K4D professional development Reading Packs provide thought-provoking introductions by international
experts and highlight the emerging issues and debates within them. They aim to help inform policies that are more resilient to the future.
This publication is a new edition of this reading pack. The 2014 edition was written by Sara Pantuliano for GSDRC as part of the DFID-funded PEAKS programme. This edition was revised in 2020 by Hugo Slim as part of the FCDO-funded K4D programme.
The purpose of humanitarian action is to support people affected by armed conflicts and disasters
by helping them to save their lives, alleviate their suffering, maintain their dignity, assist their
recovery and increase their resilience. Today’s global humanitarian system is a major achievement
in modern international relations. It has created and sustained strong humanitarian norms, laws and
operational agencies. These now ensure that the great majority of people in desperate need because of war and disaster throughout the world are likely to receive some form of aid and protection from its global reach.
Reading and resources
The history of humanitarian action
> Davey, E., Borton, J. & Foley, M. (2013). A History of the Humanitarian System: Western Origins
and Foundations. HPG Working Paper. ODI. London. Retrieved from:
The humanitarian system today
For global financing and spending patterns in Western humanitarian aid:
> Thomas, A. & Urquhart, A. (2020). Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2020. Development
Initiatives. Retrieved from:
For a global review of trends, progress and performance:
> ALNAP. (2020). State of the Humanitarian System 2018: Summary. ALNAP. London.
Principles and standards in humanitarian action
> ICRC. (1994). Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and
Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Disaster Relief. ICRC. Retrieved from:
> OCHA. (2012). OCHA on Message: Humanitarian Principles. OCHA. Retrieved from:
> Sphere. (2018). The Sphere Handbook: Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards
in Humanitarian Response (4th ed.). Sphere Association. Switzerland. Retrieved from:
Localisation, nexus and climate
> Ali, D. & Murphy, M. R. (2020). Black Lives Matter is also a reckoning for foreign aid and
international NGOs. Open Democracy. Retrieved from:
> IFRC and Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre. (2020). What is climate smart programming
and how do we achieve it? Climate Centre. Retrieved from:
> Start Network. (2017, December 8). A new way to think about localization in humanitarian
response [Video]. Retrieved from: