This paper is concerned with the tension between what it describes as “pure” humanitarianism and the increasing pressures on relief workers to become politically engaged by adopting developmental approaches and by seeking to actively resolve disaster-producing conflicts. Combining theory with case studies concerning the delivery of health and food aid in war zones, it argues that while seductive, attempts to use relief aid as a tool for political engagement are fraught with practical and ethical difficulties. Not only are developmental goals elusive in conflict environments, but abandoning principles of neutrality and impartiality to determine the allocation of scarce resources increases the risk of aid being manipulated by warring parties and by donor governments. While not unproblematic, the paper concludes that neutrality and impartiality remain the best principles currently available to organise humanitarian action.
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