Writing the ‘other’ into humanitarian discourse: framing theory and practice in South-South responses to forced displacement

from UN High Commissioner for Refugees
Published on 25 Jul 2013 View Original


Although Southern-led development initiatives have enjoyed increasing attention by academics in recent years (e.g. Bobiash 1992; Woods 2008; Six 2009; Mawdsley 2012), there remains a relative paucity of research on South-South humanitarian responses. In part, this limited engagement with Southern humanitarianism is based on the widespread assumption by many academics and practitioners that ‘Although the idea of saving lives and relieving suffering is hardly a Western or Christian creation, modern humanitarianism’s origins are located in Western history and Christian thought’ (Barnett and Weiss 2008:7, emphasis added; also see Fassin 2011:1). Indeed, throughout the 2000s, numerous studies have examined the history, evolution and nature of humanitarianism, typically tracing the birth and origins of humanitarianism to the Enlightenment period, and more specifically to the activities and goals of Western religious groups in the early 19th century (i.e. Barnett and Weiss 2011; Wilson and Brown 2011; Barnett and Stein 2012).

While repeatedly asserting humanitarianism’s Western origins, Barnett has nonetheless admitted that despite entitling his book Empire of Humanity: a History of Humanitarianism, the reader should note that ‘Western bias is ahead. This is not a book on the history of all forms of humanitarianism around the world’ (Barnett 2011:15, emphasis added). On the one hand, therefore, many academics recognize the existence of a multitude of humanitarianisms, including ‘humanitarianisms of Europe, of Africa, of the global, and of the local’ (Kennedy 2004: xv). On the other hand, humanitarian action not borne of the Northern-dominated and highly institutionalized international regime has remained largely neglected in academia. In particular, studies of South-South humanitarian responses in contexts of forced displacement are almost entirely absent from the literature; it is this gap in theoretical and conceptual engagement with ‘other’ humanitarianism which is critically addressed in this paper.