The second problem that underpins debates around humanitarianism is a lack of common understanding about the ultimate operating principles and the legitimacy of humanitarian organizations.As shown by multi-country empirical data (Donini ., 2008), there is agreement over the existence of a common core of universal humanitarian values, but their interpretation varies between communities.Practically, this leads to the observation that ‘there is no situation where humanitarian action is totally principled and allowed to operate as such’ (Donini This contributes to a number of problematic situations, for example: misperceptions, concerns over the ‘humanitarian space’, controversies about specific humanitarian actions, challenges about resources allocation and moral suffering among humanitarian workers.
It has been a source of relief for innumerable people, and an essential expression of cosmopolitan solidarity.
At the same time, it is a versatile concept, including Northern/Western expressions of mainstream humanitarianism, which encompass an ideology, a profession and a movement (Donini, 2010).
Humanitarianism has been criticized on all these accounts (Pfeifer, 2004; Barnett and Weiss, 2008).
Critics and analysts include scholars from various disciplines, such as political sciences, sociology and anthropology.
Their reservations relate to the three broad categories of arguments: humanitarian actions themselves, political linkages (De Waal, 1997) and media representations (Hours, 1998a; Boltanski, 2000).
The first problem compounding these debates is the difficulty to set up boundaries to the sprawling constellation of occasional initiatives, structured enterprises or established organizations that make up the humanitarian movement.
Expanding from a typology proposed by Stoddard (2003), Donini (2010) maps humanitarian organizations of Western origin between four broad categories of allegiances: the Dunantist tradition of the Red Cross movement, the Wilsonian tradition of pragmatic alignment with foreign policies, faith-based organizations and the ‘solidarist’ communities typically gathering around the banner of human rights.
Importantly, these categories overlap to a great extent, and they do not necessarily include less visible but equally important forms of humanitarian action, such as local community initiatives, informal religious charities or remittances from disporas.
For medical humanitarian organizations, making their sources of legitimacy explicit is a useful exercise, in response to: misperceptions, concerns over the ‘humanitarian space’, controversies about specific humanitarian actions, challenges about resources allocation and moral suffering among humanitarian workers.
This is also a difficult exercise, where normative criteria such as international law or humanitarian principles are often misrepresented as primary sources of legitimacy.
This essay first argues for a morally principled definition of humanitarian medicine, based on the selfless intention of individual humanitarian actors.