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Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) Research Briefing Number 14

HIV/AIDS and humanitarian action

Paul Harvey
HPG Research Fellow


April 2004

Researched, written and published by the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI.
This research briefing is posted with the permission of the ODI. The full research report can be accessed at:
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What are the implications of HIV/AIDS for our understanding of crisis and humanitarian aid? HIV/AIDS is both a long-term crisis in its own right, and a contributory factor in acute emergencies. The epidemic presents key challenges for both humanitarian and development assistance, and for the interface between them.

The crisis in southern Africa during 2002 and 2003 highlighted the complex connections between HIV/AIDS, food security and famine. This briefing paper examines the implications of HIV/AIDS for our understanding of crisis and of the role of humanitarian aid therein. The disease is clearly a massive crisis in its own right: to the extent that humanitarian response is concerned with increased levels of mortality and morbidity, HIV/AIDS can clearly be described as an emergency. However, it is a longterm crisis, and its impacts will be felt for decades.

HIV/AIDS is one of many factors contributing to food insecurity. It important to understand how the impact of HIV/AIDS relates to other factors, such as drought and conflict, to create acute humanitarian crises. HIV/AIDS acts at many different levels:

  • It undermines the ways in which people have traditionally coped with famine.

  • It may increase mortality in famines, as people with AIDS will be less able to cope with reduced food intake and additional disease burdens.

  • Issues associated with crisis may add to the risks of transmission of HIV/AIDS and contribute to the epidemic's spread.

HIV/AIDS has profound humanitarian consequences, both by directly causing illness and death and in terms of the wider impact it is having on societies. These consequences will develop over decades, meaning that existing models of humanitarian may not be appropriate. Equally, existing models of development assistance are likely to prove inadequate. The challenges raised by the pandemic are only beginning to be fully appreciated.

This HPG Research Briefing and the report on which it is based has two main aims:

  • To investigate the relationship between HIV/AIDS and humanitarian crisis.

  • To examine the role of humanitarian aid in the context of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Findings are based on fieldwork in southern Africa, where HIV/AIDS prevalence rates are the highest in the world. As HIV/AIDS rates are still rising in other parts of Africa and the developing world, some of the lessons from southern Africa may be applicable elsewhere.

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