Concern is dedicated to creating a world where no one lives in poverty, fear, or oppression. It's a big, bold, and ambitious vision, but it's one that we believe can be reached through the right work. Broadly speaking, our work falls into one of two categories: development and humanitarian aid.

Those terms may sound interchangeable, but they each serve specific purposes. (Many nonprofit organizations and NGOs will focus on just one or the other; Concern is a dual-mandate organization and therefore focuses on both.) In this explainer, we look at what humanitarian aid means, why it's important, and the specific guidelines that hold all humanitarian work to the highest standard.

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1. The definition of humanitarian aid

Humanitarian aid is assistance that’s used to relieve suffering during emergency situations. This is different from development aid, which is assistance that goes to addressing ongoing issues that contribute to human suffering.

To think about it a bit more, we can say that, in general, humanitarian aid directly benefits people while development aid is used to improve structural systems. Both are important keys in addressing poverty and its causes.

Poverty = Inequality x Risk graphic

Beyond the specifics of any humanitarian crisis, poverty happens when inequality meets risk. Humanitarian assistance is designed to address the vulnerabilities that enhance risks: A clinic is set up to treat cases of malnutrition in women and children living in refugee camps, where resources are limited and hunger is a greater threat. Farmers who lose their crops in a cyclone are given short-cycle seeds that can be planted and grown quickly so that they don't miss a harvest and lose out on food and income. Cash transfers are given to families displaced by climate change as they adjust to a new normal.

“The right to receive humanitarian assistance, and to offer it… wherever it is needed.”

2. Why humanitarian aid is important

There's the definition of humanitarian aid. But the meaning of our work goes much deeper. The golden rule of humanitarian aid, shared by all organizations working in this field, is the Humanitarian Imperative: Above all, our job is to save lives and alleviate suffering. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent’s code of conduct goes further, defining the Humanitarian Imperative as: “The right to receive humanitarian assistance, and to offer it… wherever it is needed.”

What this means is that everyone has the right to receive humanitarian aid if it is needed, regardless of their race, class, politics, ethnicity, gender, or any other identifying factors. Humanitarian emergencies tend to hit hardest for those furthest behind, but they also don't discriminate. In Syria, for example, families who lived comfortable, middle-class lives, lost everything either through escaping one of the worst humanitarian crises today, or while still living in their home country as infrastructure and resources have disappeared.

Without humanitarian aid, many families, communities, and even entire countries may fall deep into a cycle of poverty that carries a number of domino effects that can last for generations. Humanitarian aid offsets the immediate effects of a crisis to reduce this greater risk.

Women collecting food aid in South Sudan
Women collect food rations from a Concern Worldwide and World Vision food distribution in the Aweil area, South Sudan. (Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith / Concern Worldwide)

3. The four principles of humanitarian aid

Despite having a history linked to colonialism and religious missionary work, humanitarian organizations today are governed by strict procedures and protocols. The United Nations, originally formed to respond to the humanitarian crisis of World War II, sets out four key principles in its General Assembly:

  1. Humanity

    The principle of humanity means that we must seek to address human suffering wherever it is found, paying particular attention to those who are most vulnerable.

    For Concern, this also means that, in every country we operate, our local offices must be prepared to respond to emergencies in a timely and effective manner. We all have a right to a life with dignity.

  2. Impartiality

    Our responses must be provided solely on the basis of identified need, without discrimination between or within affected populations. This is the basis of all “needs-based” programming. It requires us to assess the impact of disasters and to design programs to support those left most in need in their wake.

  3. Neutrality

    We must ensure that our responses don’t favor any side in a conflict, or engage at any time in any political, racial, religious, or ideological controversies. This is perhaps the most challenging of these four principles.

  4. Independence

    The sole purpose of humanitarian activities and assistance is the relief and prevention of suffering caused by crisis. This means we must respond in a manner that is not influenced by political, economic, or military objectives. Humanitarian organizations create and implement policies independent of government policies or actions (hence the term NGO, or “non-governmental organization”).

A woman with an e-card for food supplies in Haiti.
Estelle Adolphe, a participant in the USAID funded Manje Pi Byen program, uses her account to buy essential food items from a vendor at a street market in Cité Soleil, Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photo: Kieran McConville/Concern Worldwide

4. When does a crisis become a humanitarian crisis?

The traditional definition for a humanitarian crisis is an event (or series of events) that threaten the health, safety, and well-being of a community or large group of people. This can be specific to one group (such as the Rohingya crisis), or to anyone living in a certain area or country (such as the ongoing in South Sudan crisis).

The basic approach to humanitarian aid has been to focus on the immediate needs, while also considering the future to help offset risk from future disasters. However, over the past few decades, emergencies have become longer-lasting and therefore harder to address. The longer an emergency lasts, the more complex it can become, especially if government services have broken down. These situations are known as complex emergencies.

Complex emergencies mean humanitarian organizations are missing their most important partner, and people often can’t access the help they need to recover. Organizations also have to dig deeper to find what and where the needs are, and often struggle to find willing funders as crises drag on. Sadly, this is becoming the rule versus the exception. For example, Somalia has been caught in a cycle of crisis for the last several decades.

5. The rules are straightforward, but it makes the work that much more complicated

Consider this hypothetical situation: You run a Concern program office in a country that has been plagued by years of conflict and instability. Amid this, a 7.5-magnitude earthquake hits one part of the country.

Working with community members in a transparent manner, you’ve determined which groups in the region need the most help. One is a minority group in a hard-to-access part of the state. The group that controls this part of the country was spared the brunt of the earthquake’s damage, but will only let you access the hard-to-reach area if you also give them some of your food rations.

This arrangement would violate the UN’s Humanitarian Principles. But to ignore the group in most need also means going against the Humanitarian Imperative. What do you do?

Concern's Ros O'Sullivan in northwest Syria
Concern's Emergency Operations Director, Ros O'Sullivan, consulting with local partners in northwest Syria in the wake of the 2023 earthquake. Photo: Kieran McConville/Concern Worldwide

Humanitarian aid workers face these problems every day, and they make an already-challenging job much more difficult to navigate. In a situation like the above, that may even mean being prepared to pull out of the area altogether if you cannot access the hard-to-reach group while preserving the integrity of the relief work and maintaining impartiality.

This is why so much training is required for humanitarian aid workers to ensure that they are well-equipped to navigate these challenges — challenges that can have life-or-death consequences for both the most vulnerable communities and the humanitarian aid workers themselves. (And that’s also why we run two humanitarian training programs to build a better response.)

A man at an aid distribution in Nepal
Rhambutel (70) at a distribution by Concern Worldwide of emergency shelter and relief supplies at the village of Bhirkot in Dolakha district, Nepal.

Humanitarian aid: What Concern does

Concern’s values were forged over 50 years ago in the fires and famine of Nigeria during the Biafran War. We respond rapidly while ensuring our actions are guided by local priorities, and our emergency response work doesn’t end when the news cameras and first responders have moved on.

Here are three ways that humanitarian response intersects with some of our other key areas of work:

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Refugee Support and Assistance

In 2022, the global refugee crisis will likely exceed 30 million refugees thank to the crisis in Ukraine. Concern’s response to this, as well as some of the world’s other largest refugee crises, focuses on both the immediate needs of families living in displacement — shelter, food, cash, and other non-food essentials — to programs that help those living through extended displacements continue their education, develop new skills and earn livelihoods, and receive psychosocial support. We also work with host communities, many of which are also in countries facing their own crises, to ensure that they have the resources they need.

Syrian women in a dairy processing facility in Lebanon
Syrian women training at a dairy processing facility in Lebanon. Photo: Jason Kennedy / Concern Worldwide

Maternal and Child Health

For many reasons, women and children are among those most vulnerable to a humanitarian crisis. One of the key issues, however, is health and nutrition. This is why many of Concern’s emergency responses include a focus on hunger, either through our award-winning CMAM program, or with providing food vouchers, baskets, or gardening kits. We also work with local partners to bring in community health screenings and clinics for mothers, mothers-to-be, and their children to ensure that the next generation of families living through a crisis gets the best possible start.

An attendee at one of Concern’s mobile maternal and childhood health units in Central African Republic.
An attendee at one of Concern’s mobile maternal and childhood health units in Central African Republic. Photo: Chris de Bode/Concern Worldwide

Helping Children

Beyond hunger, children experience human crises differently than adults. The lasting effects of an emergency can deprive kids of one of the most important things they need to have: a childhood. Concern works in emergency contexts to maintain access to education, especially for child refugees who may need additional support to get back into a classroom. We also create safe spaces for children to receive psychosocial support and time to play and simply be kids, and work with parents and caregivers to make sure that they have all the tools they need to respond to their children’s needs in dire situations.

Syrian refugee children.