Shaping the Humanitarian World

Walker, Peter
Maxwell, Daniel
Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2009, ISBN 978-0-415-77371-3, 177 pp.
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Goyder, Hugh

This short book is a kind of 'Rough Guide' to international humanitarian agencies and the major dilemmas that they face. It is one of a useful series of similar books covering a wide variety of other international institutions. Intended as an introduction for the student or general reader, it suffers a slight disadvantage in that in no more than 150 pages it tries to do at least three things at once: to provide a brief history of humanitarianism, to describe the background and orientation of all the major humanitarian actors, and to document some of the dilemmas facing these agencies today. The scope is certainly ambitious, and a great strength of the book is that it is concise and highly readable. Its only drawback is that complex events have to be summarised in a few pages, but there is a wealth of interesting references to be followed up by the reader who requires a deeper analysis.

Walker and Maxwell are both now academics at the Feinstein International Centre at Tufts University, USA, but both have long experience of the work of humanitarian agencies. The book moves rapidly from its initial but fascinating historical section on the evolution of humanitarianism, through the key events that have challenged the whole movement in the last 25 years - the Ethiopian famine of 1984-5, the Balkan Conflict of 1992-5, the Rwandan genocide of 1994, and the more recent Iraqi and Afghan wars. The book shows how each of these events exposed grave weaknesses in the overall humanitarian system: for instance, in Rwanda in 1994 the problem was not only that there was no intervention to stop the genocide, but also that most of the perpetrators sought and received sanctuary in the refugee camps in Eastern Zaire, with negative consequences for the whole region which continue even now.

The book touches briefly on the sensitive issue of 'impartiality', which in both Rwanda and the Balkans prevented the UN forces from taking effective action against genocide, and it argues that at least in Rwanda impartiality 'had little to do with treating all parties fairly but with staying out of the messiness of local political realities' (p. 71). While it is easy to blame the agencies themselves, the book argues that the underlying reasons for the inadequate response to the genocide in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans were a lack of international political will, and cumbersome international decision-making processes. Even so, the Rwanda genocide led to a swathe of internal reforms and new Codes of Conduct, such as the Red Cross Code and Sphere standards, and a general growth in professionalism in most humanitarian agencies.

The book then charts how humanitarianism has altered since the events of 11th September 2001. At a conference in Washington that I attended in 2002, the audience, consisting mainly of the staff of American international NGOs, was addressed by a senior official of the State Department who told them that 'in your field of operations you are all now in the front line of the war against terror'. What was striking was not only the remark itself, but the fact that it went unchallenged by anyone in the audience. This is a far cry indeed from the early ideals of neutrality envisaged by the Swiss businessman Jean Henri Dunant which later became enshrined in the charter of the international Red Cross movement, and the statement was made just a year before the invasion of Iraq and the devastating bombing of the UN complex in Baghdad.

This erosion of humanitarian 'space' and its consequences, both for the civilians caught up in these conflicts and for the humanitarian agencies themselves, are the kinds of issue that a book like this can only cover quite briefly. One issue worthy of deeper analysis, which is a direct consequence of this more critical perception of humanitarian agencies, is the tendency evident in both the conflicts in Gaza and Sri Lanka, whereby the protagonists simply deny access to almost all humanitarian agencies.

In summary this book fills an important gap in the market, not only for students, but for humanitarian workers themselves.