Thursday, July 13, 2017

Dictates of Conscience and the Humanitarian System

From my forthcoming review essay for Humanity of two recent books on humanitarian action, Hugo Slim's Humanitarian Ethics and Liisa Malkki's The Need to Help:

"Like its charitable precursors in previous eras, today’s humanitarianism is born of a privileged asymmetry of resources. Then as now, the compassionate own the terms of assistance: they determine who deserves what, when and how. Program design, financial accountability and ownership are all largely extrinsic to the disasters where humanitarians intervene. While aid agencies may not explicitly pursue political empire or capitalist expansion, the self-justifying rationale that compassion and solidarity are universal goods is born neither of consent nor dialog with afflicted populations.

Researchers across the spectrum—political scientists to anthropologists—have in the last thirty years begun scrutinizing humanitarian action as an expression of the West’s moral universalism, revealing its asymmetries, Eurocentric projections, and neo-colonial qualities. This field of critique includes many aid veterans and current practitioners, and is in no way a purely scholastic exercise. Yet defenders of humanitarianism appear in print less often than critics because as field practitioners their performance metrics do not involve the peer-review publications common to academia."

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