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Humanitarian action and foreign policy: balancing interests and values

Research reports

Written by Barnaby Willitts-King, Sherine El Taraboulsi-McCarthy, John Bryant

Hero image description: Council authorises inspection of suspected embargo-breaking vessels off Libya’s coast. Image credit:© UN Photo/Loey Felipe Image license:CC BY-NC-ND

Humanitarian action by its nature often operates in politically charged situations, and there are often tensions between delivering assistance according to the humanitarian principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence, and understanding and responding to the political realities of crises that strongly influence how, what and where humanitarian action takes place.

This paper, the final outcome of a two-year HPG research project on the relationship between state foreign policy and humanitarian action, looks at how the role governments play in responding to crises in other countries is influenced by a wider set of foreign policy drivers than the humanitarian imperative alone.

Can aid be both principled and in the national interest? Are humanitarian values under greater threat today than they were in the past? This paper discusses the various factors that drive decisions about how humanitarian aid allocations are decided. It argues that being better attuned to these dynamics, and how they vary according to the particular crisis and the particular government concerned, presents an opportunity for humanitarian actors to engage in a more politically nuanced way with those governments. This applies as much to so-called ‘rising’ donor governments such as China and Saudi Arabia as it does to major established donors such as the UK and the US.

Barnaby Willitts-King, Sherine El Taraboulsi-McCarthy and John Bryant