Principles in Practice

Q and A on Humanitarian Principles

NRCs magazine Perspective has asked Kristalina Georgieva, European Commissioner responsible for humanitarian aid, and Elisabeth Rasmusson, Secretary General of NRC, to share their opinions on some of the key issues currently being discussed in relation to humanitarian principles.

There is always a residual temptation to play politics with humanitarian aid. Paradoxically, this temptation seems to become particularly strong when political solutions to political problems look out of grasp.


Elisabeth Rasmusson
Previous Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council

NRC works to protect the rights and provide assistance to displaced people during crisis. NRC operates in more than 20 countries around the world.


Kristalina Georgieva
European Commissioner for International Cooperation
Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response

As head of the EU’s department for humanitarian response, she controls the world’s second largest aid budget.My experience is that humanitarianism is deeply rooted in all religions and value­ systems. I have yet to meet anyone who does not embrace the principles as such.

In today’s world where conflicts so often involve several conflicting parties and non-state actors, are the humanitarian principles still relevant and of practical value?

Kristalina Georgieva:
The humanitarian principles are more relevant than ever. We are seeing more complex conflicts, with a more complex constellation of actors, and less straightforward command structures. This makes it all the more important that all the players on the ground understand that humanitarians are not a party to a conflict. The principles do not by themselves offer watertight protection against attacks on humanitarians. But they are the best hope we have of getting into conflict zones and keeping access to the people who need it.

Elisabeth Rasmusson:
The humanitarian principles are essential tools that we use to navigate obstacles that may impede our access to people in need during crisis. NRC often works in insecure and unpredictable contexts. We use an ‘acceptance approach’ to navigate these situations, and it is vital that the parties in hostile environments perceive NRC as neutral.

Is adherence to the humanitarian principles under threat, and from what or whom?

Kristalina Georgieva:
In the EU at least, no one is seriously questioning the principles. There is always a residual temptation to play politics with humanitarian aid. Paradoxically, this temptation seems to become particularly strong when political solutions to political problems look out of grasp. The biggest threat, however, comes from ignorance. This is why we all have a responsibility to get through to all sides of a conflict – especially armed non-state actors that are often now the real decision makers.

Elisabeth Rasmusson:
Many humanitarians are concerned about the push for comprehensive or integrated approaches, which seek to include humanitarian action within crisis management strategies. What we have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq is that these strategies shift the burden of risk onto the civilian population. They redefine who gives – and who receives aid – as being aligned to one side of the conflict against another.

Critics often assert that the humanitarian principles represent a Western or neo-colonial agenda, what are your thoughts on this perception? How can humanitarian actors work to improve acceptance of the principles with those who criticize them?

Kristalina Georgieva:
Let us not forget that ”hearts and minds” strategies were tried in various colonial and post-colonial conflicts – so labelling the humanitarian principles as a neo-colonial agenda is putting the issue upside down. If you look at the troubled history of the relationship between aid and stabilization agendas in more recent conflict situations – take Afghanistan as an example – the notion that the humanitarian principles somehow reflect a Western security agenda is just not credible. I think the ability of, for example, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to work across a remarkable range of conflict situations shows that most cultures are open to the very simple argument that helping people in desperate need is a goal that surpasses all sorts of political considerations.

Non-traditional donors like Russia, China, and Brazil strongly support the principles, but voice a strong insistence on not only talking about the principles, but also on implementing them. So in order to be convincing, we have to be credible and consistent with the principles ourselves.

Elisabeth Rasmusson:
My experience is that humanitarianism is deeply rooted in all cultures, religions and value-systems. I have yet to meet anyone who does not embrace the principles as such. However, some states are not convinced or are doubtful that aid organisations are in fact independent and neutral. That means that we as humanitarians have a responsibility to build trust through our actions and dialogue on the ground.

Are humanitarian organisations able to be truly independent given how much of their funding comes from states with foreign policy agendas that are much broader, and can even be in conflict with, the alleviation of suffering?

Kristalina Georgieva:
Most of the big donors recognise that they would be hurting themselves if they started exerting political pressure on serious humanitarian organisations. And most humanitarian agencies have the guts to tell their donors to back off if they think undue pressure is being exerted. But there has always been another serious issue which is less about politicisation and more about chasing headlines: almost all donors have a tendency to put money into the big, high-visibility crises to the detriment of forgotten crises where people may be suffering just as badly or even worse.

Elisabeth Rasmusson:
Objectively speaking, it should be irrelevant where the money is coming from as long as the assistance is being delivered in accordance with the principles. However, this is also a question of perception. This is why NRC and many other NGOs in certain circumstances have not taken US money, even if there were no strings attached. In some cases, if you take US money you can be automatically linked to US operations and no longer seen to be impartial or neutral, regardless of what criteria you based the assistance on. There is, however, a dilemma many organisations face, namely that it is much easier to obtain funding for high-visibility conflicts than for protracted or neglected crises.

Do you believe that humanitarian actors live up to the principles? How can the humanitarian community improve their practices?
Kristalina Georgieva:
My impression from my own visits to crisis areas is that the humanitarian community does live up to the principles. People risk their lives to save the lives of others, and they are fully aware of the consequences - for access, and for their own safety and security – if they fail to live up to the principles.

One thing the humanitarian community needs to do more and better though: it needs to ensure that the principles do not become a wall to engaging with development actors on issues like transition or resilience, or indeed talking to military actors where they are also present. And we also should not be afraid of advocacy on the simple fact that a political problem like Syria requires a political solution!

Elisabeth Rasmusson:
NGOs also compromise the principles; either because they are not fully understood or integrated in their work, or for short term gain. This can negatively affect the perception and treatment of the wider humanitarian community. For example, if an NGO uses an armed escort provided by a party to the conflict, it may gain them access in the short term, but undermine the identity and security of all other NGOs in the long term. Humanitarian organisations therefor need to strengthen their implementation of the principles, both within organisations and collectively.

What concrete steps do donors need to take to strengthen their support of principled humanitarian action?

Kristalina Georgieva:
One thing above all: be credible and consistent. Don’t just talk about the principles - act on them. And make sure you explain why you are doing so - constantly, and to everyone, not just the humanitarian community.

Elisabeth Rasmusson:
There are a number of important challenges: continued prioritization of politically important crises that get a lot of attention in the media over protracted or neglected crises irrespective of needs. Overly bureaucratic conditions which undermine timely and predictable funding, and, of course the negative impact of security and political strategies which seek to include humanitarian action as part of comprehensive crisis management strategies.

First published in NRC's Magazine Perspective, November 2012