On Humanitarianism

Is Helping Others Charity, or Duty, or Both?

Humanitarianism is probably the most important "ism" in the world today, given the collapse of communism, the discrediting of neoliberalism, and the general distrust of large-scale political ideologies. Its activists often claim to escape or transcend partisan politics. We think of humanitarian aid, for example, first of all as a form of philanthropy -- a response to an earthquake in Haiti or a tsunami in Asia, which is obviously a good thing, an effort to relieve human suffering and save lives, an act of international benevolence. But there is a puzzle here, for helping people in desperate need is something that we ought to do; it would be wrong not to do it -- in which case it is more like justice than benevolence. Words such as "charity" and "philanthropy" describe a voluntary act, a matter of kindness rather than duty. But international humanitarianism seems more like duty than kindness, or maybe it is a combination: two in one, a gift that we have to give.

Individuals send contributions to charitable organizations when there is a humanitarian crisis, and then these organizations rush trained aid workers into the zone of danger and desperate need. But governments also send help, spending tax money that is coercively collected rather than freely given. Are individual citizens free not to give? Are governments free not to act? Does it matter whether the money is a gift or a tax?

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