Sacred Aid: Faith and Humanitarianism

By Michael Barnett; Janice Gross Stein | Go to book overview

8
Faith in the Machine?
HUMANITARIANISM IN AN
AGE OF BUREAUCRATIZATION

Michael Barnett

FOR MOST OF its history, emergency relief was staffed by individuals either immune or opposed to planning, centralization, and coordination. Reflecting the stereotype that aid workers come in three types—missionaries, misfits, and mercenaries—humanitarians seemingly savored a lifestyle that relied more on instinct than on institutions. Following the nineteenth-century spirit of charity and social work, humanitarianism enshrined the principle of volunteerism, which could be a euphemism for amateurism. Embodying a humanitarian ethic that was more about the imperative to act than the utility of operating according to guidelines that integrate past experiences, it seemed as if each relief operation had equal parts enthusiasm and historical amnesia. Acting as if they were young children in a playground who could do little more than parallel-play, the accounts by aid workers of the period are remarkably free of any signs of human life except for their immediate colleagues, the victims, and those who are responsible for turning people into victims.

Those days are long gone, as the humanitarian sector has bureaucratized, rationalized, and professionalized with an unpredictable passion over the last two decades. Emergency workers might come in the same three types, but they have developed the capacity to attend coordination meetings, produce spreadsheets, create budgets, manage accounts, and graduate from training programs. Volunteerism still exists, but in name only. Although those who join aid organizations still see themselves as choosing an alternative career path, it is a career path, with mundane concerns for salary, benefits, promotion, and the like. Increasingly, those who want to break into the aid sector must have specialized training, receive certification in one of the growing number of master’s programs, and accumulate credentials that certify their

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