Humanitarian interventions exist to meet humanitarian need – the provision of aid to save life and to maintain human dignity. These needs can be generated by large, sudden and globally visible disasters as well as long-term hard to see events such as drought, a sudden upsurge of violence and forced movement of population; or long-term complex emergencies involving multiple elements of both conflict and natural disaster. Yet it doesn’t need a major disaster or a major conflict to create basic humanitarian need; sometimes what might appear to an outsider as a relatively small event – the failure of a single crop, a mudslide – can tip a vulnerable family or community from poverty into a crisis that is literally a matter of life and death. The crisis will almost certainly make them more vulnerable in the future, forcing people to sell their assets and make choices that undermine their future wellbeing and the prospects for their children.
Humanitarian response to this need is complex and varied and not without its confusion. It involves a plethora of actors, international and national, large and small, organisations with complex global mandates and organisations that serve a community or a neighbourhood. There are actions undertaken by militaries and governments and those by families and individuals. There is preparedness for events, immediate response to them, the provision of basic needs and the first elements of recovery. There is also a continual blurring of lines between humanitarian aid, investments in disaster preparedness, recovery programming, and long-term development spending.
This myriad of interconnections is essentially what GHA Report 2010 attempts to track: the response to need, the provision of finance, the actors involved, the funding mechanisms used, and the countries and projects prioritised. A single dollar can actually be spent more than once with every choice made regarding the progress of that dollar through to a final recipient empowers one actor over another, and affects what is finally delivered and to whom.
Effective humanitarian response has a long-term impact, reducing the human consequences of disasters and building resilience. It is one of the components that every society needs to protect the most vulnerable citizens, reduce risk and tackle poverty. At the same time, many people, especially those living in poverty, live their entire lives without the same basic elements that are delivered as part of humanitarian aid, whether that is clean water, adequate nutrition, the basic level of education or a means to earn a simple living. If there is one lesson that emerges from the Global Humanitarian Assistance programme’s attempts to understand the way humanitarian financing works, it is this; if we want a coherent and effective response to humanitarian need, we need to stop classifying people’s lives into artificial boxes that reflect our own management structures and use all of the tools that we have to reduce current and future vulnerability.