Our Programmes



Sign up to our newsletter.

Follow ODI

It’s the thought that counts: Humanitarian principles and practice in Pakistan

Time (GMT +00) 11:30 13:30


Amany Abouzaid – Human Security Policy Coordinator, ActionAid and co-author of the report

Samir Elhawary – Research Fellow, Humanitarian Policy Group, ODI


Paul Harvey – Partner, Humanitarian Outcomes


Wendy Fenton – Coordinator, Humanitarian Practice Network

Wendy Fenton, Coordinator , Humanitarian Practice Network welcomed the speakers and attendees and introduced the speakers and discussant.

Amany Abouzeid, Human Security Policy Coordinator, ActionAid and co-author of the report then discussed the ideas behind the research. The research for the report followed the first cluster evaluations of the humanitarian assistance delivered after the conflict. ActionAid felt that these cluster evaluations were too mechanical and raised questions about the effectiveness of the humanitarian response. ActionAid felt there was a need to ask questions about humanitarian principles; perceptions of humanitarian assistance; and the global humanitarian project as a whole

She then discussed some of the key findings of the research:

  • The western look and feel of humanitarian assistance:
  • This perception was consistent across different social strata.
  • Suspicion of a hidden agenda surrounded aid provision. By going underground, NGOs exacerbated this perception.
  • NGOs did not invest in communicating why they were providing humanitarian assistance to affected communities:
  • Many agencies did not refer to the humanitarian imperative as a reason for providing humanitarian assistance even when prompted.
  • NGOs need to realise the importance of delineating the humanitarian imperative. Because MSF and Red Cross invested in disseminating their message, communities recognised them.
  • ‘International’ was associated with ‘western’, even within NGOs
  • ‘International’ needs to be reclaimed and redefined as truly international:
  • However, as demonstrated by quotes throughout the report, communities also expressed contradictory opinions, e.g. expressing a preference for NGO assistance over government support.
  • There was a powerful acknowledgement of the humanitarian imperative by communities:
  • All respondents said they would provide humanitarian assistance if America or Britain was in the same situation – this acknowledgement needs to be invested in and strengthened.
  • Issues with aid delivery:
  • Identifying and meeting needs was a challenge.
  • Registration process – assumptions made as to who affected-communities were; who was most in need; and patterns of displacement, e.g. those renting or living with host families were not even considered IDPs, and certain social groups fell through the net.
  • Community Resilience:
  • Often in the humanitarian project, there is an unrealistic, romanticised view of the nature of communities. This view needs to be more nuanced, with acknowledgement that communities have many issues e.g. hierarchy.
  • Accountability:
  • While all respondents agreed that accountability was important, not all were sure of its meaning or how it should be delivered.
  • Some communities also found that accountability mechanisms could be disturbing to community hierarchies, which created a significant challenge.
  • Partnership with local NGOs:
  • This is especially important because it allows more people to be reached by humanitarian assistance, but at the level of discourse, partnership has been reduced to attending meetings and sub-contracting, rather than genuine ownership.

Samir Elhawary, Research Fellow for the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI, then gave a presentation on stabilisation and humanitarian action in Pakistan. His findings were based on workshops held in Islamabad and Peshawar earlier this year (before the floods).His research found that humanitarian assistance was used to enhance stability as part of an overall security strategy. He noted that providing assistance in camps, as well as to host families and returnees, enhanced the legitimacy of the government, while improved security opened up space for development and recovery. The Special Support Group, headed by a serving officer, raised a number of issues in relation to humanitarian principles and the provision of humanitarian assistance - mainly that the priority of the military is to enhance state security rather than provide protection. In practice, the priorities of the different parties conflicted. The government’s refusal to acknowledge the existence of the conflict played down the humanitarian emergency and the government arguments that the country had gone into the recovery and development phase raised concerns for the humanitarian community and impacted on the funding of the humanitarian response. Linking humanitarianism and stabilisation therefore has undermined the independence and impartiality of humanitarian assistance.

While the humanitarian community started out with basic operating rules, there has not been much take up of these rules. There was also a general lack of willingness among the humanitarian community to challenge the government, and little advocacy to push for a distinction between military and humanitarian response. This lack of willingness is due in part to the UN piloting its One UN approach, which pushes for greater partnership and good relationships with government.
Discussions of civil-military relations have been tactical rather than looking at the bigger picture and the response of the humanitarian community has been to focus on protection and deterrence rather than acceptance, e.g. using escorts, remote management through local NGOs, which have created barriers.

Many critiques of the response in Pakistan have focused on the Humanitarian Coordinator/leadership level; however, this assumed that there was a system in place for someone to lead. This is not necessarily true, and in practice agencies can violate the agreed upon approaches, making the system difficult to manage. HPG research into networks in the humanitarian system has shown that it is a fragmented rather than coherent/coordinated system. This raises the question of whether the humanitarian system can really respond to the challenges posed by contexts like Pakistan.

Samir then posed a final question: if there is to be a future for the principles of humanitarian action, should agencies separate themselves from the system or reform it?
Paul Harvey, Partner, Humanitarian Outcomes began his presentation by drawing on his observations of the ActionAid report. He discussed how humanitarian action has become bogged down with processes and mechanisms at the expense of principles. This also resonates with other contexts, e.g. Sri Lanka, Somalia. He went on to highlight that the issues raised by this report are not new; they are fundamental problems of humanitarian action. He found that the findings of this report were consistent with the ALNAP State of the Humanitarian System which found that many aid workers considered the system ineffective when measuring the performance of agencies in adhering to humanitarian principles and that there were concerns around the appropriateness of assistance and the neglect of those not in IDP camps. However, Paul noted that this problem is not unique to Pakistan.

He then highlighted some questions raised by the report and presentations:

  • Is the issue of humanitarian principles just a matter of better communication, or is there a fundamental problem of principles being compromised (e.g. by the stabilisation agenda), and what can be done?
  • The lack of respect for humanitarian space and principles is recognised, so what can be done about this?
  • To what extent can humanitarian agencies step out of the system if they feel it lacks a principled approach?
  • Faced with an assertive state, how can humanitarian agencies navigate a principled engagement with the government? Clear failures of the system in engagement with the state include HC/leadership failures; failures in keeping to red lines; and lack of investment in advocacy around principled engagement.
  • How can agencies better uphold humanitarian principles, and is it even possible for agencies to do better in such a challenging operating environment?

Questions and Comments from the audience.

1 )The army played an essential role in responding to the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, and are also assisting in the flood response – they have the equipment needed to respond. The real problem with NGOs is what happens after they leave. They should be working to alleviate poverty in the long term, and addressing the real ongoing needs of the people, which are for small/medium enterprises and livelihood support. (Rafiq, from Pakistan)

Paulanswered that the army played an important role and that governments have legitimate sovereign power to protect and assist in times of disaster (and are the duty bearers). However, there is a lack of guidance as to how the military should interact with humanitarian agencies. He stressed that enterprise development was also critical to enable economies to recover, but that traditionally this has been done badly by humanitarian agencies.

2 )It should be remembered that the issues raised regarding principles are not new. However, the default position of NGOs is that regardless of other issues the priority is to get aid to people in need. There seems to be a lack of time/willingness among NGOs to really grapple with these issues. (Daniel Nelson, Journalist with experience working with NGOs)

Amany answered thatthere is now a willingness among NGOs to take ownership of the system. Other reports (e.g. the forthcoming study on humanitarian leadership) call on NGOs to own the system and take responsibility.Paul discussed the fact that new initiatives around media engagement, such as CDAC, BBC World Service Trust demonstrate that to be principled is not enough – it has to be communicated as well. Mark Harvey, an audience member from InterNews, an organisation that brings together journalists so they can communicate the humanitarian imperative in conflict affected countries,commented that there is not enough recognition of the importance of communication in aid provision, and not a systematic enough approach.

3) There is confusion as to what it means to be humanitarian and what it means to be an NGO. For many NGOs with a dual remit (e.g. ActionAid), neutrality is not in their charters. Is neutrality possible for these NGOs? With new actors coming onto the scene (e.g. donors, actors in the stabilisation agenda, etc.) and in such a changing context, do we need a new language and set of definitions which can be applied to different actors, and set different expectations? (Aisha, independent consultant).

Amanybegan byagreeing thata new language was needed. She believed that for multi-mandated agencies, it is possible to be neutral and not take sides within the provision of humanitarian assistance. She gave the example of ActionAid which, by contrast, in its poverty eradication programmes, takes sides with the poor and excluded. The problem is that this is done with the intention that the government will eventually take over as the duty bearer, whereas in contexts of fragility, the humanitarian community itself is the duty bearer. Paul disagreed believing that the government was still the duty bearer even in times of disaster. Development actors should be principled and the same principles should apply to humanitarian actors. Samir responded that ideally, with multi-mandated agencies, both sets of principles could be applied, but in practice this was not always possible and it might be necessary for humanitarian actors to emphasise and distinguish their principles. E.g. in Pakistan, the principle of neutrality is a challenge when the government is pushing for the early recovery phase to kick in.

  • Can the panellists be more specific on recommendations for the UN coordination mechanisms? (Claude, HPCR)

Samir began by stressing the needto consider whether current structures create the incentives for collaboration and what those incentives could be. Paul believed that there were fundamental problems with leadership – especially with leaders wearing dual hats and being ill equipped to do both jobs. There needs to be a well-resourced humanitarian function in the UN. Amanyemphasised that the report contained specific recommendations relating to the clusters, and a forthcoming report on humanitarian leadership makes reference to the ever increasing mandate of clusters and to strengthening leadership across the humanitarian system.

  • There is a tension in how to reconcile both humanitarian and development principles with sovereign governments – it should not be assumed that they share the same principle (Joanne, Humanitarian Futures).

Paulbelieved that, intheory, states are committed to the principles by IHL. However, he believed that more work needed to be done in this area. He thought it was interesting that there are principles of good humanitarian donorship but not principles of good humanitarian governments/governance.


The recent floods in Pakistan are a stark reminder of the need to ensure the effectiveness of humanitarian aid. Equally important are the challenges posed by the increase in the number of attacks on humanitarian workers which appear to be perpetuated by mistrust of humanitarianism as a ‘Western’ project, the rising trend in politicisation of aid and the increasing diversity of actors engaged in humanitarian action. The universality, relevance and applicability of humanitarian principles are increasingly being challenged, especially in complex and highly politicised contexts like Pakistan and Afghanistan. The need to improve the effectiveness and accountability of the humanitarian system, especially to affected populations, has been highlighted by ALNAP’s State of the Humanitarian System report and is also a key area of focus of DFID’s ongoing humanitarian emergency response review.

This new report by ActionAid, looks at humanitarian organisations, humanitarianism and aid from the perspective of affected communities in the Swat and Buner Districts of Pakistan. It explores to what extent humanitarian principles and the humanitarian project provide a common language that binds aid organisations and affected populations. The report reviews how humanitarian assistance was delivered in the aftermath of the 2009 IDP crisis in Pakistan and whether the needs of affected populations were met. Issues of partnership between UN, INGOs and national and local NGOs and accountability to affected populations are also examined.

The speakers will drew out and discussed the key issues raised in the report and respond to questions and comments from attendees and online participants.