In: Humanitarianism: Keywords
Lovise Aalen
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Humanitarian governance, broadly defined, is the attempt to regulate the humanitarian field–including rules, structures, and mechanisms for promoting accountable and effective humanitarian practice. Linked to the overall aim of humanitarianism, of helping vulnerable populations in need, humanitarian governance can be seen as “an increasingly organized and internationalized attempt to save the lives, enhance the welfare, and reduce the suffering of the world’s vulnerable populations” (Barnett 2013: 379). Although humanitarian governance is legitimized as an act of benevolence, it may also help a particular set of actors achieve their own political and economic goals (Pandolfi 2003; Nader and Savinar 2016). Power and inequality are thus central aspects of humanitarian governance.

Self-regulation is a core element of humanitarian governance. At the global, transnational, and local levels, the humanitarian field has traditionally been governed by non-state actors–the humanitarian organizations themselves. The rules and regulations governing the humanitarian sector have therefore been a self-organized attempt at collective action, ranging from voluntary codes of conduct to more institutional structures with enforcement and sanctioning mechanisms. The content of these regulations, however, is defined by political processes led by actors with varying degrees of power and influence, and with different agency, values, and objectives.

One of the challenges of governing humanitarian non-state actors is the so-called accountability black hole (Yuhas 2015). Although humanitarian governance may originally be driven by a humanitarian ethos of helping the most vulnerable, it also involves practices ruling the lives of the most vulnerable without providing them with a means of recourse to hold the humanitarian actors accountable for their actions (Garnier, Sandvik, and Jubilut 2016). Humanitarian actors may be involved in operations to promote their own agendas or states’ agendas, thus reproducing unequal power relations, but are not necessarily held responsible for this.

Specific humanitarian crises and the unintended and negative impacts of humanitarian intervention have spurred the development of humanitarian governance. Assessments of the operation Restore Hope in Somalia (1992–1993), the genocide in Rwanda (1994), and the interventions in Bosnia 1992–1995 and Kosovo (1999) led to recommendations in form of regulation and enforcement to ensure the improved performance of non-governmental and international organizations (Givoni 2011). One outcome of this process was the establishment of the United Nations Department of Humanitarian Affairs–turned into the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in 1998. OCHA is responsible for bringing together humanitarian actors to ensure a coherent response to emergencies and for guaranteeing a framework within which each actor can contribute to the overall response effort.

The Oslo Guidelines on the use of military and civil defense assets in disaster relief were developed in 1994, and then updated ( OCHA 2007), in response to the increasing role of the military in humanitarian operations.

The non-governmental organizations created the Sphere handbook and Sphere standards, including minimum standards that would help to improve accountability and the overall quality of humanitarian response to those affected by disasters. Although the main actors are international and non--governmental organizations (NGOs), states play a role in defining and implementing humanitarian governance (Harvey 2009). Based on the 1991 UN Humanitarian Resolution 46/182, states have the first responsibility to protect citizens in situations of natural disasters and other emergencies and should in principle be able to respond to humanitarian crises. If they require aid, states should be able to coordinate external assistance. State laws and registration procedures both in aid-receiving and origin states are regulating humanitarian organizations. These regulations are related to wider issues of governance and politics, as restrictions of access for humanitarian organizations can be used as a way of controlling the citizens, constraining NGOs, and curtailing human rights. Humanitarian actors must face the potential contradiction between providing support to governments and preserving the independence needed to protect those who need it.


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  • Givoni, M. (2011) Humanitarian Governance and Ethnical Cultivation: Médecins Sans Frontières and the Advent of the Expert-Witness. Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 40(1): 4363.

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  • Harvey, P. (2009) Towards Good Humanitarian Government: The Role of the Affected State in Disaster Response. Humanitarian Policy Groups Report, Overseas Development Institute.

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  • Nader, L. , Savinar, R. (2016) Humanitarianism as Pretext: Defining What Is Moral and Just. In: De Lauri A. ed. The Politics of Humanitarianism. Power, Ideology and Aid. I.B. Tauris.

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  • Pandolfi, M. (2003) Contract of Mutual (in)Difference and the Humanitarian Apparatus in Contemporary Albania and Kosovo. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, 10(1): 369381.

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  • Yuhas, A. (2015) The Red Cross, Haiti and the “Black Hole” of Accountability for International Aid. The Guardian, June 5.

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