“Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much” – Helen Keller
On August 19, the World Humanitarian
Day will be observed under the auspicious of the United Nations. Since 2009, the world body has dedicated this day to recognize humanitarian personnel and those who have lost their lives working for humanitarian causes, such as in the bombing of the UN Headquarters in Baghdad on August 19, 2003. It aims to increase public awareness about humanitarian assistance activities worldwide and the importance of international cooperation. The observance of 2015 is aimed at profiling Humanitarian Heroes – people from all walks of life, who are committed to making a difference.

Humanitarianism has witnessed remarkable growth from its humble origins in the early nineteenth century to its current prominence in global life. The word “humanitarianism” connotes philanthropy and benevolence, a charitable impulse towards the unfortunate from those capable of alleviating poverty, disaster or war. It suggests a benign doctrine, even a profession of faith.

“Humanitarian”, originally a theological term, referred to one who affirmed the humanity of Christ, while denying his divine existence. It came to mean the application of purely human action – without religious sanction – to the resolution of social problems. When it first appeared in the early nineteenth century, it carried ironic overtones, suggesting an excess of zeal or sentimentality in those who would change the world.

International commitment to humanitarianism grew out of imperial missionary and charitable activity. The abolition of slavery gave an impulse to a movement which did not yet call itself humanitarian; even though the principle has existed, in one form or another, in all human societies; and is, for example, according to Qur’anic and prophetic texts, an essential and obligatory element of Muslim religious practice.

For Christian missionaries, medical advances in the nineteenth century made material healing an important adjunct to the spiritual work of evangelists; no doubt, tangible improvements in the material condition of the people also assisted the spiritual “healing” required in the conversion of the heathen; and the importance of the human often took precedence over a theoretical religious “mission”.

A significant moment in this secularization of humanitarian action came as a result of the battle of Solferino in 1859, when Swiss businessman Henry Dunant was convinced of the need of humanitarian gestures at the sight of dying soldiers while passing through Castiglione. His proposal for trained medical personnel to be present at such scenes of suffering led to the establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1863. Despite the detachment of humanitarianism from religion, the idea still retains something of its otherworldly roots, since it is seen as a work of rescue, even of salvation, and produces a sense of reverential piety.

In modern times, claims to humanitarianism are always heard most loudly after some spectacular act of inhumanity. The end of the World War II provided a particularly compelling example. After Europe had been laid waste by the ideology of Nazism, redemptive action was vital. Not only did “the economy” – the site of the breakdown – become the object of rapid rehabilitation, but “development assistance” to former imperial territories began; most of these had defected to “socialism”, and the west offered “development” as the alternative. In an age of globalization, development has been superseded by a fitting successor – humanitarian intervention.

Humanitarianism is what the west uniquely practices, bringing its kindness and goodwill to dark places of the world, where savagery and barbarism still rule (or have reappeared) at the heart of “primitive” or regressive cultures.

It is significant that we hear much about “our values” when it comes to humanitarian help in places ravaged by war, particularly when the west has been instrumental in, or indifferent towards, the creation of strife, to which we must bring the urgent capacity for relief of a concerned “international community”.

Humanitarian aid is supposed to transcend all ideologies, cultures and beliefs. It is the essence of human fellow-feeling, not to be contested or questioned. In other words, it is an ideal vehicle for the monopoly of compassion often implied by its western promoters.

Humanitarianism, therefore, justifies all over again what “we” give to “them”. Its supreme appeal is that it trumps all other systems and faiths, since it brings succor to those persecuted in the name of all ideologies, religious and secular. It is elevated over all other forms of giving. Dissent falls silent in the presence of such magnanimity, and we drop our coins into the great collecting box of conscience, satisfied we have done our duty.

In this way, even our “humanitarianism” is an old story, but with a contemporary inflection. It implies that love of humanity and compassion are defective in places that cry out for “our” intercession. Not only is it at the core of “liberal interventionism”, which topples dictators and dismantles dictatorships, but it is also called into being to support campaigns of violence as a lesser evil; notably in the arbitrarily established entities of the former Ottoman empire, created at the end of the first world war by powers who had not yet discovered their own humanitarian potential.

In such a context, it should not astonish us if humanitarian assistance is sometimes invoked even in the form of bombs, dropped to prevent greater wrongs – to protect innocent civilians or to halt the “cancer” of extremism.

Perhaps the most extraordinary example of humanitarianism in action may be seen in the recent appeal to help the afflicted, the mutilated and bereaved of Gaza. When the buildings have been razed, the bodies counted, the rubble turned over, sorrowing peoples are invited to offer assistance to those whose lives have been ruined or abridged; but no one – including those who were in a position to do so – invoked humanitarianism to prevent the carnage from happening in the first place. It is as if the humanitarianism of our age demands – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, Libya – flattened cities, heaps of corpses, strife and bloodshed in order to find its fullest expression.

Humanitarianism after the event savors of hypocrisy as much as of philanthropy. Should it surprise us if the imperialists of compassion themselves sometimes contribute to the supply of scenes of misery, which then call forth their exhibitions of altruism before a wondering world?

Whenever any belief or doctrine becomes an “-ism” we should be on our guard, for that is the sign that it is in the process of hardening into ideology. We know all too well that enforcement of any ideology is likely to cause division due to the dogma of its practitioners.

There is an ever-growing demand in the world for humanitarian action in response to the suffering caused by complex emergencies and natural disasters. Part of the power and appeal of humanitarianism is its universality, that is, the idea that humanitarianism is premised on cross-cultural moral truths and principles and a concern for the alleviation of suffering of humankind, regardless of differences. This idea of universality, however, is being called into question as expressions of humanitarianism and humanitarian actors become increasingly diverse.

What are the implications of this emerging diversity in humanitarianism? There is a concern among some traditional donors and agencies that the “new” humanitarian actors have failed to internalize existing principles of the international humanitarian order (IHO) and are poorly integrated into its institutions and structures. Non-Western actors, for their part, argue that the existing IHO is not “truly universal,” but is actually part of a Western hegemonic discourse. Fragmentation could undermine the most fundamental objective of humanitarianism: providing assistance to those in need in the most effective ways possible.

On this World Humanitarian Day, it is important for the world body to attempt for a better understanding of diverse cultural interpretations of humanitarianism. Such an effort would lead to a platform for critical dialogue among philosophers, practitioners, and beneficiaries. This, in turn, can facilitate the development of a more inclusive conceptualization of the IHO, and provide a mechanism for identifying synergies and variations across different cultures.

The diversity of humanitarian actions reflects the multitude needs of a diverse human population.



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