The humanitarian triad

Three (at least) humanitarian imperatives should inform the taking moral and/or material action across borders in the name of humanity, not only the one – to act – that we all know: a just cause, addressed by just means, so as to achieve a just outcome. The trick if one may so put it of achieving a justifiable humanitarian morality-in-practice, and studies thereof, is to keep all three imperatives in play, under care and control, in the air, and of course on the ground, all at once. Shall we speak then of an imperative humanitarian triad to maximize humanitarian gain, and minimize humanitarian loss.

It behoves anyway always to think plural about noble keywords, that work also as lockwords, of which humanitarian is one, about their passive as well as active performative verbal dances. Ever mindful we should be too of what appears to have been the first use of ‘humanity’ as in the ‘crimes against’ phrase: as code for not ‘all of’, but specifically only ‘one section of’, humankind. In the nineteenth century a Russian foreign minister sought and found a euphemism – ‘humanity – for the persecuted Christian Armenians in a mostly non-Christian area in the Middle East whom the West wanted to aid. Only the other day much the same wording, for a similar situation, was on the waves again. What may appear purely universalist on first sight is revealed on analysis to be not that, but impurely particularist.

If, as I believe, it would be correct to say that precisely why some – not other – just causes are internationally taken up, say by an INGO, has not been much researched, then that surely is one obvious candidate for our urgent attention. Another is precisely how civil humanitarian intervention (as I wish to name it) being unlike armed operations being scarcely ever conceptualised as intervention, but as aid only, and as if somehow method-less: just ‘helping as one can’. CHI normally seems to get left out of intervention research completely (a recent edited collection of essays is exceptional as well as of itself a brilliant new contribution to humanitarian studies at large) . Further, while ex post humanitarian evaluation concepts and approaches continue to be developed, by comparison ex ante evaluation does not. Indeed it makes scarcely any appearance whatsoever in any of the standard manuals on gathering outcomes-oriented intelligence, evidence. If, again as I believe that is because quite how to do that is publicly anyway pretty much unknown, we have already a third area for urgent research by a humanitarian studies programme – including research to determine whether, if so how, when, and by which humanitarian agencies or divisions, ex ante modelling of likely outcomes are taken into account or not when deciding where to intervene.

What, on the other hand, has become lately only the more and more widely well known, frequently commented on in the media and elsewhere (for example after Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya), is humanitarian’s dark side: its errance-in-practice. Compassion across borders (or for that matter domestically), carried out whether smartly or otherwise, can kill as well as cure; be directed with care and responsibility or without; be wrongly assumed to work best either in a vacuum or through ‘mechanisms’ only. Moreover, it comes often with nothing but angry disconnects between two of its main sub-cultures (as an anthropologist would call them) of engagement, practice, and alterity: international humanitarian succour through for example emergency relief assistance, and international human solidarity through human rights protection. While even severely critical evaluation studies may not fail to recognise that, while either assistance or protection ‘saves lives’, in other regards or cases there may be little positive effect, or even some matters made worse. Civil, and military, humanitarian intervention, are alike in this regard, anyway as in civil-police-military (CIMPIT) operations often they find themselves combined somehow.

As for assistance people and protection people and their mores and ways, who qualify or do not qualify as ‘humanitarian’, ‘life saving’, can at time be constantly at issue each each denying the other set that encomium.

By the way, when the history of humanitarian assistance comes to be written, there will, I am sure be something to distil and learn from perhaps the first (fragmentarily) recorded instance international humanitarian assistance (ex post) evaluation that – somewhat serendipitly – my own reading has come up with as to outcomes: what has survived of the Roman evaluations of the outcomes (and surrounding issues) of their susciperetur humanitate to the goths as their empire was failing. It is extraordinary how absolutely contemporary what was perceived then, and as perceived then, remain today, two millennia later.

Being still largely institutionalised in part in patterns which are more supply-, than demand-, conditioned, humanitarian assistance and/or protection by itself guarantees nothing other than for some self-righteousness, personal redemption, and the like, not an effective service and its delivery and disribution; is not necessarily a self-evident good to those in whose image, and for whose needs, its funders and providers validate, brand and perhaps deliver it even when in accordance with ICRC protocol . It may even escape serious ex post outcomes-oriented evaluation and accountability altogether, let alone the ex ante kind of anticipatory evaluation the normal absence of which in public has been already noticed. The extent to which big aid charities in the UK know and say – if mainly only in closed meetings? – that they can now raise resources relatively ‘easily’ and ‘regardless’ of any pressures to guarantee proportionate results , is currently another part of the broader picture of the current international humanitarian aid scene. When, belatedly three months or so ago in London, I came to realize that hard fact of the matter, when attending one such closed meeting as kindly invited, I confess I was greatly surprised, and disconcerted. Moreover it followed another – to me – revelation only a week earlier, a finding from some new historical research: some of the presently major UK charities at their very beginnings, while open to charges of being amateur and unprofessional in some regards, were never that in their fund raising.

To research the humanitarian morality of various kinds of material and immaterial action taken – or threatened or withheld or denied – across borders in the name of humanity, continues therefore to have a number of difficult challenges to contend with, starting with the concept ‘morality’ itself, and ‘humanity’ [followed then by that of ‘intervention’ – whether military or civil – as to be worked through in my last seminar in this series of four, to be given as was the first at Bjorknes: the second, tomorrow, is what a couple of months of ‘small print’ qualitative anthropological interviews and observations (by Luigi Achilli and myself assisted greatly by Alice Massari) earlier this year among the UNHCR-defined Syrian refugees in Jordan, while specifically as commissioned on nutrition, threw up that if followed up by further, quantitative research this time, might potentially feed a different wider picture than appears to be generally accepted at present].

Among much else, what for the research proposed is required for present purposes is recourse to not an abstract, academic, moral philosophy, and merely a dictionary, etymological, type of definition of what morally (and otherwise) it means to be humanitarian, so much as an ethnographically- grounded approach to humanitarian morality-in-practice. Humanitarian justice as for example actually delivered by the Hague court is as much – or more – an output of its (divided) operational culture, as of any single best theory of international law. Humanitarian reason, far from being a matter of cognition and the intellect alone, goes beyond ordinary logic. Humanitarian praxis is much more than just effective practice, and project operations, only.

Present purposes then will be best served then by relationally dimensionalizing, rather than to seeking to come up with any single, trumping, best defining of, what humanitarian ought to be, or is, or does. Hence ‘the humanitarian triad’ of the present remarks. Humanitarian praxis, whether under fire or not, is normally as highly emotionally charged and fraught as at the same time from case to case, and context to context, is logically and practically demanding, necessarily as pragmatic as again at the same time principled. Aswellas-ism reigns.

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Note by Professor Apthorpe:

An anthropologist of sorts, I have the honour currently of being currently a Vice President of Council at the Royal Anthropological Institute, London, and likely from next month also awarded a visiting, teaching, professorship in humanitarian studies at the LSE in that city. I confess to not yet having given up on wanting to bring between covers something based on my 2005-2009 classes on international humanitarian assistance that were devised for an optional (but hugely subscribed) course in an ANU graduate programme in international affairs (that originally was co-sponsored by PRIO and boasted a number of Norwegian civil, and sometimes also military, participants each year, indeed my present kind host at Bjorknes was one – of the former). Given in an international relations department, those classes reflected that setting, and critical theory. Much else remains to be added to the mix. Whether they were the first such university graduate level classes or not, last year under the title now of ‘Post-pieties?’ a souvenir I wrote of them made it to raymondapthorpe.com at least.