7 Misconceptions About Humanitarian Aid

I have heard many assumptions made about humanitarian aid in my 23 years of experience—some true, some completely false.

I have heard many assumptions made about humanitarian aid in my 23 years of experience—some true, some completely false.

Humanitarian relief is often needed in the most difficult places—places characterised by chaos and conflict—and there are more people in need worldwide than there are resources currently. Given these complexities and constraints, it is no surprise such misconceptions arise.

Let’s look at seven common misconceptions about humanitarian aid:

1. All organisations are the same

There is considerable overlap in the work done by humanitarian organisations today. That is why it is integral that organisations learn to complement rather than compete with one another.

However, there are and need to be significant differences. Organisations simply cannot excel in every area nor operate where every need exists. Some are more skilled to deliver emergency medical care, while others identify the needs of people with disabilities in crises. In a humanitarian crisis, this provides opportunity to collaborate to fill in the gaps and meet the most needs.

There is also strength in numbers. More organisations skilled in shelter reconstruction means more people receive shelter support, as long as strong coordination is involved. Partnerships and collaboration over distinctiveness is important to saving as many lives as possible in emergencies.

2. Humanitarian aid is delivered mainly by expatriate relief workers

Many people have the perception that humanitarian relief is carried out almost entirely by international relief workers. However, in 2018 Medair employed almost 1,200 relief workers from the countries in which we operate and only 200 international relief workers. Even among our international staff, our relief workers come from diverse backgrounds and nations.

National relief workers are our first responders and the heart of any humanitarian response. They are essential to delivering effective relief to those in need and are the experts in their communities, cultures, and languages. Their presence continues in communities long after organisations leave, making results more sustainable.

3. Faith-based aid organisations cannot be neutral

It is a common misconception that organisations founded on religious beliefs serve to proselytise or prioritise aid to those who share their religious beliefs. However, for any faith-based organisation, including Medair, who adheres to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent (ICRC) Code of Conduct, this is not the case.

The ICRC Code of Conduct clearly excludes any form of religious discrimination in humanitarianism. That means that although Medair is a faith-based organisation—our vision and mission are inspired by Christian faith—our actions are exclusively humanitarian and not limited to people of like faith.


4. Aid organisations operate under old-fashioned models

With lives hanging in the balance, there is always a sense of urgency in humanitarian aid. That makes it difficult to pause long enough sometimes to reflect on ways to improve. While there is considerable room for improvement, innovation has become a strategic objective for many humanitarian organisations in recent years. In fact, it was a key theme during the Humanitarian Summit held in Istanbul in 2016. At Medair, we invest considerable energy and resources into rethinking the way we deliver aid to the remote communities we serve so we can reach more people, better.

5. If humanitarian aid were effective, the problem would go away

Humanitarian action alone will not solve complex humanitarian crises. Even aid organisations who do advocacy to promote human rights and influence policy are not always successful in forcing the political action that is needed to break cycles of violence or poverty. Political will and commitment at both national and international level will go a long way in addressing the root causes of humanitarian crises.

However, that does not mean that humanitarian aid is just a Band-Aid on the problem. Aid organisations exist to stand in the gap to reduce the suffering caused by emergencies and prevent the further loss of lives. They can also help build people’s resilience and reduce vulnerability. Humanitarian aid does not solve the crisis but we can bring hope and show people that they are not alone during an incredibly challenging time.

6. You cannot trust aid organisations with your money

When results are not immediately visible from a distance, the question often arises, “where did all that money go?” Corruption and fraud in humanitarian aid does exist and is unacceptable. It limits the amount of aid reaching people who desperately need it. What is sometimes not understood is that emergencies create chaos and weaken governmental systems, making them more susceptible to financial abuse and misuse.

However, most organisations have significant measures in place to lessen the chance of this happening. At Medair, this is achieved by upholding a stringent Code of Ethics to prevent fraud, implementing policies and practices that adhere to strict financial and logistical procedures, and creating an effective reporting system that protects whistleblowers, maintains confidentiality, and ensures prompt follow-up.

Corruption is not a pleasant subject, but the global humanitarian community has much to gain from sharing best practices and standing together against fraud, as well as being transparent about the challenges with donors.

7. Media and politics determine who receives help

With the growing number of people in need worldwide, the humanitarian community is under immense pressure to deliver aid to more people with fewer resources. This poses an uncomfortable dilemma for aid organisations and donors about where to allocate funding amidst such massive need.

Governmental donors’ priorities and media attention do impact the amount of funding allocated to different crises. However, this does not represent the whole picture. Many institutional donors—including the EU Civil Protection & Humanitarian Aid (ECHO)—have made commitments to identify and fund “hidden” or less mediatised emergencies. These commitments are an important step in the right direction to reaching more people in need in remote and isolated areas.

Medair has also long been committed to responding to “forgotten” emergencies where needs are high. This, however, requires more flexible streams of funding. Engaging the private sector and individual donors enables greater agility to be able to respond where the needs are greatest, regardless of where institutional funds are available, and ultimately save more lives.


More from David Verboom, CEO: Syrian Crisis: Why Mental Health Should Be a Priority.