What is the ‘humanitarian imperative’?

Posted on: March 21, 2018 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: General posts on the humanitarian aid industry

[Updated 7-6-18]

The humanitarian imperative
As part of my spring semester course on the humanitarian aid and development sector I have asked my students to do no less than arrive at an understanding of what the ‘humanitarian imperative’ is, based on our many readings, class discussions, and their own research.

Here’s their current assignment:

Warning:  Difficulty level  = high
For this post I ask you to define, discuss, and critique the ‘humanitarian imperative’, making a special effort to do so through the lens of race, class, gender, and other sources of privilege and marginalization.

Some questions to consider might include

  • To what extent is the ‘humanitarian imperative’ solely a Western concept?
  • How is our natural human empathy-and the impulse to act on same- expressed in various contexts and cultures?
  • How is our empathy connected with the concept of the humanitarian imperative?
  • Historically, to what degree is the articulation by the aid sector of the humanitarian imperative inherently biased by race, class, gender, and other sources of privilege and marginalization?
  • At the present, to what degree is the articulation by the aid sector of the humanitarian imperative inherently biased by race, class, gender, and other sources of privilege and marginalization?
  • As evidenced in their mission statement and/or by their actions, how is the ‘humanitarian imperative’ articulated in the various INGOs that we have covered so far in class?

So, only fair that the professor have an answer as well, yes?

My preliminary thoughts

A first point: we care about those around us

That empathy is an inborn human quality seems affirmed by a great deal of research, and only those who argue for a radical and unfounded ‘blank slate‘ understanding of human nature would disagree.  Ethologists have long encountered and documented behaviors that are best interpreted as deep empathy among many species, and ours is no exception.

As a central part of our humanity, we smile when those around us laugh and feel sadness when those around us weep (not to mention yawn when those around us yawn!).

Mirror neurons, though only discovered in this century, were long anticipated by sociologists like GH Mead who argued we all learn to be human by ‘taking the role of the other’, by Max Weber’s verstehen approach, and GH Cooley who gave us the ‘looking-glass self’ concept. Directed by our mirror neurons, we literally feel what those around us feel.  Sympathetic understanding is not a vacuous phrase but rather an empirical fact.  We have, as Marc Hauser argues, ‘moral minds.’

It will surprise perhaps few that there are countless articulations of this caring in virtually every major religion and philosophical thought system around the world.  We are compelled to ‘do unto others as we would have them do unto us.’  Though most in the West know this as the Gold Rule, this sentiment is definitely not exclusive to the three major Abrahamic religions of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.  Indeed, philosopher Stephen Anderson points out,

“That many people from a variety of situations seem intuitively to have discovered the values articulated by the Golden Rule would seem to imply that the Rule is not the exclusive possession of one culture or of a group of cultures, but taps into a universal moral recognition.”

In many major world religions the ethos of serving and ‘giving back’ to one’s community is woven into the very fabric of the faith.  Indeed, zakat is one of the five major pillars of Islam. Perhaps on an international/political level the Responsibility to Protect doctrine is an organizational manifestation of the “Golden Rule’ sentiment.

Back in 1859 Henri Dunant, co-founder of the Red Cross movement, felt moved to respond to the wounded at Solferino, but he was neither the first nor certainly not the last compelled to action by the suffering of others.  I submit that his was a universal and natural reaction, and can be found in humans throughout history and all over the globe. To some extent, though, he was an exception because he was not only moved -we all are- he was moved to act.  Not all of us take that next step, turning caring into action.

So my first point is that, in the broadest sense, the ‘humanitarian imperative’ is part of all our humanity, it us not just an Western concept and is articulated in many ways across the globe.  Just recently a young female humanitarian wrote a short note that voices this sentiment very well and illustrates that frequently our empathetic impulses encompass others beyond our immediate lives.

“Inequality. I look at my daughter sleeping on my lap and the only difference between her and the Syrian child being carried in a suitcase, is luck. We are not fleeing war, we have food to put on the table, we are healthy, and we only have minor worries. We don’t face starvation in Yemen, we don’t have to cross the Mediterranean on a boat. My heart breaks for the families who, for no fault of their own, have to see their children suffer. I feel guilty for being so privileged. I wish I could do something.” 


A second point: racism, sexism, and classism are woven into the very fabric of all our institutions, all our modern cultures
As sociologist Georg Simmel taught us long ago, we live in a world created by generations that came long before ours. Virtually all aspects of both our material and non-material culture –locally, nationally, and globally- are in various stages of reification and ossification, and take the form of structures that dominate our world and our minds.  The most important and impactful structures were created as articulations of that long, complex, and ever unfolding dance between biology and culture.  As E.O. Wilson famously put it, “We exist in a volatile and dangerous combination of Stone Age emotions, medieval beliefs, and god-like technology.”

Our forms of government, education, religion, our media, and, perhaps most importantly, our economic systems evolved and developed in the long-ago past, a central core set firm by time and capable of, generally speaking, only surface changes in structure. That these institutions were formed largely based on the interests and visions of those in power (“The ruling ideas of any age are ever the ideas of the ruling class,” noted Marx) seems a solid assertion, and this helps us understand a basic and critical point. Could it be that racism, sexism, and classism are woven into the very fabric of all our institutions, all our modern cultures?  [Note, a colleague pointed out to me that I should add ‘heterosexist’ as well to the list above.  I agree, and that topic indeed is another important addition to the conversation.]

I will argue yes.

Long ago social differentiation gave way, perhaps inexorably so, to social stratification. Gender differentiation has universally morphed into into the structural sickness of gender stratification. The concept of race so prominently in play as a justification for the rape of Africa, the Americas, and much of Southeast Asia during the period of active colonization by the European powers remains dominant, a classic example of when those in power define something to be true it becomes ‘true’, a reality that impacts us all but most dramatically and tragically the lives of the victims of racism. [Note: to the extent that our world is diminished by racism, we are all victims.  As Desmond Tutu pointed out long ago, “freedom is indivisible”.]

The humanitarian imperative
The hydra that those striving to enact the humanitarian imperative must confront has many heads: sexism, classism, racism, neoliberalism, and soft and hard colonialism among them. And each head has many faces, some of which are seductive, but all of which serve to diminish our collective dignity.

The fact that racism, sexism, and classism are woven into the very fabric of all our institutions and cultures can be seen in what sociologists call ‘institutional racism/sexism/classism’.  Examples are easy to identify, as least for me here in the United States. A quick and very incomplete list would include whitewashing in movies and the media in general, a criminal justice system that fills prisons with people of color and the poor and lets corporate criminals literally get away with murder and theft,  an educational system with systemically biased testing mechanisms, a government still unwilling to remove Confederate statues in public areas, and an economic system that even now, in 2018, pays and promotes women and people of color lower than their white, male counterparts.

Race, gender, and class bias are everywhere, permeating every aspect of our culture and impacting every aspect of our lives, quite obviously much more so for all those marginalized.  William Easterly describes how racism was baked into the aid and development sector in his chapter ‘Race, War, and the fate of Africa’ in The Tyranny of Experts.

These deeply seated inequalities must be addressed or at the very least acknowledged by humanitarians as the sector moves forward. Said one aid worker,

“I think humanitarian aid work operates within a system that is built on inequality – we won’t see large scale change happen in the lives of people, in terms of long term development, until we start to challenge the structures and systems that result in this inequity in the first place. And the heart of those institutions is within North America and Europe – until we recognize how dependent we are on the oppression and marginalization of others for our own betterment and benefit (i.e. access to cheap disposable goods, foreign foods and fresh imports, temporary foreign workers to fill low-income job vacancies, etc…), humanitarian aid work is just another cog in this bullshit machinery.” 

Is dismantling the ‘whac-a-mole’ game possible?
Work in the aid sector can sometimes feel like the amusement park game ‘whac-a-mole’.  As soon as you tamp down one problem another immediately pops up, an endless series of temporary ‘victories’ and new problems. The only real solution is to dismantle the game, and to address holistically the sources of inequality and marginalization.  Smash the patriarchy/racist structures/bourgeoisie indeed.

All lofty goals, perhaps, but the reality is that needs must be met now in the many crises around the globe, and most humanitarian energy is being expended toward real people in real need in the moment.  We are indeed caught in the trap of being forced to only ‘put out the fire closest to us’, complicit in allowing the hydra mentioned above unlimited access to matches and petrol.

In the end -both individually and collectively- we respond to the humanitarian imperative, acting on our empathy and chosing not to look away, and all within institutional systems created by those long dead.

From here?
I’ll end on a positive note.  Public scholar Steven Pinker asks us to see the long view and to recognize that we humans are getting less violent and more civil as the centuries pass.  In 2011 he published On Better Angels of Our Nature and just this spring offers an update in Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.  His arguments are based on painstakingly thorough research taking into account data from a wide variety of sources. Pinker affirms the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. who said,  “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  I recently started to learn about the NGO Namati which focuses on legal empowerment.  Their name is an homage to ML King, Jr’s statement; ‘namati’ in Sanskrit means to shape something into a curve.  Their efforts at addressing whac-a-mole through legal means have borne substantive fruit in many nations.

Can the reified and ossified structures that created and support inequality and marginalization in all its forms be eroded and turned more humane?  Can there be freedom from ‘othering’?  Can science and reason rise above echo-chamber rancor? Pinker has evidence that argues yes, and I agree.

But, like my female friend notes above, it is still damned frustrating to live in a world where gross inequalities exist and pathways to dignity are cut off to so many.

Please contact me with comments or questions.  If one of your questions is, “why didn’t you answer all the questions you asked your students?” all I can say is that I’m still working on it….

Note: the  ‘hydra’ imagery has been used by many writers, none more poetically, powerfully, or politically than Subcomandante Galeano.  I owe much to SupGaleano for his writings about neoliberalism.





Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022. A revised second edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishers

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