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Home arrow Sociology arrow Humanitarian ethics : a guide to the morality of aid in war and disaster


Moses Maimonedes, 1135-1204

The important insight in Maimonedes’ sliding scale is that the helper should be as irrelevant and invisible as possible, or engaged on the equal terms of a partnership. Helpers are not heroic or superior. They are simply necessary intermediaries of justice rightly redistributing goods without controlling and humiliating those who need them. Interestingly, recent research into the impact of cash transfer programmes in humanitarian work after hurricanes in the USA and famine in Somalia confirms Maimonedes’ ranking and shows that men and women feel high levels of respect, autonomy and agency when part of a cash relief programme.50 People who feel less comfortable with it tend to be humanitarian workers who feel they cannot trust people to spend money wisely and fear they are losing control.51 These, of course, are paternalistic anxieties.

Systemic Moral Risks of Humanitarian Power

Most moral hazards discussed so far affect humanitarian action at the programme level, but there are wider systemic hazards around the global culture and political economy of humanitarian work as it has developed and expanded as an international field in the last sixty years. These systemic professional and political hazards are rightly seen as new Foucauldian dangers from the bureaucratizion, institutionalization, hierarchy and vested interests of humanitarian action. They are the dangers of international humanitarian success.

Many critics of international humanitarian aid regard the expansion of the humanitarian system as a significant corollary of Western liberal power and a deliberate and essential form of liberal influence in the postcolonial era. Michael Agier borrows Pierre Bourdieu’s phrase to describe humanitarianism as “the left hand of empire” and is one of many academics to postulate the idea of “humanitarian government” experienced by many vulnerable people around the world.52 Agier’s view is that the current system of humanitarian action functions as the “healing hand” of a hegemonic Western power that “follows on the heels of and smoothes over the damage wrought by military intervention, the latter conceived of as a police operation enacted simultaneously in different places on earth”.53 This combination of political and humanitarian power is therefore “a global and consensual apparatus” that helps Western power to govern unruly, vulnerable and oppositional parts of the world.54 Similarly, Didier Fassin formulates the idea of “humanitarian reason” as a new and disempowering force in Western political power.55 Humanitarian reasoning creates “humanitarian government” as “a mode for governing precariousness”. It is “the deployment of moral sentiment in contemporary politics...which always presupposes a relation of inequality ..[and] which is based on a fantasy of a global moral community and the secular imaginary of communion and redemption”.56 Humanitarian reason is then credited with “imagining” and “inventing” emergencies in order that the wicked West can take humanitarian control over large high-risk areas of the world.57 For these and other critical theorists, therefore, humanitarian government and humanitarian aid are extremely dangerous for the people cast as victims in these “imagined” catastrophes. Laurence McFalls sees humanitarian government as “benevolent dictatorship” and decides that much humanitarian action is actually “iatrogenic violence”. In medical theory, this is harm and violence induced by doctors in their attempts to heal and is brought about either by incompetence or as unintended side effect. For McFalls, much humanitarian action by NGOs is nothing more than “therapeutic domination”.58

This kind of academic deconstruction by critical theorists is exceedingly binary and overblown. It represents the dualistic anti-Western fantasy of some postmodern thinkers and shows a tendency to discount the political power and brutality in non-Western societies. Most emergencies are constructed by these powers, not imagined by Western powers. Also, in much of this critique by critical scholars, humanitarian agen?cies are foregrounded as powerful and central actors in a way that is not really true on the ground where power is primarily held by governments, armed groups and local communities.59 There are more grounded and realistic ways in which to criticize humanitarian power.

Alex de Waal is more nuanced and less ideological in his view of the global humanitarian system. Like Dunn’s sense of humanitarian adhocracy and chaos, de Waal sees a less malevolent and more disorganized intent behind the recent emergence of humanitarian power. He talks of a "humanitarian imperium” but one that was built "in a fit of absentmindedness”. Surrounded by weak and conflicted political power in many African and Asian states, humanitarian agencies ended up taking disproportionate responsibility for people’s lives. As such, "the mandate for humanitarian imperium has been acquired by default, driven not by grand designs in the metropolis but more by the incremental logic of trying to address these complex emergencies without appreciating the endpoint”.60 Antonio Donini, professor at Tufts University, has spent more time leading empirical studies of people’s perceptions of humanitarian aid than most humanitarian academics. His view of the risks of the international humanitarian system clearly recognizes that while humanitarian action works to a universal ethos, it does so with "a western apparatus”. This apparatus and its culture thrive on isomorphism, which demands that any new initiatives or partnerships operate in its image and on its terms. Humanitarian action also acts as "a powerful vector of western ideas and modes of behaviour”. His general conclusion from studies of recipient perceptions in many countries is ethically challenging but avoids the dual- istic apocalyptic melodrama of many postmodern theorists:

Humanitarian action is a top-down, externally driven, and relatively rigid process that allows little space for local participation beyond formalistic consultation...this is sometimes exacerbated by inappropriate personal behaviour, conspicuous consumption and “white car syndrome”.61

Donini’s criticisms chime with that of another scholar engaged in empirical research, Dutch professor Thea Hilhorst, whose work also shows a tendency of international humanitarian aid to overwhelm or bypass local government and local institutions.62

There is no doubt that humanitarian action is now a major part of people’s lives in many parts of the world, and that humanitarian agencies can achieve significant power in the everyday government of some communities affected by war and disaster. The arrival of humanitarian aid, which has also been described as an unruly circus or caravan coming to town,63 can be deeply disruptive in different ways to the initial disruption of disaster and war.

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