Humanitarian Motives: Money or Morality?

Henry Dunant is the father of humanitarianism as we know it today, and his ideas served as inspiration for the creation of the International Committee of the Red Cross.  After witnessing the terrible consequences of war during the Battle of Solferino in the mid-nineteenth century, he became convinced that the nations of the world should come together to form relief organizations to care for wounded war victims.  He was certain that something had to be done, and he didn’t really care who did it or why.   “Any motive would do because action was what mattered, in the here and now, for just this person, no questions asked.”  (Hopgood 101).  Dunant was convinced that the “why” did not matter in humanitarianism, only that something was being done.  I challenge this idea.

Wal-Mart as a humanitarian seems like a ridiculous idea at first glance.  However, many large corporations these days have begun partnering with humanitarian organizations.  They do this to amass moral capital, which will ultimately increase their profit margins.  If consumers view companies as morally involved in the world, they feel better about spending their money there.  These companies provide millions of dollars to humanitarian entities for aid work, so does this make them humanitarians?  Stephen Hopgood asks, “In any given situation, if Wal-Mart can do more for less, should it be resisted because it is Wal-Mart or welcomed because it has come to help?” (Hopgood 121).  These actions can still be good and do good, but they should not be considered humanitarian, as their motives are not purely to help others.

What happens when a corporation partners with a humanitarian organization?  Yes, they receive money, but this money often comes with strings attached.  It results in “major donors wanting to target funds more directly on issues of interest to them and to have more control over how recipients spend the money.” (Hopgood 105).  This interferes with the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence.  By providing a certain amount of money, large corporations can basically choose who in the world lives and who dies.  The choice they make is based on what will get the most and best publicity, not who really needs it the most.  More publicity equals a better image for Wal-Mart, which in turn will bring in more customers.  “The dying have a price, their suffering now worth something to Wal-Mart.” (Hopgood 103).

Do large corporations help from the heart or simply from their pockets?  And what is this doing to the humanitarian aid industry?

Do large corporations help from the heart or simply from their pockets? And what is this doing to the humanitarian aid industry?

The money these corporations give humanitarian organizations provides supplies that save lives.  However, is humanitarianism simply a service delivery, or is it something more?  I believe that in order to truly help someone through hardship, relationships must be built, and each person must know that the other cares for them.  Paying attention to the real person receiving the aid, instead of viewing them as a mouth to feed, is crucial.  “Aid that simply provides calories for the stomach and water for the throat is a reduction of people to things…” (Vaux, Hopgood 113).  Aid workers must care for the person, not simply the provision of aid goods.  Hopgood says that aid “must be done properly for one hundred people rather than slightly less than properly for 150.” (Hopgood 121).  This can only be done through paying attention to individuals’ needs- not handing them a milk carton and calling it a day.  Providing survival needs such as food, water, and shelter is a good thing to do, and corporations should not be ashamed of this.  However, this is not humanitarian, as they are not primarily concerned with people.

Oxfam has a six-point strategy through which they aim to fight poverty.  One side of Oxfam’s strategy to end poverty is to fight gender injustice.  This is more than sending money- this is working together with people on the ground to affect real change.  By simply providing lots of money, corporations cannot provide these kind of person-to-person relationships, and therefore cannot be as effective of humanitarians.

Relationship building is the foundation of humanitarian aid

Relationship building is the foundation of humanitarian aid

What is the point of humanitarian aid?  Is it simply to provide those in need with supplies necessary for survival?  Stephen Hopgood argues, “It seems that humanitarianism is about solidarity with suffering, rather than a simple meeting of needs.” (Hopgood 113).  If this is what the essence of humanitarianism is, can Wal-Mart or other multi-national corporations become humanitarians?  No.  I don’t think that treating people in need like they are mouths to feed, as well as using their suffering as a platform from which to better your own image, is humanitarian.  Money from corporations can help meet needs, but it does not make that corporation a humanitarian.

However, I do understand the dilemma that humanitarian organizations face: turn down money that could do good to stand on principle, or take the money and use it to help people in need.  If we begin letting companies whose focus is profit, not aid, into the humanitarian sector, I believe the aid system will eventually unravel.  Being backed by a corporate entity will turn aid organizations’ motives from humanitarian to economic.  “When an organization’s survival depends on making strategic choices in a market environment characterized by uncertainty, its interests will be shaped, often unintentionally, by material incentives.” (Cooley and Ron, Hopgood 105).

Humanitarians must be motivated by a desire to help those in need.  “There is, in other words, something about ‘humanitarianism’ that requires a certain kind of motivation… It means acting in some sense because of the suffering.” (Hopgood 102).  I don’t believe that Wal-Mart or any other corporation’s involvement in the humanitarian sector can be considered humanitarian.  They are driven by money, not mission.  Making the choice to refuse large sums of money from corporations is difficult, and many will be outraged.  However, I believe that this is the only way to ensure that people in need receive the help and care they deserve.  Humanitarian endeavors must be inspired by humanitarian motives.


Works Cited


Blackwell, David. “Big Corporate Discovers the Humanitarian Crisis in Somalia.” Flickr. Flickr, 27 Aug. 2011. Web. 25 June 2013. <>.

“Celebrating Older Aid Workers on World Humanitarian Day.” HelpAge International. HelpAge International, 19 Aug. 2010. Web. 25 June 2013. <>.

“Henry Dunant – Biographical”. Nobel Media AB 2013. Web. 25 Jun 2013. <>

Hopgood, Stephen.  “Saying ‘No’ to Wal-Mart?  Money and Morality in Professional Humanitarianism.”  Humanitarianism in Question: Politics, Power, Ethics.  Ed. Michael N. Barnett and Thomas George Weiss.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008.  98-123.  Print.

“How We Fight Poverty.” Oxfam International. Oxfam International, n.d. Web. 25 June 2013. <>.


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