Humanitarian Aid or Developmental Assistance?

In a recent letter to the New York Times, I suggested that donor governments maintain targeted sanctions against a small cohort of Zimbabwe's power elite, but that they should also now provide targeted humanitarian support to the struggling country in transition. Newspaper editors so value brevity but here in the blogosphere, where the real estate is cheap, I'll elaborate for some added clarity.

Chaos abounds in most news references to humanitarian aid and developmental assistance. Imprecisions in terminology breed poor policy. Here are some of the terms used in reporting about US relations with Zimbabwe:

  • Foreign aid
  • Foreign economic assistance
  • Relief aid
  • Relief assistance
  • Development aid
  • Developmental relief assistance
  • Development and reconstruction assistance
  • Disaster relief
  • Food aid
  • Humanitarian aid
  • Humanitarian "plus"
  • Emergency humanitarian assistance
  • Emergency aid
  • Emergency assistance
  • Transition assistance

And so on. The table below organizes this morass of terms. Aid, assistance and relief are synonyms that can combine with any word in the left column. The rubric boils down, however, to two distinct types of foreign aid: humanitarian aid and developmental assistance.

1. Humanitarian

  • Food
  • Emergency
  • Disaster

2. Developmental

  • Economic
  • Reconstruction
  • Aid
  • Assistance
  • Relief

Humanitarian crises threaten the health, safety or well-being of a population that arise from armed conflict, epidemics, famine or natural disasters. In valuing human life, we practice benevolent treatment and provide assistance to others in need. This assistance may stem from private or public sources. When a government makes available such emergency assistance to countries or populations in need, it is termed humanitarian aid.

In addition to addressing immediate needs during times of emergency, donor governments also contribute to peace by offering developmental assistance. Such aid is often thought to follow acute humanitarian crises and assists with post-conflict reconstruction and long-term sustainable development.

But conflict is messy and obeys few rules. Conflict is non-linear. If it does follow a course, it's more like current flowing through a multi-track electrical circuit with numerous resistors and sources of voltage. Foreign aid should not be expected to progress neatly from humanitarian aid during the acute phase of an emergency to post-conflict developmental assistance. All aid is political, and donor governments must employ diverse strategies for different sectors to affect foreign policy and move toward peace.

Which brings us to Zimbabwe.

The United States government does indeed provide this country in transition with significant humanitarian assistance ($112 million for FY 2009). But the US has balked at providing developmental aid while Mugabe remains in power and human rights violations continue. So while the US government has contributed $95 million in food aid, it refuses to furnish funds to rehabilitate Zimbabwe's collapsed healthcare, water and sanitation infrastructure. Food aid is humanitarian, the other three things are development. That Zimbabweans should not die from malnutrition, but may die from cholera defies logic. But that is current US foreign policy.

Every day is a lost opportunity for thousands of people in Zimbabwe. Rigid distinctions between humanitarian aid or developmental assistance should not be obstacles. The US government should step up, fill the void, and save lives.


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