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Humanitarianism Sacrificed: Integration's False Promise

  • Nicolas de Torrenté


In recent years, there have been concerted efforts to ensure that the different components of the international response to crisis-affected countries, whether conducted under the banner of the United Nations or not, are integrated in pursuit of a stated goal of comprehensive, durable, and just resolution of conflict. This includes a drive to purposefully make humanitarian assistance to victims, one of the principal forms of outside involvement in crisis situations, supportive of the “international community's” political ambition. The implication of the coherence agenda is that meeting lifesaving needs is too limited in scope, and that the principles of impartiality, neutrality, and independence that have typically characterized humanitarian action should be set aside in order to harness aid to the “higher” goals of peace, security, and development.



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1 Bryer, David , “Politics and Humanitarianism: Coherence in Crisis?Henry Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, February 2003, p. 11; available at

2 Tim Poletti, Healthcare Financing in Complex Emergencies: A Background Issues Paper on Cost-Sharing, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, November 2003.

3 Médecins Sans Frontieres, Access to Health Care in Burundi: Results of Three Epidemiological Surveys; available at The introduction of a lower, “all-inclusive flat fee” in MSF programs to mitigate the impact of full cost recovery also resulted in almost 10% of the population being excluded from health care.

4 On Angola, see Medecins Sans Frontieres, “Angolans Left to Die: Abandoning the Humanitarian Imperative,” October 2003; available at

5 See UN OCHAs financial tracking system at

6 See de Torrenté, Nicolas, “Humanitarian Action under Attack: Reflections on the Iraq War,” Harvard Human Rights Journal 17 (Spring 2004), pp. 130.

7 One leaflet pictured an Afghan girl carrying a bag of wheat and read: “Pass on any information related to Taliban, Al Qaeda and Gulbaddin to the coalition forces in order to have a continuation of the provision of humanitarian aid.” Another leaflet read: “Any attacks on coalition forces hinder humanitarian aid from reaching your areas.” See Kenny Gluck, “Coalition Forces Endanger Humanitarian Action in Afghanistan”; available at

8 See Médecins Sans Frontières, “Doctors Without Borders Shocked by Killing of 5 Staff in Afghanistan,” press release, June 3, 2004; available at

9 Bradol, Jean-Hervé, “The Sacrificial International Order and Humanitarian Action,” in Weiss-man, Fabrice, ed., In the Shadow of ‘Just’ Wars: Violence, Politics, and Humanitarian Action (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004 ), p. 5.

11 See Anderson, Mary B., Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace—or War (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1999). Anderson does argue that aid is good, and that her focus is not on removing it but on making it better. However, there is little discussion of how a potential conflict of interest between peace promotion and immediate relief should be handled, opening the door for interpretations that promote minimizing or even withholding aid in order to “do no harm.”

12 See Ian Smillie and Larry Minear, “The Quality of Money: Donor Behavior in Humanitarian Financing,” Humanitarianism and War Project, April 2003; James Darcy and Charles-Antoine Hoffman, “Humanitarian Needs Assessment and Decision-Making,” Overseas Development Institute, September 2003; available at

13 Bryer, “Politics and Humanitarianism,” p. 13.

14 Bradol, “The Sacrificial International Order and Humanitarian Action,” p. 16.

15 Ibid., p. 18.

16 See, e.g., Médecins Sans Frontières, “Left Without a Choice—Chechens Forced to Return to Chechnya,” May 2003; available at–06–2003.shtml.

17 See, e.g., O'Brien, Paul, “Politicized Humanitarianism: A Response to Nicolas de Torrenté,” Harvard Human Rights Journal 17 (Spring 2004), pp. 3141.

18 On the approach of aid organizations, in particular U.S.-based NGOs, toward the U.S. government before and during the war in Iraq, see de Torrente, “Humanitarian Action under Attack,” pp. 1–30.

19 See, e.g., O'Brien, “Politicized Humanitarianism.”

20 For arguments in favor of a “variable” humanitarian-ism, see Slim, Hugo, “A Call to Arms: Humanitarian Action and the Art of War” (Geneva: Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, February 2004).

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Humanitarianism Sacrificed: Integration's False Promise

  • Nicolas de Torrenté


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