Last week, Professor Peter Hoffman gave a talk as part of NYU Wagner’s Conflict, Security & Development Series. His talk, called “Myopias and Pathologies of Humanitarianism” addressed the question: Why do humanitarian actors do what they do? Below, Professor Hoffman offers a summary of the event.
The talk began by outlining the conceptual framework of “critical humanitarianism” that looks at humanitarianism as more than the provision of assistance or an ethic of care, but rather conceives it as a social relationship between providers and recipients. This relationship has been increasingly fraught as divisions have grown between humanitarian agencies over what humanitarianism means in terms of principles and practices. The result is incoherence, counterproductive outcomes, and an erosion in relations between providers and recipients.
Four areas of humanitarian work exhibit these debilitating pathologies:
First, refugee camps keep displaced populations alive but the often unsanitary and undignified conditions coupled with a dearth of rights re-victimize the afflicted.
Second, the “responsibility to protect” framework is a noble endeavor to save people from mass atrocities but the selectivity of its deployment and imperialist connotations alienate and undermine humanitarian goals.
Third, the humanitarian-industrial complex showcases a political economy of agencies competing over donors, preoccupied with their brand, inefficiencies in the use of resources, and catering to perverse economic incentive structures in crisis zones.
Fourth, aid worker security tactics reveal that there has been a move toward bunkerization, which increases distance (both physical and moral) between aid workers and recipients, and localization, which shifts the burden of doing aid work and being targeted for violence onto aid workers from the Global South.
These pathologies of humanitarianism reveal three finds: First, humanitarianism is increasingly instrumentalized by donors and belligerents. Second, a type of “Orientalism” between aid workers from the North, that are treated as sacred, while those from the South are sacrificed. Third, there is a fetishism of humanitarianism whereby aid organizations value the mantle of ethics and responsibility more than actually saving people.