Humanitarian aid represents a commitment to support vulnerable host populations that have experienced a sudden emergency and/or require ongoing assistance to improve quality of life. Over the past fifteen years humanitarian agencies, private organisations, governments, corporations, individuals and other stakeholders have proliferated, along with differing values, goals, strategies, actors and activities. Despite good intentions and successes this complex field with diverse mandates, people, time lines, funding and absence of clear definitions to describe specific identities, presents a chaotic and confusing image to the public, host governments, recipients and ongoing challenges for agencies and aid workers. Weak coordination, erratic funding and differing roles often lead to expensive duplication of services, wasted resources and present serious credibility and survival issues to agencies that depend on donor funding to save and improve the lives of the vulnerable. Hence this paper deconstructs the roles of and linkages between emergency, relief, rehabilitation and development aid, identifies problems that impact on effectiveness and sustainability and points to progress and achievements over the past fifty years.
The paper argues that certain themes of general relevance can be highlighted, while at the same time acknowledging that particular policies have to be fashioned in the light of sui generis circumstances. First, strategic, coherent and long-term approaches to the processes of transition are not integrated into the agendas and implementing mechanisms of interventionist policy-making institutions. Second, there is an imbalance between short-term, ‘hard’, visible reconstruction meaures and ‘soft’, long-term civil society programmes. Third, the humanitarian dimension has been geared towards social engineering rather than towards civil development based on local ownership of the peacebuilding process. In this last aspect, a distinction might be made between social engineering that promotes change in civil, political and demographic structures (by holding elections, by fostering refugee returns, for example), and civil development that emphasises change in the way power relationships are expressed (by for example, promoting transparency and accountability in both external assistance to war-torn societies and in generating local civil society).
The first section of the paper begins by examining the need for attention to transitions, the lack of coherence that arises from neoliberal pressures for subcontracting and the retraction of state welfare provision, and the problems that arise from assumptions that rehabilitation is part of a relief to development continuum. The next section addresses the continuities in war-torn societies that have to be addressed in analysing the social-civil dimension of rehabilitation. They include the perpetuation of security risks, guerilla war economies, military provision of humanitarian aid and the power relationships established by external actors. The third section considers the concept of ‘transformation’ of society in transitions to relative peace, the obstacles that exist to transformation, the limits of social engineering and the role that external agents can play by adapting concepts of accountability and evaluation to particular situations.