8 Events that made the modern humanitarian sector


How has the humanitarian sector come to be how it is today? What are the events that led to its current structure? Here at Trust we have tried to make sense of the history of the sector to understand the current challenges we face today. There are a lot of events that we could have included, but we decided to focus on what we believe continues to shape the system today.


The founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross. 

The International red cross (ICRC) is the oldest organisation within the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and the most honoured. The Red Cross was founded by a man called Henry Dunant in 1863 who lobbied political leaders for a treaty that would oblige armies to take care of all wounded soldiers and for the creation of national societies that would help the military medical services. This emphasis on neutrality would become a core point of the organisation’s ethos and lead it to having a unique authority under international humanitarian law to act as a neutral humanitarian intermediary to protect victims of international and internal armed conflicts.

The Geneva Convention

The history of the Geneva Conventions starts in 1864 when the Swiss government invited the governments of all European countries, as well as the United States, Brazil, and Mexico, to attend an official diplomatic conference and on 22 August 1864, adopted the first Geneva Convention “for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field”. The convention contained ten articles, establishing for the first time legally binding rules guaranteeing neutrality and protection for wounded soldiers, field medical personnel, and specific humanitarian institutions in an armed conflict.

The second convention, “for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea“, was first adopted in 1949 and was a successor of the Hague Convention (1907). The third Convention defined humanitarian protections for prisoners of war and was adopted in 1929 but heavily revised in 1949. Finally, the fourth Geneva Convention defined protections for civilians in war zones and was adopted in 1949.


The Bretton Woods Institutions At first glance this sounds a bit like a home security company. In fact the Bretton Woods Institutions refers to the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). They were set up in 1944 during a meeting of 43 countries in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, USA. They were founded to help rebuild the devastated economies of countries affected by the second world war and to encourage international economic cooperation. The ideas came from then US Treasury Secretary Henry Morganthau, his chief economic advisor Harry Dexter White, and British economist John Maynard Keynes. It was felt that the failure to address economic problems after the first war had led to the second and that global economic cooperation was necessary to maintain international peace and security. The IMF would create a stable climate for international trade and be able to provide temporary financial assistance to countries encountering difficulties. The World Bank would serve to improve the capacity of countries to trade by lending money to war-ravaged and impoverished countries for reconstruction and development projects.


The 1951 Refugee Convention

In the aftermath of World War One there were millions of people in search of refuge, governments responded by drafting up international agreements to provide documents for people who were effectively the first refugees of the 20th century. After world war two the numbers increased dramatically. In 1951 a conference in Geneva adopted the refugee convention. This convention forms the basis of UNHCR’s work. Importantly, it defines the term ‘refugee,’ and its core principle is ‘non-refoulement’ which states that refugees should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. States are expected to work with the UNHCR to ensure that the rights of refugees are respected and protected. An additional protocol was added in 1967 as the 1951 convention was largely limited to European refugees. The 1967 protocol expanded its scope to the problem of displacement worldwide.

1977 amendment protocols of the Geneva conventions

The Geneva Conventions left gaps in important areas such as the protection of civilians from the effects of hostilities. To remedy this, two additional protocols were adopted in 1971. Protocol 1 prohibits indiscriminate attacks, and attacks or reprisals on civilian populations and infrastructure. Protocol 2 addresses internal conflicts and sets out to ensure the application of the Geneva Conventions to internal conflicts of the main rules of war. The additional protocols have been accepted by many states but not all so it’s not yet possible to ensure equal protection for all victims of armed conflict.

Neoliberalism in the 80s

This isn’t quite an ‘event’ in the conventional sense but neoliberalism has defined modern humanitarian aid in a number of ways. Neoliberalism emphasises free market competition, it favours the control of economic factors from the public to private sector. Economic liberalism advocated the abolition of government intervention in economic matters. Such ideas were “liberal” in the sense of no controls. In the 1970s, economic stagnation and increasing public debt prompted some economists to advocate a return to classical liberalism, which came to be known as neoliberalism. This was accepted by the major political parties in Britain and the United States, and achieved power with the lengthy administrations of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan. The main points of neo-liberalism include privatisation and deregulation as well as the idea of ‘personal responsibility’.

The IMF and World Bank pushed neoliberal policies in recipient countries as the two institutions required borrowing countries to implement certain economic policies in order to obtain new loans. For example Structural Adjustment Programmes loans provided by the IMF and the World Bank to countries that experienced economic crises, were supposed to allow the economies of the developing countries to become more market oriented. This then forced them to concentrate more on trade and production to boost their economy. However, the conditions that came with loans were generally aimed at neoliberal and ‘free market’ policies, and included internal conditions such as privatisation. This generic free market policy was criticised for its lack of involvement from the recipient country and the debate on ownership became one of the core principles of the Paris Declaration.

The Paris declaration for Aid Effectiveness

The Paris Declaration came amongst global debates on aid effectiveness. Western donors began to enforce aid conditionality on the basis that recipient governments made economic changes as well. However, Donor governments and aid agencies began to realize that their many different approaches and requirements were imposing huge costs on developing countries and making aid less effective. They began to work on harmonising and coordinating aid.

In 2005 the international community came together in Paris to develop a joint consensus on what needs to be done to produce better development results.  It was acknowledged that the aid process was too strongly led by donor priorities and administered through donor channels, making it hard for developing countries to take the lead.

At the Paris meeting, more than 100 signatories—including donor and developing-country governments and international agencies—endorsed the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness. Its principles lay open the possible ways to undertake, which can be interpreted also as the major objectives of good aid: fostering recipient countries’ ownership of development policies and strategies, maximizing donors’ coordination and harmonization, improving aid transparency and mutual accountability of donors and recipients, just to name a few.

The Accra Agenda for Action

Following the perceived success of the Paris conference, another high-level meeting on aid effectiveness was held in Accra in 2008 to build on the work that began in Paris. The Accra meeting was different from its predecessors in that developing countries played a more active role in the preparations and the agenda. The conference in Accra aimed to speed up progress towards the Millennium Development Goals, drawing on evidence from evaluations since Paris. Three main areas where progress toward reform was too slow were identified as; country ownership, building more effective and inclusive partnerships, and achieving and accounting for development results. The Accra Agenda for Action stated that transparency and accountability are essential elements for development results, as well as drivers of progress. The idea was that donors and recipients can be held accountable for what they spend and aid can be made more effective through transparency.

If you had to pick the defining events that have shaped modern humanitarian policy, what would they be? Is there another event that you would add?
Join the discussion and comment below!


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