Rough Notes – Humanitarianism: threatened or business as usual?

A: Although I agree with the sentiment, I don’t like the question ‘is humanitarianism dead?’ – it is very clearly not, which makes the question basically a rhetorical device. Is it not more accurate (which then ties into your following arguments) to ask whether ‘traditional’ humanitarianism is becoming obsolete, or whether the seismic shifts in how humanitarian action is implemented demands a similar change to how humanitarianism is understood?

B: This raises another pertinent question – is humanitarianism a singular theory? Or are there numerous different types of humanitarianism? Rather than ‘traditional’ humanitarianism, I think the distinction is between the theory of humanitarianism and the interpretation of that theory in the practice. The theory is what some call ‘Dunantist’ humanitarianism. The idea that there are 7 core priniples that are universal. The question about the ‘death of humanitarianism’ is actually a question about whether or not the thoery of humanitarianism and it’s core principles are still applicable, relevant and universal in today’s world.

A: To play devils advocate: you argue that humanitarianism as a theory should be considered organic, and that practical or conceptual shifts do not threaten its existence. But are these challenges not exactly existential?- at what point does a thing move so far from its original conception that it is no longer recognisable? Many external and internal changes (politicisation and criminalisation of aid, the stabilisation agenda, intrusion of private sector etc) create situations that are in direct contradiction with original humanitarian principles- hence the arguments for their obsolescence.

B: What I’m arguing is that we need to respond to the external and internal changes you list by adapting the theory so that it’s implementation can respond to these changes. However, there may come a point where the theory can no longer stretch to respond to changes and stay true to itself. The universalism of humanitarianism has always been questioned. But now its also being questioned whether the theory is implementable. This questions the very validity and premises of the argument. That’s why this blog is just part of a much larger debate, that is already taking place in many corners of the world. I hope that aid leap can be part of it.

A: The issue itself is vast – so a good start! However, I think these discussions have been ongoing throughout the history of humanitarianism and are gaining in intensity as the humanitarian sector itself is growing at such a rapid pace (more people invested = more people talking). I would be particularly interested to ask what all this navel gazing achieves in a practical sense.

B: Every time I’ve heard the question raised recently its been in relation to operational problems.

C: Why would this not be ‘the right moment’? If we’re responding to a perceived threat, then that seems a very good reason to have these discussions- which surely are valuable at any time?

B: They are valuable at any time, so long as they don’t get in the way of operations!

Some comments from twitter:

@RedR_UK_Voice I think we feel its dead because those of us in “Developed” countries r having less influence an more Gov. + local NGO’s in charge

@AidWorkerJesus Humanitarianism has died. Humanitarianism is risen. Humanitarianism will come again


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