“Values and Humanitarian Aid: Towards a Principled Approach to Humanitarian Aid” - Ambassador Busso von Alvensleben

02.12.2008 - Speech

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted to welcome you all on behalf of the German Federal Foreign Office to Berlin and to our premises here. We attach great importance to the biannual ALNAP meetings with their goal to improve the quality of our common work in the field of humanitarian aid.

I therefore highly appreciate this opportunity to say a few words about our perception of values and principles in humanitarian aid, a task that enjoys high priority in German foreign politics.

As we all know humanitarian crises are growing in scale and frequency, and the volume of international humanitarian aid is increasing accordingly. Thus, it is more important than ever to do it the right way. How we deliver humanitarian aid is as important as its final result. Our success and our credibility are mutually dependent.

The European Union and its member states provide more than 50% of humanitarian aid around the world. Within the EU, Germany is one of the leading donors. In our country the lead ministry for humanitarian aid is the Federal Foreign Office that by the end of this year will have given more than 120 million Euros for this purpose to our implementing partners that include: the United Nations, the Red Cross and non-governmental organizations. In addition to that, substantial funds for relief and transitional aid are also coming from the Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development.

With such a large commitment we have to make sure that our aid is delivered the most efficient way possible, with maximum impact and in line with our fundamental principles.

There is an ongoing discussion on the ethical, political, philosophical and practical complexities of providing humanitarian aid. In the ever-changing environment in which humanitarian aid is delivered, we are increasingly confronted with questions such as:

  • What does humanitarian aid mean to recipients and donor countries and how will it be utilized?
  • How do we ensure that humanitarian aid is not politicized?
  • How can we ensure unimpeded access to those in need?
  • How can we encourage positive perceptions of humanitarian aid and those who implement it?

During Germany's EU Council Presidency in 2007 we made humanitarian aid one of our priorities. Together with the Commission we initiated a process that resulted in a document that spells out the guiding principles of the EU's approach to humanitarian aid, known as the European Consensus on Humanitarian Aid. This document was endorsed by all member states.

We are firmly committed to upholding and promoting the fundamental humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. In our view, this principled approach is vital to the acceptance of humanitarian aid and to the ability of humanitarian actors to operate on the ground under often very difficult political conditions.

Let us recall:

  • The principle of humanity says that human suffering must be addressed wherever it is found with particular attention to the most vulnerable populations.
  • The principle of neutrality states that humanitarian aid must not favour any one side in a conflict.
  • The principle of impartiality requires humanitarian aid to be solely provided on the basis of need without discrimination.
  • And the principle of independence calls for humanitarian objectives being autonomous of economic, military or other objectives, making sure that the sole purpose of humanitarian aid is to relieve and prevent the suffering of victims of humanitarian crises.

The importance of following a principled approach can be illustrated by the crisis in Myanmar caused by Cyclone Nargis on the 2nd and 3rd of May of this year.

As you will recall, the Myanmar Government took a great deal of persuading before they would allow foreign aid workers into the country. Unfortunately even weeks after the cyclone, Western aid workers in particular were still being denied unrestricted access to the disaster zone when time was of the essence. Deep mistrust of all foreigners, especially Westerners, prevented or delayed humanitarian initiatives from outside the country. Warships laden with relief supplies for Myanmar sent out by three countries were kept waiting offshore. Since they were viewed by the Government as a military threat, they also did not exactly facilitate the UN Secretary-General's talks with the Myanmar authorities.

The moment humanitarian aid is or is perceived to be utilized to advance a political objective or agenda, its integrity is compromised putting both victims and aid workers at risk. Myanmar is only one example, the politicization of humanitarian aid, whether real or perceived, is clearly also an issue in other countries. For example, following Hurricane Gustav which caused billions of dollars of damage, the Cuban government declined to allow American humanitarian assistance teams into the country and rejected offers of financial assistance from the United States of America.

We have also seen in complex crises such as Darfur/Sudan or Somalia what this may mean especially in terms of access to people in need as well as to the security of aid workers that is becoming increasingly problematic. The issue of how humanitarian aid is perceived is also crucial for the acceptance of any given civilian and military cooperation in the field.

The United Nations has a key role to play in promoting the acceptance of humanitarian aid around the world. But it is also up to every donor to contribute to this goal. We should therefore see to it that our own practices are fully in line with the fundamental humanitarian principles and applicable international humanitarian law. Acceptance also depends on those who deliver the aid on the ground. Local NGOs are of key importance, local capacity and local implementing partners of international NGOs need therefore to be strengthened.

Humanitarian aid does not happen in a political vacuum. Myanmar, Iraq, Afghanistan or the Congo have their story to tell. The key issue always is how to organize humanitarian aid as to fulfil its role despite tensions that may arise between humanitarian principles and political, military, economic or other interests. It is fundamental to consciously and consistently respect the independence of humanitarian aid.

Independence, impartiality and neutrality of humanitarian aid are of crucial importance. Only if these principles are respected governments are ready to accept humanitarian aid. It will also help ensure the safety of humanitarian aid workers in the field. After all, there is no point if aid does not reach those who need it or if there is no one to deliver it.

Finally, our credibility as donors of humanitarian aid depends on our work being accountable and transparent. This must apply to the aid we give, to whom and for what. Donors must be able to provide a clear picture by reporting not only what was pledged but also what was actually delivered and under which auspices.

In addition to ensuring that humanitarian aid is delivered according to our principles, we also want to see our funds being wisely utilized and delivered as efficiently and cost effectively as possible. Today’s theme of this conference, analysing the impact of humanitarian aid, is covering these aspects and will help to promote both accountability and credibility and thereby the successful delivery of humanitarian aid.

The ALNAP Strategy states that, given the increase in the number and severity of humanitarian emergencies, it is crucial that humanitarian actors are able to account for and learn from their actions. Such analysis must clarify whether humanitarian aid was successful by providing the greatest benefit possible, and also prove that `no harm was done’.

We regard needs assessment, evaluation, lessons learned and accountability as indispensable tools for donors and implementing agencies. But again, those tools must serve first and foremost the interests of the beneficiaries themselves.

I am sure you will have a lively and rewarding discussion in the next two days and I look forward to your conclusions and recommendations. All the best for your work.

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