Humanitarianism in Question

Humanitarianism in Question: Politics, Power, Ethics

Michael Barnett
Thomas G. Weiss
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Humanitarianism in Question
    Book Description:

    Years of tremendous growth in response to complex emergencies have left a mark on the humanitarian sector. Various matters that once seemed settled are now subjects of intense debate. What is humanitarianism? Is it limited to the provision of relief to victims of conflict, or does it include broader objectives such as human rights, democracy promotion, development, and peacebuilding?

    For much of the last century, the principles of humanitarianism were guided by neutrality, impartiality, and independence. More recently, some humanitarian organizations have begun to relax these tenets. The recognition that humanitarian action can lead to negative consequences has forced humanitarian organizations to measure their effectiveness, to reflect on their ethical positions, and to consider not only the values that motivate their actions but also the consequences of those actions.

    In the indispensable Humanitarianism in Question, Michael Barnett and Thomas G. Weiss bring together scholars from a variety of disciplines to address the humanitarian identity crisis, including humanitarianism's relationship to accountability, great powers, privatization and corporate philanthropy, warlords, and the ethical evaluations that inform life-and-death decision making during and after emergencies.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6153-8
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Michael Barnett and Thomas G. Weiss
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. 1 Humanitarianism: A Brief History of the Present
    (pp. 1-48)
    Michael Barnett and Thomas G. Weiss

    For the last two decades, humanitarian organizations have been careening from one major emergency to another. Although aid agencies never anticipated that the end of the cold war would dampen the demand for their services, they certainly were not prepared for the challenges that they were about to encounter. Some of these spectacles made front-page news and profiled their heroic and not so heroic activities. In Somalia, relief workers attempted to save hundreds of thousands of people from conflict-induced famine generated by warlords seeking food aid to feed their ambitions. In Bosnia they provided relief to those trapped in so-called...

  6. 2 The Rise of Emergency Relief Aid
    (pp. 49-72)
    James D. Fearon

    In this chapter I will examine broad patterns in emergency relief aid over time and consider possible explanations for these patterns. There are many problems with the available data, but existing material suggests the following summary account.

    Civil war spread widely throughout the third world from 1945 to a high point in the early 1990s, followed by a gradual decline in the number of ongoing conflicts. This caused an enormous increase in the total number of refugees, from around three million in 1975 to a high of eighteen million in 1991. Since 1991 the number of refugees has steadily declined—...

  7. 3 The Imperative to Reduce Suffering: Charity, Progress, and Emergencies in the Field of Humanitarian Action
    (pp. 73-97)
    Craig Calhoun

    Three questions haunt humanitarians: Do they seek to improve the human condition, the well-being of all humanity? Or, do they seek to alleviate suf­fering, impartially, neutrally, and wherever it may occur? Or, do they respond more specifically to “humanitarian emergencies,” seemingly sudden crises in which human conflict creates concentrated human suffering, in which, perhaps, suffering is so extreme as to be dehumanizing?

    The questions are “rhetorical” in that they do not require a precise answer, but they are not without consequences. There is no “objective” definition of humanitarian action. And humanitarian action today is motivated and oriented in all these...

  8. 4 Saying “No” to Wal-Mart? Money and Morality in Professional Humanitarianism
    (pp. 98-123)
    Stephen Hopgood

    Can Wal-Mart be a humanitarian organization? This provocative question takes us right to the heart of what “humanitarianism” is. For humanitarian practitioners, answering it means understanding both what they do and why they do it. It means confronting stark trade-offs between lives saved and the ethics of emergency relief and protection. Indeed, it is a question that is only becoming more insistent as the hitherto somewhat shadowy world of humanitarianism is opened up to scrutiny and competition in the era of globalization. Where once there were amateur humanitarians doing their thankless, heartbreaking work in relative obscurity with scarce to nonexistent...

  9. 5 Humanitarian Organizations: Accountable—Why, to Whom, for What, and How?
    (pp. 124-142)
    Janice Gross Stein

    It is inconceivable that, fifty years ago, humanitarian organizations operating in war zones would spend any time at all considering “outputs,” “outcomes,” and “benchmarking.” Today, leaders within the humanitarian community are intimately familiar with codes of conduct, humanitarian charters, minimal standards for the delivery of relief, an active learning network gathering and sharing the lessons learned from humanitarian operations, outcome mapping, evaluation methodology, and “professional” accreditation.¹ In the United Kingdom, the biggest nongovernmental organizations have begun a joint ex­amination of standards and “quality assurance.” For instance, Oxfam International is the largest in funding and personnel and has agreed on common...

  10. 6 The Grand Strategies of Humanitarianism
    (pp. 143-171)
    Michael Barnett and Jack Snyder

    Much of the discourse of humanitarian action is couched in the very strong language of moral duties, obligations, and responsibilities. There is a duty to aid.¹ Most humanitarian agencies declare that their moral responsibilities to others are premised on their common humanity; they express the philosophical maxim that we have an obligation to do something to help others in need if we can. Although we should not be too surprised that humanitarian organizations embrace such language, even states talk this way, too. The French government now declares that “emergency humanitarian aid is a new duty incumbent on the international community....

  11. 7 The Power of Holding Humanitarianism Hostage and the Myth of Protective Principles
    (pp. 172-195)
    Laura Hammond

    In many of today’s armed conflicts, attacks against aid workers are a frequent, if still shocking, occurrence. When attacks happen, statements from members of the global humanitarian community are immediately issued condemning the violence, but very few of them try to analyze why the attacks were carried out. Those who do look for causes refer to the increasing militarization of humanitarian aid, whereby soldiers act like aid workers distributing relief supplies and reconstructing the very places they have destroyed, and “real” aid workers are seen by those living in the theater of conflict as agents of Western imperialism. This is...

  12. 8 Sacrifice, Triage, and Global Humanitarianism
    (pp. 196-214)
    Peter Redfield

    Everyone, it seems, is a humanitarian now. At least, concern for human life serves as a key value in international moral discourse, referenced by advocacy groups, states, and even military forces. Rarely, however, is the ethical logic of this humanitarian goal delineated in public beyond categorical injunctions, calls to arms, and recriminations. And not infrequently, the media glow of successive crises overshadows the topography of human agony. Rather than occur in a vacuum, humanitarian action now transpires amid a wide field of humanitarian expectations and abstractions, as well as specific local conditions. How then, to defend life in the particular,...

  13. 9 The Distributive Commitments of International NGOs
    (pp. 215-234)
    Jennifer C. Rubenstein

    For the past several years, international nongovernmental organizations such as Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders have spent over $4 billion annually assisting people affected by earthquakes, famines, epidemics, violent group conflicts, and other disasters.¹ This sum is significant, but it is nowhere near adequate to aid all disaster-affected people whom NGOs wish to assist. Although a few high-profile disasters, such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, have elicited more contributions than NGOs can effectively utilize, for the most part there is not enough money to go around. NGOs must therefore make wrenching decisions about how to distribute the scarce resources...

  14. 10 Humanitarianism as a Scholarly Vocation
    (pp. 235-263)
    Michael Barnett

    Humanitarianism confronts scholars with two challenges—creating a body of critical knowledge on humanitarianism and reconstructing scholarship as a way of life. In this chapter I reflect on these challenges and propose ways in which scholars can begin to address them. An ever-present danger in writing about humanitarianism, and nearly any aspect of international ethics, is the seductive pull of a Whiggish view of history. It is difficult to avoid writing a highly sympathetic, nearly sycophantic account of humanitarianism or interpreting its evolution and expansion as a sign of moral progress. In this book we have resisted this temptation because...

  15. 11 Humanitarianism and Practitioners: Social Science Matters
    (pp. 264-286)
    Peter J. Hoffman and Thomas G. Weiss

    In this book as a whole we seek to address the major concerns of both social scientists and practitioners. In a book published by a university press, the contents and presentations are undoubtedly more user-friendly for the former than the latter. At the same time, the preceding pages are very relevant for practitioners. Indeed, too much is typically made of the supposedly inevitable and insurmountable barriers between “theory” and “practice.” However, in truth there is plenty of middle ground between the worlds of abstraction and application. Ultimately, they inform each other—solid ideas must invariably reflect reality and also serve...

  16. Contributors
    (pp. 287-290)
  17. Index
    (pp. 291-304)