(29)

The implicit ethical messages conveyed through aid may include: carrying the message of acceptance of the terms of war by negotiating passage with warring parties or hiring armed guards to protect the delivery; bestowing legitimacy on warriors and undermining peace-time values (when, for example, it becomes obvious that the aid organisation values the life of its own international staff higher than that of local people); and reinforcing animosity by making atrocities committed in the course of the war public in their fundraising campaigns.(30)

Development co-operation includes a long list of possible negative impacts, some of which have been raised for more than 30 years now as general criticism of development aid.(31) Issues include that development projects: have cemented local inequities instead of alleviating poverty; have fostered conflicts over resources instead of protecting them; have supported authoritarian regimes; have called cultural values into question; and have created and inflated an NGO market, where NGOs are being founded only to reserve donations from abroad.(32)

More specifically, research is currently being carried out on the outcomes and impact resulting from development co-operation through dealing with conflict. However, to my knowledge only a few generalisations can be made so far. Larger lessons-learned projects such as Reflecting on Peace Processes by the same group of organisations which developed the Do No Harm approach, or the comparable project by the European Platform on Conflict Prevention, are still under way and have yet to publish their results. On the other hand, impact analyses of single projects may show what worked in a certain case, but are of limited use in formulating general lessons on how to achieve positive impact.(33)


  • (1) : One other factor may be the transformation of Eastern Europe, which has made necessary political strategies that combine development with conflict prevention or transformation. Another contributing factor may be the general growing consciousness of the possibilities and necessities of conflict resolution. Ropers 1999:8.

  • (2) : Ropers 1999:7 pp.

  • (3) : See Anderson 1996, especially p. 16 ff., Donini 1996, de Waal/Omaar 1996.

  • (4) : The question of doing harm is of course as valid for development co-operation as for humanitarian aid. Development aid has long been accused of cultural hegemonialism. While organisations try to transfer Northern values and technologies to the South, it is becoming more and more clear that the Northern way leads to an impasse, that development aid often has negative impact on local economies, and that it inhibits rather then supports self-reliance. (Freise 1994:48, Evers 1997:59).

  • (5) : Fricke 1997:98.

  • (6) : A comparative study of the relationship between development co-operation and conflict in six countries has shown that development projects may increase conflict potential as well as decrease it. (Diringer 2001:18)

  • (7) : Reychler 1998.

  • (8) : For example, several organisations have a larger number of personnel standing by for emergency deployment. For example, the Norwegian Refugee Council has an emergency stand-by force of 600 men and women in Norway and Africa, ready to reach an area of crisis with 72 hours. (See Web site of NRC:

  • (9) : The information digested here was partly taken out of published and grey material from humanitarian aid and development organisations, partly from two interviews with a representative of EIRENE International and a former staff member of a German development organisation, AGEH.

  • (10) : The importance of NGOs in target countries is often forgotten in discussions on humanitarian aid and development co-operation, or they are merely mentioned as the famous local partners. However, they do not only implement the projects which are designed in the North as the term local partner sometimes seems to infer, but in many, if not most countries, play an important role of their own as well. In Bangladesh e.g. there is one development NGO that claims that it reaches 2.5 Mil rural people living in poverty (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, see Roche 1999:12).

  • (11) : For example Médecins sans frontières, Médecins du monde, Komitee Kap Anamur.

  • (12) : Also the older organisations were usually founded under the impression of a specific war. The ICRC was a response to - the battle of Solferino. Save the Children Fund began after WW I and the Russian civil war. Oxfam and CARE were founded after WW II. See Slim 1997:123.

  • (13) : Idems 2000:220 pp.

  • (14) : See Humanitarian Charter 2000:9 f.

  • (15) : see Global Trends 2000, 1999

  • (16) : Even those based only in one country, like the German Dienste in Übersee, have more then 260 development workers in the field.

  • (17) : United Nation Volunteers are a small UN organisation founded in 1970, and administered under the auspices of the UN Development Programme (UNDP). UNV serves as an operational partner in developmental, humanitarian and peace operations at the request of any UN member state or UN system agency. Each year there are about 4.000 (paid) volunteers in the field, each having a contract of 2 years. Perhaps one third of the projects in which UNV places its volunteers are projects carried out by international organisations (mostly UN-organisations), and almost two thirds of them work in the UNV’s own projects. Additionally, there are also UN volunteers in projects carried out by particular governments (UNV auf einen Blick - die wichtigsten Statistiken für 1994. Ed: undp) The volunteers are professionals coming from more than 125 countries in the world, almost 75% being citizens of developing countries. They work in development and reform projects, sometimes also in their own countries. Besides development projects they also support human rights work, monitor elections, help with the resettlement of refugees, and do training in political science and human rights.

  • (18) : See Adams/Bradbury 1995:43, quoting ACORD.

  • (19) : Concept of the German Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit-GTZ. See Gass/van Dok 2000:56, and also Diringer 2001:19

  • (20) : For example the Code of Conduct that the ICRC and the Red Crescent Movement formulated together with other NGOs in Disaster Response Programmes, see: Humanitarian Charter 2000:314 pp.; and the Code of Conduct of International Alert (which is really a conflict transformation, not a development organisation).

  • (21) : Mahony/Eguren 1997:207

  • (22) : DAC Task Force on Conflict, Peace and Development Co-operation: DAC Guidelines on Conflict, Peace and Development Co-operation, Paris: OCD 1997. (See Ropers 1999:10).

  • (23) : Fricke 1997:98 for the first five elements, referring to Corinna Kreidler 1996 but without giving the complete source. These activities can be found in most of the work descriptions of development agencies - e.g. in the not yet published and not-quotable case studies of the Reflecting on Peace Practices-Project, the interviews I conducted with representatives of development agencies and different other publications, e.g. Roche 2000.

  • (24) : Services Overseas in Mexico and Mozambique. See Schwieger 2000.

  • (25) : Schwieger 2000.

  • (26) : Source: Interview.

  • (27) : Anderson 1996, Anderson 2000.

  • (28) : By importing goods for relief and distributing them free of charge, donors can bring about the collapse of the local economy, and/or of informal networks of people helping each other. (Gass/van Dok 2000:59).

  • (29) : When humanitarian aid satisfies basic needs, then the political elites are free of their responsibility, and need no longer justify their actions to civil society. (Gass/van Dok 2000:59).

  • (30) : In detail:

    • Arms: When aid agencies hire armed guards to protect their goods from theft or their staff from harm, the implicit ethical messages is that it is legitimate for arms to determine who gets access to food and medical supplies and that security and safety derive from weapons. On the other side, if the use of armed guards is avoided, the message may be that law and order may rule and people can be safe.

    • Collaboration: When aid agencies refuse to co-operate with each other, and even worse, “bad-mouth“ one another (e.g. saying things such as “we don’t work the way they work; we are better and they get it wrong…), the message received by those in the area is that if you do not agree with someone, you do not have to work with them or respect them - which is another message of warfare.

    • Impunity: When aid workers use the goods and support systems provided as aid to people who suffer for their own pleasures and purposes (such as taking a vehicle to the mountains for a weekend holiday - even when petrol is scarce), the message is that if one has control over resources, it is permissible to use them for personal benefit without being accountable to anyone else who may have a claim on these resources.

    • Different value for different lives: When there is danger and aid agency policies allow for the evacuation of expatriate staff, but not for local staff, or even worse, when plans call for the removal of vehicles, radios and expatriates while local staff, food and other supplies are left behind, the message is that some lives (and even some goods) are more valuable than other lives.

    • Powerlessness: When field-based aid staff disclaim responsibility for the impacts of their aid programs, referring to their headquarters, or the donor, the message received is that individuals need not accept accountability for the impacts of their actions - which people in war zones tend to believe anyway.

    • Belligerence: When international staff approach every encounter with local authority exhibiting an air of belligerence, suspicion and the implicit threat of invoking their power (threatening to withdraw aid, for example), then the message transmitted is that relationships are rightly based on power, suspicion and toughness.

    • Publicity: Finally, when NGO headquarters makes use of pictures of atrocities in order to raise funds, they may reinforce the demonisation of one side in a war and, thus, reinforce the sense that one side is evil and the other good. This is not only never correct but reinforces existing stereotypes and thereby warfare.

  • (31) : Some critics of humanitarian aid do not content themselves with criticising negative by-products but question the legitimacy of humanitarian aid as a whole. In their eyes, development co-operation and humanitarian aid is just the other side of a new colonialism: “…Much of the influence of foreign NGOs in Africa derives from the power of their governments, embassies and companies. Some of the most powerful NGOs get the vast majority of their money from their own governments, whether from emergency operations or for development projects. In effect these NGOs are the civil arm of their government’s policies and the ideological cousins of the IMF and World Bank. One slaps us in the face; the other offers us handkerchiefs to wipe the tears.” (Abdul-Raheem 2001. He is the General Secretary of the Pan-African movement.)

  • (32) : In Mozambique approximately 70% of the country’s gross domestic product in 1988 was development aid, and education and health care in the hands of NGOs instead of the government. See Gass/van Dok 2000:52.

  • (33) : See Roche 1999 for some published examples. The interesting case studies produced in the context of the RPP project are unfortunately not available for quotation.