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  • Humanitarianism in Question: Politics, Power, Ethics
  • David P. Forsythe (bio)
Humanitarianism in Question: Politics, Power, Ethics (Michael Barnett and Thomas G. Weiss eds., Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008) 303 pp.

Humanitarianism in Question, edited by Michael Barnett and Thomas G. Weiss, is a comprehensive, sophisticated, and somewhat disjointed overview of humanitarian action in the world today. This is in part because debate rages over how humanitarianism should relate to human rights. Should various actors denounce human rights violations that often lead to or complicate humanitarian distress (as in Burma after the 2008 cyclone), or should they be content with responding to humanitarian need and at least muting, if not avoiding, the rights discourse? It does not make matters easier that all the concepts in the title of the book are contested—humanitarianism, politics, power, ethics. There is no easy agreement on the precise meaning of each, much less how they should be related inter se. [End Page 269]

I. The Book

The eleven chapters are all written by academics rather than practitioners, but some chapters have a strong practical orientation while others do not. The thirty page introduction by Barnett and Weiss is a comprehensive overview of the subject, but it does not attempt to provide any precise answers or even a theoretical framework for structuring the debate. More than one reader is likely to get a bit lost in all the many takes on the broad subject covered in the introduction. Indeed, if the UN Charter, which does not mention humanitarian action per se, is seen as one of “the normative humanitarian pillars” of the modern world, then almost anything can be said to be humanitarian.1 The editors write that “humanitarianism does not have a singular meaning.”2 There is a sizable excursion into Weberian ideal-types of authority, along with many other subjects not normally part of the humanitarian debate.3

For his part, Craig Calhoun, in “The Imperative to Reduce Suffering,” says that he has “not offered resolutions to these issues but only an attempt to clarify something of the lineages of understanding and practical orientation that have shaped humanitarian action.”4 Barnett, in “Humanitarianism as a Scholarly Vocation,” provides a twenty-nine page review of some of the academic literature. This is not a simple handbook for practitioners or a clear and concise overview for beginning students.

Stephen Hopgood, in “Saying ‘No’ to Wal-Mart?,” raises the question of whether certain for-profit corporations should be considered among the humanitarians. After all, as he indirectly suggests, if the Department of Defense can outsource war fighting to private firms ranging from Blackwater USA to Halliburton, maybe we should look to market efficiency to respond to humanitarian distress. He cites the interesting case of the Danish firm Vestergaard Frandsen which makes products which “are potent tools in the fight against malaria, diarrhea, and polluted water, even in acute emergency situations.” 5 With all due respect, this is rather like saying that because General Electric makes light bulbs, which improves the human condition, General Electric should be considered a humanitarian actor despite its for-profit essence. Credit Suisse recently signed a special agreement of support with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), but that Swiss bank has not thereby changed its colors regarding banking.

One can appreciate that traditional humanitarian actors have increasingly sought corporate, which is to say bureaucratic, models of efficient action without blurring the line between for-profit corporations and non-profit humanitarians whose raison d’être is to alleviate human misery in exceptional situations. Indeed, some of the traditional humanitarian organizations have hired private security firms to protect their operations. This fact does not transform profit-driven firms like Blackwater USA into humanitarians, at [End Page 270] least not without considerable harm to language and understanding. They and their colleagues remain controversial mercenaries, sometimes corrupt and irresponsible, despite the occasional contract with humanitarian NGOs.6 The Swiss Guards, for instance, remain mercenaries despite their protection of the Vatican. The Vatican role does not transform the Swiss Guards into a religious organization.

James Fearon, in “The Rise of Emergency Relief Aid,” brings considerable focus to the wide ranging discussion in this...


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pp. 269-277
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