Two Cheers for Humanitarianism

| September 13, 2012

Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism, Michael Barnett (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2011), 312 pp., $29.95 cloth.

Humanitarianism Contested: Where Angels Fear to Tread, Michael Barnett and Thomas Weiss (New York: Routledge, 2011), 192 pp., $130 cloth, $29.95 paper.

A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis, David Rieff (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), 400 pp., $24.99 paper.

Famine Crimes: Politics & the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa, Alex de Waal (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1997), 256 pp., $20.95 paper.

Over the last two decades a spate of books, led by the ones cited in this essay, have illuminated and debated the bristly questions confronting contemporary “humanitarianism.” The definitional or, one might say, foundational question is whether the adjective “humanitarian” should be limited to only those independent agencies that are engaged (without reference to a political context) in the impartial delivery of emergency relief to all those in existential need—or, in the unique case of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), engaged in monitoring the application of the Geneva Conventions to armed conflict. An answer in the affirmative could be considered the “classic” position of the humanitarian, and one still championed by the ICRC. Today, however, many NGOs, such as CARE, OXFAM, and Catholic Relief Services, which certainly regard themselves as humanitarian agencies, engage in a broad range of rehabilitative and developmental activities and continue to deliver emergency relief, and they are prepared to do so under circumstances where their work has conspicuous political implications. The same is true of such UN agencies as UNICEF, UNHCR, and the World Food Programme, which are not infrequently involved in complex peace operations that have clear political goals as specified by the Security Council. Further, well-known humanitarian activists and writers, notably Bernard Kouchner and Samantha Power, also reject the ICRC’s definitional canon. The unsettled boundaries of what properly constitutes humanitarianism brings a number of difficult questions to the surface.

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Category: Development, Inequality, and Poverty, International Law and Human Rights, Issue 26.3, Review Essays

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