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dc.contributor.advisorNel, Philip
dc.contributor.authorStewart-Harding, Emily
dc.identifier.citationStewart-Harding, E. (2011). Humanitarian aid: for today or tomorrow? (Thesis, Master of Arts). University of Otago. Retrieved from
dc.description.abstractThe purpose of this study is to discover if the concept of humanitarianism has changed significantly in response to the challenges of complex emergencies. To find the answer, this study assessed humanitarian agencies’ responses to the complex emergency in eastern Burma, an area of the world that poses some of the most acute challenges to traditional humanitarianism. ‘Classical’ humanitarian action has historically focused on the delivery of aid to non-combatants affected by conflict, for the immediate relief of suffering. Agencies have been largely successful at aiding vulnerable populations because they have stuck to certain principles. They focused on non-combatants, negotiated access with states, delivered aid according to the criteria of need, were independent and did not interfere in the politics of the conflict. However, changes in the international context, following the end of the cold war, changed the role of humanitarians in conflict; they were elevated as important, often political actors. Ideas of security and development became interlinked. International threats to the West were perceived as arising out of situations of poverty and failing states. Consequently, humanitarian aid budgets increased to address this, as did the number of humanitarian and development agencies working in conflict areas. Concurrently, the post cold war rise in new types of wars produced unprecedented levels of human suffering; nine out of ten deaths were civilians. Classical forms of humanitarian action were ill equipped to deal with these changes, especially new wars. It is in this new context that new forms of ‘political’ humanitarian action developed. Whilst justified in many ways, political humanitarianism is a particular reaction. The argument is that the ‘development as security’ agenda is reflected in the new principles of political humanitarianism. Political humanitarianism differs from classical humanitarianism as it moves from a concern for the immediate relief of suffering, to a concern for the immediate and long-term consequences of relief distribution, and in some cases, it adopts utilitarian ethics. Whilst saving lives is still important, this is defensible only if it ‘does not harm’, focuses on development issues, supports human rights, and is ideally part of a wider political coherence and coordination strategy to bring peace and rebuild societies. These tensions are reflected in the behaviour of relief agencies in Burma. The main overall finding of this study is that in the eastern Burmese context, the concept of traditional humanitarianism as developed by the International Committee for the Red Cross has not changed significantly. However, there are shifts occurring in the ways relief agencies are compelled to live up to the humanitarian obligations. Most Community Based Organisations formed in solidarity with Non-State Actors, this is significant as it entails taking sides. As opposed to the shift being from traditional humanitarian action to political humanitarian action, the move is from solidarity based humanitarian action to an approach based more on classical principles of humanitarian action. These findings reflect those in recent, multi-country studies, which suggest that humanitarians continue to be divided over the limits to which core classical humanitarian principles should be respected.
dc.publisherUniversity of Otago
dc.rightsAll items in OUR Archive are provided for private study and research purposes and are protected by copyright with all rights reserved unless otherwise indicated.
dc.subjectHumanitarian aid
dc.titleHumanitarian aid: for today or tomorrow?
dc.typeThesis of Arts of Otago Theses
otago.openaccessAbstract Only
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