The humanitarian aid business has grown like crazy over the past decade and a half. States saw investment in relief response as a revived foreign policy tool, much used in the early half of the 20th century but forced out of vogue during the confrontational politics of the cold war. Humanitarian aid now regularly turns over 10-12 % of ODA and more than $9 billion a year, and that does not include funding from private sources, which is conservatively estimated at $2-3 billion a year. The figures are well documented in the Global Humanitarian Assistance Report.
This period of growth has also witnessed an increased concern for the quality of aid, witnessed in the flowering of many initiatives to provide common standards and accountabilities across the business. The Code of Conduct, the Sphere Standards, ALNAP and People in Aid all came out of the growth period of the nineties, as did the reform of the UN’s humanitarian endeavors leading to the OCHA of today with ReliefWeb, IRIN the Humanitarian Information Centers (HICs), the Financial Tracking Service (FTS) for tracking global spending, and finally, if belatedly, the Good Humanitarian Donorship Initiative of the donor nations.
This period of growth coincided not only with the end of the cold war but with the growth in connectivity across the world leading to what we today term globalization. The internet existed before 1990, but only really as a tool of universities and the military. Now it is everyone’s. Cell phones have done more to connect and empower people in Africa than any other technology to date. Cheep air travel and, in most countries, an easing of visa requirements has made travel so much easier. Trade barriers and currency controls have tumbled.
But globalization is not, actually, a new phenomena. Our world went through a very similar period of globalization between the middle of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, driven by the spread of empires (from the west and the east, in the shape of the Ottoman empire), the development of the telegraph and later telephone, and the travel-liberation that the railway brought. In deed the world was more globalized in 1900 that at any time again until the mid-nineties.
And here is a curious thing. Humanitarianism was really born in that first period of globalization. The Red Cross, the Save the Children Fund, and the massive relief efforts following World War one, the Relief Union of the League of Nations: these all marked the first organized and sustained attempts at responding internationally to crisis. Today in Globalization mark two we see another wave of seeking to respond to international crisis though this time round the emphasis is on reforming the structure born our of that first rounds of globalization.
There has got to be a PhD topic or two in there, explaining the correlation between the process of globalization and the growth in international humanitarianism.
The real question though is, where does it go next? The present humanitarian system is shaped very much like that first period of globalization it was born in: one of western dominated colonialism. The new globalization is looking to the east. It is the economic dynamos of China, India and SE Asia that are in the ascendancy. Will this re-shape the humanitarian community? Will we see the morphing of once western dominated clubs and alliances (“the donors”, the big transnational NGOs, the western led UN agencies like WFP and UNICEF) into bodies led and shaped from the east? And what difference will this make, if any, for those at the bottom of the economic pile, those who humanitarianism purports to aid?
I don’t have the answers, but I do know that aid agencies would be well advised to make the running in this inevitable change process rather than defending the status quo, as to do so would inevitably mean being on the receiving end of imposed change, and this is never a strategy for independence and enlightenment.