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Dependency and humanitarian relief: a critical analysis

In many emergency contexts, aid agencies hesitate to provide food and other aid for extended periods because of fears that this may create ‘dependency’. Concerns about dependency are about more than semantics: they can influence decisions about levels of assistance, and affect the type of assistance people receive, where and when. This report provides a critical analysis of the meaning of the concept, how it is used and the implications this has for how relief is provided.

This HPG research project explores the meaning, function and reality of dependency in humanitarian relief. It finds that people depend less on relief than is often assumed. There is little evidence that relief undermines initiative, or that relief is delivered reliably or transparently enough for people to depend on it. The focus should not be on avoiding dependency, but on providing sufficiently reliable and transparent assistance so that those who most need it understand what they are entitled to, and can rely on it as part of their own efforts to survive and recover from crisis.

Discourses around dependency often blame the symptom, rather than the cause. This is often compounded by the absence of other international actors in complex emergencies. Relief aid has often been the most visible, if not the only, form of international engagement in long-running crises. In these contexts, there is a tendency to criticise relief for failing to improve the situation and enabling a movement towards recovery or development. Yet humanitarian aid has never claimed to have that as an objective, or is a wholly inappropriate instrument for that purpose. The problem lies, not with relief and its failings, but with the lack of other forms of international engagement with crises.


Jeremy Lind