The Pros and Cons of Humanitarian Aid

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Humanitarian aid has become a highly debated topic. Despite aiming to help people affected by conflict, crises and poverty, some claim humanitarian assistance, in its current form, is ineffective.

Major humanitarian organisations and donors provide strong evidence of the important role aid plays in saving lives and lifting people out poverty. On the contrary, commentators and reformers, both inside and outside the sector, point to a long list of humanitarian aids failures and short-comings.

But who is right? Well… both in many ways. Humanitarian aid has many advantages and disadvantages. Let’s break them down…

Benefits of Humanitarian AidNegatives of Humanitarian Aid
Saves lives and limits sufferingCan’t guarantee success
We have a moral obligationCan create dependencies
Increases local capacityPossibility of corruption
Helps build peaceDoesn’t always reach the most in need
Assists tradeDependant on donor funding
Works to alleviate povertyNot a long-term solution
Can be a foreign policy toolChronic inefficiencies
Tackles global diseasesCan be biased
Can create sustainable changeDifficult to measure impact
It’s value for moneyCan distort economic markets
It makes the world fairerToo Western focused

Now you have an overview, we’re going to dive into the detail and see what makes these factors the main arguments for and against international aid…

Saves Lives and Limits Suffering

The most important argument in favour of humanitarian aid is that it saves lives and reduces suffering among people affected by conflicts, disasters and poverty. Humanitarian aid plays a key role in helping people desperately in need of assistance and this is a significant argument for it.

When large numbers of people are affected by disasters, or armed conflict they are in urgent need of aid. A strong argument for humanitarian relief is that it reduces the impact of crises on communities, limiting deaths and suffering and assisting people to return to their lives.

International aid plays a vital role in meeting people’s needs during and following a crisis. This can include provision of food, water, sanitation, shelter, protection and a wide range of other types of assistance. Providing this aid has a direct impact on saving lives and reducing human suffering and this is hugely strong point in favour of humanitarian aid.

We Have a Moral Obligation

A second point in favour of foreign aid is that we have a moral obligation to assist people in need. When large number of people are affected by devastating events, often in some of the poorest countries in the world, richer nations have a moral imperative to provide assistance. This is a big argument for humanitarian aid.

Richer nations have significant resources and the expertise to be able to respond to humanitarian crises, not to do so would morally repugnant. It cannot be right for those with the ability to assist large numbers of people in need to not do so.

Providing humanitarian aid to people living through conflicts, crises and poverty is ethically the right thing to do. This is major argument for international aid. It is the right thing to do for nations, organisations and individuals in a position to assist those affected by humanitarian emergencies to do so.

Increases Local Capacity

One of the main benefits of providing humanitarian aid is that it helps to build the capacity of local responders. Nowadays, humanitarian organisations dedicate a significant part of their response to increasing the skills, knowledge and resources of local actors. This means they are better able to respond to future crises. Capacity building is a big argument in favour of international aid.

Humanitarian organisations use many methods to increase the capacity of local responders. This includes hiring national staff, delivering trainings and partnering with local NGOs. All these methods, over time, make communities better able to assist themselves and less reliant on outside assistance.

Foreign aid has a strong track-record of successful capacity building and this is a strong argument for it. Places such as the Philippines and Indonesia, two of the country’s most prone to humanitarian disasters, are now far less reliant on outside assistance than in the past. Capacity building is a huge benefit of humanitarian aid.

Helps Build Peace

A factor in favour of humanitarian aid is that it can help to build peace and prevent conflicts. Many wars are started by poverty, exclusion and lack of resources and humanitarian and development assistance can help address these challenges. International aid can also reduce the suffering of people affected by conflicts and this is another of its benefits.

An argument in favour of humanitarian aid is that it can be used to prevent the root causes of conflicts. International assistance can be used to create more inclusive societies and political structures, as well as boost economics, which in turn addresses the root causes of many conflicts. This can be a major advantage of foreign aid.

Another key way humanitarian assistance can build peace of through addressing the effects of climate change. As the environment warms many places will become unliveable. Foreign aid can prevent people from resorting to conflicts over scares resources and help transition communities as the climate changes. Humanitarian aid will become increasingly important as climate change develops.

Assists Trade

An argument in favour of international humanitarian aid is that it can be used to boost trade. As nations develop and people are lifted out of poverty, they gain the resources with which to trade, including creating their own goods and having the financial ability to purchase from others. Using aid to raise people up economically is highly beneficial for trade.

International aid can also be used to assist people through a time of crises. Aid is used to prevent extreme economic hardship when disasters hit and to assist people in rebuilding their businesses and infrastructure afterwards. In turn, this helps international markets as supply chains are less disrupted and trade can resume quickly.

The role humanitarian aid can play in assisting and protecting global trade is a strong point in its favour. Foreign aid can also be used to boost trade relations between countries as well as for political leverage. Although humanitarian aid should always be delivered to people who need it the most, the role aid can play in trade is one of its big advantages.

Works to Alleviate Poverty

Another major benefit of humanitarian aid is that it helps address poverty around the world. Many nations do not have the economic resources to assist everyone in their country and as people suffer in poverty conditions it is important humanitarian assistance is provided to alleviate suffering.

Poverty has an enormous impact on people, from malnutrition to lack of education, from unclean water to bad housing. All these conditions make it hard for people to reach their potential. In turn poverty limits life opportunities and stunts economic growth. International aid is one of the best ways to lift people out of poverty and this is a massive argument in its favour.

From 1990 to 2015 the poverty rate around the world have decreased from 36.2% to 10.1%. Humanitarian assistance has played a key role in this. Continuing to provide aid to people living in poverty will lift more people towards dignified and productive lives and reduce human suffering. Poverty alleviation is one of the biggest pros of humanitarian aid.

Humanitarian Aid Online Courses

If you want to learn more about humanitarian aid, including its pros and cons, we highly recommend the online course When Disaster Meets Conflict by the Erasmus University Rotterdam. We think it’s one of the best overviews of the humanitarian sector. Follow the link to the course’s page for more information.

The International Humanitarian Law Theory and Practice online course offered by Leiden University in the Netherlands provides a fantastic theoretical overview of humanitarianism. We think it’s one of the top online courses for those who want to understand the basics of international humanitarian law. Click the link to visit the course’s page for more information.

If you are looking to work in humanitarian aid, we highly recommend the online course International Humanitarian and Development Careers. We think it also provides a great overview of the humanitarian sector and gives valuable insights for those searching for jobs in humanitarian aid. Follow the link to the course’s page for more information.

Can Be A Foreign Policy Tool

One advantage of humanitarian aid is that is can assist a country in its diplomacy and foreign policy. There are many ways that aid can be used to achieve international resolutions. These can include being in the interests of the country donating the aid, as well as by groups of nations or international bodies.

Assisting people abroad who are in need can be of real benefit to many nations. Although humanitarian aid should always be given to people affected by conflicts, disasters and poverty, it can also be used a foreign policy tool. This can include promoting the country donating the aid, as a ‘soft power’ tool and as a way to build favour with other nations.

Another benefit of international aid is that it can be used as foreign policy tool to build bridges between adversarial nations. Examples of this include the donation of humanitarian relief to North Korea by South Korea. Two nations who are regularly at odds can begin dialogue with humanitarian aid seen as a first stepping stone towards increased engagement.

Tackles Global Diseases

A big argument in favour of humanitarian aid is that it can be used to tackle global diseases. Communicable disease, such as Covid-19, are not bound by borders. Although rich nations may be able to tackle a pandemic in a comparably short amount of time, if the disease is not under control elsewhere it risks returning.

When diseases occur in other parts of the world they risk spreading everywhere. Humanitarian aid can play a major role in preventing this. A strong example of this is the 2013 – 2016 West Africa Ebola outbreak. Significant humanitarian resources were dedicated to containing the outbreak in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea which in turn prevented the disease from spreading outside the region.

International aid has also played a major role in the control and eradication of non-communicable deceased. Examples include the eradication of small pox and the almost total eradication of polio. In fact, one of the reasons polio is still prevalent in some countries is because conflict has prevented humanitarian access. One of the more significant benefits of humanitarian aid is the role it can play in global health.

Can Create Sustainable Change

One advantage of humanitarian assistance is that it can be used to create long-term change. Foreign aid can play a major role in addressing chronic issues and helping people to achieve a situation where they are then able to assist themselves.

A major benefit of international aid is that as people are assisted, they are then better able to develop, innovate and create dynamic local economies. This isn’t possible among people living in poverty or who have been affected by disasters and conflicts. An argument in favour of humanitarian aid is that it can help people create long-term improvements to communities.

The aid sector is putting an increasing focus on the sustainability of its interventions. This is right. It also means that humanitarian projects can play an even greater role going forward in creating long-term and lasting improvements to peoples lives in some of the poorest nations in the world. This is a significant case for foreign aid.

It’s Value for Money

Millions of dollars a year are spent on foreign aid. However, the with many millions of people assisted, it is actually real value for money. The tangible returns that can be gained from humanitarian aid, in increased trade, reduced conflicts and better capacity to respond to future disasters make it a strong investment financially.

Value for money is now at the core of many humanitarian responses and it is correct that it is. As efficiency increases within the aid sector and wastage decreases, donors to humanitarian projects can ensure that the money they provide is used to assist the most people possible in effective and sustainable ways.

Although humanitarian responses require the mobilisation of significant financial resources, the value that is returned is impressive. There is also the fact that international aid saves millions of lives each year and it is not possible to place a price on that. Humanitarian aid is value for money and this is a strong argument for it.

Makes the World Fairer

The final argument in favour of humanitarian aid is that it makes the world fairer. Global development has been highly unequal with significant wealth and resources grouped in a small number of nations. It is vital that inequality is addressed and international aid has a major role to play in doing this.

Humanitarian assistance can be seen as a transfer of goods and money from people in rich countries to the people in the very poorest. It also works as a way to allow people in developed nations to assist people affected by conflicts and disasters in nations that do not have the capacity to help themselves. These are massive advantages of humanitarian aid.

Whilst the world remains unfair and prosperity is contained in small areas of the globe, humanitarian aid will play a vital role. A major factor in favour of foreign aid is the role it can play in tackling the uneven distribution of wealth and resources.

Can’t Guarantee Success

The first and perhaps most significant argument against humanitarian aid is that it does not always achieve its aims. Many humanitarian projects fail. This can for many reasons. However, each failed project means people have not received the assistance they need and resources have not been used optimally.

A strong case against foreign aid can be its potential lack of impact. Although immediate assistance should be provided to people in need, questions persist on how much this helps in the long term. Actual impacts of humanitarian interventions can be hard to measure and this plays a key part in why some people are against international aid.

Another reason people are against humanitarian aid is that there is no guarantee of success. Humanitarian responses involve extensive commitments of finances and materials and there is no actual assurance that the aid committed will achieve the aims of the intervention.

Can Create Dependencies

Part of the argument against foreign aid is that it can cause dependencies among communities and nations that receive it. As assistance is provided from outside, it can result in a lack of innovation and development. This means people become reliant on aid and fail to develop the economic and political structures needed to move forward.

The case that is regularly made against humanitarian aid is that some countries have received millions, if not billions, of dollars’ in aid but have not been able to lift their populations out of poverty. Many of these countries, such as Afghanistan, are considered to be too dependent on international aid.

Many making this point against humanitarian aid state that it is the way aid is given rather than the actual providing of overseas assistance that causes dependency. Aid should be used to immediately save lives and reduce the impact of disasters. Too often aid is given that stifles local markets and innovation, preventing growth.

Possibility of Corruption

A regular argument made against foreign aid is that it is open to corruption and abuse. Humanitarian responses are often ran in parts of the world with very high levels of corruption. In addition, when societies and communities are disrupted by disasters and crises, corruption inevitably rises.

The contexts in which humanitarian aid is delivered are challenging ones to tackle corruption in. However, a point that is often made against the humanitarian sector is that not enough is done to combat corruption. Although it can be hard to tackle, too many in the aid sector see it as an inevitable part of operating in the difficult places humanitarian workers must operate in.

Alongside financial and material corruption within the aid sector there is also a major issue with nepotism.  This is where powerful people use their influence to assist people they know, such as in recruitment for jobs. The humanitarian aid sector has a major issue with nepotism and not enough is currently being done to address this.

Doesn’t Always Reach the Most in Need

A significant case against humanitarian aid is that it does not always reach the people most in need. There can be many reasons for this, including difficulty reaching areas hit by conflicts and disasters, lack of resources for the aid operation as well as security restrictions.

Although humanitarian assistance is delivered in difficult areas where infrastructure is often damaged and there are many risks, too often aid does not reach the people most in need. This is a strong argument against international aid.

The case that humanitarian assistance often does not get to the people who need it the most is compounded by the outside nature of aid delivery. Often international aid agencies fail to fully understand the context and are easily directed by local political actors. A result is often a lack of independence of aid delivery and a failure to reach people most in need.

Dependant on Donor Funding

An often-sighted argument against humanitarian aid is that it is too reliant on donors. Most humanitarian work is funded by large institutional donors such as USaid, the UK’s FCDO, EU’s ECHO or Germany’s GFFO. These huge donor agencies are all connected to governments and political bodies, which limits the impartiality of their decisions.

The aid sector is too heavily reliant on outside funding. Alongside large institutional donors, large corporations also donate to humanitarian relief. Examples include GSK and Unilever. Although it is good companies use some of their profits to help people in need, many see these donations as cover for corporations from potential negative aspects of their operations.

A major case against foreign aid is the role that donors play in the sector. Often humanitarian agencies must compete against each other to secure funds and this creates a ‘race-to-the-bottom’ as agencies reduce costs and reach in attempts to make their proposals appear more cost-efficient. Humanitarian organisations also often over promise in donor proposals resulting in under-performance and lack of impact – a major criticism of the current aid sector.

Not A Long-Term Solution

One reason against humanitarian aid is that it is not a long-term solution. Humanitarian assistance can play a vital role in saving lives and relieving suffering during and immediately after a crisis. However, it does not always address the long-term and systemic issues.

Many disasters and conflicts are caused by long-term systemic issues. Complex connections between economies, politics, governance and society all compound to create scenarios where crises can occur. International aid does very little to solve these macro-level issues, meaning that crises are likely to continue or return as the underlying causes remain.

Humanitarian aid can play a key role in assisting people affected by crises and can help people rebuild their lives. It can also immediately relieve poverty. However, it can often fails to be a long-term solution for crises affected people or lift people permanently out of poverty. This is a major part of the case against humanitarian aid.

Chronic Inefficiencies

The humanitarian aid sector is chronically inefficient, and this is a big argument against it. There are many examples of wasted resources, ineffective projects, and under-performing responses. Although the aid sector has worked hard to improve its performance, many still complain of a lack of dynamism and effectiveness.

Humanitarian NGOs are often criticized for being too bureaucratic. There are arguments that say the aid sector lacks the ability to adapt and has ingrained inefficiencies throughout. This reduces the impact of the international aid and is part of a strong case against it.

There is a case to be made that increased efficiency is highly required in the humanitarian sector. Inefficient and ineffective responses are too common, and the aid industry needs to improve how it learns lessons from failures and improve its impact. These are all strong points against humanitarian aid.

Can Be Biased

Neutrality and impartiality are two of the core humanitarian principles. However, many humanitarian responses fail to be truly neutral and impartial. Too often aid agencies work closely with governments or military actors or need to make political decisions that go against their principles in order to reach people in need. The fact that aid is rarely delivered in truly neutral or impartial way is a definite negative.

Another core humanitarian principle is independence.  This is another area many aid NGOs fail to fully adhere to. Although humanitarian actors regularly need to work with governments, both as funding donors and in the countries they are responding in, it is too common for humanitarian NGOs to lose their independence.

The ideal that humanitarian assistance should be delivered by impartial, neutral and independent actors is foundational.  The aid sector, in fact, rarely lives up to these ideals and too often is compromised by inherent biases. This can be part of the argument against foreign aid.

Difficult to Measure Impact

Another argument against humanitarian aid is that it can be hard to accurately assess its impact. Millions of dollars are allocated to humanitarian responses and although strong measures are in-place to ensure value for money, there is to guarantee that the aid delivered achieves the desired result.

The humanitarian aid sector has a wide range of tools it uses to design projects and assess their impacts. However, although an aid project may meet its desired outputs, too often it is hard to know if the intended outcomes have been reached. This makes it hard to justify humanitarian interventions.

An additional factor that adds to the negative view that international aid may lack significant impact is that aid agencies often move on once a response is complete. Without a long-term presence, it can be difficult to know if the humanitarian assistance created sustainable change. Without sustainability, questions need to be raised as to how effective humanitarian aid really is?

Can Distort Economic Markets

A major criticism of humanitarian interventions is the negative affects they can have on economies. Humanitarian aid brought into a disaster zone often supplants the local market. This can actually cause lasting damage of local economies and create long-lasting damage to businesses.

A strong argument against foreign aid is that it works outside of the local market structures. It too often assumes people affected by disasters have lost purchasing power. However, bringing in large amounts of aid can actually destroy local economies as people receive items for free that they would otherwise buy.

Another example of how international aid can distort local markets is through real estate. In areas where humanitarian NGOs operate often large numbers of workers move suddenly in. This can mean rents rise sharply as international organisations pay high prices. A result can be the pricing out of local people and lasting damage to real estate markets.

Too Western Focused

The final major argument against humanitarian aid is that it is too Western. Almost all major donors and many of the main humanitarian NGOs are from developed Western nations. This Western focus can mean humanitarian responses fail to fully understand the context they are operating in. It also means humanitarian organisations can fail to take local factors into account.

An extension of this criticism is that international humanitarian responses often fail to incorporate local actors, building parallel systems and working outside the structures already in-place. This can result in wasted resources and reduced impact.

Too often humanitarian responses are ran by Western aid agencies hiring people from developed countries in management positions. This locks out extensive local knowledge and leaves the major decisions in the hands of people with little direct understanding of the area they are working in and the people they are working for. The fact that the aid sector is still dominated almost entirely by Westerners is a significant argument against humanitarian aid.

If you want to learn more about humanitarian aid, explore our list of the top humanitarian aid online courses here.


Duncan is the founder of Humanitarian Careers. With over ten years experience in the aid industry across fifteen countries, Duncan set-up Humanitarian Careers to help people launch their own career in international aid.