Humanitarians working in Africa, c.1980

A short history of humanitarian action

Humanitarian action has a long history. The modern view and system of humanitarian aid as we know it - a structured system for the provision of aid to those in immediate danger - has only really existed since the mid part of the 20th century.

The principles for international aid first originated after the first world war, with the Treaty of Versailles, but philosophies attributed to humanitarian action stem from many belief systems; the concept of Christian charity, the Islamic tradition of Zakat and ethical concepts of appropriate wartime conduct as outlined by the Chinese, Greeks and Romans.

Modern history shows that, as advances were made in weapons, communications and transport, there was a parallel growth in the scale of conflict. Those same advances, however, also allowed the distribution of aid on scales not previously seen. Various Geneva conventions were defined, providing the current perspective on the appropriate treatment of civilians, wounded soldiers and prisoners during conflicts.

These days, humanitarian disaster interventions are often depicted by the media as resulting from acute natural hazards such as earthquakes or floods, whereas, historically, such actions revolved almost exclusively around conflict situations. One of the earliest occurrences of formal international monetary aid was the Northern Chinese Famine of 1876-79.

The post-war period saw an exponential rise in the number of aid agencies or non-governmental organisations (NGOs), with over 200 organisations established in the four years immediately following the war. Leading organisations realised that there was a need for a formal and principled mechanism for international assistance.

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This article is from the free online course:

Humanitarian Action, Response and Relief

Coventry University