Contemporary issues in humanitarianism: selected resources

As Tony Vaux points out in his Guest Editorial in this issue, the concept of humanitarianism applies to both war and general disaster, and is based on the principle that ‘in extreme cases of human suffering external agents may offer assistance to people in need, and in doing so should be accorded respect and even “rights” in carrying out their functions’. However, policy makers in humanitarian agencies, and aid workers on the ground, face a bewilderingly complex set of challenges in determining such ‘rights’. Gone are any comfortable certainties about what in the commercial sector is known as ‘the licence to operate’, and claims to the moral high ground of ‘neutrality’ have an increasingly hollow ring. Perhaps more to the point, such assumptions are of little practical use to frontline workers who may risk ambush, abduction, deportation, or even their lives as the result of their professional activities. Nor do outdated road maps help relief agencies to orient their decisions on whether to withdraw or continue providing material assistance in the knowledge that a proportion of it is fuelling the violence or lining the pockets of conflict profiteers. There are no standard ‘off-the-peg’ answers, because each situation must be considered on its own merits. And of course no aid agencies share an identical mandate, or have precisely the same expertise or history of involvement with the affected population – all factors that must be weighed up in deciding what is the appropriate course of action. For reasons of space, we have not sought to cover the areas of early warning, prevention, and mitigation associated with ‘natural’ disasters, although of course the two are always linked, as became very clear in wake of the Asian tsunami in Aceh and Sri Lanka. It has long been recognised that since catastrophic events disproportionately affect the poor and marginalised, they expose and may intensify existing social divides and structural injustice. For instance, in his seminal work on the 1943 Bengal famine, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (OUP, 1984) Amartya K Sen argued that such food shortages do not occur in functioning democracies. Similarly, Roger Plant's, Guatemala: Unnatural Disaster (Latin America Bureau, 1978) showed how the 1974 earthquake triggered an intensification in state violence that was to result in the death or disappearance of 200,000 Guatemalans and create ‘a nation of widows and orphans’. In accordance with the focus of this issue, we have given priority to publications and organisations that reflect on some direct involvement in humanitarian endeavour, rather than giving priority to more policy-oriented or scholarly works or academic institutions. We have included literature on the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, since this was such a defining event for humanitarianism; and some recent publications concerning the US-led invasions of Afghanistan in October 2001 (‘Operation Enduring Freedom’) and Iraq in March 2003 (‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’), since these have significantly redefined the global landscape of policy and practice within which humanitarian agencies operate. Inevitably we can offer only a glimpse of the growing literature in these fields, but we hope in so doing that readers, and particularly those directly involved in humanitarian endeavours, will be encouraged to explore the issues further.