Aid in Crisis? Rights-Based Approaches and Humanitarian Outcomes

Led by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik
Mar 2015 - Mar 2019

​​The human rights framework is a cornerstone of Norwegian foreign policy, including its humanitarian policy. Humanitarian action is based on principles of neutrality and impartiality. Human rights is about justice, politics and redistribution. How do the two go together?

The humanitarian failure to respond to the 1994 Rwandan genocide and its aftermath engendered a professional and ethical crisis within humanitarianism. To make humanitarian action better, many of the players from UNICEF to Save to Children, as well as donor government like Norway, adopted strategies to shift the focus from needs to rights: only then could victims be given a voice and   transformed into active participants. Humanitarianism should not be about charitable giving but about upholding the rights of beneficiaries.


Twenty years later, humanitarianism has been transformed in many ways, but not by human rights. There has been a lot of confusion about the meaning of rights-based humanitarianism, and what it actually entails for programming. Good ideas for rights-based approaches developed at the Headquarters have been difficult to implement in the field. In recent years, humanitarian actors have talked less about rights- and more about other ways of improving humanitarianism, such as the use of technology or innovation. At the same time, the Norwegian government, one of the most important humanitarian donors, continues to insist on human rights based approaches to aid.

Aiming to contribute to the development of humanitarianism as a field of study in its own and to South-South collaboration, this project seeks to describe, understand and explain how rights-based approaches (RBA) to humanitarian action shape humanitarian assistance and contribute to humanitarian outcomes at different levels, in different conflict and disaster zones.

More specifically, this project examines the use of rights based approaches to humanitarian assistance in countries and organizations that have been among the top recipients of Norwegian aid over the past decade: Colombia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Palestine, and South-Sudan as well as UN organizations and national and international NGOs. The aim is to contribute both theoretical and policy knowledge of how rights based approaches has shaped aid and how the relationship between humanitarianism and human rights will play out in the future.

This project is funded under the funding scheme for Effects of Aid (AIDEFFECT). This is a sub-program under the broad-based and action oriented program Norway – Global partner (NORGLOBAL). The project is in collaboration with researchers from Colombia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Palestine and South Sudan.

Research Groups


Peer-reviewed Journal Article

Borchgrevink, Kaja & Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (2021) The afterlife of buzzwords: the journey of rightsbased approaches through the humanitarian sector, The International Journal of Human Rights. DOI: 10.1080/13642987.2021.1916476: 1–21.
Nilsen, Marte (2020) Perceptions of Rights and the Politics of Humanitarian Aid in Myanmar, The European Journal of Development Research 32(2): 338–358.
Dijkzeul, Dennis & Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (2019) A world in turmoil: governing risk, establishing order in humanitarian crises, Disasters 43(2): 85–108.
Høigilt, Jacob (2019) The futility of rights‐based humanitarian aid to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Disasters. DOI: 10.1111/disa.12334.
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora (2019) Humanitarians in court: how duty of care travelled from human resources to legal liability, The Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law. DOI: 10.1080/07329113.2018.1548192.
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora (2018) Technology, Dead Male Bodies, and Feminist Recognition: Gendering ICT Harm Theory, Australian Feminist Law Journal 44(1): 49–69.
Comes, Tina; Bartel van de Walle & Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (2018) Cold chains, interrupted: The use of technology and information for decisions that keep humanitarian vaccines cool, Journal of Humanitarian Logistics and Supply Chain Management 8(1): 49–69.
Lindskov Jacobsen, Katja & Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (2018) UNHCR and the pursuit of international protection: accountability through technology?, Third World Quarterly. DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2018.1432346.
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora; Katja Lindskov Jacobsen & Sean Martin McDonald (2017) Do no harm: A taxonomy of the challenges of humanitarian experimentation, International Review of the Red Cross. DOI: 10.1017/S181638311700042X.
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora & Nathaniel A. Raymond (2017) Beyond the Protective Effect: Towards a Theory of Harm for Information Communication Technologies in Mass Atrocity Response, Genocide Studies and Prevention: an International Journal 11(1): 9–24.
Lohne, Kjersti & Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (2017) Bringing Law into the Political Sociology of Humanitarianism, Oslo Law Review 4(1): 4–27.
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora (2017) Now is the time to deliver: looking for humanitarian innovation’s theory of change, Journal of International Humanitarian Action 2(8): 1–11.

Book Chapter

Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora (2016) Stronger, Faster, Better: Three Logics of Humanitarian Futureproofing, in Heins, Volker; Kai Koddenbrock; & Christine Unrau, eds, Humanitarianism and Challenges of Cooperation. London: Routledge (97–112).
Lindskov Jacobsen, Katja & Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (2016) Introduction: The Quest for an Accountability Cure, in Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora; & Katja Lindskov Jacobsen, eds, UNHCR and the Struggle for Accountability, Technology, law and results-based management. London: Routledge Humanitarian Studies (1–25).
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora (2016) How accountability technologies shape international protection: results-based management and rights-based approaches revisited, in Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora; & Katja Lindskov Jacobsen, eds, UNHCR and the Struggle for Accountability, Technology, law and results-based management. London: Routledge Humanitarian Studies (138–158).

Edited Volume

Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora; & Katja Lindskov Jacobsen, eds, (2016) UNHCR and the Struggle for Accountability: Technology, law and results-based management. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. Routledge Humanitarian Studies.

Popular Article

Nilsen, Marte (2020) The Politics of Humanitarian Aid to Myanmar, PK Forum, 9 July.
Martin McDonald, Sean; Kristin Bergtora Sandvik & Katja Lindskov Jacobsen (2017) From Principle to Practice: Humanitarian Innovation and Experimentation, Stanford Social Innovations Reveiw Blog, 21 December.
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora & Nathaniel A. Raymond (2017) Unpacking the Myth of ICT’s Protective Effect in Mass Atrocity Response, ATHA.SE, 26 September.
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora & Kjersti Lohne (2017) Building a Sociology of Law for the Humanitarian Field, Sociological Review, 18 August.
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora (2016) Futureproofing humanitarianism for permanent emergencies: unpacking the promise of cooperation, A Quest for Humanitarian Effectiveness, 15 March.

PRIO Policy Brief

Borchgrevink, Kaja (2019) Rights-Based and Faith-Based? Approaches to Aid in Pakistan, PRIO Policy Brief, 9. Oslo: PRIO.
Høigilt, Jacob (2019) Aid without Rights? The Dilemma of Humanitarian Aid to the Palestinians, PRIO Policy Brief, 6. Oslo: PRIO.
Lemaitre, Julieta (2017) Humanitarian Aid in Relatively Strong Host States, PRIO Policy Brief, 6. Oslo: PRIO.
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora & Kristian Hoelscher (2016) Is the War on Drugs a “Humanitarian Crisis”?, PRIO Policy Brief, 2. Oslo: PRIO.


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