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Humanitarianism Transformed

  • Michael Barnett (a1)

The scale, scope, and significance of humanitarian action have expanded significantly since the late 1980s. This article reflects on two ways in which humanitarianism has been transformed. First, its purpose has been politicized. Whereas once humanitarian actors attempted to insulate themselves from the world of politics, they now work closely with states and attempt to eliminate the root causes of conflict that place individuals at risk. Second, a field of humanitarianism has become institutionalized; during the 1990s the field and its agencies became more professionalized and rationalized. Drawing on various strands of organizational theory, I examine the forces that have contributed to these transformations. I then explore how these transformations have changed the nature of what humanitarian organizations are and what they do. In the conclusion I consider how the transformation of humanitarianism links to the relationship between international nongovernmental organizations and world order, including the purpose of humanitarian action and its distinctive function in global politics.Michael Barnett is Harold Stassen Chair of International Relations at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and professor of political science at the University of Minnesota ( In 2004–5 he was a visiting associate at the Center on International Cooperation at the Center on International Cooperation. The author thanks Bud Duvall, Kevin Hartigan, Martha Finnemore, Abby Stoddard, Ron Kassimir, Craig Calhoun, Jack Snyder, Adele Harmer, the participants of the Minnesota International Relations Colloquium, and three anonymous reviewers for Perspectives on Politics for their comments and corrections. Special thanks to the Social Sciences Research Council and the participants in its series on “The Transformation of Humanitarian Action.”

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