Winter 2014 (28.4) Essay

Understanding “Cultures of Humanitarianism” in East Asia

There is an ever-growing demand in the world for humanitarian action in response to the suffering caused by complex emergencies and natural disasters. Part of the power and appeal of humanitarianism is its universality, that is, the idea that humanitarianism is premised on cross-cultural moral truths and principles and a concern for the alleviation of suffering of humankind, regardless of differences. This idea of universality, however, is being called into question as expressions of humanitarianism and humanitarian actors become increasingly diverse. While Western states and organizations have long dominated the international humanitarian order (IHO), this is no longer the case today, with non-Western governments and societies becoming increasingly important and visible contributors to international humanitarian assistance. At the same time, these new IHO players are contributing to a broader range of perceptions of what constitutes legitimate humanitarianism; and while the concern for the suffering of others may be universal, it is clear that the response to suffering may differ across cultures.

What are the implications of this emerging diversity in humanitarianism? There is a concern among some traditional donors and agencies that these “new” actors have failed to internalize existing principles of the IHO and are poorly integrated into its institutions and structures. As Eleanor Davey has argued, there is “interest in their origins and attitudes; suspicion of their motives; and concern at a lack of professionalism and coordination.” Non-Western actors, for their part, argue that the existing IHO is not “truly universal,” but is actually part of a Western hegemonic discourse. Tensions between actors, stemming from perceived cultural dissonance in humanitarianism, might bring about a “clash of cultures” discourse that could weaken trust and cooperation across the sector, and contribute to fragmentation of the IHO. Fragmentation could undermine the most fundamental objective of humanitarianism: providing assistance to those in need in the most effective ways possible.

Given this new IHO environment, the need for enhanced cooperation and dialogue across cultures, and between Western and non-Western actors, is not simply desirable but essential. Organizations such as the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation have sought to initiate such dialogue. The establishment of the Humanitarian Forum in 2004 also signaled efforts to establish mechanisms for dialogue and cooperation among Muslim humanitarian organizations and their Western and multilateral counterparts. But while the need for cross-cultural dialogue is increasingly recognized across the humanitarian sector, there is less clarity about how this might be structured. One potential pitfall is that discussions of non-Western approaches to humanitarianism can easily default into debating the degree to which non-Western actors conform or deviate from the already established principles and practices of the IHO. Such an approach leaves little space for considering alternative conceptions of humanitarianism on their own terms. To do that, we argue, we must approach this dialogue by asking what constitutes legitimate humanitarianism in the eyes of different societies.

In this essay we propose a framework that provides a mechanism through which such a dialogue can be pursued. It is premised on four core questions: (1) Who is perceived as a legitimate humanitarian actor? (2) Why do they act? (3) Who do they help? and (4) How and when do they act? Such a framework can facilitate the development of a more inclusive conceptualization of the IHO, and provide a mechanism for identifying synergies and variations across different cultures without necessarily privileging established definitions of what constitutes legitimate humanitarianism. It also provides a platform for critical dialogue among philosophers, practitioners, and beneficiaries. In so doing it does not seek to dismiss existing principles or practices, but neither does it assume that they are uniformly viewed as the necessary criteria for legitimacy. This framework, we argue, provides a mechanism for a better understanding of diverse cultural interpretations of humanitarianism.

This essay first examines the existing IHO, and outlines the challenges that the diversity of humanitarian actions presents to that order. Second, it develops the aforementioned four-part framework for examining conceptions of legitimate humanitarian agency and actions. Third, it illustrates how this framework can elucidate important features of humanitarianism in East Asia, which suggest variations in conceptions of legitimate humanitarianism across cultures.

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