Beyond donorship: UK foreign policy and humanitarian action

Working and discussion papers
September 2017
First UK-funded humanitarian flight arrives in Cebu, Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan, 2013. Photo: Simon Davis/DfID

For much of the past fifty years, the UK has exerted its influence to help create the rules and standards that underpin the formal humanitarian system. As the world's third-largest humanitarian donor, it is well positioned to lead the humanitarian system through a period of rapid change. However, the UK is facing increasingly complex crises impinging on its national security, particularly in the Middle East as we have seen in the Syria and Yemen crises, and its impending departure from the European Union is creating new imperatives for trade.

This paper analyses how decisions on UK responses to humanitarian crises are made given the severity of the crisis, public opinion, as well as economic and political interests. It found little evidence that responses to sudden-onset natural disasters and to many protracted African crises were driven by wider foreign policy interests. Yet it also found evidence of greater UK interest and influence in those crisis countries with which it has a historical or colonial relationship, shared linguistic and cultural ties, and a greater existing UK diplomatic and development presence. 

There are an increasing number of complex situations where multiple national interests, including counter-terrorism, arms sales and migration, coincide with humanitarian crises. In these cases, national interest appears to trump international humanitarian commitments, or produces a complex mix of policy objectives within which the humanitarian imperative can get lost. Its reputation as a 'good' humanitarian actor and its role as a leader in the field is thus at risk if 'aid in the national interest' does not encompass a principled humanitarian approach.