The principles of humanitarian assistance: What Germany is doing to help

15.03.2023 - Article

What is humanitarian assistance? What are its guiding principles? What role does the Federal Foreign Office play?

What is humanitarian assistance?

Help arrives for conflict victims in southern Somalia
Help arrives for conflict victims in southern Somalia© Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe

Humanitarian assistance supports people who are suffering acute hardship due to crises, conflicts or natural disasters and cannot overcome this hardship alone. Its aim is to enable those affected to survive and live in dignity and security, to offer them prospects and to alleviate suffering.

It goes without saying that humanitarian assistance is often provided in a difficult environment, under poor security conditions and with high time pressure. It is therefore important that this work is geared towards clear principles.

The humanitarian principles

The key basis of Germany’s humanitarian assistance are the humanitarian principles, which are based on principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement that have been enshrined in international humanitarian law. The principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality were recognised in 1991 by UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182 as the basis for global humanitarian assistance. In 2003, they were supplemented by the principle of independence with Resolution 58/114.

Further information:

The principle of humanity dictates that human suffering must be relieved wherever possible and special attention given to the population groups most at risk.

The principle of impartiality dictates that assistance must be offered solely according to need. It must not discriminate between population groups or on the basis of, for example, age, gender or religion.

The principle of neutrality forbids the preferential treatment of particular sides in conflict situations. It is important for relief organisations to be in the public eye not least for the sake of their access to people in need and the safety of humanitarian aid workers.

The principle of independence makes a clear distinction between humanitarian goals and political, military, economic or other aims. The sole legitimate purpose of humanitarian assistance is to save lives and relieve suffering.

Principles behind the organisation of Germany’s humanitarian assistance

Aid for internally displaced persons in Jonglei, South Sudan
Aid for internally displaced persons in Jonglei, South Sudan© unknown

Humanitarian assistance founded on principles is needs-based and provided by independent, mainly non-governmental organisations that are committed to respecting humanitarian principles. These organisations provide the necessary aid – sometimes together with local partner organisations – directly to those affected.

Humanitarian need is the key criterion for the provision of assistance. Aid is provided on a subsidiary basis. This means that the government and authorities of the affected country always bear the main responsibility for protecting and caring for their population. International humanitarian assistance is only provided if the government of the affected country or other stakeholders are unable or unwilling to do so to a sufficient degree.

Humanitarian assistance should always be provided in such a way that it meets the most urgent needs first and does not have any harmful side effects, i.e. it does not have an adverse impact on the environment or conflicts – the “do no harm” principle. Another key priority of Germany’s humanitarian assistance is to take gender equality and inclusion into account, because needs vary according to the gender, age or possible disabilities of people in need.

What is the role of the Federal Foreign Office?

The Federal Foreign Office is responsible for humanitarian assistance within the Federal Government. Its network of missions abroad plays a crucial role in reporting and contacting those affected as well as relief organisations on the ground. Luise Amtsberg has been Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Assistance since 5 January 2022. She is the point of contact for humanitarian assistance issues at the Federal Foreign Office and liaises with the relevant partner institutions in this area.

The Federal Foreign Office Strategy for Humanitarian Assistance Abroad, published in April 2019, defines priority areas and support modalities for Germany’s humanitarian assistance.

In 2022, the Federal Foreign Office earmarked 3.2 billion euro for humanitarian assistance. The Federal Foreign Office supports humanitarian assistance measures carried out by the organisations of the United Nations, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, as well as by German, international and local humanitarian non-governmental organisations – in other words, it does not provide assistance on the ground itself.

Anticipatory humanitarian assistance

Anticipatory humanitarian assistance encompasses a wide variety of approaches and instruments that make it possible to take action before an acute crisis has even begun. This strategy makes significant investments in prevention to ensure that humanitarian hardship does not arise in the first place. This type of humanitarian assistance is based on early warning systems. Using data-based forecasts and analyses, early warnings are issued in the case of escalating situations. On this basis, concrete and timely humanitarian precautionary measures are triggered with a view to achieving risk reduction in the short term – such as the temporary evacuation of people and animals to areas less affected by a storm. In order for humanitarian assistance to be anticipatory, it is necessary to promote early warning mechanisms, strengthen the efficiency of humanitarian stakeholders and their capacity to respond, and establish funding mechanisms for anticipatory humanitarian assistance.

Humanitarian mine action

Humanitarian mine action is also part of humanitarian assistance. It saves lives and reduces suffering by detecting and clearing anti-personnel mines, improvised mines and explosive remnants of war, as well as by promoting awareness-raising and victim assistance measures. Humanitarian mine action also helps to lay the foundations for the return of refugees and displaced persons, for social reconciliation, reconstruction and long-term economic development.

Not only meeting but also reducing humanitarian needs

Humanitarian assistance must become more efficient and effective in order to meet steadily growing humanitarian needs. On the other hand, more must be done to prevent unnecessary suffering, to stop humanitarian needs from arising in the first place and to help the people affected to return to a normal life as soon as possible. The aim is to

  • prevent the emergence and proliferation of humanitarian crises – and thus human suffering,
  • reduce humanitarian needs and dependency on humanitarian assistance,
  • put a stop to humanitarian emergencies as quickly as possible.

It is important to this end to improve the integration of humanitarian assistance, development cooperation and peacebuilding wherever possible. This dovetailed approach is known as the humanitarian-development-peace nexus.

Commitment to an improved humanitarian system

As the world’s second-largest humanitarian donor, the Federal Foreign Office is committed to improving the humanitarian system as the needs far exceed the funds provided around the world. It is therefore important that assistance is provided more efficiently. Germany is committed to this objective, including in the context of the Grand Bargain reform process, as well as by strengthening anticipatory humanitarian assistance.

More information

Background information: Important basic documents on humanitarian assistance

Relief Web : Digital service from UN-OCHA with up‑to‑date reports, maps and statistics on humanitarian crises worldwide.

FTS : Financial Tracking Service: Global database managed by UN-OCHA including all registered international humanitarian assistance measures.

EDRIS : Database managed by ECHO listing all funding contributions from ECHO and the EU Member States.

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