Study of Humanitarian Aid Agencies Service Delivery

Stuck in no man’s land:people of nowhere are people of now here –
A study of humanitarian aid agencies’ service delivery to residents in Kara Tepe refugee camp in Lesvos.
DR Disaster Relief
EASO European Asylum Support Office
EU European Union
FMO Forced Migration Online
HA Humanitarian Assistance
HSA Humanitarian Support Agency
IDPs Internally displaced persons
IOM International Organisation for Migration
IOs International Organisations
IRC International Rescue Committee
MSF Médecins Sans Frontiers
NGOs Non-Governmental Organisations
RCRC International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement
ROs Regional Organisations
UN United Nations
UNHCR United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees   
Since the twentieth century, the migration of refugees has been a significant and constant feature of the world order. There has been several factors causing its occurrence, including international wars, civil wars, the rise of fascism, decolonization, national liberation struggles and the creation of nation states (Bloch, 2002, p.1). During 1914-1918 World War I, millions of people were left homeless, fleeing their homelands to seek refuge, and the international community and governments responded by providing travel documents to those people who were the first refugees of the twentieth century (1951 UN Convention). However the flow of refugees did not stop there, but the numbers drastically increased after World War II (1939-1945), when millions were forced to resettle, be displaced or were deported (Guterres, 2011).

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While the refugee crisis is a phenomenon that has been around for many years, the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan and other troubled countries have resulted in an unprecedented number of 65.3 million people around the world forcibly displaced from their homes. Among them are 21.3 million registered as refugees under UNHCR and UNWRA mandates, over half of whom are children (under 18 years old) (UNHCR, 2016a). Syrians make up, without a doubt, the largest refugee population in the world. The Syria conflict alone, known to be “the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time” (UN High Commissioner for Refugees in UNHCR, 2016b), has spawned 4.8 million refugees in neighbouring countries (predominantly Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan), hundreds of thousands in Europe and 6,6 million displaced inside Syria (Mercy Corps, 2016; UNHCR, March 2016).

Figure 1: The increase of registered Syrian Refugees from almost zero in 2012 to 4.8 million in 2016 (source: UNHCR, 2016 Which UNHCR article? You need to specify)
According to Amnesty International’s assessment of October 2016, more than half of the world’s 21 million refugees are hosted in just ten low and middle-income countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.[1] Europe, however, hosts a share of 6% of the world’s refugee population (Check percentage of refugees in Europe in 2016, add source).
In 2015, over a million refugees and migrants made it to Europe by sea, with a majority arriving via the Aegean Sea from Turkey into Greece (UNHCR, 2015). Responding to the massive influx of refugees, several international humanitarian aid agencies established themselves on the Greek Islands to meet the pressing needs of the novel refugee and migrant population. However, it has been widely debated whether these aid agencies are effective in their service delivery and whether they fulfill the tasks they have set out to do. Despite the allocation of millions of dollars of funds to guarantee a decent living standard for the refugees and migrants in the Greek camps, reports reveal dire conditions, with a lack of the most basic livelihoods, such as edible food, basic sanitation services and education (Strickland, 2016; ?). Deeply moved by the horrifying images of human suffering in these camps, I chose to travel to Greece to volunteer in Kara Tepe Camp in Lesvos in the summer of 2016 to investigate the topic further. It is of great importance to examine the efficiency of these humanitarian aid agencies’ service delivery on the ground in order to build future humanitarian aid programs which adequately meet the needs of the vulnerable refugees and migrants in Lesvos.
1.1 Question and Motivation of Study
This dissertation sets out to answer the following research questions:
Primary question: To what extent are humanitarian service providing agencies operating in Kara Tepe camp managing to live up to their stated aims and guidelines?’
Secondary question: What are the obstacles to effective service delivery?
This dissertation is a reflective research based on my time spent volunteering with a humanitarian aid organisation, Humanitarian Support Agency (HSA)[2], in a refugee camp in Lesvos, Greece over the course of summer from June to September 2016. However, the area of research of humanitarian assistance to refugees, sparked my interest already in 2011, when the flow of thousands of Syrian refugees began to Jordan, my home country, following Syria’s descent into civil war. Jordan, a small yet strong Kingdom, surrounded by countries undergoing conflict, is a host of over 656,000 Syrian refugees (Amnesty International, 2016). Seeing the difficult suffering faced by the Syrian refugee population in my own region (Middle East) as well as in Europe strongly motivated me to gain a hands on experience of humanitarian aid work with refugees. Following, for my applied field experience[3], I chose to travel to Greece and join HSA as a volunteer in Kara Tepe camp in Lesvos; a refugee camp in the largest transit point in the East Mediterranean route, which is the first assistance site for refugees and migrants departing from Turkey to Europe (HSA, 2016).
During my time volunteering in Kara Tepe, I had the opportunity to work closely with humanitarian aid agencies operating in the camp, gaining insights into their day-to-day provision of services to the residents. It also allowed me to speak to and get to know several of the camp residents – refugees and migrants predominantly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq – who often expressed their concerns and hardships of life in Kara Tepe.
In this dissertation, I aim to draw on this experience to investigate the humanitarian aid agencies’ services to refugees and migrants in Kara Tepe camp. More specifically, by comparing these aid agencies’ stated aims and guidelines to the real situation of refugees and migrants on the ground, I wish to examine where the agencies are failing at fulfilling their promises in providing adequate assistance to the camp residents. Furthermore, I aim to identify some of the apparent obstacles hindering these agencies’ effective service delivery.
I do not intend to generalise my results regarding humanitarian aid agencies’ service delivery in refugee camps as it would require a more comprehensive material than what my study is based upon. My ambition is rather to attempt to highlight the humanitarian aid situation in Kara Tepe and voice out the concerns and needs of the residents, drawing on their living situation in the refugee camp.
This study will be structured into five chapters. In chapter 2, I will give an overview of the living conditions of refugees and migrants in Greek camps. Here, I will also provide a set of definitions of the key terms adopted in this dissertation. In chapter 3, I will give a review of the existing literature on the humanitarian aid system. In this section, I will outline the theoretical foundations used in this study, including the UNHCR, IRC, Save the Children and HSA’s stated aims and guidelines in relation to the factors of water, sanitation, education, food and health care. In chapter 4, I will draw on my first-hand experience in Kara Tepe in order to spot the gaps between the stated aims and guidelines of the aid agencies and the real situation on the ground, based on the stories and interviews with the residents. Furthermore, the analysis will identify some of the apparent obstacles hindering these agencies’ effective service delivery. Finally, I will conclude by giving a summary of the main findings and their implications, and the possibility of suggesting further research on the topic.
1.2 Methodology & Material
The choice of method for this dissertation is a mixed study between an autoethnography approach which is a form of qualitative research[4], based on primary qualitative data collection, and a case study using Kara Tepe Camp as the case, in addition to secondary research on academic articles in relation to the humanitarian aid system, UN reports and newspaper articles on the topic. Moreover, I will look at the guidelines, aims and goals of three main agencies operating in camp, namely UNHCR, IRC and Save the Children. The material I have used for my analysis is predominantly based on material gathered through the interviews I have conducted with different refugees from the camp. For their safety and integrity, I have decided to keep their names anonymous and have given them pseudonyms/alias. These interviews that I have conducted are valuable and have provided me with the useful information and insights that are necessary to establish an adequate answer to the question. Moreover, the analysis is also based on my own lived experience through working in Kara Tepe camp.
1.3 Limitations of study
When researching the above questions a few limitations had to be considered. First, due to time and space restrains, I had to limit my data collection to the period of my stay in Greece between June and September 2016. The humanitarian assistance keeps developing in camp so there may be new improved services that did not exist back then, which would have been valuable to include in my research. Second, it has to be taken into consideration that the refugees interviewed are in a vulnerable position; hence they may not be able to fully reveal all truths for a public audience, and this is why for some questions, unfortunately, the answers were either very broad or unclearly answered, due to the sensitivity of the matter. Third, there are several possible factors to take into consideration when researching humanitarian assistance provided to refugees living in camps. However, due to space and time restraints, I have chosen to focus on three key humanitarian aid agencies and their services in Kara Tepe camp, namely UNHCR, IRC and Save the Children.
‘To be called a refugee is the opposite of an insult; it is a badge of strength, courage, and victory…’ (Tennessee Office for Refugees)
2.1 Definitions of keywords
In our current era, more than 65 million people worldwide are displaced by force as refugees, asylum seekers, or internally displaced persons. According to the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to be recognized legitimately as a refugee, a person must be fleeing persecution on the basis of religion, race, political opinion, nationality…etc. However, the present factors around displacement are complex and multi-layered which in turn makes the protection based on a strict definition of persecution increasingly problematic and very challenging to implement (Zetter, 2015).
Between asylum seekers, refugees and economic migrants there is an overlap and this can cause confusion; therefore, it is very important to distinguish the difference between the terms, and which term applies on the people in the camps in Greece specifically in Kara Tepe Camp.
Asylum seeker is: ‘a person who has applied for asylum under the 1951 Refugee Convention on the Status of Refugees on the ground that if he is returned to his country of origin he has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political belief or membership of a particular social group. He remains an asylum seeker for so long as his application or an appeal against refusal of his application is pending’ (Mitchell, 2006). Principally, asylum seekers flee in fear of persecution because of the reasons stated in the definition, so they seek refuge in another country looking for safety, and until their asylum process is ongoing they are called asylum seekers, but once it is processed and the approval is given then they are given a refugee status.
In the literature on refugees, there have been many definitions of the term, but I found the following by the UNHCR to be the most inclusive. A refugee is someone who: “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…“ (Article 1, UN Convention, 1951).
They also added that the term refugee can be defined as: ‘… people fleeing conflict or persecution. They are defined and protected in international law, and must not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom are at risk‘ (UNHCR, 2016). But according to migration watch UK, they define a refugee as an asylum seeker whose application has been successful, i.e. that person fleeing war and conflict as defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention.
The difference between asylum seeker and a refugee is very difficult to state as they are very similar. Basically, an asylum seeker is someone who is seeking international protection and is waiting for his refugee status, but a refugee is someone who is recognised under the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees to be eligible to be a refugee (Phillips, 2011, p.2).

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Last but not least, migrant, as defined by the UN Convention on the Rights of Migrants is a : ‘person who is to be engaged, is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national‘. Article 1.1 (a) states that migrants decision to move to these States is taken freely, because of personal convenience and without any external factor that might affect the decision (UNESCO, 2016).Thus, there has been a gap along the lines with the usage of the terminology, especially between the term refugee and asylum seeker.
People who have crossed the Mediterranean by paying organised criminals (smugglers) to get them across the borders are known as ‘irregular’ migrants, because they have not entered the EU legally (European Commission, 2016).
Humanitarian aid system (add definition)
Humanitarian aid system or humanitarian assistance is intended to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain human dignity during and after manmade crises and disasters caused by natural hazards as well as to prevent and strengthen preparedness for when such situations occur (Global Humanitarian Assistance, 2016). Humanitarian assistance should be administered by the four key humanitarian principles which are: humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence; these key principles are the fundamental principles of many NGOs including the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (RCRC) (Global Humanitarian Assistance, 2016).
Therefore, in the immediate area of conflict, the main goal is preventing human causalities but at the same time assisting displaced people and making sure they have access to the basic needs of survival which are water, sanitation, food, shelter, and health care (Branczik, 2004).
2.2 International and legal framework/ Humanitarian assistance and relief efforts – add more info
Humanitarian assistance is and has always been an extremely political activity. It always influenced the political economy of the recipient countries, and is influenced by the political considerations of donor governments (Curtis, 2001, p.3).
The effect of conflict on civilians can be directly or indirectly through the so called complex emergencies. The primary aim in any immediate area of conflict is preventing causalities and making sure that everyone has access to the basic rights for surviving, which are water sanitation, food, shelter, and health care. In addition, the priority is usually to assist displaced people and try to prevent the spread of conflict, support relief work and create a space for rehabilitation (Branczik, 2004).
Complex humanitarian emergencies are defined by five collective characteristics: first, the deterioration or complete collapse of central government authority; second, ethnic or religious conflict leading to human abuse; third, episodic food insecurity that leads to mass starvation; fourth, macroeconomic collapse that involves unemployment and decrease in GDP per capita; last and the most important focal characteristic is having mass population movements of displaced people and refugees that have escaped a conflict or in search for a better life (Natsios, 1995, p.405).
Natsios stated that there are three sets of institutional actors that respond to the above emergencies in a so called complex response system that evolved over the years. These institutional actors are NGOs, UN organisations and the International Red Cross movement (Natsios, 1995, p.406).
These sets of actors were reckoned in the 1990s; however in the 20th century, the academics understanding and the literature on the main actors have widened, and have included more detailed actors. For example, according to Branczik (2004), there are four main actors that represent the humanitarian aid sector:

International (IOs) and Regional Organisations (ROs); the most important actor in the provision of humanitarian aid is the UN.
Unilateral assistance, as well as multilateral, i.e. the countries provide direct aid unilaterally through their own foreign-aid or part of their foreign policy.
Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), which play a key role in the provision of humanitarian aid, either directly or as being a UN partner.
The Military and its main role is to make sure to create a safe environment where other agencies can operate from, they can also directly provide aid when necessary in cases where the IOs and NGOs are unable to perform or deal with security issues, and it can act as a managing body for the humanitarian relief process.

It is important to stress that in order to have a successful humanitarian relief effort, effective leadership and coordination should be present to avoid conflicting activities and duplications of projects and so forth. The UN is the agency that acts as the coordinator in most cases (Branczik, 2004).
In addition to the UN, there are other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that also respond to complex humanitarian emergencies and work together with the UN.
The humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts (HA/DR) had faced a major challenge in terms of that the diverse information and knowledge are distributed and owned by different organisations, and are not efficiently organised and utilized during HA and DR operations (Zhang et. Al, 2002).
Obstacle to the humanitarian aid agencies
Moreover, there have been other factors that are defined as great challenges that have affected the performance of the humanitarian aid agencies, and two of those are efficiency and effectiveness. For example and according to Branczik (2004), if the assistance is needed in a conflict zone that is located in a poor area of infrastructure then it would be impossible and dangerous for the humanitarian agencies to deliver aid, this leads to some beneficiaries being neglected due to that (Branczik, 2004). Another important point is the increasing number of agencies operating on the ground, this causes the struggle to obtain accurate intelligence, and when it is difficult to obtain accurate intelligence, the unpredictability of humanitarian crises causes effective management and coordination within the agencies to become difficult, therefore, and in order to solve this difficulty, agencies should improve gathering and sharing the information by improving the management and coordination within them (Branczik, 2004).
Furthermore, political dilemmas play an important part in influencing the performance of humanitarian agencies. As Branczik (2004) and Stockton (2006) call it, humanitarian alibi, which refers to the fact that most humanitarian crises are caused by bad governance and the bad performance of the humanitarian agencies is also affected by deliberate acts by governments to frustrate humanitarian access to, and deny the existence of the people that are in need of protection. It is therefore defined as: ‘the misuse of the humanitarian idea and humanitarian workers by governments eager to do as little as possible in economically unpromising regions’ (Branczik, 2004; Stockton, 2006).
2.3 Aims and guidelines of humanitarian aid agencies in Kara Tepe camp
UNHCR Legal Framework
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly was published in 1948 and is still used and relevant today as it was back then. The main reason for issuing it was to declare the rights and freedoms to which every human being is equally and inalienably entitled (UDHR, 1948, p. iii).
UDHR is a promise to everyone and not country-specific or for a certain era or social group, it is a promise to all the economic, social, political, cultural and civic rights whatever colour, race, ethnicity they are, gender, whether they are disabled or not, citizens or migrants, and no matter what creed, age or sexual orientation (UDHR, 1948, p. v + vi).
Abuse of Human Rights did not diminish when the UDHR was adopted, but at least more people have gained more freedom, and violations were not permitted. According to part 1 of article 14 of UDHR:’ 1. Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution‘, onwards the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was adopted and entered into force on 22 April 1954, and is now called the centrepiece of international refugee protection, and its amendment the 1967 Protocol which removed all geographic limitations to include everyone and make it universal (UN Convention, 1951, p. 2).
Refugees are considered part of the most vulnerable people in the world; and for that reason, the UN has issued the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol to help protect them (Guterres, 2011).
The UNHCR works under the United Nations General Assembly and its goal is to seek international protection and permanent solutions for refugees. It was established in 1950 with a core mandate to protect the refugees. However, nowadays it is responsible for a slightly larger group that does not only include refugees but also asylum seekers, internally displaced persons (IDPs), stateless persons or migrants (UNHCR, 2014).
Although the protection of refugees is the primarily the responsibility of States, however the main partner that works closely with the governments is the UNHCR and has been doing so throughout the past 50+ years (Jastram & Achiron, 2001, p.5).
UNHCR aims
Specify here what these conventions say about humanitarian assistance to refugees. And specify what they should do in Greece/kara tepe (Provide legal advice, information about asylum processes, housing tents, medical care).
IRC – aims and guidelines in lesvos
The IRC is the only international aid organization working on all fronts of the crisis. In Europe: The IRC was one of the first aid organizations to assist the thousands of refugees arriving each day on the Greek island, Lesbos. IRC aid workers continue to work around the clock in Greece and in Serbia to provide essential services, including clean water and sanitation, to families living in terrible conditions. And we are helping new arrivals navigate the confusing transit process and understand their legal rights.
Education is the most powerful tool for children, their families and communities in order to survive and recover from a crisis or a conflict; it enables people to drive their own health, safety and prosperity (IRC, 2016).
According to the IRC goals that they have published, they state that poor access to education can affect people’s chance to improve their lives, which is why they provide children, youth and adults with educational opportunities which therefore keeps them safe and learn the skills they need to survive and succeed (IRC, 2016).
Moreover, the IRCs main goals in regards to education are the following:

Ensure that children aged 0 to 5 develop cognitive and social-emotional skills
Ensure that school-aged children develop literacy, numeracy and social-emotional skills
Ensure that youth and adults have high levels of livelihood, literacy, numeracy and social-emotional skills
Ensure that children, youth and adults have regular access to safe and functional education services (IRC, 2016).

Save the children – aims and guidelines
Save the children’s main priority in Greece and especially in Lesvos is to protect the children that are in refugee camps, and to ensure that most importantly they are physically safe and have enough food and good shelter. Apart from distributing the basics, they claim to have started providing items such as sanitary pads, soap, shampoo, toilet paper and simple food items such as crackers and tea (save the children, 2015). However, since their priority is protecting children, they have also met with national charities in Greece to identify child protection needs, and have worked on transporting the new arrivals to the island to different registration points, to make sure that families and unaccompanied children to do not have to walk 70km to register (save the children, 2015).
Asylum Process
“Give me the money to pay a smuggler and I’ll go back to Syria right now. There the death is quick. Here we are dying slowly.”
In this chapter, the theoretical foundations of humanitarian aid discussed above will be applied to the case of aid agencies operating in Kara Tepe camp. First I I will give a brief overview of the situation in Kara Tepe according to my own lived experience and reflection there during summer. Second, I will compare and contrast the agencies stated aims and guidelines to the real situation on the ground in Kara Tepe in order to clarify to what extent they manage to live up to their words. I will then underline some of the key obstacles currently hindering the organisation’s effective service delivery to the residents.
Before arriving to Lesvos, I had no expectations of how the situation would be there. All I had in mind was the image often portrayed to us by the media about the refugee camps, which is one an image of violence and chaos, and I thought our task as volunteers would solely be to only distribute food and clothes as it was mentioned on the organisation’s website.
However, when I arrived to the island, nothing was as I imagined it to be. In fact, Kara Tepe was a well-organised camp, and our job as HSA volunteers with HSA was to distribute food and clothes to families in camp, but it was done through a well thought out system. We had the meals delivered to the resident families’ door- to-door to their housing units in teams. The residents themselves were also part of the distribution teams, depending on what area they lived in as they were more familiar with the people of the camp than the volunteers residents. Moreover, we also distributed clothes by giving the residents tickets for monthly appointments. This system has indeed created a harmony in the camp, and a sense of belonging to a community.
A very important factor that played a huge role for me while in Kara Tepe was the language. Arabic is my mother tongue, so it was easy for me to communicate with most of the refugees which had come to Lesvos from Syria and Iraq. Consequently, I therefore created a special bond with them and they turned to me to translate when misunderstandings or problems occurred in the camp. Being the only staff speaking their language, I felt that it became my duty to voice their feelings and opinions in everyday situations, being the only staff speaking their language, and I believe this was why I allocated a leading role in the team from the outset. My boss saw how the refugees turned to me for help as I could voice their concerns, and assigned me as a team leader shortly after I arrived.
As I gained an understanding of the family’s needs, my duties did not just involve the clothing distribution part, but also comprised on the task of improving the existing system to avoid stress and queues. This project was successful and it led the UNHCR to ask to publish our standard of procedures to the benefit of other organisations operating in the camp, and we got praised by the camp management for increasing the safety and dignity of the refugees residing in there which are referred to as residents of Kara Tepe.
It is important to stress that the refugees living in camps are human beings just like everyone else. Fleeing wars and conflicts, being homeless, does not make them any different from anyone. They had normal lives in their home countries when the war forced them to leave everything and flee, and they are often well educated and skilled. Unfortunately, the way the refugees are forced to live in camps portray them in a very bad way, that everyone including myself had our own assumptions towards them due to the situation.
It has been my privilege to have known and live among the refugees that I call my friends and family now for three months in Kara Tepe, and therefore I had to give this background of my time spent in camp as a tribute to

Media Effectiveness of Humanitarian Responses to Crises

Is the media an impediment to or a catalyst for mobilizing appropriate external responses to crises?

 In this globalised world, the role of media in the humanitarian sector has been a popular topic for debate and research. Many articles and books have argued the importance of media as an actor in enabling humanitarian response and that media has the assumed power to influence and drive local and international government, humanitarian agencies and non-governmental organisation (NGOs) to formulate responses to crises, such as policy responses, delivery of aid and interventions, to save lives and/or reduce suffering through meeting humanitarian needs. However, there are also many scholarly works that have begged to differ and justified that media may just be an instrument that communicates and validates responses and that media may not always have the direct power to shape the decision to launch an intervention in humanitarian situations due to other factors that has nothing to do with humanitarian needs. In my opinion, both points of views are rather convincing; however, for this essay, I am leaning towards the latter. Therefore, in this paper, I will discuss the factors that influence media coverage and how the media can cause an impeding effect on the effectiveness of humanitarian response and intervention in crises.

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 In media, perhaps the biggest factor influencing their coverage on humanitarian situations is the power of humanitarian imagery. Since the 20th century, media has been using images of violence, suffering and trauma to engage with the general public to generate emotion and demand that something needs to be done to alleviate suffering of those in crisis (Neuman, 2017). This is because people’s “emotion are fundamentally genetically determined, so facial expressions of emotions are interpreted in the same away across most cultures or nations” (Ekman 1972, as cited in Lim 2016). I believe suffering and distress are both very strong emotions, and when coupled with the fact that we live in a media environment in which the competition is determined by its readership, ratings and revenue (Cottle and Nolan 2009), this explains why such images are often sought after by the media in order to create a “community of interest” as a form of solidary (Arendt, 1973, as cited in Orgad 2013). This is with hope that it would in turn generate a large public interest which would subsequently spark a CNN effect.

By definition, According to Robinson (1999, 2013), the CNN effect is the concept whereby “mainstream news media in general, not just CNN, were having an increased effect upon foreign policy formulation” through the use of shocking images and real-time television. This means that media is seemingly the driving force for external intervention and response to a natural disaster or crisis by pressuring governments, NGOs and aid agencies to take action through the use of negative images of suffering. But the media coverage and its intensity on crises has very little, if any, to do with humanitarian needs and it is decided based on other aspects such as “geographic proximity to Western countries, costs, logistics, legal impediments (e.g. visa requirements), risk to journalists, relevance to national interest, and news attention cycles” (Jakobsen 2000). More importantly, media is critically selective on which crisis they want to cover and it is predominately determined by the level of drama and suffering it entails for a good, eye-catching story (Jakobsen 2000).

In Western conflict management, although media has the power to pressure governments to intervene militarily, the coverage and impact of media is very minimal during pre- and post-violence (because there are not of enough interest to the media and the foreign government tend to ignore calls) and it is only at its peak during the actual violence (Jakobsen 2000). For example, in the Iraq 1991, Somalia 1992 and Rwanda 1994 cases, the CNN effect was limited and despite the initial calls for intervention, they were rejected. This was the case until the media allegedly led the British Prime Minister John Major to counter the rejection by his advisors and to initiate an intervention in Iraq (Gowing 1994; as cited in Jakobsen 2000). Similarly, the Bush Administration also fell to the media’s pressure to mobilise an intervention when the “television tipped it ‘over the top’” (Gowing 1994; as cited in Jakobsen 2000). Here, we can see that media coverage in both print and television is essential in initiating a foreign intervention but, in my opinion, they were not directly because of humanitarian needs but more towards the interest of a potential political scandal. Although the governments responded to the second call due to public pressure and the hypothesis that it could have lower risk of losses, the role of the media here has limited impact on preventing and sustaining the response. If it were a catalyst to mobilising a response, I believe it should have been during the preventive call, however, this is problematic as it is highly subjected to the severity of the crisis at stake a that time. 

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, news headlines and television coverage went off the charts as the media aired and published graphic sights of death and suffering which were heavily exaggerated and irrational and as a consequence, there was an overestimation of death toll (Rodriguez and Dynes 2006). Similarly, when the world’s deadliest tsunami disaster hit the shores of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar on 26th December 2004, killing approximately 230,000 lives (Brauman 2004), images and videos of people being swept away by the waves were posted online by the Western tourists creating a “tourist effect” while these were also broadcasted and printed on every television channel and worldwide due to the scale and timeliness of the disaster. Therefore, the media as a whole generated a lot of emotional response, especially since it coincided with the Christmas holidays. Although a significant number of Western tourists were killed in this disaster, they only comprised of less than 15 per cent of the total victims yet they occupied 40 per cent of media coverage collectively (CARMA International 2006). As a result, this had created a worldwide mobilisation of humanitarian relief with financial aid of $13 billion which broke all records by the National Red Cross organisations, NGOs and national governments (Brauman 2004) because of its unambiguous nature and the presence of Western tourists (CARMA International 2006).

On the surface level, it does seem like media was a catalyst for mobilising humanitarian aid to the affected countries following the tsunami. However, the problem lies when aid arrives at its destination. Firstly, according to Brauman (2004), natural disasters do not produce the same type of consequences as armed conflicts; they do not have the same number of wounded, duration nor the same sort of displacement of population which means that the amount of   that went out to the 2004 disaster was a waste. Secondly, just like the case with Hurricane Katrina, Brauman (2004) also discussed the impulsive decisions of  needing to have “mass graves, set up a system for prevention and detection of infectious diseases and to undertake mass immunisation campaigns” in fear of an epidemic, which was also deemed as a waste of effort due to the fact that epidemics has never happened in such situations in history and that the bodies do not pose a threat to public health. To make things worse, legal and financial problems may arise since mass burial means that family and friends do not get to honour the dead and there are no death certificates (de Ville de Goyet 2000, as cited in Brauman 2004). Lastly, although aid workers are essential to helping the injured, the oversupply of this resource as a result of pressure from mass media coverage (both traditional and new) can act as a hindrance to the efficiency of a humanitarian response. When thousands of relief workers, doctors and nurses were deployed to scene, Brauman (2004) reported that they were not as useful as they thought since local doctors and nurses who are familiar with the environment and language were already systematically operational, effectively becoming a burden instead of an aid.

Because of the way the disaster gained the media’s attention and got the amount of coverage it did, I believe the external response and funding would have been weaker if it had not affected the elites as much, such as in other crises, thus creating an anchor of biased coverage. This brings me back to the above war conflict; this would explain the reason why humanitarian NGOs and external government did not respond to the initial call for intervention in the above war conflict – it was due to conflict fatigue and that it was not geographically close to Western countries or in this case, the elites.

In terms of resources, it is evident that the overwhelming media coverage and the trap of the imagery can do more harm than good. Well publicised crisis are often well funded while the less publicised ones received much less. Although the media has the power to generate funding, the selective nature of media’s interest in the crisis and preference for the elites affects the sustainability of the resources. In the case with Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans got the most attention even though it was not as badly affected compared to Louisiana and Mississippi simply because the media was drawn to the state of chaos and anarchy since the city was heavily populated by poor African Americans. Hence, the media’s assumption that New Orleans probably had the most social chaos became the centre of the coverage because the lens go where the drama is. Simply put, the way in which media works does not produce significant humanitarian impact in the long run, especially in long-term crises, and may indeed be hindering the appropriate external response in locations that need it the most due to its preference in coverage.

Speaking of the trap of imagery, NGOs are also guilty of using negative images to related to the wider public and spur money donations (Orgad and Vella 2012). Although it can create a sense of solidarity and compassion to want to donate, it is interesting to note that audiences could also feel manipulated into donating through the feelings of guilt and cause them to be resistant (Orgad and Vella 2012). Similarly,  Johannes Paulmann’s findings showed that such images can spark a desire for revenge and that visual campaigns can also lead to compassion fatigue and consequently, be counterproductive since audience would fail respond, leading to lack of donation (Paulmann, n.d.).

 Sometimes, it is understandable why there are less coverage in certain areas of conflict due to accessibility and safety reasons. To go around this, the media would rely on alternative sources for information such as the NGOs on the ground, especially if they deemed official sources unreliable or have been manipulated for their political benefit (Meyer, Sangar, and Michaels 2018). In return, NGOs could get good publicity and the media could use the information to create public pressure and challenge official sources for an intervention. But it gets problematic especially if the NGO is in no position to comment but did so anyway or if they spoke outside of their expertise since this would create a misinformation and be counterproductive. In the Cotte and Nolan’s reading, it discussed a number of mediated scandals stunned the humanitarian aid sector which led to the humanitarian NGOs to become more sensitive towards the media in recent years. Whether it was a wrongdoing or misinterpretation of information, the claims can cause massive damage to the public reputation of agencies and organisations. As a response to this media logic, some agencies had to come up with communication plans in order to safeguard their reputation and reduce the risk of poor publicity (Cottle and Nolan 2009). Yet, some NGOs would withdraw entirely from getting involved in the response to avoid the risks thus potentially leading to insufficient aid.

As a conclusion, it is evident that although print media and electronic media work differently in their delivery of information where the former involves more analysis while the latter is very much emotionally driven (Brauman 2004), they both lack critical analytical assessment of information which led to error in judgement and subsequently the inappropriate response to aid. The amount of effort and resources mobilised by the sensationalism of the imagery and excessive coverage by the media could have been coordinated better, channelled and used to aid other aspects of the disaster or even other crises which are neglected such as the Kashmir earthquake, the Typhoon Doksuri in Vietnam, ongoing conflicts in Africa, all of which had poor coverage. Therefore, although both traditional and new media are instrumental to quickly spread information and news about humanitarian emergencies and put pressure on officials to respond and act appropriately, it inevitably does more harm than good. It requires a joint responsibility of government, aid agencies and the media to provide the appropriate response otherwise, the media hinders the humanitarian response as a whole.


Brauman, Rony. 2004. “Global Media and the Myths of Humanitarian Relief : The Case of the 2004 Tsunami Rony Brauman,” 108–17.

CARMA International. 2006. “The CARMA Report: Western Media Coverage of Humanitarian Disasters.” Political Quarterly 77 (2): 281–84.

Cottle, Simon, and David Nolan. 2009. “How the Media ’ s Codes and Rules Influence the Way NGOs Work We Do Want to Get Awareness of the Organization out There as Much as Possible , We Want to Get Brand Awareness … ( Communications Manager , MSF Australia ) As Far as I ’ m Concerned , That ’,” 4–6.

Lim, Nangyeon. 2016. “Cultural Differences in Emotion: Differences in Emotional Arousal Level between the East and the West.” Integrative Medicine Research 5 (2): 105–9.

Orgad, Shani. 2013. “Visualizers of Solidarity: Organizational Politics in Humanitarian and International Development NGOs.” Visual Communication 12 (3): 295–314.

Orgad, Shani, and Corinne Vella. 2012. “Who Cares? Challenges and Opportunities in Communicating Distant Suffering: A View from the Development and Humanitarian Sector,” no. June. cares (published).pdf.

Paulmann, Johannes. n.d. “Humanitarianism and Media.”

Neuman, Michaël. 2017. Dying for humanitarian ideas: Using images and statistics to manufacture humanitarian martyrdom.

Robinson, Piers. 1999. “The CNN Effect: Can the News Media Drive Foreign Policy?” Review of International Studies 25 (02): 301–9.

———. 2013. “Media as a Driving Force in International Politics : The CNN Effect and Related Debates.” Www.E-Ir.Info, 1–7.

Rodriguez, Havidan, and Russell Dynes. 2006. “Finding and Framing Katrina: The Social Construction of Disaster | Understanding Katrina: Perspectives from the Social Sciences,” 1–6.

Q3: Have social imaginaries of humanitarianism and emergency prevented appropriate responses by the humanitarian community?

What are social imaginaries? According to Charles Taylor (2004), social imaginary is “people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations”. This imaginary allows us others to identify and learn about its local characteristics and distinctiveness, where they belong and about their community (Kirakosyan  2018) and analyse “how people are being encouraged to imagine the reality of their world, but also to examine the symbolic portrayal of imaginable possibilities” (Wilkinson 2013)(Wilkinson 2013). In the humanitarian sector, the concept of emergency is used to make reference to any disaster, catastrophe, conflict and human suffering while humanitarianism is “an ethical response to emergencies” as a good way of responding to those who are suffering or in need of aid (Calhoun 2004). Together, these concepts provide an idea of the necessity of providing immediate response to the sudden and unpredictable event with the aim to alleviate human suffering. Even though crises are caused by both natural and human agency, the ideas of emergency, crises and humanitarianism are indeed socially constructed (Calhoun 2004). In this essay, I will discuss the significance of the humanitarian and emergency imaginaries in shaping responses and how they have distorted and prevented proper humanitarian responses in crises.

 According to Cannon (2008), disasters is a result of material conditions, whether natural or social factors, that affects a vulnerable community and that people’s vulnerability, which is also socially constructed by the economic, political and social factors, determines the emergency. This construction of emergency imaginary is essential as it forms the moral definition and expression of the disaster from the way it is exists and recognised which in turn shapes and supports the humanitarian response. Thus, people’s vulnerability depends on how some disasters affect them; whether it is due to their own willingness to expose themselves to risk or caused by political and economic processes (Cannon 2008).

 In the 2004 tsunami, many people who lived on the coastline were affected by the disaster and this was mainly because they need to make a living and not because of an exploitative, political or a differentiating economic system (Cannon 2008). Although the phenomenon in itself is a natural one, the disaster is not as it is a social imaginary and it affected people due to their choice of living in a high risk location for reasons of livelihood (Cannon 2008). This sort of disaster is considered an “innocent” one because there was not an obvious actor that can be blamed for their suffering and that their inequality of race or class had nothing to do with their vulnerability. Thus, this could explain the equal relief the victims received when humanitarian aid arrived.

On the other hand, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the deaths and suffering were mostly determined by social, economic and political factors of inequality, exploitation and corruption which are actors to be blamed (Cannon 2008). There was significant loss of lives, severe destruction of property and the source of livelihood was lost. It was appalling to see that there was no proper evacuation plan, lack of coordinated response and aid from all levels of the government (Rodriguez and Dynes 2006). During the immediate aftermath of the disaster, television reported that there was a tremendous confusion about the responsibility of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Homeland Security and the local officials. As a consequence, there was lack of response and performance which led to the lack of help before the situation escalated into a dramatic social chaos. Here, it is evident how political dysfunction and racial inequality resulted in the inadequate response from officials. As the city was predominately populated by poor African Americans, this gave the press the opportunity to pursue stories of racial stereotypes in the area, making it the spotlight of the disaster and neglecting other affected cities (Rodriguez and Dynes 2006). Such reports created a social imaginary which created a public fear that even some emergency medical services refused to carry out their duties at the site. As a result, some groups were much more affected than the other and aid was not equally reached out to the marginalised victims.

Similarly, Pradeep Kumar Parida (2016) also highlighted how Sri Lankan women of different social backgrounds are in itself a social, economic and political actor that had placed them in a vulnerable position following the tsunami. The study (Parida 2016) revealed that the severity of impact the of disaster on different groups of people was determined by the people’s level of  vulnerability to hazard; woman from the upper class had less difficulties dealing with the disaster compared to those from the poor or working class. Although a massive aid had arrived to help the victims, he highlighted the foreign humanitarian workers were not able to help the victims, particularly the marginalised women because there was inadequate knowledge about their political ecology and gender implication of the crisis. Thus, this proves that the social construct of gender discrimination and social class pre-disaster can have a severe impact on this group of people during and post-disaster. Without well-thought out evaluation materials and understanding of the actors involved in this historical and cultural social imaginary, foreign aid workers and officials will not be able to reach out to this group efficiently or even come up with the appropriate preventive measures of this disaster.

Another social actor worth looking into is the caste-based discrimination which the in the UN terminology, it is defined as “discrimination based on work and descent” (IDSN 2013). Although it is extensive in South Asia, this form of discrimination is also present in other countries in Africa and East Asia with approximately 260 million people affected worldwide (IDSN 2013). The Dalits, also known as the untouchables, are the ones who are worst effected by both natural and man-made disasters compared to other social groups due to their marginalised social status and have limited human rights (IDSN 2013). The case study revealed how neglect in understanding caste systems and the way they work affected the kind of emergency relief they receive. For example, when they were hit by the deadly tsunami, they are deprived of access to resources such as water, food, housing, counselling and social protection due to the deep-rooted discrimination (IDSN 2013). Not only that, their predicament went underreported and, in many cases, they were subjected to take on the immediate clean-up efforts without pay or recognition (IDSN 2013). Although not as badly affected, there were also displacements among Sri Lakans where the low caste groups were refused of food rations and were deprived of certain resources (IDSN 2013).

From these case studies, we can see that the humanitarian response is as following the traditional definition of being “free from long-term political or economic entanglements” and focused on “actions deemed right in themselves and the necessary moral response to emergencies” (Fassin & Pandolfi 2010). This means that the humanitarian space is only limited to material aid and assistance through food distribution, medical care and funding as long as they are socially constructed emergencies and require urgent intervention and not focused on livelihood. If this is the case, it could be an explanation why the victims had not received appropriate response from the officials and humanitarian agencies. But then again, if emergencies are sudden, unpredictable and urgent and suppose to draw people and resources into humanitarian action, and if the fundamental value of humanitarian work is to relief human suffering including loss of dignity and dehumanisation with impartiality and neutrality, humanitarian workers are effectively going against their principles and contradicting their work by neglecting to consider the abovementioned social imaginaries.

In order to mobilise appropriate humanitarian response, humanitarian NGOs and agencies, officials and the media need to work together in order to thoroughly consider the social imaginaries of the groups of people they are sending aid to. Since media is instrumental in engaging with the general public to generate emotion and demand that something needs to be done to alleviate suffering of those in crisis (Neuman, 2017), humanitarian agencies and officials should work closely with the media to prevent rumours and misconception of information from being broadcasted and educating the public so to achieve a better understanding of the community at hand. This is with hope that through better understanding of the social imaginaries, the public will be able to come up with better policies and measures to aid those who are suffering in an effective manner.

Speaking of policies, it is evident that without the consideration of the abovementioned actors in its respective disasters, humanitarian and foreign aid workers will not be able to fully understand the way the community live their lives and thus will not be able to come up with the best practices to ensure that everyone has equal accessibility to aid. This will also reduce the waste of resources. For instance, although foreign aid workers had prepared reports, surveys and evaluation materials to help with their assistance in Sri Lanka, it was not enough for them to provide the necessary aid to the marginalised women. By understanding the characteristics of this group of women, the additional information would greatly facilitate policy planners to come up with sound policies related to gender and social class in context. Besides that, officials should also consider involving women in policymaking as their knowledge can potentially aid and reduce risk of disaster impact among the marginalised women.

Similarly, negligence in understanding caste systems and its implications in crises can result in further discrimination among groups such as the Dalits and other disregarded communities. The ignorance to their vulnerabilities and the lack of focus on these communities or excluding them entirely from the response assessment and management can have detrimental effect and lead further discrimination and boarding of the social gap. In this case, human rights officials should work together with humanitarian NGOs and agencies, officials and the media to ensure that humanitarian intervention and/or aid meets the ethics and standards they serve to achieve. This would in turn contribute to new policies and other statutory measures to tackle discrimination in humanitarian efforts.

Therefore, all parties such as humanitarian NGOs, government officials, researchers, advisors, media and the general public should work together and gain more knowledge on the subject of crises and its implication on those who are constantly in a vulnerable position in order to provide adequate aid and at the same time promote humanitarian responsibility and ethics. Otherwise, social imaginaries will continue to hinder and prevent appropriate humanitarian response which subsequently lead to a waste of time, effort and resources.


Calhoun, Craig. 2004. A world of emergencies: Fear, intervention, and the limits of cosmopolitan order. Canadian Review of Sociology 41(4): 373–395.

Cannon, Terry. 2008. Vulnerability, “innocent” disasters and the imperative of cultural undersanding. University of Greenwich, London. UK.

Fassin, Didier and Pandolfi, Mariella. 2010. Contemporary states of emergency: The politics of Miltary and Humanitarian Interventions. Zone Books. New York.

IDSN. 2013. “Equality in Aid.” Idsn, no. September 2013: 1–20.

Kirakosyan, Lyusyena. 2018. “Social Imaginaries, Shared Citizen Action, and the Meanings of ‘Community.’” Community Change 1 (1): 1.

Parida, Pradeep Kumar. 2016. “The Social Construction of Gendered Vulnerability to Tsunami Disaster: The Case of Coastal Sri Lanka.” Journal of Social and Economic Development 17 (2): 200–222.

Neuman, Michaël. 2017. Dying for humanitarian ideas: Using images and statistics to manufacture humanitarian martyrdom.

Rodriguez, Havidan, and Russell Dynes. 2006. “Finding and Framing Katrina: The Social Construction of Disaster | Understanding Katrina: Perspectives from the Social Sciences,” 1–6.

Taylor, Charles. 2004. Modern Social Imaginaries. Durham: Duke University Press.

Wilkinson, Iain. 2013. “The Provocation of the Humanitarian Social Imaginary.” Visual Communication 12 (3): 261–76.


Evaluation of Humanitarian Aid Efforts of Natural Disasters


The United Nations is an international organization which was established in 1945 and currently consists of 193 member states. According to UN Charter, its aim is to uphold global peace and security, cultivate/strengthen relations between countries, develop cooperation between countries to solve economic, social or humanitarian issues.

The fundamental structure of the non-refugee humanitarian coordination system was laid out by General Assembly resolution in 1991. However, this was revised in 2005, under the ‘Humanitarian Reform Agenda’. The major element introduced was the cluster system.

The cluster system consists of discrete organizations, some part of UN and some non-UN organizations which include intergovernmental, non-governmental, private sector and national partners. Each of these is allocated a specific sector of humanitarian action (water, health, shelter, agriculture, etc) to act in case of disasters. These sectors are delegated by the IASC (Inter-Agency Standing Committee), ensuring clarity of the roles and responsibilities of each organization to ensure maximum coordination, reduce duplication of projects and allow resources to be shared. This system’s first implementation was in 2005 and since been used in 30 countries worldwide.

























Figure 1: The UN’s Cluster System – Diagrammatically illustrated; Image courtesy: UNOCHA HumanitarianResponse, 2019, link 13 in bibliography





Examples of humanitarian responses used in real life disasters will be used in this essay to show the positive and negative aspects of the cluster system of the UN. (The positive/negative aspect will be bolded and the disaster example will be underlined for easy identification)

In the Myanmar’s Nargis Cyclone, which occurred on 27th of April 2008, a total of 11 clusters were activated – Agriculture (FAO), Early Recovery (UNDP), Logistics (WFP), Protection (UNHCR), Emergency Shelter (IFRC), Health (WHO/MERLIN), Nutrition (UNICEF/GOUM), WASH (UNICEF), Emergency Tele-communication (WFP) and Food (WFP) (Kauffman & Kruger, 2010).

1 major negative aspect of the cluster system is it caused reluctance of the government to accept international aid. The UN cluster system calls for international aid from multiples nations/organizations. Governments are often disinterested in openly receiving assistance from these organizations due to political sensitivities, mainly to portray the image that the nation can manage disasters on its own to prevent criticisms from the political opposition parties. Also, ‘there is a particular resistance to the presence of foreign military personnel as it could be seen as an infringement of sovereignty’. (ABC News, 2018; directly quoted from link 1 in bibliography)

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Exemplifying this issue with cluster systems, relief actions were halted in Myanmar after the Nargis Cyclone as its military personnel denied large-scale international assistance. ‘US President George W Bush said that an angry word should condemn the way Myanmar’s military rulers were handling the aftermath of such a catastrophic cyclone’ (Wikipedia,2019; directly quoted from link 2 in bibliography). Only 10 days after the Nargis cyclone were the efforts accepted by the government of Myanmar. This is comparable to Bali’s 2018 earthquake, where the Indonesian government instructed foreign aid workers to leave the quake zone, limiting the help offered by the cluster system. The set of rules put forward by the government is depicted below.




















Figure 2: Rules for humanitarian relief – National Disaster Management Authority Indonesia, 2018 (Photo courtesy: ABC News, 2018)

The Australian Council for International Development’s chief, Marc Purcell, informed media he was surprised by this limitation on humanitarian relief due to the political sensitivity.

Also, the ‘Government of Myanmar was hesitant handing out visas to international aid workers and restricted in giving access to international aid workers….. restrictive in giving access for aid workers to travel to the Delta region which was one of the regions that was worst hit and this created difficulties in organizing and coordinating the response’. Also, ‘due to visa restrictions, OCHA was a late arrival to Myanmar’  (Trude Kvam Ulleland, 2013; directly quoted from link 3 in bibliography)

This shows three things. Firstly, the negative aspect of cluster system where governments are hesitant to allow it due to political sensitivities, delaying disaster response which costs lives. Secondly, how prominent of a role government’s intervention plays in cluster system activation, especially in sudden-onset disasters such as the denial of visas in the Myanmar’s Nargis cyclone project case, and how it can result in delays/inhibitions in humanitarian relief operations. The third negative aspect of the cluster system is how it can result in tensions between the government and the humanitarian relief organizations. This especially can be seen from the 2007 Pakistan floods, where the government insisted only a few clusters being activated to avoid the image of various countries helping it. However, there was a need to activate twelve and this caused tensions between the government and the involved actors.

As for the Myanmar’s Nargis Cyclone case, when aid items were donated by international aid agencies for the Sichuan earthquake in China, Myanmar’s government announced heavy persecution for its citizens who traded these items. This reflects the shortcoming of the cluster system of coordinating multiple aid agencies all around the world, causing political sensitivity for the government of the affected nation, in accepting their humanitarian help to avoid risking the image of their military calibre. A viable solution to this shortcoming would be pre-emptive treaties/agreements between nations to allow for international assistance being conducted in case of disasters striking in the future, to allow for smooth implementation of the procedures of the UN cluster system.

The fourth negative aspect of the UN cluster system is high turnover rates of cluster coordinators, causing gaps in predicted leadership. In Myanmar’s cyclone case, these coordinators had short-term contracts. For example, there were 5 different WASH cluster coordinators and their varying contract dates resulted in huge gaps between assignments in the Nargis Cyclone project. It also caused replacements of dedicated cluster coordinators (whose contract expired) with some others who managed assignments simultaneously as well as those that were not fully committed as the ones in their place before. The other challenge with this was the extra training needed to equip the new contractors to continue the assignment after the turnover of their original members. The lead coordinator of WASH in Myanmar’s Nargis Cyclone project stated that most cluster leads were not familiar with what a cluster is, so UNOCHA had to provide training first. It is evident that this causes delays and extra funding required in the training process, which seems to be a challenge in the cluster system.

Another challenge for Myanmar was the Cluster Coordination was more interested in long-term development rather than quick disaster response/relief. This is not always the best sought-after method for disaster management since long-term development is usually cost-driven while disaster management is time-driven.

Another significant negative aspect of the cluster system has traditionally been the lack of sufficient attendance in inter-cluster meetings. In the case of Myanmar’s cyclone, the main reasons were most materials used in the meetings being in English instead of Burmese which caused unclear communication hence disinterest in some local authorities to attend cluster meetings, as well as the fact that these cluster meetings being perceived to be ‘unfriendly’ by local authorities since they were designed for English speakers and expatriate staff. In the case of Haiti Earthquake, cluster meetings were held in English, restricting participation of local organizations that have French and Haitian Creole as their fundamental languages for communication. However, when GBV meetings for the Protection cluster were changed to French, local NGO participation increased. Another solution to strengthen the effectiveness of cluster meetings, is using translators which will allow cluster organizations to communicate information with local authorities before every meeting so that these authorities can prepare for the meeting and be motivated to be present.

A cardinal factor that undermines the effectiveness of the Cluster System is corruption. For example, USAID in Haiti allocated $270 million in 2013 for post infrastructure development following the damage from the Haiti earthquake. 40% was sent to American NGOs and 50% went to US organizations. ‘Chemonics International received $58 million claiming they would promote the recovery of Haiti and invest in ‘laying the foundation for long-term development’’ (Vinbury N., 2017; quoted from link 4 from bibliography). It was soon found out that Chemonics and USAID aimed to construct a biofuel company in Haiti with their funds, creating a ‘phantom aid’ situation overall. Weak administrative monitoring of the financing involved and gaps in the cluster system allowing corruption undermines its own effectiveness.

Another weakness of the Cluster Approach is the fact that disaster prevention has always been underfunded compared to emergency relief. For example, in the case of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, many buildings that were reconstructed after the earthquake were made with cheap materials, further increasing the risk of a second disaster in case of another earthquake.

The final negative aspect of the cluster approach to humanitarian relief in disasters is the lack of knowledge of international aid organizations of local culture and lifestyles, which can cause wastage of funds spent on building capital for long-term development. For example, between 2011 and 2013, the Caracol EKAM project took charge of housing development in Haiti post-earthquake to restore infrastructure. The budget for design and construction was estimated to be US$31.5 million. The implementing partners were US contractors, CEEPCO contractors, THOR construction and Global communities, all being non-Haiti based companies. The end result was “a total mess, a total failure with very poor planning” (Melinda Miles, 2015; directly quoted from link 4 in bibliography) The homes have been called ‘culturally inappropriate’ and have resulted in plenty being unoccupied and empty. “Donors are not doing their homework to understand preferences and lifestyle of Haiti’s population” (Gesly Leveque, 2015; directly quoted from link 4 in bibliography)


However, one positive aspect of the UN cluster system is it minimizes gaps and overlaps in humanitarian roles in global disaster responses, by allocating specific sectors of humanitarian actions for each organization. This is proved true in the case of the Myanmar Nargis Cyclone. According to the cluster approach’s second evaluation phase, ‘it was evidenced in Myanmar that overall duplications were eliminated and gaps were identified due to the cluster approach. The evaluation team found that due to this, it resulted in more efficiency and wider coverage’ (Trude Kvam Ulleland, 2013; directly quoted from link 3 in bibliography).

The second positive aspect of the cluster system is it enhances communication between humanitarian aid workers and the sector representatives/leaders in the country to sort out issues. In the case of Nargis Cyclone, the cluster approach evaluation phase 2 concluded that the cluster approach did indeed strengthen communication. Humanitarian organizations from each cluster played an intermediary role between the government and NGOs. Special meetings were arranged which were set up for each organization from the cluster representing a specific sector, to talk with local authorities responsible for that same sector (e.g. WASH/Education). The benefits of this are the ability to exchange ideas for policies and guidelines for humanitarian aid for each sector, straightforward process of seeking approval from the local authorities to carry out relief mechanisms and simplifying the process by knowing to who to talk to.

Here are graphs that show the result of 18 evaluations throughout the humanitarian relief process in Myanmar. Majority of the evaluations are in favour of the cluster system, depicting its effectiveness of having an appropriate structure for improving the coordination of humanitarian relief. (Graphs extracted from link 5 in bibliography)


For the 3rd positive aspect of the cluster approach, a closer look is needed at the humanitarian crisis management project in Northern Uganda, where 90% of the population are displaced from homes. The protection cluster in northern Uganda during humanitarian crisis management in 2006 found organizations duplicating programs in the same region. This immediately was followed by a cluster meeting in the protection sector, and an agreement was made to move the program to an area where much more coverage is desperately needed. This is an example of the effectiveness of cluster meetings in successful team coordination and planning of humanitarian responses.

Also, during Somalia Drought 2015-2019, UNICEF noted gaps in its WASH cluster and became more active in recruiting new local NGO partners. This shows how the cluster approach separates specific sectors for humanitarian response and makes easier to track progress of each sector for the overall success of the project and shows how clusters help actors to decide which gaps to fill.

The cluster approach, between 2004 and 2006, has increased levels of humanitarian funding by 56% and between 2005 and 2006, has increased the number of actors by 32%, which is a positive impact on global humanitarian management. This could be a result of the awareness created by the cluster approach at a global level, through the coordination of various organizations worldwide.

Finally, the last note-worthy positive aspect of the cluster system is, it ensures response capacity is in place and that leadership in carrying out humanitarian responses are strengthened through inter-organizational coordination. This can be seen from the humanitarian project during Somalia’s drought in 2011, where the ‘nutrition’ cluster lead coordinated with all the organizations in that cluster to identify key geographical areas where coverage was small and eventually altered numbers of personnel in each location to provide food for the affected people. 


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Overview of the Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis

I will start this paper with an explanation of who the Rohingya are as a nationality, I will then discuss what the humanitarian crisis is and how it began, I will then discuss some of the NGOs that are assisting in this crisis and some of the ways they are helping, then I will come to a conclusion with the effectiveness of the handling of this crisis by those who are in positions of authority.

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Rohingya roots are traced back as far as the fifteenth century when the region was known as the Arakan Kingdom. During and after the early twentieth century, starting with the period that Rakhine was governed by colonial rule as part of British India and even sine while the country was known as Burma, the Rohingya have been treated quite unfairly.  As an ethnic minority Muslim society, the Rohingya, practice a Sufi-inflected variation of Sunni Islam. Although they were not living un harassed, before August of 2017, an estimated one million Rohingya were living in the Rakhine State, where they accounted for nearly a third of the population. They differ from Myanmar’s dominant Buddhist groups ethnically, linguistically, and religiously.
Deadly clashes, since 2012, that have occurred between Buddhists and minority Muslims in Rakhine State have driven hundreds of thousands of families from their homes. However, an estimated number of 100,000 and more are surviving in camps on the outskirts of Sittwe, which happens to be the state capital. Not surprising most of these people are Muslims who call themselves Rohingya. According to reports from the UN there is evidence that they discovered that Myanmar’s military engages in incitement to religious intolerance, including summary executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture. (euronews 2017) Going back as far as the late 1970s discriminatory policies of the Myanmar’s government has been guilty of forcing hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya to escape the injustices and persecutions and flee from the predominantly Buddhist country. Many travelled by land into Bangladesh although others travelled by sea fixated on the destinations of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand.
In August of 2017 the Rohingya crisis really began, the equipped Myanmar military unleashed what was referred to as a clearance campaign in the Rakhine State this assault was in response to a raid by a Rohingya insurgent group that was immediately labeled as terrorist. The affects of these military strikes led to an evacuation of the Rohingya to Bangladesh and to complaints that security forces had committed mass rapes and killings and burned thousands of homes. The security forces of Myanmar asserted they were carrying out a crusade to reinstate stability in the country’s western region. However even with this assertion, the United Nations observed that the Myanmar forces exhibited genocidal intent, and at that time the international pressure on the country’s elected leaders to end the tyranny continues to rise among other countries and NGOs.
The security forces of Myanmar have been accused of killings, rape and torture against the Rohingya. Even with these allegations the Myanmar civilian government still fought against any fact-finding mission that were requested by the UN and at the same time the government also denied journalist and more importantly aid groups to Rakhine.  This humanitarian crisis created because of the violence that flare up in August of 2017, had evolved into an atrocity, by May of 2018 there were more than 900,000 refugees that had immigrated to Cox’s Bazar.  The atrocity wasn’t just the number of refugees, but also the fact that it became the fastest increasing refugee crisis in the world forcing this area in Bangladesh to become one of the densest areas in the world with mostly traumatized women and children.
More than two years after the ferocious acts of violence, there are more than 740,000 Rohingya that have been forced to flee the country of Myanmar, but more horrible than this is the fact that almost one million men, women, and children are living in perilous conditions in Bangladesh in what is considered the world’s largest refugee camp. The International Rescue Committee and other international aid organizations working in Rakhine have strongly denounced the continuing violence and encouraged unrestricted access to safely deliver lifesaving essential services in all affected communities.  The IRC is one of the largest health care providers in Rakhine, now offering more than just health care the IRC expanded their services to include reproductive healthcare, hygiene services, clean water, and protection of female members. Another NGO that is working tirelessly in Myanmar is Save the Children, they work with UNICEF on the Myanmar Education in Emergencies Sector to address the education component of the humanitarian crisis affecting the Rohingya, but only in Myanmar. Malnutrition is a terrible problem especially for children and unfortunately it is getting worse, sixty percent of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are children. More troubling than this statistic, according to the United Nations Children Fund, Unicef, about twenty-one percent of children below age five will suffer from malnutrition despite the humanitarian aid that they provide. The last NGO that I will talk about is Doctors Without Borders.  The Doctors Without Borders different teams conducted more than 1.3 million medical consultations between August of 2017 and June of 2019 while they are ongoing with their treatment of ten of thousands a month. These teams are also in addition working to improve water and sanitary services while they are also making 193 million liters of chlorinated water available to around 78,000 people who didn’t have it.
It could be argued that the Rohingya people are one of the most persecuted minority groups in the world. In a move that many around the world thought to be correct, The United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution that strongly condemned Rohingya Muslims rights abuses along with other minority groups in Myanmar, including arbitrary arrests, torture, rape and deaths in detention.
The General Assembly also went as far as to approve a resolution, which also calls on Myanmar’s government to take pressing measures to tackle incitement of hatred against the Rohingya and other minorities in the states of Rakhine, Kachin and Shan. Although, General Assembly resolutions are not legally binding, they do often reflect the opinion of the world. The sad commentary and where I feel that the international community totally missed the mark is because even though there has been widespread condemnation of the Myanmar government’s actions  there have been no actions to sanction the country even in the instance where the UN Security Council placed an appeal to Myanmar to stop the violence still no sanctions were imposed. I believe that there will be no foreseeable solution for the plight of the Rohingya, first because  any workable resolution to the Rohingya crisis will require speak to the root causes of the crisis, which would have to include  acknowledgement of Rohingya citizenship in Myanmar and of the basic rights of the Rohingya people. These are steps that must be taken by the authorities in Myanmar.  The international communities will also have to hold the military of Myanmar responsible for their actions and the government will have to allow the UN the ability to check on the city of Rakhine.
Work Cited:

The International Community’s Response to the Rohingya Crisis
“Myanmar Humanitarian Crisis.” 2019. ACFID. June 28.


The Role of Military Force in Promoting Humanitarian Values

Recent years have seen an increase in military force being used as a tool for increasing the scope for humanitarian values within conflict zones. This paper assesses this trend, and uses a number of conflict case studies as a vehicle for evaluating this premise. In doing so, this paper considers that the Libyan intervention in 2011 offers a case study which argues that state led humanitarian intervention is borne out of a political, as opposed to a humanitarian, need. This undermines the promotion of humanitarian values.

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The concept of military led humanitarian intervention can be found within a highly subjective area of academic and political thought. With regards to this, there are some commentator’s, such as Waxman (2013: n.p.) who consider that military led humanitarian intervention consists of  “the use of military force to protect foreign populations from mass atrocities or gross human rights abuses” whilst others, including Marjanovic (2012: n.p.) see this particular course of action as being “a state using military force against another state when the chief publicly declared aim of that military action is ending human-rights violations being perpetrated by the state against which it is directed”. With regards to this subjectivity there is a series of overlapping concepts that help to further the debate in this area. These overlapping areas can be found within a number of conceptual areas including war and conflict within which humanitarian values are negatively impacted by activities which impact upon non-combatants, these include human rights abuses.  Where humanitarian values are considered, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) (2013) holds a perspective which suggests that these comprise of aspiration in relation to humanity, neutrality, independence, and impartiality. In this regard, therefore, one can suggest that where military forces are deployed in order to promote or support humanitarian operations it is necessary that these forces act accordingly within the boundaries of these guiding principles. In their totality, therefore, it is arguable that there exists a number of factors which need to be present where a situation occurs that requires military led humanitarian assistance.
With regards to any underpinning intervention that relates to issues covered within humanitarian interventions, Weiss (2012: 1) believes that it is possible that an underlying notion of a “responsibility to protect” is a dominating factor in contemporary geo-political thinking, however instead of this doctrinal approach being used across the globe Weiss (2012) believes that the global community tends to cherry-pick the various conflicts that it intervenes in, this is discussed elsewhere in this paper. That said, Minear & Weiss (1995) had previously indicated that any military intervention that seeks to promote humanitarian values should incorporate a post war recovery planning and redevelopment programme. However recent decades, particularly since the end of the Cold War, has seen an increase in the numbers of military led humanitarian interventions that are related to “activities undertaken to improve the human condition” (Weiss, 2012: 1). This latter issue, concerning the human condition, suggests that there has been a genuine shift in the contemporary conflict environment. This shift is primarily based on the progression from conventional warfare to of asymmetric warfare which involves a number of non-state actors and combatants. This is a factor that has not been ignored by Weiss (2012). Here the suggestion that, today, only state led military interventions can promote humanitarian values has been promoted because non-state actors are not bound by regulations and international protocols regarding the dynamics and conduct of war. Indeed this particular perspective gains an increased level of support where the current post Cold War conflict environment is considered.
For Pattison (2010) the years following the end of the Cold War have resulted in a vastly increased number of military operations that have been designed to support humanitarian values through intervention. These interventions have occurred in a plethora of collapsed or failed states and include, but are not limited to. post Gulf War (1991–2003) Iraq, Bosnia – Serbia (1995), The Balkans and Kosovo (1992-1999), East Timor (1999) Somalia (2002), Haiti (2004), and Libya (2011). These interventions, for some, also include the post 9-11 era’s intervention in to Afghanistan and latterly in Iraq (2003-2010) (Pattison, 2010). In this regards, Weiss (2012) believes that the underlying concept of humanitarian intervention has helped to increase the potential for international interventions into other states because of a need to increase the level of protection offered to non-combatants from conflict. However, the earlier indication of cherry picking conflicts offers for a greater insight into the nature of political discourses which take place at the United Nations (UN) Security Council with regards to these conflicts and where state led political aspirations are an overbearing factor in the intervention tools and choices made by states. Indeed one can argue that the current and ongoing conflict in Syria offers as a casing point particularly since all state actors which have intervened possess their own aspirations in shaping the future of that particular country (Haaretz, 2014; Press TV, 2013; Ruthven, 2014; Time, 2015). In some respects, therefore, the issue of humanitarian intervention and its related values base is being abused in order that these political aspirations can be furthered (Dagher, 2014). This aspect, however, is a perpetual factor in the international arena, particularly where realist agendas are taken into consideration (Bayliss & Smith, 2001). One area where international intervention has been encouraged is in relation to ethnic conflict.
Kaldor (1998) recognises that the end of the Cold War resulted in an increase in the frequency of ethnically charged conflicts and that these types of conflict have been offered as a rationale for international humanitarian based interventions In respect of this, Kaldor (1998) argues that the changes that have taken place within conflict dynamics that has resulted in belligerent forces not being constrained by international regulations, including the Geneva Convention protocols, Laws of Armed Conflict or relevant United Nations Charters (Kaldor, 1998) has led to humanitarian values being used as an excuse to further the political aspirations of a number of states. The result of this changed dynamic has perpetuated and has spread to a number of conflict zones around the world. However, it has led to an increase in the reliance upon conventional forces whose role has been to offer peace keeping and security services to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in support of their own operations. In this respect it is noted that Christoplos, Longley, and Slaymaker (2004) consider that the intervention strategies have also altered in recent years. Here, they note that  the underpinning intervention programmes now seek to promote humanitarian values and that this is evidenced by the creation of a tripartite doctrinal system which now utilises areas of national and personal rehabilitation; added to this are post war recovery programmes that are intended to help redevelop both the state and social infrastructures; finally there is the central issue of relief programmes that seek to maintain the fabric of civil society during crisis periods. For Seybolt (2007) this perspective adds weight to any argument that promotes the possibility that military humanitarian interventions can assist NGOs in their duties via the provision of security provisions. However, it is also recognised that adding external military forces into a combat zone has can lead to further complications primarily because military operations possess a potential for using force when necessary (Davidson, 2012; Ministry of Defence, 2011).
In promotion of a perspective which says that deployed military forces can utilise force is well grounded in military doctrines. For example the UK Ministry of Defence promotes a policy whereby “The peacekeeper fulfils a mandate with the strategic consent of the main warring parties, allowing a degree of freedom to fulfil its task in an impartial manner, while a sustainable peace settlement is pursued.” (Ministry of Defence, 2011: 1.1). This perspective suggests that it is possible for military personnel whose primary function is to assist NGOs as part of the promotion of humanitarian values is in fact a secondary consideration. Ultimately the use of military force within humanitarian interventions is a purely political choice that is intended to help reshape the political landscape of the affected region or state in the post conflict environment. With regards to the current Syrian conflict, one can argue that the divergent and conflicting political perspectives and aspirations is a factor which will undermine the potential for any real focus upon the promotion of humanitarian values. Indeed, it is also recognised that this eventuality does little to promote the principles of humanitarianism as argued by the likes of the ICRC (2013). In effect the possibility that military forces can conduct purely military operations, or war phase fighting, during a humanitarian intervention undermines any utilitarian or altruistic claims made by the respective political powers. In its totality this suggests that the aforementioned issue of political realism is both present and ongoing.   Indeed such an argument can be backed up by a policy review of the recent and ongoing Afghan conflict.
A review of UK doctrinal papers promotes this paper’s preference that military operations incorporate the possibility that war fighting, as well as security duties, is a contingent factor in the preparations for any military force. Stabilisation programmes in the Afghanistan intervention occurred in an environment where the UK’s military “had the consent of the host nation government but no other warring party (Afghanistan: Taliban 2001 – present)……..A military force may decide in such situations that the defeat of a specific enemy is essential to the success of the operation.” (Ministry of Defence, 2011: 1.1). Essentially, therefore, in political terms it is feasible that political intentions can undermine any altruistic argument in relation to the deployment of military forces to carry out humanitarian operations. For some the recent ‘humanitarian’ intervention into Libya is an example of this outcome.
The recent UN backed military intervention in Libya was mandated via humanitarian intervention that was intended to provide relief and assistance (United Nations, 2011). The promotion of this intervention was supposed to further the seven values of humanitarian intervention, as promoted by the ICRC (2013) however one can argue that the resultant intervention was mainly politically motivated because there is sufficient evidence to indicate that Gaddafi’s regime had been a long time foe of those states which executed the intervention (USA, UK & France) (Boulton, 2008). In promotion of their intervention, the USA UK, and France had argued that a failure to intervene would result in a humanitarian crisis caused by the perpetuation of conflict. However, Kuperman (2011) argues that the resultant UN Resolution 1973 (United Nations, 2011) created conditions where the intervening military forces could operate beyond the realms of Resolution 1973. These included, for example, allowing the USA, UK, and France to conduct stabilisation operations so that the authority of the Gaddafi regime could be undermined, thereby helping to bring this conflict to a swift conclusion. In layman terms this meant military intervention via war fighting. With regards to this, Kuperman (2011) also argues that Libyan state functions were impacted, including the freezing of its financial and economic assets. It was also argued that the intervening forces of the USA, France and the UK oversaw the deployment of private military contractors whose role was to undertake anti Gaddafi operations thereby seeking to overthrow his regime (RT News, 2012). In effect, the usage of humanitarian justifications for military intervention in conflict can be defined in terms of the actions and justification of the states whose forces have been committed to operate in those areas and regions.
In its totality, therefore, the usage of military force as an effective instrument for the promotion of humanitarian values is limited. These limitations can be found within the underlying political rationales that exist within states that are prepared to commit forces for these operations, particularly where these states have an interest in the realisation of a particular outcome. Whilst humanitarian led interventions have become a mainstay of the post Cold War climate, one can argue that the promotion of the seven humanitarian values that are promoted by the ICRC (2013) are undermined by the intervening forces because of their ability to both flout their mandate, as well as their ability to conduct war fighting operations under the guise of humanitarianism. In essence, therefore, one can argue that there are genuine limits to the ability of military forces to promote humanitarian values however these limitations are not factors which states consider when seeking to intervene in any conflict.
Bayliss, J., & Smith, S., (2001), The Globalisation of World Politics. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Boulton, A., (2008), Memoirs of the Blair Administration: Tony’s Ten Years, London: Simon & Schuster.
Christoplos, I., Longley, C. and Slaymaker, T., (2004), The Changing Roles of Agricultural Rehabilitation: Linking Relief, Development and Support to Rural Livelihoods, available at, (accessed on 17/10/15).
Dagher, S., (2014), Kurds Fight Islamic State to Claim a Piece of Syria, (online), available at, (accessed on 17/10/15).
Davidson, J., (2012), Principles of Modern American Counterinsurgency: Evolution and Debate, Washington DC: Brookings Institute.
Haaretz, (2014), Russia demands Israeli explanation of air strikes in Syria, (online), available at, (accessed on 20/10/15).
International Committee of the Red Cross, (2013), Humanitarian Values and Response to Crisis, (online), available at, (accessed on 17/10/15).
Kuperman, A., (2011), False Pretence for war in Libya, available at, (accessed on 17/10/15).
Marjanovic, M., (2011), Is Humanitarian War the Exception?, (online), available at, (accessed on 17/10/15).
Minear, L and Weiss, T.G., (1995), Mercy Under Fire: War and the Global Humanitarian Community, Boulder: Westview Press.
Ministry of Defence, (2011), Peacekeeping: An evolving Role for the Military, London: HMSO.
Pattison, M., (2010), Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility To Protect: Who Should, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Press TV, (2013), Hezbollah to remain in Syria: Official, (online), available at, (accessed on 20/10/15).
RT News, (2012), Stratfor: Blackwater helps regime Change, (online), available at, (accessed on 17/10/15).
Ruthven, M., (2014), The Map ISIS Hates, (online), available at, (accessed on 20/10/15).
Seybolt, T., (2007), Humanitarian Military Intervention: The Conditions for Success and Failure, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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The Crisis of Humanitarian Aid in Syria

The seven-year Syrian civil war has claimed the lives of approximately half a million people and displaced around eight million. The “human rights community,” both nations and international organizations, have responded with humanitarian assistance. While offering promising solutions, such transnational activism has been riddled with unforeseen consequences, biases, and blind spots effectively extending the conflict. Many countries give aid to Syria, only do so to further their strategic interests. The dark side of humanitarianism has states translating suffering to local and specific concerns in order to gain legitimacy on the domestic front. The European Union gave over 3 billion euros to Turkey, the site of refugee camps on the northern border, to further increase its economic bond with a non-E.U. Member. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) gave 5.1 billion dollars to humanitarian organizations in Syria. USAID hoped that by adopting this strategy, they could control the situation in a more distant way, rather than the hands-on approach taken in Libya (Marks). Iran has been giving food, blankets, and water for the benefit of the Assad regime. The most unusual form of aid comes from the Israeli government through operation “Good Neighbor.”

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At the onset of the civil war, Israel provided aid to Syrian civilians wounded near the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria. The aid consisted of medical supplies, water, electricity, education, or food. Over 200,000 Syrians have received such aid, and more than 4,000 of them were sent to Israeli hospitals, including combatants (Gross). The IDF has granted special permits for Syrians who were critically injured to enter Israel and obtain the necessary medical treatment with the IDF escorting them to and from the hospital. In September 2018, the Netanyahu government announced that it was ending the aid program (Gross).
This response to suffering is an example of foreign aid being politicized and used as a guise for diplomacy. Israel sought to improve its standing in the eyes of potentially hostile Syrian citizens by creating a positive bond between the Syrian populace and the Israeli government. However, “Operation Good Neighbor” serves more as a tool of defense as it discourages combatants from potentially raiding Israeli territory. It also serves as a way of maintaining Israeli control of the Golan Heights. Even the vocabulary of human rights can create winners and losers. The legal definition of refugee can both exclude some who are in need of protection and legitimate the engagement of the UN.The Syrian civil war also saw the use of “humanitarian bombing.” In the early stages of the conflict, Syrian citizens were imploring the U.S. government to begin a bombing campaign in the name of human rights. Jessica Whyte notes, “Today, the line between human rights organizations and the militaries of Western states is blurred, and the human rights movement has “entered the thick of organized mass violence” (Aporia of Rights, 184). Humanitarian bombing in Syria is also used as a political tool as it gives Obama/Trump administrations the ability to intervene without risking the lives of Americans. It gives the American populace the moral justification they need to continue intervention in the area, without the feeling that they are sacrificing the lives of fellow Americans. The use of gas bombings by the Assad regime and the violation of the Geneva conventions is considered an acceptable reason to continue violence in Syria. Using this framework, issues of human rights are stripped of their aid component and are instead only tied to political matters. Compassion has been replaced by vengeance. The language of human rights is now a casus belli for Western Imperialism. Jessica Whyte writes “Ultimately, war itself has come to be viewed as a technical instrument for preventing the abuse of human rights.”(Aporia of Rights, 196). The universal vocabulary of human rights has become a tool not only for NGOs, but also the Pentagon.
In Crisis Caravan, Linda Polman writes, “There are no rules, no limits, and no requirements to have any understanding of the local balance of power, or to coordinate with other parties involved, humanitarian agencies included. In fact, for reasons of competition and public relations, aid agencies often choose not to discuss details with their fellow organizations (Crisis Caravan, 99).” Within the context of Syria, this has lead to disastrous consequences.
Much of the aid given internationally has fallen into the hands of Bashar AlAssad. U.N. Agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) have allowed the Assad regime to determine the use of a $30 billion international humanitarian response (Marks). The Syrian government has donor funds to skirt sanctions and subsidize the government’s war effort. Most of the money is diverted funds from the very same Western governments that imposed sanctions on the Syrian government.
In April of 2018, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) debated centering aid for the Syrian Civil War in Damascus (Marks). While no formal decision has been made, aid organizations have protested the suggested action, which would make humanitarian aid no longer appear neutral. The current base in Amman allows for a consistent flow of cross border humanitarian aid. Humanitarian actors in civil conflicts across the globe increasingly find themselves caught between the competing political interests of regimes, complicating the implementation of relief actions.
The humanitarian response in Syria is sharply divided over the issue of neutrality via the Syrian government. Humanitarian organizations operating across borders in rebel-held areas do so without the state’s consent. They hope that by doing this, they can both be providing aid and simultaneously reporting on regime violence against civilians. These actors are slowly disappearing from the stage as the Assad government regains and consolidates its military and administrative control. In response to how humanitarian actors deal with areas in conflict, Linda Polman writes,
“In war zones, there’s no chance of fair competition…. warlords and army commanders hold onto power, having transformed themselves into members of the highest post-war business and political circles, with whom INGOs negotiate. So most of the houses and services INGOs need are provided by local war elites. Cousins, uncles, and close friends of those in power have the best chance of being chosen to supply goods to INGOs and to run the restaurants and clubs where the foreigners spend their evenings. Providers of cheaper goods and services suffer intimidation to deter then from taking part in the tendering process.” (Crisis Caravan, 100). Neutrality, in terms of the material needs of humanitarian actors, can never be truly achieved as the reliance on one side over the other, generates perceived bias.
The proposal of a Damascus centralized humanitarian response is increasingly becoming the official international humanitarian presence in Syria. This new paradigm of aid facilitates government control and discretion over the distribution of services and aid. As a result, humanitarian actors who are now operating in Damascus, principally U.N. agencies and 31 other humanitarian groups, have become ingrained in the structure of the Syrian bureaucracy (Marks). This reality of providing aid in Syria has severely curtailed their ability to help citizens in need, regardless of political affiliation, and to implement programming and deliver aid effectively.
A Damascus controlled U.N. humanitarian effort will remain subject to the complicated government bureaucracy and its recurring administrative and bureaucratic constraints to access and programming. Aid would be limited to governmentcontrolled areas and propagandized. Such a move would enable the Syrian government to increasingly centralize control over the Syrian humanitarian response, resulting in a humanitarian regime more acquiescent to the interests of the Syrian state or, at the least, silent to the violence employed against Syrian civilians throughout the war.
This paradigm of human rights is a fundamental weakness in our international system of aid. Getting around it is extremely difficult and requires a certain commitment foreign government and aid organizations mostly are not willing to make, which is to seize control, themselves, of the politics of the region.
Gross, Judah Ari. “Operation Good Neighbor: Israel Reveals Its Massive Humanitarian Aid to Syria.” The Times of Israel, 19 July 2017,
Marks, Jesse. “Analysis | Humanitarian Aid in Syria Is Being Politicized – and Too Many Civilians in Need Aren’t Getting It.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 5 Aug. 2019,
Polman, Linda, and Liz Waters. The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid? Picador, 2011.
Yeatman, Anna, and Peg Birmingham. The Aporia of Rights: Explorations in Citizenship in the Era of Human Rights. Bloomsbury Academic, An Imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Inc, 2016.