A member of the UNHCR staff walks the street of Sa'ada, Yemen in August 2015. Photo by: Philippe Kropf / OCHA / CC BY-NC-ND

NEW YORK — If your relief organization was offered $50 million dollars to fight a spiraling cholera outbreak in Yemen from Saudi Arabia, which leads a military coalition fighting there, should you take the money? Riyadh is one of the largest donors to the Yemen crisis, including to pooled funds that many NGOs receive funding from. Is it better to use the money, or to turn down the offer and remain purely neutral?

The dilemma crystallizes a heated conversation in the humanitarian community, ongoing this week at the U.N. General Assembly. The majority of humanitarian crises and needs today stem from conflicts that show little sign of abating. Should the relief community keep its traditional focus on delivering goods and services, or venture into trying to address the conflicts that are churning out such dire need?

A growing number of actors are starting to explore the latter option, taking a more activist stance on addressing the root causes of violence. As they do so, humanitarians are engaging with parties who they had previously avoided, including governments, local authorities, and at times even military forces. These humanitarian organizations advocate for building a common framework across stakeholders in the conflict — a set of parameters and strategies that ensure humanitarian, political, and diplomatic objectives align toward peace-building.

“We’ve been too rigidly stuck on concepts of neutrality. In a world in which 80 percent of humanitarian crises are driven by conflict, I think it’s irresponsible not to wrestle with root causes,” said Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps. “Some of us have to speak up in a respectful way and challenge that paradigm.”

The stakes of this question are greater than ever for the humanitarian system. In Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, a significant portion of aid funds are now contributed by countries with active interests or military engagement with the conflict.

For Mercy Corps, the answer on Yemen to the scenario posed above would be: take the money, said Keny-Guyer. “I’m not sure there is a straightforward right or wrong answer answer,” he told Devex. “We’re in a time when we need to challenge ourselves to think more broadly, be a little more humble. And for those who feel like they can navigate to get into the root causes [of conflict] but still preserve their independence, I think that’s what’s key.”

Engaging across the lines

Since the end of WWII, humanitarians have prioritized neutrality and impartiality in giving aid. The Cold War was bipolar enough that association with one side or another could poison relief efforts or even lead to biased distribution.

Conflicts today, however, are less obviously clear cut, mainly due to the shifting nature of conflict. Inter-state war is down significantly, but civil war and low-level instability have left more people displaced than at any point in the past half century. Many of those conflicts have roots in — and have created still more — deep social grievances that may outlast the active fighting and are far more difficult to solve than rivalries between state governments.

“A lot of [these humanitarian situations are now] really complex, and there are a lot of different actors,” Sarnata Reynolds, policy lead for humanitarian campaigns at Oxfam International, told Devex. “It means that we need to be thinking differently. Are there other entry points that we should be considering?”

That reality has split the humanitarian community about where their moral responsibility starts and ends. Organizations such as ICRC and Medecins Sans Frontieres, which see themselves as uniquely neutral first responders, argue that their impartiality requires that they engage with actors on the ground for vital access, but little more. At the other end of the spectrum, however, the situation has reinvigorated the once-tired idea of peacebuilding. In this model, relief organizations should look not only at how to offer the basics, but how to start ameliorating the causes of conflict.

There has been a “maturation within the humanitarian world about how their response fits into a larger picture,” Nancy Lindborg, president of the U.S. Institute of Peace, an organization actively working on conflict resolution in conflict and post-conflict areas such as Iraq, told the audience at an UNGA side event hosted by the International Peace Institute on Wednesday.

One concrete result of the more activist stance is the idea of creating a “shared framework” between humanitarian efforts and those of other parties on the ground — a group that can include governments, local authorities, de-facto authorities, informal community leaders, or even militaries.

This approach grew out of the past decade of experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, where aid and development work was largely siloed off from diplomatic and military efforts. “Without bringing in our diplomatic and security forces,” said Lindborg, “we may end up working at cross purposes.” Community reconciliation efforts, for example, could be undone if military forces act to reinforce social divisions.

Now in Iraq, the thinking has started to change. The humanitarian community engaged directly with the Iraqi Security Forces in order to influence their battle plan to retake the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants. The result, U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator Lise Grande told Devex, was fewer civilian casualties and a military more in tune to protecting the physical safety and human rights of the local population.

Such contacts make many humanitarians nervous. In Iraq, some humanitarians strongly resisted the engagement with the security forces and did not participate directly in the U.N.-led approach, choosing to operate independently of the U.N. system instead.

Yemen, too, has split opinions. The United Nations has accepted — and even encouraged — Saudi Arabia and others with an active military interest in the conflict to contribute and fund the humanitarian efforts. Some humanitarians, however, have declined to take Saudi funds or pooled funds with a significant Saudi component, arguing that it would be wrong to take money from a party that has contributed to significant civilian casualties.


Other peacebuilding work is less controversial in practice, but still draws many skeptics about whether it actually works. Community reconciliation efforts or local dispute mechanisms are difficult to measure and evaluate, and the impact is hard to pin to concrete outcomes.

Advocates of a more activist humanitarian stance say their task now is to do the hard work of proving interventions make a difference. The same methods that have bolstered development can apply: randomly controlled trials, case studies, and long-term impact evaluations.

“Peace does work, but we need to marshal the evidence,” Youssef Mahmoud, senior advisor at the International Peace Institute, said at the IPI side event.

The World Bank is among those coming around to the approach. In the past several years, the bank has pivoted its position to directly support combatting instability, noting that it drives 80 percent of all global humanitarian need. On Thursday, the World Bank and U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres published a report that makes the economic case for peacebuilding.

The stakes of peacebuilding work may be what is changing opinions, even among traditional skeptics. Conflict and instability threaten to undermine the entire global development agenda and hinder progress on nearly every one of the Sustainable Development Goals.

“Every organization in today’s world needs to ask: how am I relevant to root causes?” argues Keny-Guyer. “That’s going to leave some to quietly engage in track two diplomacy that maybe others wouldn’t do. That’s going to lead some to be less operational and be more in the advocacy space. That’s going to encourage some to act on the ground to build relationships that they think will help people. “

“To me it’s not black and white.”

Devex is on the ground in New York at Global Goals Week, bringing you daily morning briefings with everything you need to know whether you're here in person or following the events from afar.

About the author

  • Elizabeth Dickinson

    Elizabeth Dickinson is a former associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.