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Between humanitarian tourism and moral compromises

Humanitarian Action and Ethics
Forfatter: Ayesha Ahmad og James Smith (red.)
Forlag: Zed (Storbritannia)
New and insightful anthology discusses disaster relief's many dilemmas.


It's been exactly ten years since Michael Barnett and Thomas Weiss released Humanitarianism in Question: Politics, Power, Ethics. Here, several of the world's leading disaster academics got to discuss theoretical issues that could arise during humanitarian relief efforts. The book was acclaimed in the academic world, but criticized for its lack of experience-based knowledge. Ayesha Ahmad and James Smith, the editors of the brand new anthology Humanitarian Action and Ethics, fine it. In the book's 17 chapters, which all discuss ethical and moral dilemmas of working during humanitarian disasters, 22 practitioners and 13 academics come to the fore. Most people write about their own experiences from work in specific crises. Syria, Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo are devoted to their own chapters. The increasing migration from the Middle East and Africa to Europe is the main theme in several of the chapters. However, most of the authors quote their examples from various humanitarian disasters around the world where they have served themselves as doctors, psychiatrists, nurses or something else. So most of the contributors work in the health sector. Perhaps not so unnatural, since the editors are attached to MSF. But still; During humanitarian disasters, more than health professionals are contributing, and I miss the approaches of other practitioners, logistics engineers, engineers, accountants. This could have made the book even more interesting. 


Decisions made during a humanitarian catastrophe will always be compromised, because there are never enough resources to make the best choice. It is a matter of making the decision that is "least bad" ("least-worst option", page 133). What does a doctor who does not get the medication she needs do? Buy them on the black market. What do health professionals do who constantly experience that the clinic they run is bombed by the people of the regime because they treat opponents of the regime? Divides the clinic into smaller units and operates less visible from private houses – which leads to the regime perceiving them as even more dangerous. What do you do when the hospital where you work is full? Do you reject patients, or do you work in conditions that you know are dangerous to health? If you work at a hospital set up to take care of refugees, what do you do when someone in the local community becomes terminally ill? Here, most of Ny Tid's readers will probably answer: treat them too. But the book problematizes both financing problems and reporting problems associated with helping others than those for whom a given project has been created. Also: What when the refugees arrive and the medicine is used up, or the delivery room is full? The assessments become even more difficult if they are internally displaced persons (IDPs) and not refugees, as in the story from southern Chad (pages 191–192), then all citizens are in the same country.

Different actors

Other difficult discussions are about who is dealing with the humanitarian disasters. International humanitarian actors on the one hand, local humanitarian actors on the other. In recent years, a third category has been added: "the good helpers". These are amateurs who feel they just mustn't contribute something when they hear about the disaster. It feels wrong to be passive. In this category we find many Norwegians who traveled to a Greek island with organizations like the Drop in the Sea.

First Aid vs. aid

The internationally employed specialists work for soaring salaries; in 1999, I was even involved in hiring a nutritionist for a refugee camp in Guinea. She demanded 80 000, – in monthly salary in addition to covering all expenses (20 years ago!). Local employees usually earn only five to ten percent of what international employees earn for doing similar jobs in the same locations. Maëlle Noé discusses what this does with the climate of cooperation between the external and the locals working together in the humanitarian disasters.

Decisions made during a humanitarian disaster will always be compromised.

While emergency care is primarily intended to save lives, assistance will, among other things, help to create equality (sustainability measure number 5), decent work (sustainability measure number 8) and less inequality (sustainability measure number 10). When wage differentials are so extreme, relief efforts will undermine aid work. Jane Freedman problematizes both the motivation and utility of the volunteer international humanitarian amateurs. She calls them "voluntary tourists" (page 94) who engage in "selfie humanitarianism" (page 99). Based on her own research in "The Jungle", the nickname of the large refugee camp in Calais, France, she says that many of the young people who volunteered there came primarily as adventurers. Although they wanted to be useful, they would also like to experience something new. Many of them were disappointed by the migrants' dissatisfaction with food and housing standards; they had counted on thanksgiving from the refugees and received frustration and anger. Other amateurs brought so much fresh food for distribution that they had to throw lots of food into the camp. Moreover, Freedman argues, all the voluntary, free efforts reveal that migration requires political solutions, not just (experimental) personal empathy.

It is impossible to give all authors the honor they deserve for their contributions. The editors have done a great job of gathering texts from a number of practitioners in the field of emergency aid and have spread with some academic analysis. This is a book that both deserves to be under the Christmas tree for employees of relief organizations and to appear on the syllabuses of students in human rights and social security.

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Ketil Fred Hansen
Hansen is a professor of social sciences at UiS and a regular reviewer at Ny Tid.

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