Critical Readings of Humanitarianism

TitleCritical Readings of Humanitarianism
Publication TypeBook Chapter
Year of Publication2015
AuthorsChristie, Ryerson
EditorGinty, Roger Mac, and Jenny H. Peterson
Book TitleThe Routledge Companion to Humanitarian Action
CityAbingdon, UK

Critiques of humanitarian action have become common, but they tend to be remarkably limited in scope. If we distinguish between humanitarianism as an over-arching narrative governing forms of engagements with the Global South from humanitarian practices, we find a dramatic discontinuity in the academic attention paid to the subject. As BS Chimni (2000) argues, humanitarianism has come to be one of the most commonly used modifiers of international actors and activities, now describing NGOs and militaries, the delivery of food and police equipment, and the provision of refugee camps and democracy. Given the expansion of humanitarianism since 1990, and its role in both mandating and justifying the use of military force, it is not surprising that critical engagement with humanitarianism has grown. However, because critical scholars tend to focus on the roles of states and traditional security agents, the vast majority of critical engagement has been directed at the measures taken in the name of humanitarianism, rather than on the conceptual frame itself. This chapter looks at the ways in which critical scholars have tended to examine humanitarianism, and asks whether this engagement is distinct from more traditional ‘problem-solving’ approaches. It then argues that because much of the work does not challenge the underlying ‘common sense’ of humanitarianism, critical scholarship can serve to strengthen the legitimacy of humanitarianism.

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