World Humanitarian Day 2016

I’m a human; does that make me a humanitarian?

A humanitarian, as defined by Webster’s dictionary, is a person promoting human welfare and social reform; a philanthropist.

Humanitarianism, over the past 10-20 years, has become much more complex than just giving money or resources to those in need while advocating for others to do the same. Organizations that provide aid to people in need (whether it be to the sick, poor, vulnerable, etc.) very rarely refer to themselves as “philanthropic” or “charitable;” more often now, you will see organizations describe themselves as “humanitarian.”

Over the short history that exists regarding foreign aid deliverance, aid providers and governments have realized that people (particularly people living in Western nations) want to help people in need in any way that they can. In our ever increasingly interconnected world, we learn about natural disasters, global conflicts and crises almost instantaneously to their occurrence. This high-level of information availability has resulted in more people—all over the world—calling on their governments and even donating their own resources to assist people who are affected by these crises. But with so many non-profits, aid organizations, and governmental programs from which to choose to donate, it results in many different organizations working in the affected areas and communities all at once.

The United Nations and NGOs decided that it was necessary to develop protocols and policy regarding humanitarian organizations working in affected areas as well as policy as to how all the different organizations work together to provide relief. Most NGOs when working in emergencies follow the humanitarian imperative: that action should be taken to alleviate human suffering and that nothing can override that imperative.  They also use these guidelines (also called the humanitarian principles) as a basis to their aid deliverance:

  1. Humanity: Human suffering must be addressed wherever it is found. The purpose of humanitarian action is to protect life and health and ensure respect for human beings.
  2. Neutrality: Humanitarian actors must not take sides in hostilities or engage in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature.
  3. Impartiality: Humanitarian action must be carried out on the basis of need alone, giving priority to the most urgent cases of distress and making no distinctions on the basis of nationality, race, gender, religious belief, class or political opinions.
  4. Independence:Humanitarian action must be autonomous from the political, economic, military or other objectives that any actor may hold with regard to areas where humanitarian action is being implemented.

information provided by OCHA

When emergencies occur, the UN deploys a “cluster system” that assists NGOs and aid organizations in organizing their resources and priorities. It isn’t always a seamless process; especially during emergencies. But these protocols are in order to help keep humanitarian organizations accountable as well as organized when providing aid in an emergency situation.

Each organization falls into a different cluster depending on the services they provide. This system is implemented so that during an emergency, all organizations–no matter the size–have a contact that is overseeing the cluster, who has a contact overseeing the emergency response, etc.

Being a humanitarian organization requires more than just a desire to help someone and give to someone; there are expectations, protocols, and policy put in place to maintain the humanitarian imperative.


Can you apply the humanitarian imperative and the humanitarian principles into your own life?



Katie Talley is a summer intern at Concern Worldwide U.S.