The 1990’s will be remembered as the decade when regional wars were transformed, in the popular Western consciousness and to no small extent in the language of international relations, into ‘humanitarian’ emergencies. Laden with human suffering as they are, the adjective nonetheless refers to no intrinsic quality of contemporary, ‘post-modern’ conflicts[1]. It reflects rather a quality ascribed to such conflicts by key, mainly Western state actors within the international system : a collective discourse which is intended to engender – at the same time as to mask – an extension of the international paradigm of security beyond Westphalian premises. Viewed from the perspective of classical humanitarianism, in fact, ‘post-modern’ conflicts might as easily, and no less accurately, be termed post-humanitarian.

The legitimacy of the new humanitarianism has been questioned by scholars and practitioners alike – but so has the continued relevance of the old. Conceptual progress in defining a ‘post-modern’ humanitarianism which might match the reality of ‘post-modern’ conflicts has been painfully slow. Still, some literature is optimistic : one author has boldly claimed that “humanitarian values are becoming a catalyst for international relations scholarship about interdependence in the 1990’s” (Weiss & Chopra 1995: 89).

While this citation may convey an over-optimistic view of the state of contemporary international relations (IR) scholarship, it does not misrepresent a shift in the conduct of IR under conditions of regional war, and in the way that international legitimacy is conceptualised in the minds of external players – or at least marketed to public opinion. Jan Nederveen Pieterse sums it up: “Humanitarian action confronts us with the dilemmas of international relations in the age of globalization. The difficulties are not merely those of policy but of paradigms” (1998: 1).

The new humanitarianism coexists with traditional humanitarianism and relations between them are not infrequently conflictual. The International Committee of the Red Cross is the most jealous guardian of orthodoxy: its mandate is derived from the 1948 Geneva Conventions, and the Committee seeks a clear separation between ‘humanitarian’ and ‘political’ action. Other humanitarian agencies may operate differently, but the ICRC’s approach remains extremely influential – reflecting, no doubt, a deep unease on the part of many with the ‘new humanitarianism’, and particularly its real or perceived operational implications. At the same time, none can or would entirely disavow the very evident limitations of the ‘humanitarian’ approach to many recent crises, limitations which are due not only to inattention on the part of the international community to other measures of crisis management, but also to basic flaws in the operational humanitarian paradigm itself under post-modern conflict conditions[2]. Most humanitarian agencies today acknowledge that humanitarian aid is rarely non-political and neutral; there have been calls for a ‘new ethic’, and to ‘humanitarianise’ foreign policy[3].

It is evident that, like it or not, a new humanitarianism is on the march in the international arena. In the next sections we seek to map its contours and assess its prospects and legitimacy. Following on from this, the role of non-governmental actors within this emergent paradigm will be re-examined.

Contours of the new humanitarianism

Sober reflection suggests that Western state interests are of primary importance in accounting for the contemporary humanitarian landscape. State involvement goes well beyond managing systemic incentives to respect the regime, an area which has long been understood to depend on state resolve (Forsythe 1997: 47). Donor (and not beneficiary) states are the main ‘customers’ buying humanitarian services and have driven an enormous and well-documented expansion in the sector[4]. Andrew Natsios is accordingly right to claim that “the international humanitarian agenda cannot be sustained outside of the politics and foreign policy of the great powers” (1997: 32).

The nature and significance of state involvement in humanitarian action has been insufficiently recognised and inadequately explored (Natsios 1997: xxi). IR scholars in the realist tradition have either been blind to this phenomenon or content to offer dismissive accounts of it. NGOs, have also tended to absorb realist presuppositions and had difficulties in coming to terms with their funding, and by extension policy, dependence on state actors in relief contexts. Rather than enhancing autonomy, NGO deontology may have done more to limit influence on state policy (cf. Natsios 1997: 69-75).

State policy makers themselves have, repeatedly, improvised reactions to crises and groped towards more appropriate policies, palpably constrained by traditional approaches and available tools. Elements of state policy finding their origins in identical circumstances and pursuing complementary or identical objectives have been conducted in lamentable isolation from each other – most notably between military and relief operations, with consequences which have ranged between decidedly sub-optimal in Bosnia, to entirely catastrophic in Somalia.

The least one can say, therefore, is that the ‘new humanitarianism’ is anything but a finished product or an homogeneous entity – or immune from controversy. Nonetheless, its sources are much deeper than a mere recuperation of humanitarian legitimacy for states’ own Machiavellian purposes; “interventions and their claim to humanitarian aims are not simply realpolitik by another name” (Nederveen Pieterse 1998: 1). They spring as much from civil society initiatives, from public opinion, and from the very nature of post-modern conflict.

One of the many ironies associated with contemporary humanitarianism is that, despite the extent to which private actors have laid claim to it, the legal clothing of humanitarianism has always been determined by states, arose historically through traditional diplomatic methods, and has always been Westphalian in form; indeed it has not infrequently been criticised as such (Bettati 1995). At the same time, the regime has always implied, in John Ruggie’s term, an ‘unbundling of territoriality’ and thus embodied the ‘paradox of absolute individuation’ inherent in the notion of state sovereignty (1998:189ff). Historically, ius in bello is no more, and no less, than the set of norms applicable to foreign citizens, be they soldiers or civilians, under conditions of war – conditions which by definition call into question absolute territoriality. Accordingly, the rules governing the conduct of war, just as those regulating diplomatic missions, are properly to be seen as intrinsic to the very emergence of the modern state system[5]. The claim of states upon those rules, and their generative function within international society, could scarcely have a more authentic pedigree.

The humanitarian regime has always incarnated a system of values, or, as constructivist IR scholars would put it, a ‘social epistemology’. Originally regulated through bilateral arrangements based on reciprocity, ius in bello took on, in the 20th century, multilateral forms, while remaining, for the most part, bilateral in substance: it sought to establish a general framework for the resolution of bilateral issues in warfare[6]. Parallel to these formal developments, the ‘humanitarian movement’ has sought truly to multilateralise the regime by asserting moral obligations on citizens of third states, and moral, but also legal, obligations on those states themselves, to defend the application of the law in conflicts to which they are not a party – effectively, to extend the notion of joint and several responsibility for collective security embodied in the UN charter to the humanitarian regime. The aspiration seems legitimate as well as plausible – somewhat more so than many other aspirations in the international arena – and recent developments suggest it is gaining ground[7].

The value base of the humanitarian regime is encapsulated in the principle of ‘humanity’, meaning a desire to “prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found” (Ramsbotham & Woodhouse 1996: 14), and as such has always had universalist pretensions[8]. Similarly, the humanitarian movement has always known deontological and teleological variants, and even within the Red Cross movement itself, many scholars have never held its deontology to be more than instrumental and particular. Indeed, it may be precisely within that tradition that state responsibility within the overall humanitarian nexus has been most carefully and consistently emphasised. If the quarrel has been one exclusively of terminology, however, it has been nonetheless heated.

It is needless to dispute that the desire in numerous quarters to recuperate and reinterpret the notion of humanitarianism has been both opportunistic and principled. More significantly, though, it has been an obvious and inevitable response to the humanitarian problems posed by post-modern conflict, and at least had the merit of attempting to take real-world needs, rather than deontological precepts, as its starting point. In addition to the barbarity described in the literature, post-modern conflict has also been characterised by a significantly enhanced space for action by a variety of external players. Inevitably, it has not gone unnoticed that more might be done, and needs to be done, for the victims of conflict than simply providing relief. On the basis of an unchanged impulsion to alleviate suffering, actors involved in conflict response – both state and private – have articulated agendas and taken on tasks which go far beyond the classical humanitarian regime, giving rise to new forms and concepts of humanitarianism.

The ‘new humanitarianism’ may accordingly be characterised as a conceptual space permitting deontological, but not teleological, rupture with classical humanitarian thought. This definition emphasises the moral and teleological origins of contemporary humanitarianism, its heterogeneity and incipient character as well as evident potential for bifurcation, as well as its broad character allowing it to encompass, but not be limited to, traditional forms of action.

It is correct to point out that the more general acceptation is not new: article 1 of the UN Charter speaks of “international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural or humanitarian character” (emphasis added) and the UN has always and does increasingly attempt to address humanitarian needs through political means (Howard 1993; Roberts 1996). Often, however, this kind of involvement has been couched in the comparatively more dispassionate ‘security’ language which the Charter imposes. Clumsily, but because we will need the distinction, let us term the wider concept underlying the new humanitarianism ‘pan-humanitarianism’, and the more narrow one (admittedly somewhat abusively) ‘relief’.

That what traditional humanitarians have always seen to be a moral compulsion has come to be increasingly shared outside the narrow confines of non-governmental action can scarcely be lamented (Slim 1998). Non-governmental actors have hesitated, however, as to whether to engage themselves within this wider definition. True, the humanitarian community has played an important role in stimulating debate on related issues, but it has done so as an adjunct to relief, and almost as a palliative to its self-evident limitations, rather than as part of an integrated concern with human security. As a result, much effort has been expended in peripheral debates such as landmines, ‘early warning’, small arms, ‘developmental’ relief, and the international criminal court, which, while mostly legitimate in themselves, may have served to postpone consideration of core, higher-order issues where of necessity a degree of prior conceptualisation is required. In other words, although non-governmental actors are often driven by concerns for the global welfare of populations afflicted by war, their perceptions in practice seem to have remained shackled to the deontological precepts of relief, and this is where the debate has accordingly languished: with “the core problems … not even on the agenda” (Nederveen Pieterse 1998: 20).

NGOs are of course not solely to blame for this state of affairs. Andrew Natsios has written of his surprise at “how widely off the mark some of the analytical writing has been on complex emergencies”, noting how much has been written solely from the (traditional) humanitarian perspective and hence lacks – or is extremely naïve concerning – the broader picture (1997: xx).

Where broader issues of conflict response have been addressed, their moral continuity with humanitarianism has often been unclear and not infrequently denied, resulting in considerable dispersion of the moral energy necessary to propel pertinent action. Mary Kaldor, for example, makes a number of pertinent suggestions as to how to address post-modern conflicts, and is fully aware of the need to reconceptualize the issues: nonetheless, she believes that her “new strategy of reconstruction” should “supplant the current dominant approaches of structural adjustment or humanitarianism” (1999: 11, italics added). While she is certainly right to distance herself from the use by states of humanitarianism as a means to distance themselves from intellectually, politically and (possibly) financially more demanding modes of response (cf. i.a. Duffield 1998a), rather than supplanting the humanitarian approach, such prescriptions as she makes ought to become an instrinsic part of that approach. The point of the ‘new humanitarianism’ is obviously not to expand relief indefinitely, but precisely to acknowledge that ‘complex emergencies’ need ‘complex response’.

Where authors – often those looking at issues of military intervention – acknowledge the humanitarian character of actions other than relief, they generally adopt an apologetic tone or discursive formulations. Alan James, for example, feels obliged to point out that “in a very real sense” peacekeeping has “an inherent humanitarian quality” (1997: 53) – a formulation scarcely likely to engender coherent policy.

It is self-evident that teleology has its limits – ends do not always justify means – and it is no concern of this paper to defend recent praxis per se. However, the new humanitarianism is not only an established fact which will be difficult to displace: it also appears to engage in an agenda which logically flows from the concerns of all major actors within the ‘humanitarian movement’ and might therefore expect to reckon on their not uncritical support. It is less than clear that this has been the case. Apart from conceptual inertia and operational prudence, reluctance to embrace the new pan-humanitarianism on the part of NGOs has been fed by three factors: doubts as to the legitimacy and real motives of state actors and the consequent viability of the new paradigm; doubts as to the substance of the paradigm and its impact on other agendas; and corporate interests, however subliminal, in a sustained complicity with state actors in relief. We examine each in turn.

Humanitarianism and state action: squaring the circle?

Doubts regarding the real commitment of states to the humanitarian cause are not only heuristic or paranoid (depending on one’s perspective) – probably more importantly, they also derive from the ontological legacy of realist IR theory. Scholars within this tradition – and many beyond it – are, to put it mildly, uncomfortable with the idea that states and international organisations might develop a genuine interest in a value goal such as humanitarianism which might act in such a way as to modify the conduct of IR and trump other ‘harder’ interests (Morgenthau 1984). Such diffidence is reinforced by the deconstruction of the state undertaken by the French post-structuralists, which has been similarly influential in NGO circles, most notably but not only in France itself (Campbell 1998). The realist worldview has comforted NGO non-engagement in higher-order battles assumed to be lost in advance, while post-structuralism has encouraged the maintenance of ritual distance from state-level debates and excessive claims to an inevitably particularistic legitimacy[9].

As far as realism is concerned, happily, one is not today inevitably branded as naïve and unscientific if one questions its ontology. Constructivist scholars such as John Ruggie have amply proven the point that ‘collective intentionality’ can alter the interest factors which realists assume to be constant (1998: 25). Under conditions of ‘complex interdependence’, power can be exercised to promote human interests (Keohane & Nye 1977; Crawford 1991). Post-structuralism, also, by empowering the ‘resistance’ of civil society implies there is something it can do to alter mankind’s collective destiny, even if its language, when wielded by non-specialists, appears excessively confrontational.

Admitting that change in general can take place is, of course, a simpler matter than demonstrating that this particular shift is underway and may be viable. Beyond paying lipservice, is there a chance that states come effectively to prioritise pan-humanitarian considerations in the formulation and conduct of their foreign policy? If so, how: and what other contingent factors might play a role? Does pan-humanitarianism stand a fair chance of being, or is it already, a dimension of change in IR?

Adler and Crawford analyse such issues in their anthology Progress in Post-War International Relations (1991). Although they do not look at humanitarianism as such, the approach is applicable in defining progress as "changes in the policies and relations of states that reduce … violence, misery, or human rights violations" (p. 9). Inevitably, some will object that the fate of vulnerable people in far-off countries is far removed both from politicians’ concerns and from any credible statement of state interests, which in turn are held to drive the IR system. In fact, official statements of foreign policy interests of Western states increasingly do incorporate this type of concern. Certain states – Canada and Norway come to mind – even make human security into a particular foreign policy priority. Even if a certain scepticism may be in order, it is difficult to view such statements as nothing more than value-laden but valueless declarations.

Even if humanitarianism is a ‘value’, rather than an ‘interest’, of Western states, this is not a cogent objection. State interests may incorporate and in some ways are necessarily based on values, and it is not difficult to view the pursuit of values in IR as having a domestic payoff for political elites, even under non-democratic systems and within the bureaucracy. In fact, under conditions of ‘complex interdependence’, whereby first-order survival and second-order welfare needs are met for Western states, the pursuit of welfare goals at the expense of values may come to have negative marginal utility both internationally and domestically (Keohane & Nye 1977; Adler, Crawford & Donnelly 1991).

Aside from values and their political utility, Andrew Natsios has listed other reasons for states ‘rationally’ to support humanitarian action; it may, he says, “bring geostrategic advantage” further down the line when states start recovering – the Marshall Plan is doubtless a case in point. The convergence of values within the international system may, he argues, of itself further peace. Humanitarian action is also important for the US image abroad, and thus an investment in a national ‘corporate asset’ (1997: 21-23). “Even Pat Buchanan … endorses disaster relief” (p. 31).

Would the public support a greater engagement of states in resolving humanitarian issues in third countries? Obviously, no blank cheque is on offer. Nonetheless, in Ruggie’s view, history teaches that the US public would better support “a transformative strategy of utilizing American power to move regional balances toward regimes of cooperative security relations” than “a case-by-case material interests-based approach” (1998: 201). For K.W. Thompson, “ethics in foreign policy is an accomplishment” as far as the average American is concerned, “not a baffling and heart-breaking problem” (1984: 2). For V.C. Ferkiss, however, there is rarely “any adequate discussion of the moral aspects of [US] foreign aid” – or indeed foreign policy generally (1984: 202); yet still, no argument has more moral cogency than the humanitarian one (p. 225). For Andrew Natsios, too, the US public has a natural interest in disaster relief – which may not always spill over into support for other forms of aid (1996). Within the EU, support for humanitarian assistance is also high, suggesting humanitarianism is a good basis for building public support for what needs to be done in post-modern conflict contexts.

It might be argued that some public support would evaporate if it became clearer that what humanitarianism was understood to involve in practice could go a long way beyond providing public funds for the distribution of relief goods through volunteer agencies and the UN. However, it is equally possible to argue that greater coherence might contribute to dissipating cynicism that all that is in offer is, in most cases, an ineffective palliative. Hugely expensive military resources are already routinely enlisted on humanitarian grounds. It is both possible and imperative at least to try to improve global humanitarian response.

Accordingly, pursuit by states of humanitarian values and their generalisation within the international system are not ruled out ex-ante. Even on entirely pessimistic anthropological premises, “we have at least the mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term selfish interests” (Dawkins 1976: 215). Pan-humanitarianism similarly meets Adler and Crawford’s core prediction of minimalism, in the sense that it can be seen as a limiting and irreducible subset of the more general pursuit of international human rights (Darcy 1997; Bettati 1995) and an incremental evolution within both the theory and praxis of IR. Additionally, the spread of pan-humanitarian values per se is relatively unimpeded by suspicions of cultural bias or hegemonic ambition. They are, in fact, very much in line with principles on which the international system is already based and ambitions which it has long held, at least in an embryonic form. In short, it is not over-optimistic to conceive of normative convergence around pan-humanitarian values within the international system, even on quite ‘realistic’ premises.

Humanitarianism and other agendas

While the evidence suggests that a process of mainstreaming humanitarianism within IR is indeed underway, no observer would be so bold as to suggest that progress was anything other than very scrappy. The international system has largely been built up on first- and second-order paradigms, and the cacophony of interests which characterises it has resulted in extreme fragmentation of capacities and instruments. There is little sign that pan-humanitarianism has as yet exercised any federalising influence, even at the verbal level. More ambitious agendas – in areas such as human rights and development – are certainly powerful competitors within the play of international politics, while not necessarily excluded from cohabitation in principle.

It is undeniable that the relationship between these agendas is complex, and generates genuine ethical and theoretical difficulties. Reluctance to weaken other agendas, though they may be less achievable, is certainly at the root of much diffidence vis-à-vis humanitarianism, though it may offer more opportunities for incremental progress within the international system.

There is a lively debate between those, such as Richard Falk, who see in the new humanitarianism “a move in the direction of a more humane governance”, and others who would characterise humanitarian action as either “planetary kitsch” or a smokescreen devised to divert from the real play of power politics; a mere tinkering with “a systemic crisis which the present world order is fundamentally unable to address” (see Nederveen Pieterse 1998: 15-20); and symptomatic of Western “patronising, not to say patriarchal, ways of thinking about the poor” (Middleton 1998: 155). While Mark Duffield is a defender of traditional humanitarian action, he sees within the new paradigm “a fundamental danger … [namely] that it is adapted to manage the symptoms of global polarisation and exclusion … [and acts as] a necessary ingredient of political containment” (Duffield 1998a: 156)

Nederveen Pieterse, in our view rightly, sees the answer as indeterminate, but retains the new agenda as plausible: its outcome hinges on “the scope for international reformism and the possibilities for global reform”. He notes that “even if humanitarian aims are mere fig-leaves at present, they still set new standards in international politics which will have consequences over time” (1998: 15-20). To achieve its goals, humanitarian action needs “options which transcend conventional politics, such as new forms of state, democratisation, and qualified sovereignty” (p.232). Adam Roberts concurs, recalling that recovery from war “requires changes in institutions, even sometimes in the structure of states” (1993).

Patently, modes of humanitarian ‘intervention’ require careful consideration – especially the military variety which is often a dominant connotation of the term. “The experience so far of what has come to be known as humanitarian intervention has been frustrating, to say the least,” says Kaldor (1999: 113). Clearly, “the humanitarian character of ‘humanitarian intervention’ should not be taken at face value” (Nederveen Pieterse 1998: 3). “In all the recent cases involving humanitarian intervention, the repeated emphasis on the word ‘humanitarian’ has been a natural corollary of the complete absence of a serious long-term policy in respect of the target country” (Roberts 1993). Yet even if “a realistic assessment of humanitarian intervention is that it is humanitarian cosmetics for the New World Order … it would be facile to conclude that [it] should be rejected and terminated … The central problem … is political analysis” (Nederveen Pieterse 1998: 258f.). “If we eventually move towards global governance, no doubt humanitarian intervention will be part of this movement. As such, [it] is a harbinger of a new global politics, which is all the more reason to consider it scrupulously” (op. cit., p. 1).

To end this section, a word of caution is certainly in order. “Man’s powers of self-deception are seemingly endless,” observes Thompson, and not only the contingencies of circumstances determine the morality of intervention, but also the principles it creates or destroys (1984: 2). Wheeler strikes a similar note: humanitarian intervention “poses the conflict between order and justice in international relations in its starkest form” (1992: 463). A viable ethic of humanitarianism is not one that simply pursues the needs of the present situation regardless of the systemic costs over the longer term. Yet what is most intolerable – as well as most damaging – is intervention, of whatever kind, based merely on deontologically moral impulses. Within a teleological frame of reference, the duty of analysis is conveniently unavoidable.

Challenging the status quo

It is beyond the scope of this paper to articulate the implications of a pan-humanitarian agenda for international organisations and national foreign policies, but some examples may nonetheless be in order.

Evidently, there are implications for both the UN and regional organisations concerning the composition and conduct of military and police missions in third countries. Here, pan-humanitarianism may leverage what have been difficult developments to date. The UN humanitarian response system itself has also languished in ad hoc arrangements and inter-agency rivalries, while “all the organisations are seriously overcommitted in coping with the demands being placed on them” (Natsios 1996: 79): here there is an urgent need for a far more thorough reform than Secretary-General Annan instituted in 1997 (Weiss 1997). The same can be said of the system more generally, which was constructed “without architect or engineer”, as Andrew Natsios rightly observes (1997: xxi). Conflict prevention and resolution issues, approached from this angle, may become more amenable; an institutional capacity with a little more teeth ought to be considered. Lastly, one might act more effectively against what Neil Middleton has rightly called the “chronic humanitarian disaster” of poverty (1998: 4), and start attacking some of the proximate causes, at least, of conflict.

None of these will come about, however, on the basis of good wishes alone – there is a need for profound reflection to establish a road map and determined advocacy to bring it into being. At present, IR theory and praxis is locked into other paradigms, while the humanitarian movement is doing little or nothing to address such systemic issues. Peripheral progress is accordingly at the expense of fundamental inertia. The difficulty of the challenge facing those wishing to reorient humanitarianism might be dissuasive, were the status quo an option. But it clearly is not.

The question which remains to be answered is: from where will change come? In many ways we are here at the heart of the problem. If states are happy to use humanitarian action as a sideshow for other policies, and NGOs content to do no more than challenge at the periphery, it is implausible that rapid change is on its way[1]. The state side of the equation has often been criticised (Middleton 1998: 145), but it may be the dependent variable. Corporate interests in the NGO relief sector, and the corporate culture of at least the “successful” NGOs, in the competitive ‘aid marketplace’, lie in a sustained complicity with states, notwithstanding rhetoric to the contrary. NGOs which wish to provide assistance are also project- and people-oriented, and rarely feel ownership of a strategic concept making it possible to determine whether that assistance is socially optimal, or simply vaguely helpful (or, possibly, not helpful at all).

NGOs are amply concerned about their ‘independence’ from states, but not always, it seems, for the right reasons (Hulme & Edwards 1997; Duffield 1998a). They have, in fact, dreamt up implausible scenarios of ‘accountability’ and pursued detailed ‘performance standards’ – both in response, it would seem, to external criticisms (Edwards & Hulme 1995). This approach has been roundly and convincingly criticised by David Campbell in a recent article, where he shows that the political character of humanitarianism is irreducible: “a reliance on codes and frameworks as guides for action prevents the development of a politics of responsibility” (1998: 501).

As Hulme & Edwards note, many NGOs “were born and raised in opposition to government policy and vested interests” – a situation which no longer pertains (1997: 280). But the point is not to be in comfortable opposition to government policy, which may be a relatively easy option suiting both parties, but to encourage that policy to evolve – a duty incumbent on all citizens in a democratic polity and surely in particular on organised groupings with a humanitarian calling. A useful starting point might be to drop the convenient and omnipresent terminology of ‘donors’ and see the states behind them; they are there in any case. Duffield is cynical – perhaps exaggeratedly, but his words bear repeating:

“In terms of their numbers and the people whom they now employ, NGOs have been winners. The growing requirement for international welfare [i.e. humanitarian] assistance should itself be a powerful argument in support of a global new deal. Somehow, however, in the search for technical fixes, this argument has been lost. A first step would be for NGOs, if they are still able, to place the greater good before income and position within the humanitarian marketplace. To coin a phrase, however, this may be one more market that cannot be bucked” (1998a: 157)

Scholars who have looked at mechanisms determining foreign policy formation as well as the behavior of international organisations have not, however, been pessimistic as to the role of private actors, including value interest groups such as NGOs, within that process.

As far as the UN is concerned, to the extent that it is an architect of its own destiny, its openness to NGO influences is not in doubt (Roberts & Kingsbury 1993: 2; Gordenker & Weiss 1996a)[10]. Former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has written that NGOs “are now considered full participants in international life” and that “the mobilisation of states and public opinion by NGOs is an essential element in international activities to promote peace” (foreword to Weiss & Gordenker 1996). Gordenker and Weiss claim that “NGOs are omnipresent in the policy and administrative process of UN organisations” (1996: 43). In an important article, Felice Gaer charts the role of NGOs in lobbying for the establishment of UN human rights machinery, and subsequently in the development and implementation of that machinery (1996) – a role that appears to have had no parallel in the humanitarian field.

Pressure group influence is also seen by many as the dominant mode of policy formation on Capitol Hill, whether directly or via the public debate (Bowles 1998; Richardson 1996), The EU as a decentralised polity has been likened to the US in regard to its permeability to organised group interests, including NGOs, an outcome in line with the theoretical stance of Peterson (1992: 385)[11]. While acknowledging this potential, Natsios has written of US NGOs, however, that they are not very well prepared for an advocacy role: “American NGOs take positions on foreign policy with little research or scholarship to undergird their views”, which makes them “less able to guide public policy than their wide base of public support would suggest” (1997: 57-60). Other scholars concur: “much of the current analysis carried out by aid agencies is uncritical and self-serving” – and in particular fails to focus on strategic organisational and political issues (Duffield 1998c: 102). “The staff and constituencies of NGOs have generally believed that human and financial resources devoted to policy analysis and evaluation were irrelevant and even wasteful. They have preferred action to reflection” (Gordenker & Weiss 1996b: 221).

Dimensions of NGO action are substantially enhanced by transnational developments, as numerous recent scholars have observed (Rosenau & Czempiel 1992; Peterson 1992). For Andrew Natsios, NGOs are “the only private organisations with a mass popular bases that affect public opinion in the US on a broad spectrum of foreign policy issues concerning the developing world”; particularly if transnational NGO associations work together, he argues, they can be a powerful force (1997: 62; 66-69). For Peterson, “states and societal actors share a transnational public space” and are mutually dependent. Already, he sees proof that transnational civil society has “created patterns of relations that [have] constrained states and national societies” (1992: 386f.). Lipschutz concurs: there is “a political space for non-state actors to create alliances and linkages across borders and around the globe that, in the longer term, may … create visible changes in world politics” (1992: 419).

There a problems with NGO transnationality, however. Even within a single “family”, such as MSF or Save the Children, there can be difficulties in getting different branches to adopt similar policies and stances (Gordenker & Weiss 1996a: 27f.). Umbrellas such as the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR), Voluntary Organisations in Cooperation in Emergencies (VOICE) or InterAction are scarcely policy powerhouses and have little authority to act as advocates for member organisations’ interests – though InterAction in the US has gone further than the rest. Yet the community is far less disparate than it may appear at first sight: if Gordenker & Weiss are right, “eight to ten large conglomerates of international NGOs account for what may be 80% of the financial value of assistance [channeled through NGOs, presumably] in complex emergencies” (1996b: 218).

It seems, therefore, that NGOs need to pay serious attention to strengthening transnational mechanisms as well as enhancing the quality of political analysis to which they have access, if they are to have the kind of impact to which they should aspire.


This essay has had as its principal objective to challenge concerned sections of civil society into a more consistent advocacy for humanitarian values within international relations, rather than being content to confine such notions to the conduct of relief, where they cannot, in any case, be confined. While this would not be new, it is argued that new emphases could be developed and that more effective strategies may indeed be available, on condition of being better thought through. To do so, humanitarian actors and committed academics need to forge a new alliance which harnesses the moral energy of the humanitarian cause. It is “the rubric of ‘humanitarianism’,” notes Campbell, which provides “the moral economy … of enacting responsibility in the context of crisis” (1998: 498). He quotes Derrida:

“However insufficient, confused, or equivocal … we should salute what is heralded today in the reflection on the right of interference or intervention in the name of what is obscurely and sometimes hypocritically called the humanitarian… even as one remains vigilantly on guard against the manipulation or appropriations to which these novelties can be subjected” (Campbell 1998: 518, italics original)

The conditions to make progress are at least plausibly in place. As Robert Keohane has written:

“We think about world politics not because it is aesthetically beautiful, because we believe that it is governed by simple, knowable laws, or because it provides rich, easily accessible data for testing of empirical hypotheses. Were these concerns paramount, we would look elsewhere. We study world politics because we think it will determine the fate of the earth. Realism makes us aware of the odds against us. What we need to do now is to understand peaceful change by combining multi-dimensional scholarly analysis with more visionary ways of seeing the future” (Keohane 1983: 533)

This is not an enterprise which civil society either can, or should, ignore. More than appropriately, we can offer the final word to Michel Foucault:

“We must reject the division of tasks which is all too often offered … It is true that good governments like the hallowed indignation of the governed, provided it remains lyrical. I believe that we must realize how often, though, it is the rulers who speak, who can only and want only to speak. Experience shows that we can and must reject the theatrical role of pure and simple indignation … Amnesty International, Terre des Hommes, Médecins du Monde are initiatives which have created a new right: the right of private individuals to intervene in the order of politics and international strategies.” (quoted in Campbell 1998: 515f.)

The author is an official at the European Commission. He is grateful to Heloïse Gornall-Thode for research assistance in the preparation of this paper. Views expressed herein are the author’s own.


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[1] We focus here – I hope not unfairly – on the broader NGO community as a proxy for civil society: For the purposes of this argument, UN agencies can be considered as dependent state agents, unlikely to generate reform autonomously, whereas the Red Cross has a specific mandate and operational niche to defend, and the arguments contained here do not necessarily apply to it. It is clear, though, that civil society is more than NGOs. The role of the media might also be underlined, and the role of academia is similarly, sooner or later, fundamental.


[1] For the term ‘post-modern conflicts’ and a description of their characteristics, see Duffield 1998b. Kaldor 1999 prefers the title ‘new wars’ but describes the same phenomenon. The term ‘post-Clausewitzian’ has also been suggested.

[2] See inter alia Hancock 1992; African Rights 1994; Macrae and Zwi 1994; Duffield 1996; Prendergast 1996; Roberts 1996; Bryer 1996; Anderson 1996; Maren 1997; Pomfret 1997; Cairns 1997; De Waal 1997; Heininger 1997 and Kaldor 1999

[3] See for example Slim 1998 andRelief & Rehabilitation Network Newsletter n° 12, Nov. 1998, ODI London, pp. 28-29

[4] See for example Duffield 1998a: 154f.; Natsios 1997: 1f.; Gordenker & Weiss 1996a

[5] Apart from Ruggie, loc.cit., see also Kaldor 1999: 13-20.

[6] With the exception of the formulation of the notion of “crimes against humanity” and the setting-up of the Nuremburg tribunals.

[7] The legal argument on third states rests on a dubious interpretation of article 1 common of the four Geneva Conventions of 1948, according to which High Contracting Parties are not only to respect but also “ensure respect” for the Conventions.

[8] For an alternative formulation of the ethical basis of humanitarianism, see Campbell 1998: 506. For the purposes of the present paper, while sympathising with Campbell’s broader critique, the choice between these conceptualisations is not critical.

[9] It is not my intention to imply that this is based on a correct exegesis of the French post-structuralists.

[10] Gordenker and Weiss acknowledge, however, that “far too little useful statistical information or even basic descriptive information exists about the phenomenon of NGOs that are active in the milieu surrounding the United Nations system” (1996b: 221).

[11] Its foreign policy powers and mechanisms are of course quite unlike those of the US, however.


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