An Insight into Humanitarianism

Posted by

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of taking a day trip up to St Andrews to meet with Samantha Ku and Yasmine Maize, third year UC Irvine Students studying abroad at the University of St Andrews.  Samantha was kind enough to send me her reflections on the lecture we attended together put on by Dr Ashley Cole, our Edinburgh Study Centre Programme Manager.


“In late April, I attended a lecture on the tensions and challenges of humanitarianism by Alasdair Gordon-Gibson, a PhD candidate at St Andrews. His extensive background working with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in various humanitarian emergencies around the world gave critical insight to challenges that are often overlooked in the “aid industry” (more on this below!). While I personally focus on international security, I have always been interested in the humanitarian regime. I think there are a lot of linkages between humanitarianism and international security, especially in our ever-more globalised world. The inside-look into Mr Gibson’s twenty-plus years of experience in emergency response and aid was a welcome perspective to a field that is of immense interest to me and I think something that is prominent in the current political discourse.

As we learned in the lecture, it is not necessarily a failure of the humanitarian system but rather that of the political system. There is limited access for the United Nations and aid-agencies to war zones and this inaccessibility dramatically hampers relief efforts. If we look back, the Great Lakes refugee crisis in 1994 is another example. 800,000 Rwandan refugees crossed the border to Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, in five days. The camps were in an incredibly hostile environment, both mentally as these refugees were fleeing genocide, and physically, as the camps were below active but dormant volcanoes. It was a public health disaster, with 30-40,000 deaths in the first three weeks. The media noted this as a “cholera epidemic” though most died from dysentery and dehydration. The reluctance of the international community to respond effectively could be traced to the unwillingness to trespass on state sovereignty. This failure is also linked to the 1993 “Black Hawk down” incident in Mogadishu, Somalia, where many American forces were killed. Public outcry in the United States changed American policy in Africa, making it hesitant to intervene. Thus, this was a failure of politics and not the aid regime.

A highly intriguing part of the lecture was that of the “CNN effect” where the media ignores pre/post violence phases and is highly selective in its coverage of conflicts. In an age of prolific news coverage and fast-spreading information through social media, this is more important than ever. For example, in the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami in Sri Lanka, there was an over-donation of aid and money, with much of it earmarked for tsunami-relief only. Thus, extra funds could not be diverted to other emergency areas that would benefit more. The flooding of international aid and their inability to spend quickly enough led to a demonization of aid agencies. This was exacerbated as the most heavily affected areas of the tsunami were Tamil-held; the Sri Lankan government had been at war with the Tamil Tigers and was suspicious of aid money going to those regions. The media also focused on tourist casualties and resorts on the coastline which was just 1% of the affected population. The role of the media has a highly contentious effect on aid management.


Humanitarian aid is an increasingly professionalised sector, which is what Alasdair calls the “aid industry.” There is the issue of over-professionalisation and adjusting to the expectations and limits of donors. The more money that is donated, the more bureaucracy there is to manage its use. We discussed the fine line that aid agencies need to balance in terms of compromise and complicity. We left the lecture with one central idea: the humanitarian aid community needs to heed ownership of the response to the affected population, rather than attempting to solve the crisis without consulting those who are affected. There needs to be more accountability and transparency on the side of aid agencies towards the population they are aiding.  Mr Gibson ended with an optimistic outlook on humanitarian aid: humanity’s coping mechanisms are more robust that one may think and even in the face of incredible adversity, life goes on.”

I want to extend my thanks to Mr Gibson for hosting a wonderful lecture and to Samantha (pictured below in her St Andrews gown) for her insightful feedback about the day!