Many recent challenges to humanitarianism have depended on how humanitarian action is defined. Indeed, the practice has been attributed many definitions and contains numerous debated actions and concepts. Francesco Giacomini explores what a new book on humanitarianism reveals about the contemporary nature of the field, and why we should focus more on what works than what does not.
Humanitarianism has always been a tricky subject to pin down and often sparks heated debates among its supporters and opponents. Often labelled by its critics simply as ‘do-goodism’, it has been a pivotal political topic in the ‘West’ in recent years, especially after the European migrant crisis of 2015/16. To date, a single definition of humanitarianism has not been reached in a complex field that interweaves ethics, actions and dignity of human life.
Humanitarianism: A Dictionary of Concepts is intended as a user’s guide for practitioners and students involved in the humanitarian sector. The edited collection’s 29 authors are a community of scholars associated with LSE and, as stated in the foreword, ‘does not represent a homogenous viewpoint, but rather a rumbustious cacophony of perspectives’. As a dictionary of concepts, it is particularly recommended to those who are approaching the humanitarian sector for the first time, or have only limited knowledge of the topic which they are aiming to explore further. The book had a long gestation of over ten years, which has made the final selection of essays exhaustive and especially suitable for International Development students, because the book’s final form has been contributed to by questions asked over this long period.
The book is organised into 24 alphabetical entries, each one addressing a specific issue in the humanitarian field. These go from the causes that trigger humanitarian actions – Epidemics (G. McKay & M. Parker), Famine (A. De Waal), Genocide (T. Allen & E. Storer), War (M. Kaldor) – to the humanitarian responses, including Camps (S. Cooper-Knock & K. Long), Intervention (C. Brown), Medical-humanitarianism (T. Allen) and Post-humanitarianism (L. Chouliaraki). The book also includes critical reflections on the meaning and scope of humanitarianism itself, such as in the chapters on Accountability (B. Roberts), Humanity (H. Radice), Memory (R. Ibreck) and Responsibility-to-protect (K. Ainley). Regardless of the alphabetical order, the starting point to explore this edited volume should undoubtedly be the chapter located right in the middle: Humanitarianism by the book’s co-editor LSE Professor Tim Allen.
So what is humanitarianism exactly? And how should we define it?
Allen avoids strict definitions of humanitarianism, as he claims that a satisfactory and comprehensive definition is yet to be found. However, what Allen does is point at a little stem in the word humanitarianism. That is, the suffix ‘-ism’. Allen argues the word is a double-edged sword; on the one hand, humanitarianism is positively associated with poverty alleviation and solidarity towards those who suffer. On the other hand, one of many ‘-isms’, it does represent an ideology with fixed principles and partial views, like Marxism or Catholicism. Allen then goes on to critically assess the more popular definitions of humanitarianism developed over the years, showing the inherent contradictions present in the humanitarian sector. Indeed, humanitarianism faces at least one great dilemma: the ambition to be neutral despite being an ideology.
For example, humanitarian agencies ‘have to negotiate with the very groups and individuals who are causing the suffering that needs to be alleviated’. This means compromising, and somehow renouncing, some of their neutrality. Also, any interventions aimed at preventing atrocities cannot be solely dictated by a humanitarian logic. This was especially true in cases where military actions were necessary, like in Somalia (1992–93) and Rwanda (1994). The deployment of military personnel, national or supranational, threatens a country’s sovereignty, raising doubt over the legitimacy of such interventions. Therefore, humanitarian actions (or the lack thereof) become linked to geopolitical agendas, economic interests and strategic targets.
Practitioners and scholars are fully aware of these limits. In fact, many think that at times humanitarian actions have limited and even had the opposite effect to that intended. However, and despite these backlashes, humanitarian activities are still worth being done, says Allen, because they can save human lives. Allen suggests that where humans are suffering, it is unacceptable to do nothing, and we should at least try to take action.
Through these reflections, Allen prepares the terrain for the book’s co-authors. Worth mentioning are the chapters deeply interconnected with Allen’s thought, which critically reflect on the concepts of Humanity (H. Radice) and Justice (A. Macdonald) and the limits in defining an effective International-humanitarian law (R. Sutton & O. Stern).
Humanitarianism: A Dictionary of Concepts provides an excellent analysis of the current debate on the meaning of humanitarianism. It does so not just by pointing out some of its dilemmas and contradictions, but by suggesting possible new paths to understand, rethink and work in the humanitarian sector. Despite the aforementioned ‘rumbustious cacophony of perspectives’, one can see a leitmotif throughout the book – that is, the ambition to act in favour of human dignity and the idea that one should not be stopped or discouraged by the dilemmas the humanitarian faces in practice.
Lastly, as is the destiny of every encyclopaedia, the authors should consider this book an ongoing project, as one can only expect the book’s entries to increase in the future. In this regard, one can only note the lack of an entry on the new rising digital humanitarianism, specifically the relations between ethics, humanitarian operations and digital innovations. Big Data and new technologies, like facial recognition, are already shaping humanitarian actions, and a chapter on these issues should soon be included. Aside from that, Humanitarianism: A Dictionary of Concepts makes its point very clear: pointing the finger at what is not working in the humanitarian sector is not enough. Avoiding to answer the humanitarian dilemma will not help those who suffer to be better off. Better to try and fail than to never get off the ground.
Humanitarianism: A Dictionary of Concepts by Tim Allen, Anna Macdonald and Henry Radice is published by Routledge (2018).
Photo: HMS Daring’s Lynx Helicopter Bringing Aid to the Philippines. Credit: PO(Phot) Wheelie A’Barrow.