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The 'new humanitarianisms': a review of of trends in global humanitarian action

Hero image description: Woman in front of demolished house Myanmar Image credit:© Contributor/IRIN Image license:ODI given rights

This project is the first of HPG's annual studies examining key trends in humanitarian action.

Looking back over the past decade, it described and assessed changes in the financing of humanitarian assistance; examined developments in the role and structure of UN humanitarian aid; assessed trends in US humanitarian policy; and analysed developments in the European Union's approach to humanitarian action.

The relationship between humanitarian assistance and political action has always been complex. Providing aid in the midst of war relies upon engaging with political actors, and can have an impact on the course of conflict. International responses to crises have always varied according to visibility and strategic significance.

What is new is that humanitarian assistance has become politicised in a different way. Historically, humanitarian action aimed not to resolve conflict, but to provide a palliative for people affected by it. Humanitarian principles evolved to facilitate this limited but important function.

This study argues that Western governments are now applying the humanitarian label to legitimise military intervention, and in doing so are associating humanitarian action with a wider political agenda. This necessarily diminishes claims about the neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian action. The ability of humanitarian actors to differentiate themselves from the security agenda is further complicated by the increasing diversity of actors working in conflict-related crises, and the proximity of donor governments, some of whom are also belligerents in conflicts such as in Afghanistan.