By Sir John Holmes

The continuing catastrophe in Syria and the devastation caused in the Philippines by the recent typhoon remind us once again not only of the horror of human suffering but also of the imperative to do something about it — and our ability to do so. 

But the public response to the Philippines has been significantly more generous than to Syria. This makes no sense: the need in Syria is greater, with no end remotely in sight. It shows once again public suspicion about aid to countries where civil war and terrorist violence are seen as the roots of the problem. Worry about who is in the right in a conflict should have no influence on how much we help the victims — they should not be blamed for their own plight — but too often it does so.

This illustrates a wider problem, of how to keep humanitarian aid separate from other considerations. The principles of such aid are clear: it must not be driven by any kind of political, security, religious or other extraneous agenda. The only thing that matters is need. It is not legitimate or acceptable either for the governments of the countries where people require urgent assistance, or for aid donor countries, to try to introduce other criteria. But too often there are attempts to do exactly that. Access to the people concerned is denied or restricted. Accusations of political bias are levelled against international aid agencies. Certain areas, like sexual violence, are declared off limits. Unacceptable restrictions are proposed. Donors prefer to channel money to countries and groups in favour for political and other reasons, or to further a supposed war-on-terrorism agenda.

In my time as UN Emergency Relief Coordinator from 2007 to 2010, I found myself in constant battles to keep humanitarian aid flowing to where it was most needed, and to resist the attempts of governments to interfere or impose political conditions. These struggles were particularly difficult in conflict zones, in places such as Sudan, Sri Lanka, the Gaza Strip, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The book I wrote about my time at the UN, The Politics of Humanity, published in March 2013, tells this story. 

I therefore have a strong fellow-feeling for my successor as Emergency Relief Coordinator, Valerie Amos, as she attempts to negotiate access for international agencies with the regime in Damascus, while simultaneously promoting aid to rebel-held areas, and to the 2 million-plus refugees now in the neighbouring countries. These are precisely the kind of tightropes I was walking every day.

Does this mean those who wish to help should be so suspicious that their aid will not get through that they withhold their support? Certainly not: despite the pressures, we are still able to keep our assistance very largely free of unacceptable interference. One of the strengths of international humanitarian aid is that it does not go through the hands of the governments of the countries affected, but straight to those in need, often through local NGOs. 

If the relief agencies are not happy that the money will not do what it is supposed to do, it is not handed out. So, please, keep giving generously, including to those affected by conflict in Syria. There is never enough money, even to treat the most immediate suffering.

Image by United Nations under Creative Commons license.