Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Moral Economic Dilemmas of Humanitarianism

Norbert Götz, Georgina Brewis, Steffen Werther

We were about to publish our book, Humanitarianism in the Modern World: The Moral Economy of Famine Relief, when Covid-19 lifted ‘crisis’ and ‘response’ off the page and into our own lives. The academic term ‘triage’ that refers to the rationale of medical prioritisation, suddenly became ubiquitous in the mainstream press. Doctors, hospitals, and ethics committees worldwide had to confront the question of whose life to save as they faced the prospect of running out of ventilators. Should they treat the first through the door? the most vulnerable? or those with the best prospects of recovery? Should medical staff be granted preferential treatment? What about saving the young or pregnant women? As typical in humanitarian disasters, needs quickly exceeded supplies and an economy of provision began to determine selection practices. The dilemma of triage is at the heart of our theory of moral economy as well. Humanitarians must make three crucial choices: which causes to support with their fundraising appeals, what way to best allocate relief on the ground, and how to account for their actions.

Our book examines how transnational relief was provided during three great famines: the Irish Famine in the 1840s, the Russian Famine of 1921–2, and the famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s. We draw on a wide range of sources, some of which have never been analysed before. The reaction to these catastrophes exemplifies how humanitarianism has developed over time. We suggest a new periodisation that, unlike earlier attempts, emphasises the predominant economic and cultural contexts. In Ireland we identify ad hoc humanitarianism with the elitist laissez-faire liberalism of the nineteenth century. For Russia we find the organised humanitarianism between 1900 and 1970 bearing similarities to Taylorism and the mass society of the time. The expressive humanitarianism that typified aid to Ethiopia we see as a blend of the individualised post-material lifestyles and neo-liberal public management that has shaped the past half-century. In our approach, the principal question regarding humanitarian efforts is shifted from the conventional geopolitical ‘what?’ to a moral economic ‘how?’, thus moving the focus from directives of crisis management imposed by the outside world to realistic choices made by aid organisations on the ground.

The case studies presented are characterised by asymmetric social relationships, as are humanitarian efforts generally: donors, the superiors, are clearly delineated from beneficiaries, who are the inferiors. The benefactor–beneficiary relationship, with its need for status acknowledgment, and the conditions often attached to ‘gifts’, was already remarked upon in the nineteenth century, and it has persisted ever since. Thus, suspicions regarding the ‘true’ intentions of aid providers are as present in our case studies as are misgivings concerning diversion of funds and the negative effects of aid. Integrity and creativity on the part of recipients, and trust and control on that of donors, have always been crucial for establishing a positive working partnership, even though relations have often remained strained.

Despite its universalistic rhetoric, ad hoc humanitarianism continued to be dominated by the moral bonds of special relations, such as imperial hierarchies, kinship bonds, and religious affiliations. Organised humanitarianism, moving beyond the confines of such ties, tended to serve a broader clientele, seeking to establish an effective altruism based on accessibility, business principles, and economies of scale. Expressive humanitarianism maintained many features of the earlier periods, but placed increased emphasis on donors, celebrity fundraising, and voluntary organisations as agents who promoted humanitarianism as part of a lifestyle or brand. Paradoxically, while the overall tendency towards greater universality widened the circle of beneficiaries, it made the same beneficiaries matter less, and limited their agency in the moral economy of aid.

Humanitarianism in the Modern World by Norbert Götz, Georgina Brewis and Steffen Werther

About The Authors

Norbert Götz

Norbert Götz is a Professor at the Institute of Contemporary History, Södertörn University, Sweden. He is the author of Deliberative Diplomacy (2011) and Ungleiche Geschwister (...

View profile >

Georgina Brewis

Georgina Brewis is Associate Professor at University College London. Her previous publications include A Social History of Student Volunteering (2014), English Teachers in a Postwa...

View profile >

Steffen Werther

Steffen Werther is Associate Professor at the Institute of Contemporary History at Södertörn University. His publications include SS-Vision und Grenzland-Realität (2012)....

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!