Skip to main content Accessibility help

Two Cheers for Humanitarianism

  • Tom Farer

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, including:

Should relief be provided even if it could prolong a conflict, or could indirectly assist a belligerent, or possibly identify the relief giver with a government's political ends? And should the nature of those ends influence relief efforts?

Should relief agencies also assist in addressing the causes of humanitarian emergencies by joining in efforts to resolve a conflict, foster economic development, rebuild state institutions, and strengthen the protection of human rights?

Should such agencies accept funds from governments where governments specify how the funds are to be used?

Where necessary, should they advocate armed intervention to protect their personnel as well as the recipients of their aid?

In terms of the way they organize and structure themselves, should nonprofit agencies dedicated to humanitarian relief follow private-sector models?

Can organizations dedicated to the effective provision of emergency relief pursue that end without creating a culture of dependence, without discouraging local initiative, and without violating the liberal “right” to participate in life-shaping decisions?

Finally, how does humanitarianism relate to human rights, the other leading expression of what I would call “the humanitarian impulse”?

Hide All


1 One of many indicators of a common root is the fact that nineteenth-century antislavery activists sometimes referred to themselves as humanitarians.

2 Moyn, Samuel, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (New York: Harvard University Press, 2010).

3 To be concerned about human rights means in most instances to be critical of a government's behavior. “Like many international humanitarian agencies, the UNHCR [disavowed] human rights work, which was inherently political because it was impossible to monitor and report on human rights violations without challenging the state in some capacity.” (Barnett, p. 208.)

4 By controlling the camps the genocidaires could siphon off supplies for black-market sale.

5 Barnett makes the point summarily by calling the final piece of his three-phased history “The Age of Liberal Humanitarianism.”

6 Rieff, p. 171, quoting Philippe Gaillard, a senior official of the ICRC.

7 De Waal, p. 2, citing Philip Gourevitch, “Alms Dealers,” New Yorker, October 11, 2010, p. 105.

8 Barnett, p. 10; and see generally the discussion in Barnett and Weiss at pp. 9–17. Since the authors regard the ICRC as the purest expression of the former, and since refining and supporting the application of the humanitarian laws of war was its original, and remains a central, function of the organization, and since that function is obviously not directed at “root causes,” it must fall in the “emergency category.”

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Ethics & International Affairs
  • ISSN: 0892-6794
  • EISSN: 1747-7093
  • URL: /core/journals/ethics-and-international-affairs
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed