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Some NGOs provide vital welfare services to people who have become very vulnerable because of a specific emergency. This is known as humanitarian aid.
It includes helping people who have suffered in an earthquake, or face a drought, or who have been forced away from their homes by conflict. Some international NGOs spend a large amount of money on humanitarian aid and sometimes save many lives.
Humanitarian aid is based on the belief that everyone has the right to the basic necessities of life, regardless of politics, race, religion, geographical location or any other circumstance.
This belief has been turned into a series of practical principles, which are summarised as a 'Humanitarian Charter' in the Sphere Handbook (see below). (Note: some humanitarian agencies disagree over some of the principles.)
It can be difficult to deliver humanitarian aid on a large scale. It often involves trying to move a lot of people and resources to hard-to-access areas very quickly. This serious logistical problem is made worse when NGOs move into places where they have not worked before or which suffer from conflict or political problems.
It is also hard to judge exactly what problems people face, what help will be most useful and how to work with existing social structures and other agencies. Experience shows that the key to helping people effectively is talking to them respectfully (see ALNAP's reviews, below).
Humanitarian aid is based on different principles to development work.
For instance, humanitarian aid is non-political and should be distributed according to people's immediate needs. In contrast, long-term development is all about using politics to get a fairer deal for poor and vulnerable people.
This creates three problems for NGOs.
- All social situations - even emergencies - have their own politics and these often influence how aid is used.
- Many NGOs provide both short-term humanitarian aid and long-term development support. It can be hard to handle the transition from one way of working to another.
Many humanitarian crises are the result of failures in development. Responding only to short-term symptoms may not address the long-term causes - and can sometimes make them worse.
Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response
ALNAP - free publications include annual reviews of the entire humanitarian sector and books (e.g. on participation).
Initiatives to raise standards in the humanitarian sector - an overview of current initiatives.