The politics of coherence: humanitarianism and foreign policy in the post-Cold War era

The politics of coherence: humanitarianism and foreign policy in the post-Cold War era

Why coherence between humanitarian and political action may not provide the best strategy for relief

Examines the idea of coherence between political and humanitarian action which emerged in the aftermath of the Rwandan experience. It analyses the evolution of the concept in the last decade and its implications for the relationship between humanitarian and political action. It focusses on the global policy responses of two donor governments – the UK andthe Netherlands – and of the United Nations, to complex political emergencies.

The paper identifies the move toward coherence stems from the realisation that relief assistance in complex emergencies in the first half of the 1990s was failing to reduce the vulnerability of populations in the medium- to long-term and that warring parties were turning to relief to sustain themselves. In this context emerged the idea that as relief might fuel conflict, so more skilful delivery might serve to dampen it.

The briefing identifies a trend that is becoming evident among the donor community towards integrating humanitarian assistance into a wider foreign policy framework. It concludes that the present emphasis on integration of these two policy domains is counterproductive and risks violating humanitarian principles.

It argues for a revived political response to chronic conflict in non-strategic areas that is distinct from the humanitarian response and that humanitarian action has to be coherent with a form of international politics that is both vigorous and based upon the need of conflict-affected people rather than the domestic politics of powerful states. It recommends:

  • Reaffirming humanitarian principles of impartiality and independence of humanitarian action, underscoring that its primary purpose is the alleviation of suffering not to resolve conflict or achieve a particular political objective.
  • Recognising the potential conflicts between humanitarian principles and claims to contribute to peacebuilding and developmental objectives

The full report on which this Briefing Paper is based is available from ODI entitled: Macrae, J & Leader, N (2000) Shifting Sands: the search for ‘coherence’ between political and humanitarian responses to complex political emergencies, HPG Report No 8.

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