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Global Conflict & Aid: Humanitarian Efforts & Organizations

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There's nothing politically tricky about helping someone, is there? In international terms, there can be. In this lesson, we'll talk about international humanitarian aid and see what it means in today's world.

Dealing with Global Crises

There's a lot of talk these days about the world as a global community. We hear this all of the time, but what does that really mean? In part, this is one way to re-imagine the world beyond the often-antagonistic terms of borders and nationalism. Imagine a neighborhood. Each family is unique and has their own priorities, but the entire neighborhood supports each other. That's the general idea.

It's a nice idea, but does it actually mean anything in the real world, or is it just a fairytale? If there's one time that we really see the concept of the global community in action, it's in times of crisis. When something goes wrong, nations often reach out to the global community for aid. How other nations respond can actually have major impacts on their global reputation. Those that help their neighbors are lauded, while those that don't are disdained and can even face diplomatic and economic sanctions. So, the concept of international aid is an important part of how we interact as a world. After all, we're all one big community.

Conflicts versus Disasters

As we start examining this issue more closely, we have to acknowledge off the bat that this issue isn't all flowers and roses and neighbors lending each other cups of sugar. While countries are expected to lend aid to each other in times of crisis, trying to provide aid without being asked first can be a huge insult. Why? Because we're talking about sovereign nations, and to some, aid can be seen as a form of interference.

There's a long history behind this logic. In the late 19th century, the United States provided lots of aid to Cuba as the island went through its independence war and first years of sovereignty. As part of this aid, the US occupied the island, negotiated Cuba's independence with Spain without letting Cuban leaders participate, and wrote Cuba's very pro-USA constitution for them.

Natural disasters, like the tsunami of Thailand in 2004, are usually times that governments can provide aid without being seen as interfering
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The United States is far from the only country to have been involved in self-promoting international aid, and the fear of this still exists. Most countries don't like it when other governments start interfering, so it can feel intrusive when aid is given before it's requested. Partly for this reason, many countries have to be very cautious when providing aid and only do so in the right circumstances. Natural disasters are among the most common reasons to provide humanitarian and financial aid, since they are seen as acts of nature and void of political intent. On the other hand, offering aid during a country's civil war can feel like an intrusion into a domestic crisis. By providing aid during these kinds of conflicts, countries can appear to be taking a side in an internal dispute. So, it's a delicate balance.

Non-Governmental Organizations

But what happens if it's not a government that supplying aid? The delicacy of politics can make it difficult for governments to become involved in humanitarian issues, so many citizens turn to private institutions called Non-Governmental Organizations or NGOs.

NGO workers preparing food in Iraq
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NGOs are private non-profits dedicated to humanitarian issues. Since their actions do not reflect a specific national policy or the positions of government, these groups often have the freedom to get involved in international crises with less political negotiating. Many governments are willing to let NGOs send humanitarian aid workers into their borders before they will accept the official teams of foreign countries. While some NGOs have also been accused of violating national sovereignty in their quest to provide aid, their efforts are generally supported by the international community and institutions like the United Nations.

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