Aid worker Foley takes a critical look at the changing role of humanitarianism.
Based on his online articles for The Guardian online edition, this text charges that political humanitarianism has become a multibillion-dollar industry that significantly influences foreign-policy decisions in Europe and the United States. “Political humanitarianism” is Foley’s term for the blend of the politically activist human-rights movement and traditionally neutral humanitarian organizations providing relief assistance during conflicts and natural disasters. Since the 1990s, he asserts, political humanitarianism has increasingly pushed for military intervention on the grounds that the international community has a right, even a duty, to protect people. He cites interventions in the Balkans, East Timor, Haiti and Africa as raising questions about the conflicting claims of human rights, national sovereignty and international law. There is no basis in international law, he writes, for invading a country in order to democratize it; the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq cannot be classified as humanitarian. Drawing on his experiences in numerous areas of conflict, he concludes that humanitarian goods and services are too often employed to further political and military objectives. On assignment in Kosovo, he witnessed the international administration’s failures there. More recently in Afghanistan, he observed aid being poured not into areas with the most need, but into those where it was most likely to weaken the power of warlords and buy the local population’s allegiance. He points out that the integration of humanitarian assistance and military intervention poses serious challenges to aid workers and has inevitably led to a steady increase in the number of attacks on them. Foley calls for a return to the traditional principles of humanitarian aid work—independence, impartiality and neutrality—as well as a more pragmatic approach to the issue of intervention and recognition of the limitations of humanitarian aid’s ability to address the problem of inequalities of wealth and power.
Filled with tough criticism of Western governments’ interventionist foreign policies and challenging questions for supporters of humanitarian aid.