Since the early 1990s, there has been both an increase in the number of disasters and a change in the nature of emergencies leading to a substantial increase in humanitarian assistance. Emergencies have changed in nature from mainly being natural disasters such as floods, famines, and droughts to complex emergencies such as the 'war on terror' post 11 September 2001, and the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have created new challenges for the implementation of humanitarian assistance. Due to climatic changes, natural disasters have grown in number, for example, floods, hurricanes, typhoons, and droughts. Since the end of the Cold War, complex emergencies especially violent conflicts have increased, which are characterized by the collapse of the rule of law, destruction of livelihoods, and displacement of people. All these complex emergencies are brought into the public spotlight by the international media, which has led to significant awareness among people. The World Disasters Report in 2001 estimated that in the 10 years (1991–2000), 2.3 million people lost their lives in conflict situations. The increasing frequency and changing face of emergencies has caused humanitarian expenditure to rise to an all time high of US$7.8 billion in 2003. This figure does not record the number of charitable donations from individuals or groups or of nonwestern assistance of various kinds, including those from religious organizations.
Humanitarian aid is the assistance given to people in distress by individuals, organizations, or governments with the core purpose of preventing and alleviating human suffering. Humanitarian interventions are basically guided by needs, but it follows three main principles of humanitarian law as expressed in the Geneva Convention of 1949 emphasizing impartiality, neutrality, and independence. Impartiality means no discrimination on the basis of nationality, race, religious beliefs, class, gender, or political opinions. Neutrality demands that humanitarian agencies do not take sides in either hostilities or ideological controversy. Independence requires that humanitarian agencies retain their autonomy of action.
The Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA), on behalf of the United Nations, provides leadership and coordinates the prompt and smooth delivery of relief assistance. It is supported by the World Food Programme (WFP) responsible for emergency food delivery; the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) responsible for shelter; the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) responsible for nutrition and water and sanitation; and the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) responsible for food and emergency agriculture, while the Red Cross and international NGOs like Merlin provide medical interventions.
Humanitarian aid is mainly a short term intervention to provide relief. The transition from relief to rehabilitation and development is difficult and the long term aspects of development need to be assessed with other development agencies from the initial phase of providing relief. In some countries – Angola, Sierra Leone, Somalia, to name a few – humanitarian aid was provided over a long period, but the system is not equipped for long term intervention leading to rehabilitation and development. Donors at times have used humanitarian aid to avoid engagement with undemocratic states and their approaches were often driven by political interest rather than according to the need.
Humanitarian operations are now accompanied by military interventions (peace keeping operations) especially in the last two decades in the context of violent conflicts. These have been termed as complex political emergencies (e.g., East Timor, Kosovo, and Burundi). The World Bank has thus placed considerable emphasis on responding to conflict, particularly where it notes that one fifth of Africans now live in countries severely disrupted by conflict. These have accompanied proliferation of small arms and landmines and particularly sexual violence and exploitation of women and children leading to high risk of HIV/AIDS. In 2003, three million people died of HIV/AIDS and it is turning into a largescale disaster. The UNHCR, in 2006, recorded that there were 8.4 million refugees worldwide (31% in Africa and 36% in Asia) and 23.7 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), who were not only displaced from their home but also their livelihoods. According to the UNHCR, in 2006, there were also a further 688 000 asylum seekers mostly in Europe and North America – who had claimed refugee status but whose claims were not yet recognized. In Sudan, it is estimated that more than 400 000 people have been killed and 2.5 million have been displaced in the genocide in Darfur. In 2005, world military expenditure totalled to $1118 billion, of which 47% was accounted for by the US. The response to terrorist attacks in the west, known as the 'war on terror', has also led to increase of expenditure. All these events pose new challenges to the neutrality of humanitarian action and the aid workers themselves. The rise of terrorism and the range of counterterrorism initiatives by governments have also generated new protection issues especially in relation to human right laws. Can humanitarian assistance be independent of foreign aid policy in the contemporary world. Many questions are raised with regard to the accountability and performance of aid agencies and United Nations OCHA, as the lead global humanitarian agencies are heavily criticized for poor performance. On the other hand, if we did not have an effective coordinating agency like the OCHA, we would not be able to provide relief and assistance at all. Since 1996, the humanitarian sector has undertaken many initiatives to improve accountability and performance such as the Good Humanitarian Donorship initiative to ensure that donors' responses are equitable, effective, and consistent with the humanitarian principles as explained above. The humanitarian agencies have developed the Active Learning Network and the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership.