Humanitarian aid: 5 things you should know

February 7, 2020

What does it mean to be humanitarian? It’s a word we use a lot, and one that can seem tricky to pin down. Here, we break down the what, who, where, when, why, and how of humanitarian aid.

1. Humanitarian aid is for emergencies

In simplest terms, humanitarian aid is assistance that’s used to relieve suffering during emergency situations. Development aid goes to addressing ongoing issues that contribute to human suffering. 

In these contexts, humanitarian aid usually directly benefits people, such as emergency supply kits distributed to survivors of an earthquake, or health workers screening and treating displaced children for malnutrition while they are living in temporary shelters. It can also take the form of cash payments to help people survive crisis in the short term. Where possible, development aid is often used to improve structural systems that in turn benefit whole communities (such as educational training and support in underserved areas). At Concern, we operate as a dual-mandate organization, addressing both humanitarian crises and longer-term development goals. 

Gloria Domingo, 24, whose home and crops in the village of Mangomo were destroyed by cyclone Idai,

Gloria Domingo, 24, whose home and crops in the village of Mangomo were destroyed by cyclone Idai, photographed after receiving food, seeds and other supplies from Concern and partners in Ndeja, Mozambique. Photo: Tommy Trenchard / Concern Worldwide

Sometimes, the priorities for humanitarian aid and development aid can complement one another: Emergency humanitarian assistance delivered to Mozambique and Malawi in the immediate aftermath of Cyclone Idai, for instance, will help those families most affected by the storm manage in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Development aid may go towards building more climate resilience among farmers in these areas, or towards a greater system of disaster risk reduction so that these communities will be better prepared for the next event. 

2. The first rule of humanitarian aid is…

There are a few key characteristics of humanitarian aid and help the many international organizations working in this field to have a common definition. The “golden rule,” however, is what’s known as the Humanitarian Imperative: Above all, our job is to save lives and alleviate suffering. 

“The right to receive humanitarian assistance, and to offer it… wherever it is needed.” — The International Red Cross & Red Crescent’s Humanitarian Imperative

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent’s code of conduct defines the Humanitarian Imperative (in part) as: “The right to receive humanitarian assistance, and to offer it… wherever it is needed.” At Concern, we balance this out with a focus on maintaining dignity during and in the aftermath of disasters, and strengthening community preparedness for future disasters. 

3. There are four principles of humanitarian aid

There are several other guiding principles for humanitarian aid, originally set out by the United Nations General Assembly. 

  1. Father and son. father is holding out a Concern voucher.

    Adnan Nasser with his son Marwan (names changed for security reasons) holds up a concern e-voucher card which his family uses to buy basic supplies at local participating businesses. Photographer: Kevin Carroll


The principle of humanity means that we must seek to address human suffering wherever it is found, paying particular attention to those who are most vulnerable.

For Concern, this also means that, in every country we operate, our local offices must be prepared to respond to emergencies in a timely and effective manner. We all have a right to a life with dignity. 

  1. Impartiality

Our responses must be provided solely on the basis of identified need, without discrimination between or within affected populations. This is the basis of all “needs-based” programming. It requires us to assess the impact of disasters and to design programs to support those left most in need in their wake. 

  1. Neutrality

We must ensure that our responses don’t favor any side in a conflict, or engage at any time in any political, racial, religious, or ideological controversies. This is perhaps the most challenging of these four principles. 

  1. Independence

The sole purpose of humanitarian activities and assistance is the relief and prevention of suffering caused by crisis. This means we must respond in a manner that is not influenced by political, economic, or military objectives. Humanitarian organizations create and implement policies independent of government policies or actions (hence the term NGO, or “non-governmental organization”). 

A woman with buckets

A woman receives non-food items (NFIs) at a distribution in Trou Louis on the island of La Gonave, Haiti. Photo: Leguenson Jules-Saint

4. Not all emergencies are created equal — and they’re becoming more complex

Traditionally, the basic approach to humanitarian aid is to focus on present needs in the immediate aftermath, while also considering the future to help offset risk from future disasters. However, over the past few decades, emergencies have become longer-lasting and therefore harder to address. The longer an emergency lasts, the more complex it can become. We refer to these situations where government services have broken down as “complex emergencies.” 

Complex emergencies mean humanitarian organizations are missing their most important partner, and people often can’t access the help they need to recover. Organizations also have to dig deeper to find what and where the needs are, and often struggle to find willing funders as crises drag on. Sadly, this is becoming the rule versus the exception. 

5. The rules are straightforward, but it makes the work that much more complicated

Consider this hypothetical situation: You run a Concern program office in a country that has been plagued by years of conflict and instability. Amid this, a 7.5-magnitude earthquake hits one part of the country. 

Working with community members in a transparent manner, you’ve determined which groups in the region need the most help. One is a minority group in a hard-to-access part of the state. The group that controls this part of the country was spared the brunt of the earthquake’s damage, but will only let you access the hard-to-reach area if you also give them some of your food rations. 

Syrian women help unload winterization supplies

Syrian women help unload winterization supplies provided by Concern at an informal tented settlement (ITS) in Akkar, Lebanon. Photo: Kieran McConville

This arrangement would violate the UN’s Humanitarian Principles. But to ignore the group in most need also means going against the Humanitarian Imperative. What do you do? 

Humanitarian aid workers face these quandaries every day, and they make an already-challenging job much more difficult to navigate. In a situation like the above, that may even mean being prepared to pull out of the area altogether if you cannot access the hard-to-reach group while preserving the integrity of the relief work and maintaining impartiality. 

Get updates on our humanitarian response

This is why so much training is required for humanitarian aid workers to ensure that they are well-equipped to navigate these challenges — challenges that can have life-or-death consequences for both the most vulnerable communities and the humanitarian aid workers themselves. (And that’s also why we run two humanitarian training programs to build a better response.)

Rhambutel (70) at a distribution by Concern Worldwide

Rhambutel (70) at a distribution by Concern Worldwide of emergency shelter and relief supplies at the village of Bhirkot in Dolakha district, Nepal.

Humanitarian Aid Explained