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Humanitarianism in the 21st Century

Antonio Donini


This short article is in two parts : first, setting the stage : some pointers on humanitarianism today ; then, some broader considerations on what the future might look like : three mega trends and a mobilizing myth.

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Entrées d’index

Mots-clés thématiques :

Action humanitaire, Enjeux humanitaires, Identité
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Texte intégral

1This short article is in two parts : first, setting the stage : some pointers on humanitarianism today ; then, some broader considerations on what the future might look like : three mega trends and a mobilizing myth

Setting the stage

2The concept of humanitarianism is fraught with ambiguities. It connotes three separate but overlapping realities : an ideology, a movement and a profession. Together, they form a political economy in which actors compete for influence, space and market share. What unites the various facets of humanitarianism is a broad commitment to alleviating the suffering and protecting the lives of civilians caught up in conflict or crisis.

3But beneath this common goal, the ideology, the movement and the profession are themselves deeply fractured.Like other “isms”, humanitarianism propounds lofty goals which serve to hide deep contradictions, conflicting alignments and power plays, manipulations and instrumentalizations, personality cults, struggles over resources and, sometimes, shady financial transactions. It includes soviet-style card-carrying defenders of orthodoxy, heretics, fellow-travelers, revisionists, opportunists and extremist fringes. It now even has for profit and military wings.

4Moreover, and to complicate things, there is not one humanitarianism, albeit riven by competing claims and cross-currents, but several. The northern/western humanitarian movement, rooted in various traditions of charity and philanthropy and in the “civilizing impulses” of the Enlightenment constitutes the dominant multi-billion dollar visible face of humanitarianism. It dictates the language and calls the shots. But in parallel, or in its shadow, other humanitarianisms – Islamic, for example, but not only – also save and protect lives, as do communities and a variety of formal and non formal institutions that are in the front lines when disaster strikes.

5The blindness of the dominant discourse to the workings of this informal humanitarian sector is a telling indicator of its strong isomorphism : ‘you’ can join ‘us’ on our terms but don’t expect any consideration if you don’t.

6In addition to being an ideology, a movement, a profession and a compassionate endeavor to provide assistance and protection to populations at risk, humanitarianism is also a set of institutions, a business and an industry that employs hundreds of thousands of individuals and in which actors compete for market share. Humanitarianism, in its various facets, has seen dramatic growth and transformation in the last two decades of the 20th century. Much of this growth is related to the diminished inhibitions on waging war and the privatization of social services that have accompanied the end of the Cold War.

7From a marginal and non-intrusive activity—its effectiveness being a function of its acceptability to primarily interstate belligerents—it has become central and salient in North-South discourse and practice. As the world moved out of Cold War strictures, humanitarian action also expanded accordion-style into new territories (development, human rights, advocacy, and peace-building) further complicating the task of circumscribing the realm and scope of its activities.

8Simplifications are always arbitrary, but the many components of the humanitarian international can be grouped into two broad groups. First, the established institutions, a.k.a. the northern/western tip of the iceberg – with their own different and sometimes overlapping roots and ideologies including :

9 « Dunantists », who recognize themselves in the founding principles of the Red Cross ;

10« Wilsonians », who by and large see their role as an extension of, or at least compatible with, their country’s world view and foreign policy objectives ;

11Faith-based, of which there are a variety of Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, and other hews ; and

12« Solidarists », i.e. organizations that pursue a range of human rights, justice, advocacy, and/or development objectives, in addition to providing humanitarian assistance.

13Of course, these distinctions are not always clear-cut. Many organizations have multiple agendas and pursue humanitarian as well as development or social justice objectives. Moreover, new players and institutions are increasingly crowding the field and are elbowing to be part of the humanitarian community, including private companies and, increasingly, the military. The latter occupy a special place both as an extension of foreign policy through armed intervention -and related Hearts and Minds activities - and because of their mandated role under the Geneva conventions to protect civilians under military occupation.

14Second, the other “humanitarianisms” : the grey and black political economy of those who provide succor to people in crisis and save countless lives but which do not necessarily function on the basis of our (i.e. western) established principles and standards of accountability. This humanitarianism comprises a variety of formal and informal organizations and even individual approaches, such as :

15The contributions of governments, societies, and especially, local communities in countries affected by crisis and who are often the first line of defense for the most vulnerable ;

16Non-traditional donors (such as China, India, or the Gulf States) who do not normally make it onto the ODA hit-parade ;

17Islamic charities and foundations, zakat and other forms of tithing, that are largely unseen (and uncounted) ; and

18Remittances from migrants and Diasporas and other forms of individual transfers, which allow literally millions of people in extremis to survive.

19These two universes – and it is unclear which one contributes more to saving and protecting lives – do not necessarily meet. And when they do, misunderstandings and friction abound. Thus, humanitarianism is in the eye of the beholder. It is self-defined and self-referential. The term is ambiguous in that a diverse range of actors claim to operate under a banner that is used to justify a multitude of interventions. There is no formal universal standard to which organizations, which see themselves as ‘humanitarian’, can be held to account.

20Moreover, the motivations of the individuals and the overall objectives of the organizations that call themselves humanitarian can be quite different. In broad brush terms, humanitarianism is about three ‘Cs’: compassion, change or containment.

21Traditionally, there have been two “souls” in the humanitarian ethos, one focusing on the universal values of compassion and charity and the other on change and transformation of society. In Europe these traditions are represented, for example, by the work of religious orders going back to the Middle Ages and the transformative message of the Enlightenment with its aspirations for justice and rights.

22In the last two decades, however, a third motivation has appeared : humanitarianism as a form of containment. Containment itself can take two forms : the provision of a minimum of assistance to ensure that crises do not spin out of control (and threaten the citadels of the north) and the deliberate incorporation of humanitarian action in the world-ordering and security strategies of the north. The so-called global war on terror (GWOT) presents many examples of the instrumentalization of humanitarian action in the service of such objectives.

23The manipulation of humanitarian action in support of political objectives is nothing new. What is new is the breadth and depth of the manipulation as well as the tightening web of connections with global political agendas. The point here is that regardless of the definitions one adopts and of the personal motivations of those involved, humanitarianism in its northern and western incarnations is increasingly consubstantial with and functional to processes of economic social and cultural globalization, and, more often than not, to world-ordering and securitization agendas. Whether they like it or not, therefore, humanitarians are part of how the world is governed. They have crossed the threshold of power. We shall return to this later.

What does this mean for the future of humanitarianism ?

24Predictions are always dangerous, especially about the future. Nevertheless, I see three mega trends and the end of mobilizing myth.

25- Humanitarian assistance is up, humanitarianism is down.

26- Universalism is down, sovereignty/nationalism is up

27- Conflict is down, “natural” disasters are up

28Humanitarian assistance is up, humanitarianism is down

29In the global marketplace, humanitarian action has become a huge business which has drifted away from its principled moorings. It represents up to $18bn/year or about 15 % of ODA. Never so much money or so many people have been humanitarian. Never such levels of institutionalization. Probably never so much instrumentalization.

30In high profile crises, the overt and covert interlinkages between politics and humanitarian action have never been so strong. Covert - because mainstream humanitarianism is increasingly becoming part of governance, if not of government. It has become intertwined with globalization and functional to the promotion of liberal peace.

31What we are seeing is a massive growth of an enterprise that employs over a quarter million people. It is becoming more structured and institutionalized. Long gone are the days of “voluntarism”. The rules of the game are set by the big players : NGO federations and UN agencies that are “of the North”. The increasing oligopolization, the development of standards and the emphasis on professionalization also serve as barriers to entry for actors from the south and for those who do not conform to the western canon.

32The pressure for mainstream NGOs to act like a business and act like a state coupled with the pressure to spend and deliver – including increasingly funds from donors who are also belligerents (Afghanistan, Iraq and now Somalia) is leading to a general dilution of the respect for principles and of the independence of humanitarian action. Even the “Dunantist” wing of the humanitarian enterprise is becoming increasingly institutionalized, professionalized and oligopolized. More importantly, it is seen as such, i.e. as a tool of the North.

33Universalism is down, sovereignty/nationalism is up

34Afghanistan, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Somalia are defeats for humanitarianism. In Sudan and Sri Lanka in particular, but in Afghanistan and Somalia the same trend is emerging, we are seeing the vilification of humanitarianism. Humanitarian action is denounced by government and non-state actors as a form of imperialism, forcing sovereign states to go where they do not want to go. The mishandling of the Responsibility to Protect and International Criminal Court agendas has given fodder to humanitarian rejectionists.

35It is very likely that in the coming decades humanitarians will be confronted with issues of sovereignty and nationalism as never before. The arrogance and interventionist spirit which we are accustomed to will be less and less tolerated. China, India and middle powers such as Brazil or Malaysia are likely to become much more active and influential players on the humanitarian scene. Our brand of universalism will be challenged increasingly as “western universalism”.

36The question here is : will a new synthesis built around a more universal universalism be possible ? Either dominant, northern humanitarianism becomes more sensitive to the perceptions of others, or humanitarianism as we know it may soon be a thing of the past. Perhaps it is too late : the rules of the game of the dominant discourse are set ; funding streams, interlinkages with power, the sheer size of the enterprise make it very difficult for us to question the fundamentals of our version of (western) universalism. We would need much bigger ears, smaller mouths.

37Conflict is down, “natural” disasters are up

38It seems that conflict as a vector of humanitarian need is down while vulnerability linked to climate change, natural hazards, technological and possibly civilization-changing events is up and increasing. If this trend is confirmed in the longer term, it likely will be the future focus of the activities of humanitarian agencies. Again, northern humanitarian agencies will inevitably come to clash with the logic state : the comfortable arrogance of northern humanitarians will be increasingly challenged by states and civil society organizations in the south.

39Conflict, in fact, may well be a lesser source of vulnerability than we are accustomed to. In Zimbabwe today, thousands of people are dying every week of HIV/AIDS. Compare to 2400 civilians casualties in Afghanistan in 2009. In many parts of the world threats of old and new varieties tend to combine and compound. It is debatable if our traditional humanitarian approaches are adequate to address such rapidly changing forms of vulnerability.

40It will be necessary to look at vulnerability much more comprehensively. The nature of vulnerability is changing : more urban, more unpredictable, more linked to migration and less to conflict and conflict-related displacement. This has implications for the scope and shape of a humanitarian enterprise that is still based on Cold War and post-Cold War assumptions of what constitutes a crisis. The enterprise is essentially backward-looking. We are getting better at addressing last year’s crisis and perhaps today’s. But is the enterprise adapted to the challenges that are likely to come our way in the coming decades ?

41The end of humanitarianism as a mobilizing myth

42Is humanitarianism losing its identity ? We are witnessing and increasing conflation between humanitarian and development/political/military agendas ; as well as the emergence of “other” humanitarianisms and of humanitarian rejectionists. It is far from clear that humanitarianism as we know it today will it be able to save itself or at least insulate itself more effectively from politicization and incorporation into the North’s world ordering agendas.

43Humanitarianism has gone a long way since Voltaire described Candide arriving in Lisbon after a devastating earthquake. Over the past 20 years it has functioned for many young and not so young people in the North as a kind of last (western) frontier. In this it has been similar to the human rights movoement. It was a mobiliser of energy. It gave meaning to people and functioned as a substitute for “revolution” and other “isms” of the past. Success came at its own peril because like its human rights cousin, humanitarianism emerged largely in confrontation with power. Now, it seems to have shifted from being a powerful discourse to a form of power. The humanitarian enterprise has thus crossed the threshold of power, even if most humanitarians are loathe to admit it.

44Will humanitarianism go the way of other mobilizing myths such as “development”, “progress”, etc. ? This seems to me to be the key question. The more the humanitarian agenda expands into non humanitarian territory – development, justice, human rights – the more it risks being sucked into power and politics and perceived as taking sides. Humanitarianism has been the victim of its own success, if not its delusions of grandeur.

45Some will no doubt argue that in today’s asymmetrical conflicts, there is no space for neutrality – you are either for or against. I believe that Afghanistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka Sudan and other recent crises demonstrate the exact opposite : the shrinking of humanitarian space and the instrumentalization of humanitarian action have had deleterious effects for communities needing assistance, for the security of humanitarian aid workers and for the credibility of their organizations. I would argue that a more modest humanitarian enterprise, closer in ambition and intent to classical time-tested humanitarian principles, stands a better chance of saving and protecting larger numbers of lives than today’s increasingly politically-driven and militarized forms of relief.

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Référence électronique

Antonio Donini, « Humanitarianism in the 21st Century »Humanitaire [En ligne], 25 | juin 2010, mis en ligne le 16 septembre 2010, consulté le 02 février 2023. URL :

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Antonio Donini

Antonio Donini is Senior Researcher, Feinstein International Center, Tufts University (Massachusetts, USA).

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