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Coherence and conditionality: the changing politics of humanitarian aid

The end of the Cold War marked a shift in the relationship between humanitarian and political action in response to complex political emergencies. These changes in the conceptualisation and organisation of humanitarian aid and foreign policy heralded a new, more political approach. Since 1999, HPG has investigated the shape, content and implications of this changing environment.

Humanitarian action has always been a highly political activity. The provision of humanitarian assistance and protection has relied upon engaging with political authorities in conflict-affected countries, and thus influenced the political economy of conflict. At the same time the provision of humanitarian assistance has been influenced by domestic political considerations in donor countries, reflected by the fact that different emergencies, and different groups affected by them, have received more or less relief aid. The issue is not whether humanitarian aid is political, but how.

The original concept of ‘coherence’ envisioned a collective rallying of military, political, economic and humanitarian assets to support peace and security. It assumed a common understanding of the nature and dynamics of conflict between these different domains, and a shared vision of the means of resolving such conflict and of the nature of peace. While the concept of coherence was used to justify and inform some significant changes in the architecture of international relations, its design and implementation proved deeply flawed.

The concept of coherence assumed a shared vision of peace and security internationally, and assumed the complementarity of humanitarian and conflict management objectives. But incorporating humanitarian action into the framework of ‘liberal peace’ proved both ineffective as a means of managing conflict at the periphery, and diminished the ability of humanitarian action to reduce suffering in conflict areas.

This research concluded that, rather than pursuing closer integration between humanitarian and political action, the emphasis should be on increasing their complementarity, and acknowledging that there may be legitimate conflicts of interest between humanitarian and political objectives. This implies a reaffirmation of humanitarian principles of impartiality and independence of humanitarian action, underscoring that its primary purpose is the alleviation of suffering not to resolve conflict or achieve a particular political objective. Ensuring clarity of the purpose of humanitarian assistance through more robust policy guidelines and legislation would help to resist the trend within the donor community towards integrating humanitarian assistance into a wider foreign policy framework.

Nicholas Leader