Black Hat Humanitarians

Black Hat Humanitarians

Humanitarian aid organizations have gotten more political in recent years, sometimes at the cost of their principles.

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the source: “Humanitarianism Transformed” by Michael Barnett, in Perspectives on Politics, Dec. 2005.

For more than a century after Henry Dunant founded the Inter­national Red Cross in 1863, the principles of humanitarian aid were plain. Most humanitarian groups devoted themselves to the “impartial, independent, and neutral provision of relief” to the victims of natural disaster or war, carefully avoiding involvement in political questions of any kind. That all began to change during the 1990s, according to Michael Barnett, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. Today, “the purpose of humanitarianism is becoming politicized, and the organization of humanitarianism is becoming institutionalized.”

Traditional humanitarianism has obvious limitations. In steering clear of politics and insisting on simply serving the afflicted, humanitarian groups pass up the opportunity to address the root causes of human suffering. In any case, change may have been unavoidable, writes Barnett. The end of the Cold War brought a slew of humanitarian crises around the world, from Rwanda to Kosovo. At the same time, governments became more willing to engage in or subsidize humanitarian efforts; their outlays tripled during the 1990s, reaching $6 billion and producing a bumper crop of aid-giving nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Some humanitarian agencies were ambivalent, but a partnership seemed to make sense. A few, such as Oxfam and Save the Children, had already made the leap into politics. “Many lobbied states to apply military and political muscle to stop the bloodletting. . . . Agencies occasionally sought outside intervention to provide armed protection to help deliver relief.” Worthy causes, perhaps, but Barnett thinks the results were disastrous: “Humanitarian principles were completely shattered in places like Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, where many agencies were funded by the very governments that were combatants and thus partly responsible for the emergency.”  

As humanitarian groups began accepting money from governments, they found strings attached.  In Kos­ovo, NATO insisted on “coordinating” relief efforts. In Iraq, the United States has put relief organizations under pressure to “show the American flag.” As one NGO official put it, the choice has become to “play the tune or they’ll take you out of the band.” Increasingly, grant-giving govern­ments even play a role in determining which countries receive humanitarian aid, with places where few major powers have interests, such as Sudan, Congo, and Uganda, getting short shrift.  

Swelling budgets and government involvement have also fostered a new institutional culture in the humanitarian world, with a growing emphasis on formal systems of rules and measuring results. “Rising concerns with efficiency in getting ‘deliverables’ to ‘clients’ hinted of a growing corporate culture,” notes Barnett, prompting some in the field to wonder why private firms couldn’t just as well be hired to carry out the work. And, like other bureaucratic organizations, the humanitarian agencies became increasingly preoccupied with institutional self-preservation and  responsiveness to funders, further compromising their disinterestedness.

Two big questions of self-identity face humanitarian groups. Now that so many are large organizations, with bureaucratic interests of their own and budgets sometimes rivaling those of the governments in the countries where they work, can they continue to insist that they operate strictly on behalf of the unfortunate? And as they intervene in the politics of developing countries, can they still claim to be disinterested representatives of humanity, or are they, as a growing number of critics in those countries claim, merely part of an effort to impose Western values on the world?  

Humanitarianism, in other words, doesn’t seem to be wearing a snow-white hat anymore.

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