The Evolution of Humanitarian Assistance

Not until the twentieth century did nation-states start working together in an organized way to deal with the devastation left in the wake of natural disasters.  

Perhaps the first examples of countries working together in a concerted effort to overcome the effects of natural disasters come from the 18th century, as Europeans began to pass relevant laws to collectively fight against epidemics not constrained by geography or national borders. Coping with such calamities, however, took a back seat to man-made ones: wars and hostilities between nation-states. One obvious reason, then, that countries concerned themselves less with humanitarian assistance and emergency relief efforts was the fact that war and other man-made conflicts, and not natural disasters, ranked high among the causes of human suffering at the time. Little wonder that later in history the focus of multilateral organizations such as the League of Nations and the United Nations was on preventing military conflict and minimizing their harmful effects.

The first truly multilateral organization, the League of Nations, founded in 1919, provided for 26 points in its Convention, none of which foresaw the provision of humanitarian aid in the wake of natural disasters. Nevertheless, the Convention did afford the possibility of open discussion about any topic affecting the world and explicitly called for all member states’ cooperation to meet humanitarian objectives. During its short existence, the League successfully helped resolve the plight of refugees, sought to stem illegal trafficking in drugs and humans and provided economic assistance to countries in need (e.g., thanks largely to the League’s efforts, Austria’s economy was saved from collapse). Its early successes notwithstanding, the League’s aims quickly lost traction as the major European powers became enveloped in the haze of World War II. The organization was dissolved in 1946.

The United Nations was born in the wake of the devastation of World War II. And in 1948, under its aegis, the World Health Organization was established. One of its mandates was to provide humanitarian assistance to the governments of any nation affected by natural disaster.

For several decades, the UN concentrated its efforts on peacekeeping activities; however, beginning in the 70’s, increasingly more resources were dedicated to the provision of emergency relief assistance to developing countries and the fight against epidemics and famine.

By the end of the Cold War, the UN had begun to allocate considerable resources to meeting the needs of victims affected by natural disaster. In 1991, the UN General Assembly initiated a program entitled the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction and passed a corresponding resolution calling for the global community to focus on natural disaster prevention and emergency relief. At the same time, the United Nations created the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), whose mandate is to serve as a catalyst for principled humanitarian action from the moment a crisis is anticipated until rehabilitation and reconstruction are under way. In 2004, about 700 people worked for OCHA, whose budget amounted to $84.7 billion.

By the end of 2004, 80% of the world’s governments had introduced domestic legislation facilitating international coordination of activities for relief efforts and had drawn up strategies to better prepare for natural disasters.

The United Nations Development Program is the other principal agency involved in international relief efforts.    

Together, these two organizations carry out the UN’s mandate of providing natural disaster victims with all essentials of life during times of crisis.

Practically all humanitarian assistance from the UN is funded through volunteer contributions; from 2001 to 2004, the United Nations successfully collected about $1.4 billion, allowing it to provide assistance to 44 million people around the world.

-- 05/29