Shifting sands: the search for ‘coherence’ between political and humanitarian responses to complex emergencies

Shifting sands: the search for ‘coherence’ between political and humanitarian responses to complex emergencies

Unerstanding the politics of coherence in humanitarian action

The early 1990s have seen increasing calls to enhance the coherence of political and humanitarian action. This report from ODI’s Humanitarian Policy Group examines the origins and evolution of the concept of coherence and its implications in practice. The report details the findings of a six-month study on the politics of coherence. It is particularly concerned to understand the precise character of the new relationship proposed between aid and politics in the post-Cold War era. The study focuses on two donor governments: the British and the Dutch. In addition, it analyses how the UN, the ultimate multi-mandate organisation, provided a means to operationalise and legitimise the coherence agenda. The report puts the arguments regarding coherence in their historical contexts. It outlines how in the post-Cold War era, a shifting interpretation of sovereignty, combined with the forces of globalisation, has forced a re-analysis of the legitimacy of international intervention in conflict-affected states.

The document then examines the changes that have been introduced by the British and Dutch governments in order to enhance the coherence of their humanitarian and political responses to complex emergencies. In both the UK and the Netherlands, the search for greater coherence between humanitarian and political action has resulted in substantive change in the objectives and organisation of humanitarian policy. The report outlines a number of recommendations to donors, the UN and nongovernmental humanitarian agencies. It argues that the idea of good international citizenship is premised upon a shared global analysis of what constitutes a ‘liberal peace’. However, this model is ill-suited to dealing with the very countries most vulnerable to conflict and complex political emergencies. The report recommends that donor governments urgently review the trend towards bilateralisation of humanitarian assistance. Also, that the UN’s capacity for producing independent political analysis and engagement should be strengthened.

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