Is Humanitarianism Dead? SGPIA Professor Peter J. Hoffman asks at Book Launch

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Last week, students, faculty and community members gathered to celebrate the launch of Humanitarianism, War, and Politics: Solferino to Syria and Beyond, Professor Peter J. Hoffman’s new book with co-author Thomas G. Weiss (CUNY). The book draws upon multiple traditions and perspectives to examine the field at large, the development of humanitarian agencies, and revolutions in the field such as R2P and the ICC. They also discuss operational problems faced by practitioners and core challenges to the field.   

Hoffman and Weiss were joined by guest speakers T. Alexander Aleinikoff, Director of the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility at the New School and former Deputy High Commissioner in the Office of the United nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and Fabien Dubuet, Representative to the United Nations, Médecins Sans Frontières, to discuss the state of humanitarianism, themes and topics touched upon in the book, and each’s unique experience in the field.

Professor Hoffman started the discussion by asking “Is humanitarianism dead? What happened?” The book itself, inspired by conversations that the two co-authors had with aid workers who revealed their frustrations and confusion over the manipulation of humanitarianism and the dissonance that can come from working in the field, is organized around the central question of “what is humanitarianism?” He explained that an identity crisis within the field became a central issue for the book. Thomas G. Weiss spoke about the role of sovereignty in the debate over humanitarian aid and cultural protections, noting wryly that “Sovereignty ain’t quite what it used to be”, before urging the audience to “think beyond the accidents of geography…or regime.” The issue of sovereignty was also picked up by MSF’s Fabien Dubuet, who pointed out that the history of humanitarian action is connected to the evolving understanding of sovereignty. Thus, he reasoned, humanitarian aid is politicized and it’s deliverance relies heavily on compromise.  

Alexander Aleinikoff, drawing on his experiences at the UNHCR and the Zolberg Institute, spoke about the state of the field itself. Commenting that the humanitarian field undoubtedly saves millions of lives, he also said it “doesn’t save enough”. He said that the competition for funds and turf is to the detriment of people organizations and aid workers work to serve, creating fissures between organizations trying to reach those who need assistance. He also criticized the fixation on refugee camps, noting that 25% of the world’s refugees are in camps, while the rest must find their services and assistance while navigating integration elsewhere.

Dubuet wrapped up the panel by noting “we are in a time of crisis”. The limits of humanitarianism is being tested as the number of actors in the field are being multiplied. As the humanitarian sector expands to accommodate increasing numbers of displaced people, responds to evolving and multiplying crisis, and stretches to employ more individuals, where do we go from here? Perhaps reading the book can provide some insight to those looking to join the field: Professor Hoffman said “the system is broken, too many lives are lost. The conventional explanations are limited and flawed…the book tries to create a new framework.”

Learn more from our original post on this book launch here