Humanitarian health workers operate in dangerous and uncertain contexts, in which mistakes and failures are common, often have severe consequences, and are regularly repeated, despite being documented by many reviews. This Series paper aims to discuss the failures of medical humanitarianism. We describe why some of these recurrent failings, which are often not identified until much later, seem intractable: they are so entrenched in humanitarian action that they cannot be addressed by simple technical fixes. We argue that relief health-care interventions should be contextualised.

Perhaps medical humanitarianism deserves a better reputation than the one at times tarnished by unfair criticism, resulting from inapplicable guiding principles and unrealistic expectations. The present situation is not conducive to radical reforms of humanitarian medicine; complex crises multiply and no political, diplomatic, or military solutions are in sight. Relief agencies have to compete for financial resources that do not increase at the same pace as health needs. Avoiding the repetition of failures requires recognising previous mistakes and addressing them through different policies by donors, stronger documentation and analysis of humanitarian programmes and interventions, increased professionalisation, improved, opportunistic relationships with the media, and better ways of working together with local health stakeholders and through indigenous institutions.