After a six month maternity sabbatical I’m finally back at work on the ole’ PhD. What better way to return to the thesis (and this blog) than to read Empire of Humanity by Michael Barnett. As I grapple with the dynamics of humanitarianism in inter-war Hong Kong, Barnett’s pioneering study reveals the ambiguities of the international humanitarian order and gives much needed clarity to a discipline all too often guided by mythology and absolutist and binary arguments.
Barnett’s seminal book opens with the assertion that ‘all communities get their history wrong, and the humanitarian community is no exception’. He recounts the humanitarian ‘origin story’ through its original hero, Henry Dunant, a Swiss businessman and activist whose ‘life transformative’ experience at the Battle of Solferino in the mid-nineteenth century resulted in his moral awakening, and eventually, in the formation of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions. In the twentieth century, as traditional histories recount, the destruction and longevity of the First World War led to a surge in private voluntary relief organisations, including Save the Children, an organisation still prominent today. After 1918, states established the first of many international humanitarian organisations, among them the High Commission for Refugees, a largely ineffectual organisation during the Jewish refugee crises of the 1930s. After the Second World War, against the backdrop of a decolonised world, many organisations originally created for exclusively European based relief extended their scope and mandate to the rest of the world. As Barnett says, ‘humanitarianism had gone global’.
In the post Cold-War period, many historians look to the 1990s as a break with the non-political and impartial humanitarianisms of the past, towards a world where humanitarian organisations adopted the role of state builders, advancing the foreign policy interests of the west. It’s a watershed decade of moral corruption, when humanitarian agencies enter the murky and morally taboo nexus of politics. Barnett rejects this interpretation and turns away from binary classifications of humanitarianism as ‘ethics versus politics’. Humanitarians and humanitarianism, he argues, were politicised well before the 1990s. Instead, Barnett calls for a more complex, and morally complicated, understanding of humanitarianism. He writes that ‘humanitarians must get their hands dirty, they must make difficult choices and compromises as they live the credo that the perfect should never be the enemy of the good’. In other words, the imperfect world in which humanitarians live and operate often means that they can’t, and don’t, practice what they preach. Barnett takes a global view of humanitarianism and critically examines the convergence of geopolitics, capitalism and ethics, exploring the ways in which these shape contemporary understandings of the humanitarian mission. He argues that humanitarianism has become increasingly public, hierarchical and institutionalised, and that paternalism, for good or bad, has played an important part throughout its history.
Barnett explores the inherent tensions of humanitarian history through six central arguments, which I’ve summarised below:
- Humanitarianism is a creature of the world it aspires to civilise: the moral vision of humanitarians is limited by culture, circumstance and contingency. The phase of Imperial Humanitarianism (nineteenth century to World War Two) was limited by colonialism, commerce and civilising missions. Barnett concedes that humanitarian actors do exert agency in that they often reflect upon their actions and attitudes
- We live in a world of humanitarianisms, not humanitarianism: humanitarians define ‘humanitarianism’ against their goals and constraints. How do humanitarians conceptualise their own humanitarianism?
- Humanitarian ethics are simultaneously universal and circumstantial: any humanitarian ethic is rooted in contemporary notions of humanity and victimhood.
- Humanitarianism is defined by the paradox of emancipation and domination: humanitarianism operates in the best tradition of emancipatory ethics. It aspires to keep people alive, expand their opportunities, and give them greater control of their fates. Yet any act of intervention, no matter how well intended, is also an act of control, as well as an exertion of power. Control and care is partly paternalism. Barnett argues that paternalism is not simply an unsavoury legacy of the nineteenth century, but instead represents the best and worst of humanitarianism today
- Humanitarianism both undermines and advances moral progress: although the notion of ‘progress’ is heavily contested as both Euro-centric and a by-product of the civilising mission, the concept of ‘community’ must also include the mutual obligations and mutual responsibilities of its members
- Humanitarianism is about meeting the needs of others and meeting our own needs: what motivates humanitarian actors? Is it power and superiority? Or are we driven by guilt, religious redemption, or to prove our goodness to ourselves, and to others? Barnett turns away from these facile explanations and instead focuses on moments of atonement. He argues that the act of giving to strangers is as much about ourselves, and that it is within this central paradox that the ambiguities of humanitarianism are best conveyed. Could it be that our needs drive the actions that benefit others? Food for thought as I embark upon my next chapter!
Barnett, Michael ‘Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism’, 2011 (Cornell University Press)