Humanitarian Work: Realities and Challenges

The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies has published Ghassan Al-Kahlout’s foundational book on humanitarian work, Humanitarian Work: Reality and Challenges, as an effort to position this new academic domain in the Arab world and assist in the formation of Arab researchers by sharpening their understanding of topics in the field of humanitarian action and developing the competencies needed to contribute original research and studies in the field. Two centuries ago, humanitarian action was reliant upon sentiments of altruism and benevolence. With calls for a world free of war and conflict following World War II and the establishment of the new world order, an institutional framework in which sovereign states could be organized took shape with the United Nations – and subsequently succeeding institutions and agencies – replacing the League of Nations. The human predicament remaining disparate and imbalanced, however, wars and conflicts have not ended; societies and countries, unable to face natural disasters and devastating wars by themselves, continue to require assistance. And the governance of humanitarian work itself has become a necessity to ensure professionalism, with continual changes in the specialization and competence of humanitarian workers.

Disasters and Emergencies

In the first of the book’s eight chapters, “Disaster, Conflict, and Complex Emergency,” the author outlines the main domains of humanitarian work, starting with the concept of disaster, both natural and man-made, and detailing varieties thereof in terms of scale, scope and recurrence as well as issues of disaster management and adopting to their circumstances. He then reviews basic concepts in conflict studies, tools for analysis of their multiple levels and the associated violence and destruction, in addition to examining the views of scholars and theoretical schools on topics of warfare such as the factors underlying the emergence and disappearance of war, and intervention to resolve conflicts.

The second chapter, “The Historical Evolution of Humanitarian Action: From the Battle of Solferino to the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul,” chronicles humanitarian work and presents historical harbingers of humanitarian action and analysis, showing the historical evolution of these: from the era of colonial empires and wars during which colonial powers made use of humanitarian work to achieve their goals; to the most important foundational stage of humanitarian action life in the late nineteenth century with the beginnings of a systematization of humanitarian work; to the exponential growth of humanitarian work in the twentieth century, as witnessed in the First and Second World Wars, the Biafran War, the Cold War, the War on Terror and the Arab Spring in the twenty-first century.

Principles and Frameworks

In the third chapter, “Principles of Humanitarian Action,” the author considers the norms and values framing humanitarian ideas and philosophy, and the operational and guiding principles governing behavior of humanitarian workers, including the main points of difference between humanitarian action theories and in practices. The most important of these principles are state sovereignty, “Do No Harm,” and the fundamentals of humane conduct, impartiality, neutrality, and independence. He also offers guidance on ensuring the implementation of these principles, especially in cases where barriers to implementation may emerge from pressure exerted by donors, governments and other stakeholders, or from legal barriers that run contrary to humanitarian principles, or difficulties imposed by temporal and spatial circumstances.

Chapter Four, "Legal Frameworks for Humanitarian Action," deals with the most important legal structures and legislation defining the key areas and scope of work of the humanitarian sector, delineating the official structures responsible for interpreting and implementing international and national agreements and treaties with respect to humanitarian organizations. In this process, the author expounds on key legal regulations and their effects on the various parties and relationships. International humanitarian law, international human rights law and international refugee law are also presented with a focus upon the responsibility to protect the rights of civilians and all those affected by war and violence.

Standards and Governance

The fifth chapter “Humanitarian Standards for Achieving Quality and Accountability” presents initiatives and proposals that have become a major part of humanitarian work: codes of conduct, the humanitarian charter, minimum humanitarian standards, and other practical indicators and guidelines that govern the behavior of humanitarian actors at individual and institutional levels – based on the principles of “Do No Harm,” and the “Right to Protect,” and offering assistance to those injured in pursuit of their rights.

In the sixth chapter, “Governance of the International Humanitarian System,” the author deals with the field of humanitarian actors and their structural and institutional frameworks, focusing on the United Nations and its main agencies and the roles of its influential humanitarian bodies: the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations Children's Fund and the World Food Programme, the United Nations Development Programme and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. It also lists the specific components, conditions, and missions of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Funding and Changes

In Chapter Seven, “Funding Humanitarian Action,” the author enumerates the types of funding that donors provide on behalf of the those in need, according to donor type and the levels of coordination maintained with other donors, and the most important linkages that govern the direction of their assistance spending. This chapter also considers the value of material or in-kind aid and the reasons for its growth over time; ratios of aid distribution amongst beneficiaries; prevailing trends in modern humanitarian financing; the role of religious considerations; the private sector’s role in the continuously increasing volume of humanitarian aid; and challenges still facing humanitarian funding such as the gap between the required and the available, legal obstacles arising from anti-terrorism legislation, difficulties in coordination between donors, and the negative impact of media promotion and donor-driven aid agendas.

Finally in Chapter Eight, “Changes on the Humanitarian Stage: Reality and Future,” the author outlines some changes regarding issues related to the criminalization of humanitarian work, its association with terrorist activities, organized crime, and other manifestations of moral and financial corruption that have been recurrent on several occasions, in addition to the mixing of profit motives and political agendas with humanitarian ones: such as, for example, controversial relationships between humanitarian organizations, armies, private security sectors and armed formations. The author closes with remarks on the seemingly endless crises facing the humanitarian aid sector as it contrasts with the paucity of solutions, contributing to an associated loss of professionalism and competence in humanitarian work, and the part that such factors can play in shattering humanitarian principles and throttling humanitarian work.

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