Does humanitarian elitism jeopardize its noble objectives?

By: Clarissa Brack Burdeu
Senior Coordinator, Global Governance Centre, the Graduate Institute

Humanitarian action succeeds in ‘an ecosystem where we work together to help others’ as Prof. Michael Barnett noted in the introduction of his presentation on the ‘The Humanitarian Club’. However, what if the ‘together’ means nothing more than a small group of international actors with their own membership rules, language, and behavioral codes that determine global humanitarian intervention policy and practice?

What would the existence of a so-called ‘Humanitarian Club’ imply for the legitimacy of humanitarian action? Is the shift towards localization the answer to a crisis in humanitarian governance, as the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul strongly advised?

On 15 March 2018, Prof. Barnett explored those questions during the Global Governance Centre’s Colloquium Series. Prof. Nico Krisch, co-director of the Centre moderated the discussions with a special guest discussant Mr. Ewen Macleod, Head of the policy development and evaluation service at the UNHCR.

While exploring definitions on elitism, clubs and ethics of care, Prof. Barnett shared his views on the existence of a so-called ‘Humanitarian Club’ and its Western-based donors scheme.

In a time where it is not clear where humanitarian governance is heading, I believe that there are other ways of providing concrete support and constructive partnerships involving local, public, private and international actors.” – Prof. Michael Barnett 

The subsequent discussions reflected on the ability of existing local or regional policies to face humanitarian challenges, in particular in cases involving threats from other ‘clubs’ such as Non-State Armed Groups (NSAG), and how to better empower local actors to address their needs. While humanitarian intervention today might not represent an inclusive and globally legitimate ideal, the ultimate question remains whether it actually improves people’s lives.

Global Governance Colloquium Series

The Global Governance Colloquium series aims to build a denser research community by providing scholars of governance issues a platform to present and discuss works in progress across disciplinary boundaries. The colloquia take place biweekly on Mondays over lunchtime.

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