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Dr Joost Herman: ‘No reason to be cynical about humanitarian aid’

29 January 2009

There is no reason at all to be cynical about humanitarian aid in crisis areas. That’s the opinion of University of Groningen researcher Dr Joost Herman. Policymakers, politicians and researchers are making progress in the world of humanitarian aid, he thinks. The crucial thing is to critically reflect on one's own thoughts and actions. An international conference on this matter will be held at the University of Groningen from 4 to 8 February 2009.

The world of humanitarian aid does not have a good image. The effectiveness and altruism of emergency aid organizations is regularly called into doubt by the press and politics. Joost Herman: ‘If you know that people are in need, you can’t just watch and do nothing. Thanks to the new media and communication possibilities, crises have become much more visible. We know better than ever where aid is needed, and therefore we have to take action. You can’t question a humanitarian imperative.’


Part of the cynicism about humanitarian aid is due to the proliferation of aid organizations after the disappearance of the Iron Curtain, according to Herman. Because there was no longer a global ideological split, a huge terrain became available for emergency aid organizations after 1989. Whereas previously aid was organized or forbidden by Washington or Moscow, unguided aid now emerged. As conflicts became ever more complicated, the provision of aid became more difficult, more dangerous and less transparent.

Media influence

In the same period, failures and useless aid were also more actively questioned. Herman: ‘It’s difficult to overestimate the influence of the media. Negative situations – fur caps for tsunami victims, for example – are shouted from the rooftops. The positive results reach the news far less often. That creates a very distorted picture.’

Capacity to learn

Despite all the negative examples, the world of humanitarian aid definitely has the capacity to learn, according to Herman. ‘Aid organizations are cooperating more and more, and countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada and Japan are dovetailing their emergency aid much better, headed by coordinating institutions from the UN (OCHA) and the EU (ECHO). All emergency aid organizations are making much better use of local knowledge, which is drastically improving the effectiveness of emergency aid all over the world.


‘We are starting to see much better what actually happens when we provide aid’, according to Herman. ‘For example, the past has shown that there’s not much point in giving microcredit to men. Men do stupid things with that credit in the hope of getting rich quick. However, lending small amounts to women has turned out to be extremely effective. They set up a small business and are then able to provide for themselves. There’s a good reason why Muhammad Yunus was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for that idea – and it’s now being implemented on a wide scale.

Groningen top degree programme

The University of Groningen plays a serious role in global academic research into humanitarian aid. The Master’s degree in Humanitarian Action, part of the Network On Humanitarian Action, jointly founded by Joost Herman, is considered by the European Commission to be a European Top Degree Programme. In the meantime, universities from all over the world are participating in this programme.


The World Conference of Humanitarian Studies, which will be held from 4 to 8 February at the University of Groningen, is also a milestone. Herman: ‘Never before have so many involved parties got together to talk about humanitarian aid in such detail. Hopefully we will be able to close the gaps between America and Europe, between secular and religious aid organizations, and between researchers, policymakers and politicians. By critically examining our own thoughts and actions, we can continue to improve the level of humanitarian aid.’

Curriculum vitae

Joost Herman (Haarlem, 1963) studied History and International Law in Leiden and conducted PhD research at the Institute for Human Rights at the University of Utrecht into the protection of minority groups in Central and Eastern Europe. He joined the University of Groningen in 1995 and became a University Reader in International Relations and International Organization in 2003. He is one of the founders of the international Master’s degree programme Network On Humanitarian Action (NOHA) and financial director of the NOHA Network.

Contact: Dr Joost Herman

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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