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educator's primer
Six key questions about international responses to complex emergencies after the post-Cold War are:

What is humanitarian action?
Humanitarianism means helping people, irrespective of who they are, where they are located, and why they are suffering. Humanitarian action consists of the delivery of emergency relief (life-saving food, medicine, and housing) and the protection of individual and group rights from abuse by political authorities.

When is it necessary?
Humanitarian action is required when a tragedy is so massive that it overwhelms a society's capacity to respond quickly and effectively. Most wealthy countries minister to their own citizens when natural disasters strike. Poorer countries, however, are often unable to respond adequately to these disasters. When countries, rich or poor, are caught in the throes of man-made disasters, especially wars, local coping capacities are normally inadequate. Humanitarian action after World War II in Europe or after the genocide in Rwanda involved not only providing emergency aid and rebuilding infrastructure but also re-knitting the fabric of daily life.

Why have complex emergencies become so prominent?
The proliferation of war and weapons, of weak economies and dire poverty, of political volatility and violence have accompanied the end of the Cold War. These factors removed many constraints against secession and against the manipulation of ethnic differences for political purposes. The idea that humanitarian, political, and security dimensions must be addressed simultaneously complicates matters further in the chaos of such countries as Liberia and Somalia, where state authority has collapsed and the local safety net has frayed to the breaking point. Indeed, in such civil wars as Rwanda and Bosnia, the subjugation and "ethnic cleansing" of civilian populations have become common.

Who helps?
Governments are usually the first on the scene when catastrophe strikes, with local organizations, leaders, and citizens, as the next line of defense. Although the restoration of local self-sufficiency should be the goal of emergency aid, the post-Cold War stage contains a panoply of outside humanitarian actors whose presence often is geared more to short-term aid than to long-term development. Key to the world's response mechanism is the United Nations system. Governments that finance UN agencies also operate their own bilateral programs-for instance, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) frequently contributes between a third to a half of total resources-although American overseas aid has decreased precipitously in recent years. Private relief groups, often called non-governmental organizations (NGOs), serve as effective channels for people-to-people contributions in emergencies. Military forces are another external source of support whose logistical and security roles have expanded considerably since the U.S.-led intervention to protect 400,000 Kurds in northern Iraq in April 1991 (other prominent American deployments have included Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Haiti). Finally, the media plays a role in dramatizing needs and galvanizing international help for victims.

Are humanitarians effective?
The bevy of humanitarians flocking to the scene of disasters has been criticized for duplicating efforts and even for prolonging wars. At the same time, the plight of record numbers of refugees and other war victims would undoubtedly have been far worse without outside help. Critics and advocates alike are calling for a better division of labor and coordination of efforts.

Which motivations are crucial?
Humanitarians, like individuals in every profession, defy facile generalizations. Some of their motivations (for example, empathy for war victims) are praiseworthy while others (for example, self-aggrandizement, romance, or career advancement) less so. Many humanitarian organizations, both private and public, have distinguished records; but they also benefit from tragedies that increase their budgets and visibility. Governmental responses to overseas crises often reflect national interests and domestic pressures even if humanitarian aid is packaged in moral terms for public consumption.


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