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Humanitarian Aid is Everyone’s Business

The provision of impartial aid to affected populations has become everyone’s business in this post-globalized world. A practice that has been often relegated to International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs) and aid agencies in the 20th century, is getting more and more players interested in joining the aid game. For the past two decades, there has been tremendous growth in the number of individuals, corporations, and private enterprises involved in providing humanitarian services.[1]

Challenges are also simultaneously growing and complexifying. Humanitarian catastrophes like the Syrian and the Yemen conflicts, climate change’s consequences, or the COVID-19 situation, are examples of how the system dealing with these crises is lacking reinvention, and it indicates that we need to rethink our models and ways of working . Two hands will always be better than one, and to stay relevant and efficient, the humanitarian system is requiring other actors to be involved.

Especially now during the COVID-19 crisis, thinking about continuing this archaic vertical flow of aid seems impossible, not only because it reproduces inequal and neocolonialistic models, something that is not ‘human’-itarian, but because logistically speaking, without local actors, there cannot be any real effective response to crises like this pandemic.

Aid agencies receive millions of dollars annually, but effectiveness and sustainability are not always aspects that sit at the core of their projects. On several occasions, aid is conditioned a priori by donors’ interests, thus, aid’s scope and frame of action and objectives, end up ignoring crisis-affected people and obeying external parties’ interests. For aid to gain more independence, the diversification of actors in the humanitarian system is a very positive change.

For instance, the US-led humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan after 2001 was not well received by the Afghan population since they did not buy the coalition’s “win hearts and minds” approach. The real reason why they needed that help in the first place was because of who was offering it. The crisis was addressed for satisfying American interests’ of succeeding in their military operations rather than for helping people affected by crisis.

Another example is China and their economic humanitarian approach where they prioritize exportation infrastructure help in Africa rather than what the crisis-affected people really need at certain contexts. The Chinese state does this in order to secure the facilitation of the exploitation of natural resources and not to alleviate the suffering of people in crisis[2].

The provision of aid to vulnerable populations prior to, during, and following a crisis should increasingly become a multi-sectoral collaboration involving both the public and private sector. In that way, solidarity could overcome wilsonian and charity-based humanitarianism. However, it must be said that as we move forward towards a more complex future, such collaborations are expected to vary, multiply and be imperative for humanitarian actors to stay relevant.

For example, during the COVID-19 crisis, actors such as the World Health Organization and the International Chamber of Commerce recognize the importance to collaborate and coordinate with private sector actors: “All businesses have a key role to play in minimizing the likelihood of transmission and impact on society. Early, bold and effective action will reduce short- term risks to employees and long-term costs to businesses and the economy.[3]

We cannot look aside; humanitarian endeavors are failing to meet the needs of the people they are targeting to benefit[4]. A lot of factors explain the past sentence: its diverse roles, funding sources, limited mandates, and the lack of a precise identity have all contributed to their chaotic and confused public image.

Yemen is a clear example of the bad public image that INGOs are creating. According to Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia is responsible of the shelling of thousands of civilians in their southern neighbors’ territory[5], but it is still the top donor for the crisis that it is majorly responsible of causing[6]. Therefore, in the humanitarian operations where INGOs partner with Riyadh, there has been corruption allegations and misleading objectives in the projects where the Kingdom is giving the money[7].

The way in which the system has been built and reproduced, it has given an extreme importance and centrality to donors and their interests. The economic model of NGO's since the 80’s and 90’s is based on institutional donors, producing overheads and private donors’ collection; some NGO's have developed strong dependencies (more than 25%) with specific government cooperation agencies.

Hence, a humanitarian sector without donors would not exist. This is why, a part of these new crises consists of the fact that some states are constantly deciding to disengage from their annual contributions to the aid system on the one hand, and that INGOs are reluctant to implement different type of measures, such as localization, because it threatens their economic model on the other hand.

The resurgence of nationalist agendas has a disruptive potential for the humanitarian system with the possibility of nationalist governments rejecting international aid in order to re-enforce their sovereign power. From 1984 to 2012, international humanitarian aid (all aid or aid from specific sources) for major natural disasters was rejected sixteen times, with rejections increasing notably after 2005.[8]

The COVID-19 crisis is raising alarms as well. Populists speeches are gaining popularity among European countries because of the mismanagement of the pandemic. In Italy, for instance, the vote intention favorizes the far-right party of Lega for the next elections, a political party that has defended going out of the European Union and that has argued for less engagement with humanitarian issues.

Therefore, the inclusion of other sectors could be beneficial for the humanitarian sector: New actors coming from the private sector could operate more as implementers than competitors to NGOs, leaving space for a cooperative approach rather than a conflictive one. This is a way in which humanitarian action can be reinvented and be more independent.

There are other private businesses at local, regional, and national levels which are currently involved in the delivery of humanitarian aid as direct implementers. This has brought the possibility of aid privatization in the future. For example, the contribution of the private sector towards the Philippine’s Typhoon and the Haiti earthquake accounted for 70%.

When this finally happens, there is likely to be an increased emphasis on quality driven accountability to aid beneficiaries. The targeted beneficiaries of humanitarian assistance could have an opportunity to choose the type of services they subscribe to,[9] bringing crisis-affected people to have more influence in the decision-making process.

There is also an extra benefit from varying the actors involved in humanitarian operations: the growing influence of private actors, who typically focus on activities with high returns on investments and the push for value for money from donors, will continue to pressure INGOs to operate by prioritizing efficiency and accountability, forcing them to change or cease to be relevant.[10]

On a final note, many of the changes that are happening in the humanitarian ecosystem, require humanitarian actors to change their operating model to adapt to a changing environment. This transformation will largely rely on shifting power to local actors, the ones that have always been in the frontline of humanitarian crises, and genuinely empowering regions affected by disasters to respond to and rebuild sustainability after crises.

For that purpose, aid actors cannot continue reproducing reactionary models that at the end benefit INGOs and not crisis-affected people. One way of doing this is to stop reacting to every crisis that comes up from scratch. The time has arrived to have a plan and include foresight methodologies as a way of better analyze complex scenarios and come up with different ways to address present and future challenges. This is important because once you have a clear vision of potential outcomes of a phenomenon, humanitarian leaders can then have more accurate ways to minimize the impacts of the crisis that we have to live with in the present and in the future.


[1] Zyck, S. & Kent, R., (2014). Humanitarian Crises, Emergency Preparedness and Response: The Role of Business and the Private Sector. Overseas Development Institute. p.14

[2] Banik, D and Hegertun, N (2017) Why do nations invest in international aid? Ask Norway. And China.

[3] WHO (2020) ICC-WHO Joint Statement: An unprecedented private sector call to action to tackle COVID-19.

[4] Patton, A., (2014). Will the Private Sector “Shut Out” Aid Groups in Emergency Response? Devex

[5] HRW (2020) Yemen.

[6] Slemrod, A and Parker, B (2020) US, UK threaten to cut Yemen aid due to fraud and obstruction; The New Humanitarian.

[7] Slemrod, A and Parker, B (2020) US, UK threaten to cut Yemen aid due to fraud and obstruction; The New Humanitarian.

[8] M. Maietta, E. Kennedy, F. Bourse – Future of Aid: INGOs in 2030, IARAN – 2017, p. 52

[9] The Economist, (2017). A Growing Share of Aid Is Spent by Private Firms, Not Charities, 4 May 2017

[10] Zyck, S. (2015) Private Sector Engagement in Humanitarian Response, Advanced Training Program on Humanitarian Action (ATHA), Podcast, 19 February 2015


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