July 10, 2020

The HUMANitarian Impulse: Why People ‘Help’

By Dr. Jamie Sedgwick


According to the Union of International Associations, the number of International Non-governmental organizations (INGOs) and Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) skyrocketed from 955 in 1951 to 66,298 in 2013. An ever-expanding cohort of professional humanitarian workers has accompanied this institutional growth. More people are trying to ‘help’ than ever before. Why?

Critics deride international service as a hopeless pursuit of naïve dreamers or smug bureaucrats. Defenders of global governance mythologize its participants as selfless visionaries. Such reductive lenses miss the grit and intimacy behind global community, especially humanitarianism, which James Orbinski (both a scholar and humanitarian practitioner) calls an “imperfect offering.” The complex reasons why people chose to help others remains undervalued and under-studied.

The human in humanitarianism is often overlooked and undervalued. At its core, the humanitarian impulseis deeply personal. Emotions matter. Sensibilities matters. Lived experiences matter. Social networks matter. Contingencies matter. The ‘offering’ may be ‘imperfect’, but it is important, especially since the vast majority of people inside and outside of conflict zones do not help. For every humanitarian worker, there are countless others who choose different, less loaded, and certainly less dangerous occupations.

Some people help because of a sense of guilt; because they did not or could not help before. This is rarely the only driver of activism, but it can be a trigger. Raphael Lemkin, for example, wrestled professionally with legal ideas of barbarity for decades. However, his personal obsession and tireless advocacy to prevent, punish, and define ‘genocide’ did not globalise until the onset of the Holocaust, which eventually wiped out almost his entire extended family. He owed the debt of survival to his family, to other victims, and to future targets of atrocity

Opportunity also fuels a humanitarian impulse. For some, international service is an afforded luxury.From billionaire philanthropists to graduates from elite educational institutions, affluence allows the privilege of concentrating on the suffering of others. More interestingly, perhaps, humanitarianism also manifests as a last resort; a desperate measure. For instance, poorer countries bear a disproportionate burden for UN Peacekeeping missions. In fact, since 2000, India has been the only G20 member in the top 10 contributors to UN force deployments. The bulk of forces come from countries in West Africa and South Asia. Of course, not all personnel come from destitute circumstances. However, inside struggling economies international work offers a way out of privation and a chance to socio-economic advancement. More immediately, humanitarian crises create their own economies of care on the ground. Material need and raw survival – rather than idealism – draws many local intermediaries to international agencies for work as translators, guides, experts, guards, administrators, and the like. Though rarely acknowledged as such, this is humanitarian work too.

The twenty-first century has been heralded as an “Age of Human Rights”, but humanitarianism is hardly a new phenomenon. The impulse to go ‘abroad’ and help ‘afflicted’ peoples has driven people for centuries, though not always with positive or welcome outcomes. Every era provides a different set of social conditions and historical contingencies to impel a generation of aspiring humanitarians. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for instance, internationalism and global service represented both an altruistic choice and a professional opportunity, especially for young ambitious women. Path breaking physicians such as Mary Hannah Fulton in China, Mary Rebecca Stewart Bird in Iran, and Jenny Muller in India – to name but a few – found their calling in medical humanitarianism. These women and others like them developed emotional connections to their work and felt drawn to the people they helped. However, their humanitarian impulse also evolved as a response to difficulties attaining job placements and medical accreditation at home.

Though inherently personal, the humanitarian impulse strengthens when shared and experienced. Social networksof family, friends, and mentors pass the idea of healing along (and around). Lived experiences, in turn, transform these ideas into passions. Witness the group of aspiring internationalists and healers produced in the 1910s by Acadia University, a small liberal arts college in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada. In their graduating year (1916), two best friends – Eva Bessie Lockhart and Esther Clark (Wright) – imagined a world in suffering and shared dreams of making a difference. Clark (Wright) planned to help build a westernised educational system for women in China, until personal circumstances ultimately kept her in Canada. Lockhart became a lifelong teacher and missionary in India. Their peer group included Lillian Chase (Class of 1916) who trained to be a medical missionary before helping F. G. Banting and C. H. Best discover insulin, Dr. Perry Eaton (Class of 1913) a medical missionary in India, and John Black Grant (Class of 1912) who became a global pioneer of public medicine.

Humanitarianism can also be an intergeneration legacy. John Black Grant’s accomplishments came under the auspices of the Rockefeller Foundation in China. His emotional commitment to care had roots even deeper than time spent at Acadia. Black Grant grew up the child of James Skiffington Grant, a medical missionary in the crumbling state of late imperial China. Black Grant’s son, in turn,maintained the family tradition working first in with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in postwar China, and subsequently with the United States Agency for International Development (UNAID). James P. Grant’s career culminated with a 15 year term as executive director of UNICEF. Family wasn’t the lone driver of the Grants’ international service, but it played a role in shaping his humanitarian activities. Inherited activism is similarly apparent when children and grandchildren of genocide survivors feel drawn to human rights work (like Stephanie Nyombayire) or the study of atrocity (like Peter Balakian).

Humanitarian work is more than the ‘right’ thing to do. It is an emotional impulse with complicate roots. For those who do it, international service forms a strongly felt drive without an alternative: Right or wrong, whatever the motivations, they have to help.

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