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date: 05 December 2023

Ambivalent Humanitarian Crises and Complex Emergenciesfree

Ambivalent Humanitarian Crises and Complex Emergenciesfree

  • Dennis DijkzeulDennis DijkzeulInstitute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict, Ruhr University Bochum
  •  and Diana GriesingerDiana GriesingerDepartment of Human Geography, Heidelberg University


The term “humanitarian crisis” combines two words of controversial meaning and definitions that are often used in very different situations. For example, there is no official definition of “humanitarian crisis” in international humanitarian law. Although some academic disciplines have developed ways of collecting and analyzing data on (potential) crises, all of them have difficulties understanding, defining, and even identifying humanitarian crises. Following an overview of the use of the compound noun “humanitarian crisis,” three perspectives from respectively the disciplines International Humanitarian Law, Public Health, and Humanitarian Studies are discussed in order to explore their different but partly overlapping approaches to (incompletely) defining, representing, and negotiating humanitarian crises. These disciplinary perspectives often paint an incomplete and technocratic picture of crises that is rarely contextualized and, thus, fails to reflect adequately the political causes of crises and the roles of local actors. They center more on defining humanitarian action than on humanitarian crises. They also show four different types of humanitarian action, namely radical, traditional Dunantist, multimandate, and resilience humanitarianism. These humanitarianisms have different strengths and weaknesses in different types of crisis, but none comprehensively and successfully defines humanitarian crises. Finally, a multiperspective and power-sensitive definition of crises, and a more fine-grained language for comprehending the diversity of crises will do more justice to the complexity and longevity of crises and the persons who are surviving—or attempting to survive—them.


  • Contentious Politics and Political Violence
  • Policy, Administration, and Bureaucracy
  • Political Behavior

What Is a Humanitarian Crisis?

What is a humanitarian crisis?1 Would it be the situation of people in Haiti after the earthquake? The famine in the Sahel? The condition of people living in the Central African Republic or in Afghanistan who are trying to survive amid armed conflicts? The situations of refugees in Libya, those in overcrowded boats on the Mediterranean, or those in Macedonian transit camps?

The list of spontaneous associations with humanitarian crises is long. Equally long are the lists of people affected by these crises and of the actors that provide humanitarian action. In its 2018 Global Humanitarian Overview, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated the number of people in need of global humanitarian assistance to be 135.7 million and its cost to be US$22.5 billion (OCHA, 2017, p. 3). In response to this immense need for succor, the number of humanitarian organizations operating across the world increased. Stoddard, Harmer, Haver, Taylor, and Harvey (2015, p. 38) have estimated that more than 4,480 such organizations are active worldwide, and in 2017 alone humanitarian actors saved more people than in any other year since the United Nations was founded (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 2017, p. 3). In its Key Trends in Global Humanitarian Assistance report, Development Initiatives (2019) listed Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, Iraq, and Somalia as the recipients of the largest amounts of humanitarian aid and identified the United States, Germany, European Union (EU) institutions, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia as the largest donors (Development Initiatives, 2019, p. 2).

Humanitarian action is an important factor in foreign affairs. This is partly because the number, longevity, and size of crises continues to grow. It is also because of the effect of the considerable media attention given to individual disasters such as the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013, and the earthquake in Nepal in April 2015. Still, public interest is often limited to specific catastrophic events that attract media attention, which focuses more on “breaking news” than on maintaining long-term interest. News of other, less “attractive” humanitarian crises, such as the situation in the Central African Republic, rarely reach the general public. Given this discrepancy, as well as the large number of actors involved, a few questions arise: What is a humanitarian crisis? When do humanitarian actors regard and identify a situation as a humanitarian crisis? When will a situation prompt humanitarian actors to act and result in activities that attract (or fail to attract) public attention?

Surprisingly, the concept of “humanitarian crisis” has lacked a clear definition. Rather, it has been a somewhat vague compound noun, the meaning of which has been a matter of debate—not only in practice but also in science—and has often been applied to very different situations. Although some academic disciplines, political actors, and humanitarian organizations have developed ways of collecting, analyzing, and evaluating data on (potential) crises, all have sooner or later encountered difficulties in understanding, defining, and even identifying humanitarian crises. In addition, the urgency implied in the term often leads to a strong focus on providing quick assistance at the expense of understanding the root causes and effects.

In this article, the focus lies on situations that are framed as humanitarian crises within international discourses. First, this article explains the semantics of this compound noun (see “Speaking of Humanitarian Crises”). Second, drawing on examples from international humanitarian law (see “International Humanitarian Law and Humanitarian Principles”), public health (see “Public Health in Humanitarian Crises”), and humanitarian studies (see “Humanitarian Studies”), the article presents approaches to humanitarian crises from various disciplines, each of which focuses on different aspects while ignoring others (see “Defining the Indefinable”). With regard to each of these disciplines, the conceptual question arises as to whether and how a situation is perceived and defined as a humanitarian crisis. Third, a critical perspective helps to address two questions: How are major decisions made in and about crises, and how is power exercised or consolidated? Before reaching a final “Conclusion,” this article also discusses alternative approaches to understanding different types of crises (see “Alternatives”).

Speaking of Humanitarian Crises: Etymology and Interpretation

Generally, a crisis is the pivotal juncture in a process of deciding between two final conditions that are highly significant for those affected: life or death, health or illness, success or failure, happiness or grief (Leschke, 2013, p. 10).2 Hence, the term “crisis” and the phenomenon to which it refers are ambivalent. On the one hand, a crisis is a threatening, destructive, and frightening situation. On the other hand, a crisis may offer an opportunity: a new beginning or a decisive change (Fenske, Hülk, & Schuhen, 2013, p. 7).

From an etymological point of view, the term “crisis” derives from the Greek verb krínein, which means “to divide,” “to separate,” “to choose,” “to decide,” or “to judge.” This verb is also the root of the verb “to criticize,” which also comes back in the double meaning of the adjective critical as either “offering critique” or “perilous/life-threatening.” The related noun krísis signifies “division” and “separation” but also “dispute,” “choice,” “decision,” “judgment,” and “sentence.” In ancient Greece, the expression krísis was common in medicine and indicated the decisive stage of a disease (Neumaier, 2013, p. 56). In the 17th century, it entered the English and French languages in a metaphorical sense to signify a phase in which a process takes a turn for better or worse, referring to times of uncertainty, difficulties, and tensions (Neumaier, 2013, p. 58). In political or social terms, a crisis may either help maintain the status quo or end it, and relates to periods of transition and revolution. A crisis may politically legitimize a state of exception (see Schmitt, 2005 [1922]). This character gives the term “crisis” its historical significance, containing a narrative structure loaded with meanings and antagonistic struggles (Leschke, 2013, p. 10).

From a constructivist perspective, a crisis is characterized by discourses that usually attract particular attention and prompt action. The driving force behind these discourses is often concern or fear. The more urgent a problem is perceived to be, the more powerful, difficult, divergent, and divisive crisis communication can become. However, awareness of a crisis can also prompt increased support for action. A crisis is, then, an experience, a state of mind of the actors involved, or a material event (Voigts, 2013, p. 277). Speaking of a crisis, or classifying a given situation as a crisis, is therefore a process of interpretation, as a situation is perceived as a crisis on the basis of various criteria and is subsequently described as one. According to Neumaier (2013, pp. 61–69), a crisis occurs when those affected by a critical situation also experience this situation as a crisis, when it involves significant strain and pressure, and when that critical situation is characterized by forces and processes that exceed human coping capacities. When those affected are unable to turn the situation around themselves, they become dependent on the support or intervention of others. Consequently, a crisis is less of a matter of observable facts than it is of situations to which crisis characteristics can be attributed. This means that speaking about crises always remains a context-dependent construction, and its definition remains a contentious and sensitive matter.

Just like “crisis,” the word “humanitarian” is an ambivalent term. It is often related to philanthropy and charity. Etymological dictionaries refer to the Latin origin of the word, humanitas, which means “human nature” or “humane character, kindness, human feeling” (“Humanitas,” 2012). Although this etymological origin refers primarily to more abstract concepts, a closer look at the usage of “humanitarian” in contemporary language reveals the same basis in philanthropy, but with additional aspects of crisis. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “humanitarian” as characterized by “[concern] with humanity as a whole; [specifically] seeking to promote human welfare as a primary or preeminent good; acting, or disposed to act, on this basis rather than for pragmatic or strategic reasons”; and “an event or situation which causes or involves (widespread) human suffering, [especially] one which requires the provision of aid or support on a large scale” (Humanitarian, 2019). As of the early 21st century, it is typically combined with nouns such as “emergency,” “disaster,” “crisis,” “tragedy,” “catastrophe,” “aid” and “intervention” (Humanitarian, 2019). Thus, when the term “humanitarian” is used, it usually relates to aspects of humanitarian action, military interventions, and legal debate, as well as to crisis situations in the form of disasters or emergencies that require immediate action.

“Humanitarian,” then, in its broader definition, refers to a desire to help individuals improve their well-being, potentially through voluntary work, social services, or development cooperation. When understood more specifically or as a concept of international humanitarian law, it refers to the narrow definition of the saving of human lives and the alleviation of suffering caused by conflicts and natural disasters in line with humanitarian principles (Eberwein & Reinalda, 2016, p. 25).

In the 1990s, as a result of debates about the massive human-rights violations in the former Yugoslavia, East Timor, Rwanda, and Somalia, the third meaning of “humanitarian” gained more attention: humanitarian interventions by the military with the goal of protecting human lives. Whereas some regard such humanitarian interventions as a part of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) for the international community, others consider such military interventions to be a perversion of the original meaning of “humanitarian,” even if such interventions are motivated by a desire to protect human rights. Tharoor and Daws (2001) note that “as some put it, there can be nothing humanitarian about a bomb” (p. 21; see also Dijkzeul, 2004, p. 27). As a compound noun, “humanitarian action” is thus susceptible to different forms of instrumentalization, such as cooptation, politicization, or militarization, by other actors who seek to present themselves and their aims in a positive light (Dijkzeul, 2004, p. 23; Tharoor & Daws, 2001, p. 21). Time and again, the question arises as to what is actually supposed to be humanitarian about a (specific) humanitarian crisis.

The manifold and different interpretations of the term “humanitarian” often lead to ambiguities regarding intentions and interpretations in practice. Nevertheless, almost all of the relevant semantic dimensions share a sense that the intention is to be benevolent, to alleviate need, and to protect, which, in connection with the emergency itself, usually implies a considerable urgency as well as the moral imperative that aid must be provided to stem the suffering of people in need. Thus, speaking about humanitarian crises always entails speaking about the means that are (or are not) available in order to avert or to respond to a crisis and to address needs.

However, the term “humanitarian” as it is commonly used in the early 21st century not only determines what issues should be relevant in addressing humanitarian crises but also which issues are less often associated with the term. The dominant issues of threat and the necessity to act rapidly divert attention away from the effects and critiques of humanitarian activities. This is particularly true of the unintended consequences of humanitarian action. Moreover, the perspective of those who receive humanitarian aid is rarely the subject of broader public and political debates in donor countries. To put it more starkly, public criticism3 of relief efforts in humanitarian emergencies seem almost impossible in view of the urgent, morally highly charged imperative to help (Lieser & Dijkzeul, 2013, p. 6), as Hyndman has also found: “Shortcomings of humanitarian aid and its delivery in acute situations are generally outweighed by a political consensus that humanitarian action must be taken” (2004, p. 194).

Defining the Indefinable: Determining What a Humanitarian Crisis Is

This section seeks to define “humanitarian crisis” from the perspective of three different (sub)disciplines: international humanitarian law (see “International Humanitarian Law and Humanitarian Principles”), public health (see “Public Health in Humanitarian Crises”), and humanitarian studies (see “Humanitarian Studies”). The main research areas, journal articles, conferences, contributions to debates, and education in these three subdisciplines focus extensively on humanitarian crises and action. However, all three have highly diverse backgrounds and take different approaches. International humanitarian law, as part of the wider discipline of law, as well as the subdiscipline of public health, which emerged from medicine, were established in the mid-19th century. Their most prominent and still best known protagonists are Henry Dunant and Florence Nightingale, both of whom played key roles in these areas—Dunant in founding the Red Cross movement and in helping develop international humanitarian law, and Nightingale in the fields of military medicine, epidemiology, and nursing. Nightingale rejected Dunant’s request to help with the founding of the Red Cross, fearing that such a humanitarian organization would encourage countries to shirk their responsibility to help war victims, and could even facilitate warfare. Although international humanitarian law and public health have influenced modern humanitarian aid from the outset, this early disagreement marked the point at which their paths diverged and have continued rather independently from each other since. The young and highly interdisciplinary field of humanitarian studies focuses primarily on politico-economic, social, and organizational aspects of crises and cannot be categorized as part of any major discipline.

International Humanitarian Law and the Humanitarian Principles

States have never agreed on a comprehensive and generally accepted legal definition of what constitutes a humanitarian crisis. The Geneva Conventions (1949),4 despite being key elements of international humanitarian law, do not provide a definition of “humanitarian.” Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions (1977), Articles 23ff., and the judgment of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in Nicaragua v. U.S.A. (1986) provide only a limited basis for deriving individual aspects of a possible definition. After the fall of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua, Ronald Reagan’s administration tried to remove the socialist Sandinista government by supporting the Contra rebels and mining Nicaraguan ports. In particular, the Reagan administration defended its support of the Contras as a humanitarian activity. The ICJ’s response to the Sandinista government’s subsequent legal action against the United States illustrates how vague the international concept of humanitarian action is:

The International Court of Justice “was provided an opportunity in [this] case . . . to clarify what actions legitimately fall within the category of humanitarian behavior. But in its . . . decision that ruled in favor of Nicaragua and against the United States (which had laid mines in Nicaraguan territorial waters), the [Court] waffled. Instead it pointed to the principles held by one humanitarian actor and engaged in begging the legal questions by stating that humanitarian action is what the International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC] . . . does.”

(Weiss, 2013, p. 10)

By stressing this last point—that humanitarian action is what the ICRC does—the ICJ shifted the power of definition of humanitarian crises from the court to humanitarian actors. Consequently, attention shifted from defining a humanitarian crisis to defining humanitarian action.

Moreover, international law is based on a consensus between “sovereign” states that were not interested in a precise definition of the terms “humanitarian” or “crisis,” because this would allow them greater scope for dealing with such crises. For example, states are not obliged to take action or to comply fully with humanitarian principles. Thus, from a purely legal perspective, states can both facilitate principled humanitarian aid and instrumentalize or neglect such aid for their own purposes. Such neglect occurred in Manchuria and Abyssinia in the 1930s and in Darfur in the 2000s. Generally, strong states fear to be sucked into a crisis—relabeled as a “quagmire”—in which they feel they do not have a stake.

The vague international legal definition of the term “humanitarian crisis” makes it difficult to determine not only where humanitarian crises and humanitarian action begin and end but also where and how development cooperation, protection of human rights, or conflict mitigation begins (Dijkzeul & Herman, 2010). Similarly, in a world in which chronic emergencies, such as the so-called protracted crises in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Somalia, and Afghanistan, are increasingly common, it becomes more important to discuss the temporality of humanitarian crises.

In line with the ICJ judgment in Nicaragua v. U.S.A. (1986), international humanitarian law has devoted considerable time to defining or at least to characterizing humanitarian aid itself, instead of providing a precise definition of “humanitarian crises.” It is worth noting that humanitarian organizations are usually less interested in what actually constitutes a humanitarian crisis than in delivering aid. Many aid organizations act self-referentially—and in doing so are often influenced more by their own criteria, competencies, resources, path dependencies, and networks than by the peculiarities of a particular crisis (Heyse, 2006).

With this fundamental idea of self-reference in mind, there are two ways to describe “humanitarian action.” First, in terms of the existing (possible) types of assistance, most relief organizations consider humanitarian support (food, water, sanitation, shelter, medicine, and clothing) and protection to be the most important components of the provision of humanitarian aid. Put simply:

Humanitarian assistance = food, water and sanitation (WATSAN5), shelter, medicine, clothing

Humanitarian action = humanitarian assistance + protection

Second, it is worth taking a closer look at the four traditional principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement (Pictet, 1979 [1965]). These principles are in line with the aforementioned ICJ Nicaragua v. U.S.A. (1986) ruling and constitute a form of customary international law that—at least on paper—is widely recognized by humanitarian organizations and meets their international quality standards, as outlined in the Sphere Handbook and the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability, for example. These four principles6 focus on the normative intent behind particular activities:


Humanity: According to the ICRC, the goal of humanitarian action is to “prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found” and to “protect life and health and to ensure respect for the human being” (Pictet, 1979 [1965], p. 12). The principle of humanity is often referred to as a moral imperative to act, but it is also regularly considered as just an impulse to act.


Neutrality: Humanitarian actors must continue to enjoy the trust and acceptance of all stakeholders and must not favor any side in an armed conflict or other dispute or be involved in political, racist, religious, or ideological disputes at any time.


Impartiality: Humanitarian actors must not discriminate against anyone on any grounds of national origin, race, religion, class, or political opinion; the purpose of humanitarian aid is to alleviate suffering, and urgent need takes priority.


Independence: Humanitarian actors must maintain independence to be able to act in accordance with these principles at any time and must not be influenced by the preferences of their donors or public authorities.

These principles serve at least five purposes:


They provide a deontological, norm-based motivation to take action (thereby also providing a stimulus to define a particular situation as a crisis).


They help define “crisis” as a state of exception, which legitimizes outsiders to come in and provide aid. Exceptionalism is at the heart of the classical paradigm of the Dunantist tradition, which is most strongly upheld by the ICRC and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). It is the main organizing tenet of their humanitarianism, including short-cycle funding modalities and expensive operating systems (Hilhorst, 2018, pp. 3–4).


They ensure, or at least attempt to ensure, that an organization is recognized as humanitarian by states and other actors.


They support the distinction between humanitarian action and its context. Officially, organizations that follow these principles do not participate in a conflict and do not intend to influence the conflict politically. In other words, the principles help to create a humanitarian space to which, ideally, access by humanitarian organizations is guaranteed and in which the safety of both these organizations and their recipients is also guaranteed. The humanitarian space is a norm-based space of exception, where warring factions (should) hold themselves back so that humanitarian organizations can address needs.


They ensure that humanitarian aid is universal—or at least as universal as possible—in accordance with the “wherever it may be found” aspect of the first principle.

However, these principles do not provide any practical information concerning what form humanitarian action should take. Rather, they serve as a mindset through which humanitarian organizations seek to gain access and provide assistance to those affected by a crisis while ensuring a minimum level of safety for their own staff and the people in need. Much of international humanitarian law, including these principles, can be regarded as an effort to protect both the humanitarian space and the lives and dignity of the victims of armed conflict. There are also downsides to defining a humanitarian crisis on the basis of humanitarian action, because it gives the impression that humanitarian organizations—with their donors in the background—can decide what constitutes a crisis. In other words, this approach says more about humanitarian organizations than it does about the peculiarities of a humanitarian crisis. The link between humanitarian action and humanitarian crises is the fact that humanitarian action addresses the major unmet needs that result from what are often life-threatening crises.

There are at least six problem areas that make it difficult to uphold the humanitarian principles and that prevent consensus concerning the definition of a humanitarian crisis:


In the 19th century, the humanitarian principles were originally based on an agreement between troops on the battlefield and their political leadership from two or more states. International humanitarian law addressed Western states and their troops.7 The idea was that humanitarian action would only be necessary for a short period of time. It would be an exception. Most crises in the 21st century, however, have become chronic. Countries such as Afghanistan and Somalia have experienced crises for decades. Can such a chronic crisis or humanitarian action in such a crisis still be considered a temporary exception?


The original orientation toward states does not suit these chronic crises of the late 20th and early 21st century well because it no longer does justice to the complexity, length, and extent of crises, particularly with regard to the diversity of actors involved. A wide variety of warring factions—such as ethnic militias, armed gangs, international crime syndicates, drugged child soldiers, local vigilante groups, local communities, international peacekeepers, traditional leaders, and political and economic elites (who are often corrupt)—interact with one another while state institutions have been weakened. It is therefore no surprise that there are so many people who are in need of support and living in so-called weak or failed states (Development Initiatives, 2018). The fact that the state is weak also explains the chronic character of many crises. There is usually no other actor that ensures the common good and can stabilize the country.


Upholding the humanitarian principles is difficult because the international community, which officially has the responsibility to protect the population, is itself weakly institutionalized and often politically divided. This becomes evident when R2P is disregarded in cases in which a state is unable or unwilling to protect its population. Who, then, within the international community, should be responsible? In practice, states only rarely reach a consensus on who should intervene when and how. Such a consensus was absent during and after the overthrow of Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi in Libya in 2011 and in the case of the Assad government in Syria.


What makes upholding the humanitarian principles particularly difficult is the fact that it must be done in contexts that challenge every norm of social interaction as a result of war, forced migration, hunger, or disease (Harrell-Bond, 1986, p. 104).


Many well-established multimandate organizations8 operate in chronic crises, including the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, Africare, CARE, Caritas/Catholic Relief Services, the International Rescue Committee, Oxfam, Project Concern International, Save the Children, and World Vision International. Such organizations usually focus on providing long-term aid and on combining humanitarian aid with development cooperation and human rights. Organizations in the Dunantist tradition, such as the ICRC, Médecins du Monde and MSF, however, interpret “humanitarian action” more narrowly as an exception. They tend to focus more on shorter periods of deployment and, in particular, on the immediate alleviation of human suffering, although the more chronic a crisis becomes, the more likely it is that these organizations will also extend their work in crisis areas (Aembe & Dijkzeul, 2019). Still, the humanitarian principles are easier to uphold if humanitarian projects last only a limited period of time, because the organizations are then less likely to become part of the local context and to be considered as partisan.


Upholding the humanitarian principles is also impeded by the wide range of “new” or at least unconventional or nontraditional humanitarian actors. Humanitarian action is not only implemented by Dunantist humanitarian actors and well-established multimandate organizations but also by actors who have become increasingly prominent since the end of the Cold War. These actors include migrant, Muslim, and local organizations that operate on the basis of the origin of their members, or their own religious preferences (Sezgin & Dijkzeul, 2016). In most cases, these actors define “crisis” and “aid” differently.

These six problem areas represent a well-known problem for law in general: the actual context and implementation of the law rarely follow specific legal provisions or the spirit of norms. They also explain the distinction between traditional humanitarianism by especially ICRC and MSF, who have long dominated humanitarian debate and action, and the many other multimandate organizations.

Critical Analysis of International Humanitarian Law

Humanitarian aid is often provided in conflict-ridden or civil war–like environments where most of the actors—some of whom are powerful, some less so—do not respect international humanitarian law or the humanitarian principles but who often try to instrumentalize aid for their own purposes. Thus, not only are the concepts of humanitarianism, humanitarian crisis, and humanitarian action susceptible to being instrumentalized, but the material aspects of humanitarian aid can act as a renewable resource for warring factions and thus contribute to the prolongation of conflicts. Since the 1990s, for example, various warlords and politicians in the DRC have ruthlessly pursued their own political, economic, and military agendas.9 This makes principled humanitarian action difficult and, in extreme cases, counterproductive. Transporting refugees can facilitate ethnic cleansing, or aid resources can be used indirectly to maintain a political war economy. As a result, humanitarian action can then even increase the suffering it seeks to alleviate (see Terry, 2002).

It is therefore useful to distinguish the normative concept of humanitarian space from the empirical concept of the humanitarian arena. In addition, the humanitarian sector itself has diversified, in particular into traditional Dunantist and multimandate organizations, which has led to contentious debates on the approaches to and effectiveness of humanitarian action.

The actual effect of the individual principles and of humanitarian law is therefore unclear. They neither completely define the roles of the individual humanitarian actors involved nor exclusively define the concepts of “humanitarian” and “crisis.” The fact that people can instrumentalize humanitarian action or identify a crisis as such for their own benefit makes raising the question of who exactly defines humanitarian crises, as well as how and why they do so, an analytical and practical necessity.

Public Health in Humanitarian Crises

Since its earliest days, the subdiscipline of public health has focused on studying the health situation of specific population groups or entire populations and has developed and evaluated numerous new medical treatments and nutritional techniques and methods. Within this subdiscipline, Burkholder and Toole (1995) established the term “complex disaster” for large, deadly crises that seemed increasingly common since the end of the Cold War. They defined a complex disaster as “an acute situation affecting a large population and caused by a combination of factors, including civil strife and war, exacerbated often by food shortages and population displacements, and resulting in significant excess mortality” (Burkholder & Toole, 1995, p. 1012).

With the focus of this definition being on mortality and morbidity, questions arose as to how to measure the bio-physiological or medical needs of a population and when these (unmet) needs should be classified as critical for survival. Particularly in the field of public health, indicators have been developed for describing and analyzing the needs of population groups. Once certain thresholds are reached, it is possible to speak of a crisis, at which point humanitarian action becomes necessary (if a government is unable to manage the crisis itself). The aim here is to describe the health or nutritional status of population groups as objectively as possible. Table 1 lists the most commonly used humanitarian crisis indicators in public health.

Table 1. Emergency Indicators




Crude mortality rate

Normal rate among a settled population

0.3–0.5/10,000 per day

Emergency program under control

< 1/10,000 per day

Emergency program in serious trouble

> 1/10,000 per day

Emergency out of control

Major catastrophe

> 2/10,000 per day

Mortality rate among children under five years old

Normal rate among a settled population

1/10,000 per day

Emergency program under control

< 2/10.000 per day

Emergency program in serious trouble

> 2/10,000 per day

Emergency out of control

> 4/10,000 per day

Lack of clean water

Survival need

7 litres per person per day

Maintenance allocation

15–20 litres per person per day

Waterborne disease

25% people with diarrhea

Lack of food

Survival need

1,900 kCal/person/day

Maintenance allocation

2,100 kCal/person/day

Malnutrition of children

Severely malnourished

> 1% population < 5 years old

Moderately malnourished

> 10% population < 5 years old

Nutrition-related disease

Presence of oedema, pellagra, scurvy, beriberi, and vitamin A deficiency

Poor shelter

Minimum shelter area

3.5 m2/ person

Minimum total site area

30 m2/person

Lack of sanitation


< 1 latrine cubicle per 100 persons



Any reported cases

Hemorrhagic-related fevers

Any reported cases

Acute respiratory infections (ARI)

Pattern of severe cases

Note: Adapted from James (2017, pp. 6–7).

Critical Analysis of Public Health

Both the indicators and the thresholds shown in Table 1 are matters for debate. Although the benefit of the indicators is that they are based on empirical data, the question remains as to how, when, and which actors can decide how to apply them. In addition, the indicators, such as mortality, describe only one aspect of a crisis. Although they are useful in classifying a crisis and in identifying severe human suffering, they do not provide a deeper understanding of the underlying causes and effects of such issues as war, corruption, and state collapse. Moreover, indicators do not fully determine political and organizational responses, because indicators are only one aspect of decision making. The decision makers, such as politicians and managers of humanitarian organizations, also pay considerable attention to the power and interests of themselves, their organizations, and other actors.

Moreover, many of these indicators were originally developed in informal settings. For example, epidemiologists Waldman and O’Toole developed some of these crude mortality rates over a beer in a pub.10 These authors repeatedly stress that these indicators should be interpreted depending on the context in which they are to be applied and that they should be carefully conceptualized and used. Nevertheless, as Barnett (2013) argues, “indicators produce a world that becomes knowable, but this knowledge is dependent on abstracting from context and making choices about which abstractions are important and which are immaterial” (pp. 380–391).

In this vein, the American sociologist Calhoun (2010) criticizes the strong focus on such biopolitical indicators for reducing individuals to their bare life and thus depoliticizing them: “there is a tendency for counting deaths and conversely lives saved to become the metric of action in humanitarian emergencies, reflecting a calculus of bare life, the minimum of human existence” (pp. 33–34). Modes of managing human life and the associated bio-politicization are particularly evident in humanitarian shelters such as refugee camps (Hyndman & Giles, 2017, p. 92), where “refugees are transformed into bodies to be fed and sheltered” (Hanafi, 2008, p. 88), and their voices are largely ignored.11

Despite the ever-increasing range of available indicators and data on humanitarian crises, other—vital but difficult-to-measure—aspects of the lives of the individuals affected, such as their dignity or local self-help initiatives, are rarely taken into consideration. Yet at the same time, the intention of “securing only bare life in short-term operations [is] to refrain from joining any political discussion in which development aid ha[s] automatically been caught” (Merziger, 2015, p. 18). As with the humanitarian principles, focusing on these indicators allows humanitarian aid to be provided without becoming engaged in the politics of the crisis in the hope of safeguarding access and security. The benefits and drawbacks of the indicators, as well as their specific blind spots, should therefore be assessed simultaneously.

In discussing the emergency indicators, it is important to consider who uses them, with what authority and power, for what target group they are produced, and on what relevant expertise it is based. Most humanitarian crisis indicators are developed by epidemiologists and health experts who are commissioned by humanitarian organizations and donor states. The indicators help determine whether or to what extent a specific situation represents a crisis. However, they fail to consider other aspects of the crisis, and ideally they would be complemented by additional analysis in order to understand the local political context and the role of the various parties involved as well as the broader effects of humanitarian organizations outside the humanitarian sphere (e.g., longer-term security, local politics, political war economy). At the same time, depoliticization toward bare life also determines the areas (e.g., food, water, sanitation, hygiene, shelter, medicine, and focus on survival) and methods of humanitarian action. The humanitarian organizations exert power by assigning a limited or passive role to their “beneficiaries.” Ultimately, indicators of humanitarian crises can only provide part of the basis for decisions for or against the delivery of humanitarian aid or even military intervention. Thus, the question of defining a crisis is also a question of political, organizational, and economic power; critically examining the changing definitions and indicators of crises helps in understanding changes in this power.

Humanitarian Studies

Humanitarian studies is a field of research that explores how crises emerge and develop, what effects they have on individuals, institutions, and societies, and what responses they elicit (Hilhorst, Dijkzeul, & Herman, 2010, p. 127). It started growing rapidly with the crises after the end of the Cold War.

Surprisingly, humanitarian studies has never provided a clear definition of “humanitarian crises,” nor has it fully developed a conceptual language to describe the diversity, longevity, and intensity of crises. This section reviews a number of efforts made since the 1990s to develop such a definition. Burkholder and Toole’s (1995) attempt to define a complex disaster has already been mentioned (see “Public Health in Humanitarian Crises”). Since the end of the Cold War, there have been several more attempts to develop similar concepts.

The term “complex humanitarian emergency” was initially coined by the United Nations to describe the unique set of circumstances in Mozambique in 1989, when that state was affected by internal conflict (fueled by destabilization efforts from South Africa).12 Mozambique was also the recipient of a plethora of aid operations, some of which were of questionable quality (Diskett, Hansch, & Randall, 2004, p. 301).

This attempt at a definition led some researchers to joke that the complexity of a humanitarian response says more about those who are intervening than it does about the crisis itself (Terry, 2002, p. 15). Nevertheless, the term “complex humanitarian emergency” caught on and was particularly popular during the 1990s, when it was applied to such crises as the Gulf War (1990–1991), the genocide in Rwanda and the subsequent Great Lakes refugee crisis (since 1994), the 1999 East Timorese crisis, and the Sierra Leone Civil War (Terry, 2002, p. 15).

Two elements were particularly evident in the day-to-day practice of humanitarian aid. First, according to an ICRC estimate, 85% of the victims of complex humanitarian emergencies were civilians, and their suffering required intervention (ICRC, 2001, p. iii). Second, in the course of many complex humanitarian emergencies, states have weakened and thus have become what are known as fragile or failed states. The terms “weak” or “fragile state” alone suggest that such states have few institutions or weak ones. A logical consequence is then to try to strengthen these institutions or to create new ones. However, even in weak states, some institutions maintain their functions—for example, to collect taxes and duties, though usually only for the benefit of a small political elite, which remains in power to enrich itself through oppression and corruption at the expense of the population. As a result of such kleptocratic behavior, many crises become chronic. To understand such crises, political factors such as international decision making, corruption, or the political economy of war require more attention. If these factors are taken seriously, it is sometimes better to shift the focus from international military operations and humanitarian organizations to fighting corruption in kleptocratic states (see Lezhnev, 2016).

Consequently, the terms “complex humanitarian emergencies” and “complex disasters” have increasingly and repeatedly received conceptual criticism. “Complex” means that these situations are not the purely natural disasters that they may be made out to be, but have human-induced components and continue over longer periods of time; they are social disasters that affect groups of people with varying degrees of vulnerability and resilience.13 But is it even logical to speak of “long-lasting,” “protracted,” or “chronic” emergencies?14 That may be like speaking of a “long-lasting” or “chronic” heart attack. Generally, the vulnerability of populations is human-induced, often with ongoing political and economic consequences.

Similarly, when the “humanitarian” aspects of a complex humanitarian emergency are stressed, the role of local actors and their perspectives on the crisis may be neglected. Local actors continue to play a greater role in crisis management than the media tends to report, which—if they report on them at all—often portrays the local population as passive, needy individuals. However, survivors, their neighbors, families, and members of a local community are inevitably the first to be present during a crisis (Munz, 2007). These are the same individuals who also start local solidarity networks and initiate rehabilitation and reconstruction. Terry summarizes the fundamental inadequacies of the term “complex humanitarian emergency” as follows:

[T]he term blurs rather than illuminates the contemporary context. It confuses the specificities of war, famine, epidemics, drought, population displacement, massacres, and genocide. . . . [T]he vogue for labelling crises “complex emergencies” is a means to conceal “that one does not know what is going on.” But, what is more insidious, the term actually distorts understanding, making no distinction among causes of suffering, instead defining a crisis in terms of the required “multifaceted response.” The causes of most crises are political; some consequences may be humanitarian. But labelling them “complex emergencies” and “humanitarian crises” disconnects the consequences from the causes and permits the international response to be assigned—and confined—to the humanitarian domain. (2002, pp. 12–13)

Once again, the focus shifts from defining a humanitarian crisis to what humanitarian organizations do. In this vein, Terry notes the following:

Much of the “complexity” of contemporary crises resides in the changed responses to crises, particularly the competing agendas of the multitude of actors from NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], the UN, donor governments, and international military forces. . . . Emphasizing the complexity of crises has become a convenient way of deflecting responsibility for the negative consequences of humanitarian action from the international aid regime to the context in which it operates. (2002, p. 15)

In other words, the term “complex humanitarian emergency” reinforces the self-referential aspect of the humanitarian action and hides the power and responsibility of donor governments and humanitarian organizations. Scholars have proposed several alternatives to the term “complex humanitarian emergency,” including “complex political emergency” to emphasize political causes (e.g., for weaker states and the structural Global North and South context of these crises).15 Notwithstanding the criticism directed at the use of terms such as “complex humanitarian emergency” and “complex political emergency,” retaining the classic terms such as “civil war,” “civil conflict,” or “natural disaster” is not a good alternative, either.16

The fact that none of these terms has enjoyed undisputed acceptance may be the result of a deeply rooted habit of using different terms, but it may also be because many humanitarian actors feel a need to follow a multilevel, multiactor approach to address crises appropriately.17 In line with Terry (2002), it is necessary to ask what links exist among the specificities of war, famine, epidemics, drought, population displacement, massacres, and genocide (in weak or failing states). To this end, the local political, economic, social, and cultural contexts of needs must be identified. Without such an approach, humanitarian aid runs the risk of going to extremes: either to the extreme of technocratic emergency aid, which fails to address the context and causes of the crisis adequately, or to the extreme of a comprehensive, overambitious approach, with too many responsibilities in the fields of development cooperation, conflict resolution, human rights, security, reconstruction, and diplomacy. Terry (2002) takes a similar approach by saying that the identification of crises as humanitarian can lead local and international actors, including the military, to assume less responsibility for them, and that humanitarian organizations are ultimately burdened with this responsibility, as Nightingale feared in her day.

Table 2. Types of Disaster

Natural-hazard induced

Human induced

Sudden onset




Terrorist attack

Coup d’état

Chemical leak

Slow onset




Political crisis

Refugee crisis

Note: Adapted from Van Wassenhove (2006, p. 476).

As a contrast to the general term “complex humanitarian emergency,” Van Wassenhove (2006) has attempted to identify different types of crises, which constitutes a crucial step in the debate on a specific definition of crises.18 According to Van Wassenhove, a disaster can have natural causes or be man-made:

Natural disasters” comprise both “slow-onset” disasters, such as famine and drought, and “sudden-onset” [disasters], such as . . . earthquakes. Some are cyclical in nature, such as hurricanes. . . . “Man-made disasters” [may either be] sudden-onset disasters, [such as] a terrorist attack or a coup d’état, or slow-onset disasters, such as political or refugee crises. . . . Man-made disasters do not include wars, which are in a category of their own, since most humanitarian organizations do not get involved while the fighting continues. (2006, p. 476)

The terms “natural-hazard-induced” and “human-induced” disasters have increasingly replaced “natural” and “man-made” disasters to indicate the immediate trigger of the disasters, although they reflect the widespread recognition that natural hazards are partially human induced, as well. Climate change and other forms of environmental decline especially have caused this shift in terminology.

It is striking that Van Wassenhove (2006) does not include war, which by definition is a human-induced phenomenon, whereas many authors writing on the history of humanitarian aid and military interventions explicitly include war (e.g., Barnett, 2011; Barnett & Weiss, 2011; Bass, 2008; Walker & Maxwell, 2009). After all, since the 1990s, humanitarian organizations have increasingly been operating in war zones.19

Von Pilar (2013) argues that genocides and massacres should not be included as humanitarian aid cases because “when the elimination of a group of individuals is the objective, there are few ways in which aid organizations can help effectively” (p. 37, our transl. DD and DG). Van Wassenhove (2006) and von Pilar (2013) thus share the idea that some causes of human suffering are so destructive that aid alone is not sufficient, and that they therefore form a category of their own. Nevertheless, even under these extreme conditions, people still need help. Once again, there is no consensus on exactly what constitutes a humanitarian crisis and where humanitarian aid should begin and end. In other words, humanitarian and crisis are and continue to be two essentially contested concepts.

Similar to the various attempts to define humanitarian crises, scholars have attempted to analyze and to define how traditional Dunantist and multimandate humanitarianism have evolved. They have shown a further diversification of aid and the conceptualization of crises. In the 1970s, for example, the German medical NGO Cap Anamur used the concept of “radical humanitarianism” to present its activities as pure, nonpolitical aid (Merziger, 2015). It was an offshoot of the traditional Dunantist humanitarian paradigm, but it was also skeptical of organizational growth and professionalization. It consciously attempted to remain a small and unbureaucratic organization. In the late 1970s, Cap Anamur received broad public support in West Germany (Bösch, 2017). Its radical humanitarianism strategy primarily aimed to facilitate access to those affected by humanitarian crises, but it presupposed that all affected parties would cooperate. The latter has become especially rare in countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, and Nigeria, where extremist armed groups, in particular the Taliban, Al-Nusra and Islamic State, and Boko Haram, target humanitarians and question humanitarian neutrality. A related shortcoming of “radical humanitarianism” is that it is less successful in chronic crises because it does not want to help address the root causes of those crises.

Since the end of the Cold War, the multimandate humanitarianism that is based on the broad definition of humanity has also developed further into resilience humanitarianism (Hilhorst, 2018). This form of humanitarianism received a strong push from the 2004 Hyogo Framework for Action to address climate change. Initially, it focused especially on human-induced disasters. The framework, for example, stressed prevention, local responses, and long-term action that traditionally fell under the heading of development cooperation. In this approach, crises are seen as “the “new normal” of protracted crises. Crisis “as the new normality is also used when referring to areas where climate change and other factors have resulted in semi-permanent crises” (Hilhorst, 2018, pp. 5–6). As it abandons the idea of principled humanitarianism as a form of exceptionalism, resilience humanitarianism has fewer problems playing a political role. In line with the incorporation of long-term development aspects, resilience humanitarianism also stresses the capacities and responsibilities of people in need to be resilient themselves. Although this can lead to an emancipation of people in need, no longer seeing them as passive, incapacitated victims, it also runs the risk of their abandonment, when donors or humanitarian organizations argue that the people are not taking up their “own” responsibility to become more resilient (Hilhorst, 2018, pp. 5–6).

Critical Analysis of Humanitarian Studies

As a result of having different views of the significance and definition of humanitarian crises, donors, recipient governments, affected groups, and various humanitarian organizations have different priorities and approaches, which often makes it difficult to coordinate and provide humanitarian aid, even to the point of a major loss of effectiveness. The lack of a clear definition of “crisis,” along with the positive image of aid, has often made humanitarian action susceptible to exploitation and instrumentalization.

Traditionally, the main approach of avoiding such vulnerability through depoliticization is the continued adherence to humanitarian principles by such organizations as ICRC and MSF. Such principled aid does not seek to assume a political role and is prone to use indicators in technocratic ways. In line with international humanitarian law, it does not aim to end conflict by addressing the root causes of conflict. Traditional Dunantist humanitarians and radical humanitarians argue instead that their principles help safeguard access and safety of their staff and the people in need. Multimandate and resilience humanitarians, in contrast, prefer the broader interpretation of humanitarian aid in an attempt to address the conflict mitigation, development, and human rights aspects of crises.

The tragic part of all four forms of humanitarian action is that although they help to alleviate suffering, none of them can eliminate all causes of crises. Unfortunately, there are also no development policy approaches that might achieve this.

The benefits and drawbacks of each of the different forms of humanitarian action cannot be separated from each other because the short-term aspects of direct relief are difficult to reconcile with long-term development or conflict-mitigation policies, which are by definition more political. Yet, through their aid, all humanitarian organizations directly or indirectly influence humanitarian crises. They exert power—for example, in refugee camps—but they cannot ensure security or build a functioning state. Ideally, donor and receiving states should then become active, but as already indicated in “International Humanitarian Law and Humanitarian Principles,” they often lack the political will to do so.


The lack of specificity about types of crises in international humanitarian law, public health, and humanitarian studies implicitly encourages a technocratic approach on the part of outside intervenors and neglects the role of local actors. It shapes a narrative of contextless crises that is widely disseminated in the media and reproduced in a modified form with each new crisis.

Notwithstanding the boundaries that exist between the three academic fields, approaches based on a constructivist, discourse-analytic perspective should be used for further critical analysis, since “understanding the working of discourses of crisis and crisis response is important in analysing how people and institutions deal with humanitarian crisis” (Hilhorst, 2018, p. 2). Particularly against a background in which the power of definitions, indicators, and images can guide action, poststructuralist discourse-analytical approaches have the potential to reveal hegemonic patterns that build powerful knowledge about humanitarian crises while also being open to alternative interpretations, discontinuities, or internal contradictions (see Dzudzek, Kunze, & Wullweber, 2012; Glasze & Mattissek, 2009). These poststructuralist approaches, if combined with a postcolonial perspective (see Gregory, 2004; Lossau, 2002; Radcliffe, 2005; Sharp, 2009; Sidaway, 2000; Ziai 2006) that is sensitive both to unequal distributions of power in the context of selective global aid and to supposedly stable collective ascriptions of identity by active aid workers and passive victims, would offer the openness required for a multiperspective view of humanitarian crises. This viewpoint appears to be necessary at a time when an ever-increasing number of situations have been described as humanitarian crises, as Hyndman notes:

Humanitarian emergencies . . . are largely an invention of the 1990s, one that sought to underscore the urgency of international response but also to delineate the situation as time-limited. Examining assistance provided under such conditions is doubly important, first because actions otherwise considered unacceptable may be deemed justifiable in an “emergency” and second because there may be an implicit assumption that intervention is short term and therefore need not incorporate, for example, the gender or cultural politics of the place and people being assisted. (2004, p. 195)

One step in addressing the broader politics is to distinguish different types of crisis scenarios and subsequent interventions. Dijkzeul and Hilhorst (2016) discern five types, namely (a) open armed conflicts; (b) fragile settings, for example chronic crises; (c) refugees and other displaced persons; (d) disasters triggered by natural hazards; and (e) biological, chemical, and nuclear disasters. Studying these scenarios reveals “that single-mandate humanitarian organizations are particularly prominent in open, violent conflict, whereas in most other types of crisis multi-mandate organizations appear to be more dominant and generally better suited to provide services” (Dijkzeul & Hilhorst, 2016, p. 64). Multimandate and resilience humanitarianism operate more strongly in fragile settings, refugee and other displacement crises, and natural-hazard-induced crises. All four types of humanitarian actors face considerable problems in biological, chemical, and nuclear disasters. The Ebola epidemics in West Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have shown how neither humanitarian organizations nor the national governments were trusted by the local population. Nuclear disasters are even more challenging, as no humanitarian organization is equipped to deal with such a large-scale disaster.

Dijkzeul and Hilhorst (2016) also note that “the different types of crisis are not clearly separated in reality. In countries where certain areas or periods are more or less violent, aid is always moving between different objectives and ways of working. It is at the borderlines and overlap between different types of crises that most friction . . . occurs” (p. 64).

Table 3. Different Types of Humanitarianism in Different Types of Crisis

Open armed conflict

Fragile settings/chronic crises

Refugee and other displacement crises

Natural hazards

Biological, chemical, and nuclear disasters













A practical, though only partial, approach to resolving this problem of borderlines and overlap is to describe and analyze the various characteristics of humanitarian crises in more detail. The intensity and perception of these characteristics differ from crisis to crisis and can be explored only empirically. Natsios (1996, p. 67) has identified the following five types of characteristics of a humanitarian crisis:


Deterioration or complete collapse of central government authority and (parts of) civil society.


Armed conflict (often between ethnic or religious groups) and widespread human rights abuses.


Episodic food insecurity, which frequently deteriorates into mass starvation.


Macroeconomic collapse involving hyperinflation, massive unemployment, and net decreases in GNP.


Mass population movements of displaced people and refugees escaping conflict or searching for food.

Not all humanitarian crises share these characteristics all at once or with equal intensity. For example, during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, the victims of snipers in Sarajevo were described as “well-fed dead.”20 It makes sense to tailor aid to the changes in these five characteristics.

To gain a better understanding of the diversity of crises and their dynamics and interactions, more empirical work is needed, especially concerning local contexts. Important questions are: What are the real practices of the various actors involved? How do they determine within their organizations when a situation should be regarded as a crisis, and when and to what extent does a specific type of crisis require an intervention? Scholars should also take a closer look at the power of definition of the different actors, and at approaches from different disciplines. In this way, it will be possible to create a more fine-grained conceptual language about crises.


Problems in identifying and defining what constitutes a humanitarian crisis are as evident on a scientific level as they are on a practical level. Humanitarian organizations differ on the underlying issue of whether a crisis is an exception or a chronic condition. In the final analysis, a humanitarian crisis usually affects large groups of people who are unable to deal with a crisis on their own and who therefore need help. All definitions of the term “humanitarian crisis” ultimately share the following elements: (a) the immediate and unmet needs of in terms of morbidity and mortality of a population and the suffering associated with them; (b) the inability fully or partially to alleviate the suffering by those affected, which creates (c) the urgent need for external life-saving support. As these elements constitute the lowest common denominator of a humanitarian crisis, they also ignore many specific aspects of it. After all, such a crisis is always a societal crisis, which makes it virtually impossible to encompass all the aspects relevant to action holistically. A humanitarian crisis is both a major incident and a narrative, mostly disseminated through the media, that prompts certain types of aid and intervention (or that may be ignored) and is used to legitimize specific activities. The limited understanding of the terms “humanitarian,” “emergency,” and “crisis” often leads to a technocratic focus on the principles, indicators, or organizational and logistic aspects of an emergency, which enables immediate action, especially by organizations that consider themselves humanitarian.

This partial and technocratic picture of crises is rarely linked to the broader societal, political, and economic contexts of a crisis situation, with the result being that the political causes of crises and the role of local actors are insufficiently taken into consideration. In scientific as well as day-to-day practice, this often leads to state-oriented analyses21 along a vertical axis from donor governments “at the top” to the United Nations and national and transnational NGOs, national governments, local administrations, and local NGOs to those affected “at the bottom.” Importantly, in crises a shift in power takes place from those affected to those experts and organizations that have knowledge and resources. The actual mechanisms behind this process of disempowerment of people in need and why they so often fail to receive attention require further empirical study.

Together, the approaches of international humanitarian law, public health, and humanitarian studies ignore certain aspects such as the diversity of local actors (e.g., local authorities, new humanitarian actors, kleptocratic elites, warlords) and their power and give too little attention to global structural differentials between the rich “North” and the poor “South.” A stronger focus on these structural power differentials could lead to alternative ways of countering crises that go beyond humanitarian action, such as international legal action, fighting corruption, and sanctions on undemocratic governing elites.

Numerous crises are occurring simultaneously around the world, multitudes of humanitarian actors are involved, and copious amounts of data on crises are available, but that does mean that one must not assume that all humanitarian crises receive the same amount of attention. They are often visible or invisible to varying degrees in the different scientific disciplines, politics, and the media.

Ultimately, at the practical level, not just indicators and definitions but also a variety of political and organizational factors determine whether aid will be provided in a humanitarian crisis. Decisions made by some as to what constitutes a humanitarian crisis have major political and material implications for others.


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  • 1. This article is partly based on Dijkzeul and Griesinger (2020).

  • 2. The first three paragraphs of this section are based on Dijkzeul and Meis (2013).

  • 3. Although problems of the international humanitarian system are rarely discussed in the mass media, they are certainly addressed in the internal debate on humanitarian dilemmas and challenges (e.g., Anderson, 1999; Donini, 2012; Franks, 2013; Hyndman, 2001; Malkki, 2015; Terry, 2002; von Pilar, 2005; Vaux, 2001; Weiss, 2013).

  • 4. The Geneva Conventions are concerned with the protection of sick and wounded soldiers, prisoners of war, and civilians in wars.

  • 5. “WATSAN” is a technical term used internationally to denote water and sanitation that is being increasingly replaced by WASH, which stands for “water, sanitation, and hygiene.”

  • 6. For more information on the fundamental principles of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, see International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent (n.d.).

  • 7. Until 1949, international humanitarian law addressed neither internal conflicts nor colonies of European states, which limited its “universal” scope.

  • 8. Multimandate organizations have a broad understanding of aid and “not only provide humanitarian aid, but also work in a transition area that includes development cooperation, or they even actively support human rights or peacekeeping” (VENRO, 2013, translated by the authors).

  • 9. In 1994, after the genocide of the Hutu extremists against the Tutsis and other opponents in Rwanda, these extremists used the refugee camps in Zaire (the Democratic Republic of the Congo) as retreat and recruitment bases. Humanitarian aid was misused for military and militant activities. For this reason, MSF called for the withdrawal of aid agencies from these refugee camps, because such instrumentalization not only contributes to prolonging conflicts but makes them possible in the first place (Terry, 2002; von Pilar, 2005).

  • 10. R. Waldman (personal correspondence, September 2000).

  • 11. For more on bio-politics, biological power, and controlling human life and populations, see Foucault (1976) and Agamben (1998, 2005).

  • 12. Note that no one has yet spoken of simple humanitarian emergencies.

  • 13. Social vulnerability approaches from social-environmental research point to the fact that natural disasters are not just to be understood as natural events, but that one should also take into consideration the social and political context that makes them disasters (see Felgentreff & Glade, 2007; Mattissek & Sakdapolrak, 2016, p. 22; O’Keefe, Westgate, & Wisner, 1976). Whereas the vulnerability of social groups consists in their vulnerability as an interplay of risks, natural hazards, and the collapse of their livelihoods (see Bohle, 2011), resilience means “the ability of groups and societies exposed to risks not only to withstand natural hazards but to recover from them” (Mattissek & Sakdapolrak, 2016, p. 23; see also Keck & Sakdapolrak, 2013).

  • 14. In line with its medical use, the term “emergency” implies a need for immediate action. Even here, this medical connotation distorts our understanding of humanitarian crises, which are not comparable to medical emergencies in which medical personnel are the first responders. In humanitarian crises, it is almost always the local population that takes most of the initiative to save lives, despite the fact that humanitarian organizations receive more attention in the international press. Members of the local population also immediately start rebuilding and stay long after the international aid industry will have left. In addition, the term “emergency” draws attention away from the international and local political causes of crises, which also require reflection and long-term action.

  • 15. For more, see Macrae (2001) and Grünewald and Tessier (2001).

  • 16. Even terms such as “internal conflict” or “civil war” are inappropriate, because conflicts are always embedded in an international economic system. Many warlords are dependent on international cooperation for the export of resources, the purchase of weapons, and the procurement of funds, which in turn enable them to continue “civil war” or “internal” conflict. These fighters will respect state borders and sovereignty only for tactical reasons and as long as they serve a material purpose. Otherwise, national borders and sovereignty will not be recognized, as in the case of the smuggling of diamonds and weapons in Liberia and Sierra Leone, or by the Colombian insurgents who found shelter in Venezuela. “Internal conflicts” and “civil wars,” then, do not necessarily remain within national borders but can also extend to neighboring countries or territories.

  • 17. The main problem here is that, as yet, no one knows what this approach—the specific nature of which should vary from crisis to crisis—might look like in practice. As Darcy and Hoffman (2003) note, “none of the existing paradigms for development seems adequate to situations where there is a vacuum of state services [or state accountability], widespread political and economic marginalization, and a breakdown of community support mechanisms. Donors are, in any case, reluctant to put development funding—with its emphasis on partnership—into situations where the authorities are seen as unaccountable, ineffectual, or potentially abusive. The result may be an inadequate and inconsistent humanitarian response and no prospect for sustainable development” (p. 20).

  • 18. Luk Van Wassenhove has established humanitarian logistics and supply chain management as a new field of study.

  • 19. Originally, humanitarian organizations worked more commonly in refugee camps in neighboring countries of conflicting states or protected areas. In the 1980s, especially since Operation Lifeline Sudan, humanitarian organizations have become increasingly active in war zones themselves, most notably in long-term crises such as those in Afghanistan and Somalia.

  • 20. “The people of Bosnia remain unprotected. What good will it do for them to have food in their stomachs when their throats are slit?” (“Well-Fed Dead,” 1992). Similarly, the exodus of refugees from Kosovo in 1999 did not lead to famine, because people were still “well fed” when forced to leave their homes and the exodus did not last long enough to cause famine.

  • 21. The strong focus of scientific analyses of humanitarian crises at the state level has been increasingly criticized because it too often disregards the everyday lives of those affected by crises. In contrast, vertical analyses or feminist research approaches stress the importance of everyday practices: such research “has further destabilized state-centric assumptions by invoking more embodied and everyday geopolitics at regional and local scales that reveal new understandings of security, but also expose the vulnerabilities of those facing extended exile” (Hyndman & Giles, 2017, p. 119; see also Nast, 1994).