Humanitarian assistance has always been a highly political activity. It has always influenced the political economy of recipient countries, and has always been influenced by the political considerations of donor governments. Despite the pronouncements and practices of humanitarian actors seeking to ensure that their actions confer no military advantage, and are driven solely on the basis of need, the humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality are under constant assault.
Stark differences between the amount and type of humanitarian assistance given to various countries facing acute crises show that humanitarian aid has never been disbursed solely on the basis of need. Nonetheless, the relationship between humanitarian aid and politics is changing. The key theme of the conference was how humanitarian action appears to be increasingly tied to new political objectives, and to the overall political response of donor countries to complex emergencies. Humanitarian aid is becoming an integral part of donors’ comprehensive strategy to transform conflicts, decrease violence and set the stage for liberal development. This changing role of humanitarian aid is frequently called the ‘new humanitarianism’. It has characterised international responses to many recent conflicts, including in Afghanistan, Serbia and Sierra Leone. Examples of the closer integration with political objectives include the forced repatriation of refugees, attempts at conflict resolution in conjunction with humanitarian aid, and the withholding of aid to meet political objectives.
The conference set out to review the changing role of humanitarian assistance, and to understand the implications of this change for aid agencies. The diverse views and reactions of speakers and participants at the conference reflect the wider debate within the humanitarian community about the relevance of traditional humanitarian principles, and the appropriate relationship between humanitarianism and politics.