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Reviewed by:
  • Humanitarianism in Question: Politics, Power, Ethics
  • Beth Elise Whitaker
Michael Barnett and Thomas G. Weiss, eds. Humanitarianism in Question: Politics, Power, Ethics. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2008. xii + 303 pp. Abbreviations. Figures. Tables. Contributors. Notes. Index. $55.00. Cloth. $19.95.

With contributions from many well-known scholars, this volume provides an interdisciplinary perspective on the ethical dilemmas faced by humanitarian organizations and explores the evolving relationship between humanitarianism and politics. The editors acknowledge that the tension between principles and politics is not new, but the book as a whole suggests that such dilemmas have become increasingly common in the post-Cold War era. This is not an introductory volume; the authors assume a level of knowledge about recent humanitarian operations and focus instead on their ethical implications. Indeed, while African countries (especially Rwanda and Somalia) are mentioned throughout the book, readers of this journal may be disappointed that few of the book's chapters are grounded in the complex histories, politics, and cultures of specific cases.

Each of the book's eleven chapters stands alone. The editors' introductory chapter provides an overview of the recent history of humanitarianism, especially how the sector has been grappling with issues of identity, ethics, and politics. They then lay out several different organizing themes for the book, but there are too many to be useful. The second chapter by James Fearon (the only one based on quantitative data) seeks to explain why humanitarian aid continued to rise after the late 1990s despite a dramatic decrease in the number of wars and refugees. Although somewhat dismissive of alternative explanations, he convincingly argues that this pattern is due to the use of humanitarian aid as a foreign policy tool by great powers and successful task expansion by humanitarian organizations. Most interesting in Craig Calhoun's chapter is his discussion of the "emergency imaginary," which portrays humanitarian situations as "emergencies," as if "normality" would be peaceful and calm. In the current international context, however, "emergencies have become normal" (87), a fact that can be difficult to accept. [End Page 199]

Subsequent chapters examine various ethical dilemmas faced by humanitarian organizations. Stephen Hopgood offers an interesting exploration of what constitutes humanitarianism by asking whether WalMart could be considered a humanitarian organization. Janice Gross Stein examines why humanitarian organizations are reluctant to discuss the issue of accountability. Michael Barnett and Jack Snyder offer a useful taxonomy of humanitarian strategies based on how political and how ambitious they are; they seem to advocate backing a decent winner, a political strategy that is not too ambitious. Laura Hammond argues that recent attacks against humanitarian workers are deliberate performance strategies that send a message to an audience, both near and far. The chapters by Peter Redfield and Jennifer Rubenstein make clear that humanitarian organizations do not base their decisions entirely on the needs of affected populations; other moral and ethical considerations determine how and where they spend scarce resources. Michael Barnett draws parallels between humanitarianism, which strives in vain to stay out of politics, and social science scholarship, which tries to stay detached from its field of study. He calls on both to reflect on their involvement in their subjects and to forgo maintaining a dispassionate distance.

This volume is by scholars for scholars. The last chapter, by Peter Hoffman and Thomas Weiss, is a worthwhile but ultimately disappointing effort to make the book relevant to humanitarian practitioners. It draws six lessons from the previous chapters, though none is central to any of the chapters. The authors call for greater collaboration between academics and practitioners; however, describing humanitarian agencies as "learning disabled" (283) is unlikely to win them many fans. In the end, the book is most useful for a graduate seminar on the dilemmas of humanitarianism, assuming that the students have sufficient background knowledge about specific cases.

Beth Elise Whitaker
University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Charlotte, N.C.


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pp. 199-200
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