The future of international humanitarian organizations in war zones already looked bleak before the conflict in Gaza and Israel broke out. The vast majority of international actors in this field have highlighted the unprecedented numbers of people displaced by armed conflicts, the increased duration and destruction caused by these conflicts, and the growing difficulties in delivering essential assistance to the affected populations – all of which contribute to the increased economic pressures that strain their work. Several key trends and considerations emerge from the current situation.
Political challenges and credibility issues
The actions of traditional Western allies, such as the Israeli government, can strain the credibility of humanitarian organizations. The reluctance to heed calls for ceasefires, or the slow and patchy implementation of humanitarian pauses, puts the affected populations at risk and undermines the perceived efficacy of Western powers in upholding human rights and international law. Humanitarian corridors and pauses, crucial for the safe delivery of aid, are not being respected in some conflict zones.
Geographic restrictions, conditional aid, and subordinating humanitarian aid to war objectives challenge the fundamental principles of humanitarian intervention. This includes the partial withholding of aid in specific regions (northern Gaza is the most recent example, another is Syria), violating the concept of impartiality and neutrality. Withholding aid based on the presumption that it could reach enemy combatants shifts the burden of proof and raises questions about the definition of civilian populations eligible for humanitarian assistance. This challenges the established norms of humanitarian law and intervention. In 2018, the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved Resolution 2417, which strongly condemned the starving of civilians and the unlawful denial of humanitarian access as warfare tactics.
Economic and humanitarian consequences
Record numbers of displaced people (almost 110 million according to the UNHCR), coupled with the destruction of infrastructure in conflict zones, are transforming humanitarian aid from a temporary solution to a seemingly permanent necessity. The aftermath of civil unrest and armed conflict in Lebanon and Syria is perhaps the best example of this paradigm. This creates economic pressure on international organizations, as the need for ongoing aid persists in the absence of reconstruction and development.
Western powers, notably the US and the EU, are major donors to international humanitarian organizations. The US presidential budget request for the 2024 fiscal year amounts to “more than $10.5 billion in humanitarian assistance to respond to an average of 75 crises annually in more than 65 countries, including Ukraine and Syria, new and emerging crises, and natural disasters.” The EU 2023 initial budge for the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), amounts to approximately €1.65 billion per year. For instance, from 2011 to date, the European Union and its member states have been the largest donors of humanitarian and resilience assistance to Syria and the region with over €30 billion.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the custodian of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, is in deep financial trouble. It needs 430 million Swiss francs (441 million euros) to balance its budget for 2023. This debt has more than doubled over the past decade, from 1.18 billion francs in 2012 to 2.84 billion in 2022.
Failure to deliver essential aid contributes to the delegitimization of humanitarian organizations and undermines their ability to fulfil their mandates. It also reflects negatively on their main Western donors, which are caught between the rage of local populations that do not receive enough aid and political accusations (from the so-called Global South) of using that aid to cover up for their double standards on human rights.
China’s involvement in humanitarian and disaster relief has increased over the years but it remains far lower than other comparable economies: for instance, its 2022 contribution of 750,000 CHF to the ICRC is equivalent to half of that of Lichtenstein.
While adhering to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and launching its own Global Development Initiative, China enjoys the luxury of appearing as a “neutral” peacemaker in both Ukraine and the Middle East – so far without any considerable impact – while carefully avoiding large investments in crises and focusing instead only on safer parts of the world. When Beijing comes forward with humanitarian aid, as after the Pakistan floods last year, it does so through bilateral rather than UN channels to maximize its political influence over the receiving government.
Despite years of economic crisis, Turkey has long adopted a foreign policy approach that emphasizes international aid, development and humanitarian diplomacy. The concept of “humanitarian diplomacy” or an “enterprising and humanitarian foreign policy” has been articulated by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and has guided Turkey’s engagement with the international community. Turkey has sought to play an active role in responding to humanitarian crises around the world, including conflicts, natural disasters and refugee issues. Indeed, the country hosts the largest number of refugees – nearly four million people (the vast majority of whom are Syrian refugees) – while receiving billions of euros in humanitarian funding from the EU. Thus far, the recent crackdowns on refugees do not seem to have greatly impacted Erdogan’s image abroad.
The true cost of “moral failure”
The nexus between humanitarian and diplomatic actions plays a pivotal role in facilitating access to vulnerable populations and ensuring the effective implementation of critical programs in areas affected by conflict or crisis.
Negotiating access for humanitarian actors in conflict or crisis zones is often challenging. Humanitarian diplomacy involves engaging with various stakeholders, including government authorities, armed groups and other influential actors, to secure safe and unhindered access to affected populations. Part of this nexus is also advocating for accountability for violations of humanitarian law and seeking justice for affected populations. This can help create a more secure environment for humanitarian actors to operate.
Ultimately, the future of international humanitarian organizations in war zones may depend on meeting these challenges, upholding humanitarian principles (of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence) and fostering international cooperation across geopolitical divides. The effectiveness of these organizations depends on maintaining credibility, ensuring respect for international humanitarian law and finding sustainable solutions for long-term recovery and development in conflict-affected regions. However, their fate is increasingly intertwined with the credibility and political will of their main donors.
“The unfolding tragedy in the Middle East is the result of a collective political and moral failure for which the Israeli and Palestinian people are paying a high price.” This statement, made by Josep Borrell at the EU Ambassadors’ Conference in early November 2023, exemplifies the stakes that many Western actors have in the current situation.
From a geopolitical perspective, countries often weigh their strategic interests and economic considerations when deciding how to engage in conflicts or crises. In some cases, a ceasefire may be seen as a pragmatic choice to avoid further human suffering, economic burdens and geopolitical complications. In Europe, countries such as Ireland, Spain, Belgium and France have been more vocal in calling for a ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza. While economic and strategic interests are essential considerations, they should be balanced with moral and ethical principles and a commitment to upholding human rights.
Traditionally, Western powers have footed the biggest bill for aid and reconstruction efforts after the destruction left by armed conflicts in the wider Middle East, and Gaza is unlikely to be the exception. Yet, with public opinion increasingly critical of the Israeli actions in Gaza, Western policymakers are likely to reap little political benefits for paying the bill of humanitarian aid and reconstruction. Meanwhile, other international powers will play an increasingly dominant role despite committing far fewer funds.