Paradigm shift – from needs to rights

Disaster response and humanitarian thinking and action have undergone a significant change since the 1990s.

Following the Balkan war and the Rwanda genocide, and an increasing trend in reported disasters impacting across Africa, South America and Asia, the humanitarian crises of the 1990s raised many concerns regarding who received aid, the quality of aid provided and how agencies were held accountable to both affected populations and donors.

The provision of external aid through top-down structures meant needs were often assumed rather than assessed and communities viewed as passive recipients of aid. All too often, only symptoms were addressed rather than the underlying causes that resulted in those needs. Any accountability for actions was usually only required from the agency to the donor.

The way needs-based approaches were delivered generally failed to have a lasting impact and were unable to hold donors, governments and agencies accountable to the people for their actions or inaction. Injustice, discrimination and powerlessness were often left unchallenged or exacerbated because those people affected were not empowered and engaged in the response.

Human rights, of course, long predate the 1990s, coming to prominence with the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which recognised that all humans have specific inherent rights. A dominant perspective became that these rights are maintained through responsibilities, duties, transparency, trust and accountability. In 1993 the UN held the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna and defined the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, where they linked democracy, human rights, sustainability and development. There are numerous frameworks for human rights but they commonly emphasise:

  • Justice and equality (or, more commonly, equity)
  • Inclusion, participation and empowerment
  • Accountability and transparency

Equality refers to ensuring those in need receive the resources they are entitled to, while transparency ensures those affected by the disaster have full access to information in order to make informed decisions. Accountability refers to holding those with power and ability to distribute those resources responsible for doing so. While distributing resources during and after a disaster, it is essential that those affected are empowered through participation to ensure sustainable effects.

The following tables illustrate the result of shifting form need-based to right-based approach and its implication on practice:

  before 1990s after 1990s
Aid work Charity/voluntarism Professionalisation
Aid workers volunteers professional
Approach Needs based Rights based
Participation Work for people Work with people
Position Beneficiaries/ victims Right-holders
Donors Angels/ Saviours Duty bearers
Focus Symptoms Root causes
Action Hand outs Advocacy/ mobilisation
Accountability Vague Clear and quality

Your task

Think about disaster management in today’s current context, discuss whether there has been an improvement in humanitarian response?

Share your thoughts in the discussion area and give your reasons why?

Further reading

For further resources on this topic you may wish to review the following:

Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (2010) The 2010 HAP Standard in Accountability and Quality Management. [online]. available from [03 July 2017]

LEGS. (ND) Livestock Emergency Guidelines and Standards (LEGS). [online]. available from [10 May 2019]

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This article is from the free online course:

Humanitarian Action, Response and Relief

Coventry University