Magazine article Stanford Social Innovation Review

The Charity of Nations: Humanitarian Action in a Calculating World

Magazine article Stanford Social Innovation Review

The Charity of Nations: Humanitarian Action in a Calculating World

Article excerpt

THE CHARITY OF NATIONS: HUMANITARIAN ACTION IN A CALCULATING WORLD Ian Smillie and Larry Minear Paperback: 276 pages, Kumanan Press (2004), 24.95

Ian Smillie and Larry Minear apply decades of professional expertise and research experience to their new book, a thoughtful probe into the difficulties humanitarian organizations face in relieving suffering throughout the world. The authors do not restrain their critique, observing that humanitarianism has become commercialized, entrepreneurial, and opportunistic - not redeeming qualities for a field with the explicit purpose of saving lives and mitigating human crises. The authors' frustration with the failures of humanitarian action is palpable on every page, and they find plenty of agencies and organizations to blame.

The book begins with the simple yet powerful observation that humanitarianism is linked to charity, an option rather than an obvious moral imperative. Nations choose to donate funds for humanitarian action, but the funds are neither guaranteed nor consistent. While humanitarian organizations bear part of the blame for inadequate responses to humanitarian crises, the title of the book and much of the analysis emphasizes the role of nations in these failures. While the perspective of the book tends to present humanitarian organizations as pawns in a much larger game, Smillie and Minear conclude that "the political economy of humanitarianism is based to a great extent on the needs and demands of those with the resources - donor governments - and to a decreasing extent on the professional assessments and capacities of front-line delivery agencies."

Government priorities do not always align with those of humanitarian agencies, creating "forgotten emergencies" and problematic responses to human suffering. Moreover, the inconsistency of funding and the whimsical interests of donor nations also create conflicts and competition between humanitarian organizations. …

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