Traditional humanitarianism was a type of humanitarianism that was based on complete impartiality and a simple response to humanitarian needs. In other words, it was humanitarianism that involved coming in and alleviating people’s tangible needs regardless of who the people were, what they believed, or any other considerations. By contrast, the new humanitarianism is based more on human rights. It aims to promote longer-term goals such as nation-building and guarantees of human rights. This type of humanitarianism is not satisfied with attending to the symptoms of problems; it wants to cure the problems themselves.
The experience of the United States and the West in Iraq after the US-led invasion of 2003 shows us some of the problems with traditional humanitarianism. For one thing, traditional humanitarianism was typically needed in the wake of natural disasters such as earthquakes or famines. The problems were relatively straightforward and relatively easy to solve. In Iraq, by contrast, problems were caused by a variety of factors. Chief among these were problems of poor governance and ethnic and religious conflict. Another problem is ideological. Some potential recipients of aid in Iraq are ideologically opposed to the West and are not willing to receive aid from that source. Similarly, many in the West who would have engaged in traditional humanitarianism would not be eager to give aid to people who are so opposed to Western ideas.
Because of factors like these, a new humanitarianism has arisen. This humanitarianism tries to solve the root problems of the humanitarian crises. In Iraq, then, this sort of humanitarianism would focus on building a new state that would be able to care for its people on its own and would respect their human rights as well. There are at least two major implications of such a change in the nature of humanitarianism. First, it means that humanitarian missions will be much more complex and difficult. It was relatively simple to give food and shelter to people made homeless by an earthquake. It is not at all simple to go into a country and encourage its people to set up a government that will protect human rights and care about the welfare of all citizens. Second, it means that aid might be to some degree conditional on the type of government that exists in a country that is in need. If the government refuses to countenance efforts at nation-building and reform, aid might not be forthcoming.
The new humanitarianism attempts to take a more comprehensive approach to caring for people who have been harmed by disasters. However, its more ambitious nature also makes it harder to implement in an effective manner.