International Humanitarian Policies and Foreign Aid

When atrocities are being committed or suffering is occurring within a state, sometimes other, more powerful states feel a responsibility or obligation to intervene. This intervention can take the form of humanitarian intervention or foreign aid. After reading this section, you should be able to define and explain both of these terms.

Humanitarian policies are ostensibly intended to help other countries, and include human rights policies, aid, and interventions.


Learning Objective

Analyze the emergence and justification for humanitarian intervention in world politics


Key Points

  • Humanitarian interventions use military forces from one or more state to halt violence or human rights violations occurring in another state.
  • Humanitarian interventions are often controversial. Some argue that countries like the United States may only use humanitarian reasons to justify intervening, when the true motivations involve non-altruistic, political concerns.
  • Economic foreign aid is assistance given by one country to another country. Foreign aid can consist of humanitarian aid (which is designed to help in an emergency), development aid (which is designed to improve society long-term), and food aid.
  • Giving foreign aid is one of the core components of U.S foreign policy and a large part of the foreign policy budget. The U.S. is the largest foreign aid donor in the world in terms of dollar amounts, but does not give as much foreign aid as a percentage of their GDP as other countries.
  • The U.S. record on supporting human rights is mixed. Oftentimes, national interest or foreign policy concerns trump U.S. support for human rights; for example, when the U.S. supported nondemocratic regimes within the context of the Cold War.



  • Human rights: The basic rights and freedoms that all humans should be guaranteed, such as the right to life and liberty, freedom of thought and expression, and equality before the law.
  • USAID: The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is the United States federal government agency primarily responsible for administering civilian foreign aid.
  • Humanitarian intervention: Deployment of army personnel for humanitarian motivated goals.


Humanitarian Policies

In its most general form, humanitarianism is an ethic of kindness, benevolence, and sympathy extended universally and impartially to all human beings. International humanitarian policies, then, are policies presumably enacted to reduce suffering of human beings around the world. International humanitarian policies can take a number of different forms. For example, human rights and human rights laws seek to protect essential rights and fight for justice if these rights are violated. International humanitarian interventions are military or non-military interventions into another country to halt widespread violence or war. Foreign aid seeks to provide countries with resources (economic or otherwise) that they can use to ease the suffering of their people.


Humanitarian Intervention

Humanitarian intervention is a state's use of "military force against another state when the chief publicly declared aim of that military action is ending human-rights violations being perpetrated by the state against which it is directed".

The subject of humanitarian intervention has remained a compelling foreign policy issue, since it highlights the tension between the principle of state sovereignty – a defining pillar of the UN system and international law – and evolving international norms related to human rights and the use of force. Moreover, it has sparked debates over its legality, the ethics of using military force to respond to human rights violations, when it should occur, who should intervene, and whether it is effective.

Some argue that the United States uses humanitarian pretexts to pursue otherwise unacceptable goals.They argue that the United States has continued to act with its own interests in mind, with the only change being that humanitarianism has become a legitimizing ideology for projection of U.S. power. In particular, some argue that the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo was conducted largely to boost NATO's credibility.

NATO Intervention

In this humanitarian intervention, NATO forces intervened in Kosovo. Humanitarian interventions are frequently controversial, and the motives of the intervening force are often called into question.


Types of Economic Aid

There are three main types of economic foreign aid: humanitarian aid, development aid, and food aid. Humanitarian aid or emergency aid is rapid assistance given to people in immediate distress to relieve suffering, during and after man-made emergencies (like wars) and natural disasters. Development aid is aid given by developed countries to support development in general. It is distinguished from humanitarian aid as being aimed at alleviating poverty in the long term, rather than alleviating suffering in the short term. Food aid can benefit people suffering from a shortage of food. It can be used to increase standard of living to the point that food aid is no longer required . Conversely, badly managed food aid can create problems by disrupting local markets, depressing crop prices, and discouraging food production.

United States Food Aid

Aid workers from USAID (the United States Agency for International Development) distribute food to Kenya during a food crisis.


The United States and Foreign Aid

Foreign assistance is a core component of the State Department's international affairs budget and is considered an essential instrument of U.S. foreign policy. Foreign aid has been given to a variety of recipients, including developing countries, countries of strategic importance to the United States, and countries recovering from war. The government channels about half of its economic assistance through a specialized agency called the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) .

The 2010 United States federal budget spent 37.7 billion on economic aid (of which USAID received 14.1 billion) out of the 3.55 trillion budget. Aid from private sources within the United States in 2007 was probably somewhere in the 10 to $30 billion range. In absolute dollar terms, the United States is the largest international aid donor, but as a percent of gross national income, its contribution to economic aid is only 0.2%, proportionally much smaller than contributions of countries such as Sweden (1.04%) and the United Kingdom (0.52%).


The United States and Human Rights Policies

The United States' record on human rights is mixed. The United States has backed unpopular leaders (the Shah of Iran, 1941-1979, for example), mired itself in losing battles (consider the Vietnam War, 1950-1975), ignored ethnic cleansing (as was the case in Rwanda, 1994), and given foreign aid to corrupt regimes (as it did to Egypt, 1952-2011). Too often, the United States has had to support the lesser of two evils when it comes to relations with developing nations. And too often, the blowback from these awkward relationships has resulted in resentment from both United States citizens and the oppressed citizens of the developing nations (Guatemala, 1950's, and Nicaragua, 1912-1933). However, the United States remains the largest contributor of foreign aid, and is currently backing what some refer to as the awakening of the Arab world (Libya, 2011), supporting "the people" even though the outcome is not yet clear.

Source: Boundless
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 License.

Last modified: Tuesday, September 29, 2020, 5:14 PM