Humanitarianism in Question: Politics, Power, Ethics

In This Review

Humanitarianism in Question: Politics, Power, Ethics

Edited by Michael Barnett and Thomas G. Weiss
Cornell University Press, 2008
320 pp. $55.00
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This is a superb survey of the rise and challenges of international humanitarian assistance. The book chronicles the remarkable post-Cold War emergence of a global system of humanitarian relief -- a system complete with doctrines, organizations, and extensive field operations. But it is also a system under stress, working increasingly with little guidance or support in war-torn societies such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, and Rwanda. The authors in this collection step back from these developments to ask first-order questions about the purposes and principles of humanitarianism. As the editors stress, although the humanitarian-assistance community has grown, it is also increasingly divided over basic questions about how to work with or apart from the politics and power struggles that envelope crisis societies. Most of the chapters explore these tensions and the various ways that humanitarian organizations have attempted to manage them. Humanitarian groups originally saw themselves as "above politics," but as Janice Gross Stein and other authors argue, today's aid workers have given up this fiction and now embrace at least implicit political agendas. An insightful chapter by Barnett and Jack Snyder identifies the various "grand strategies" of humanitarian intervention and explores their fit and effectiveness in different trouble spots. All in all, this book will long be an essential guide to the theory and politics of global humanitarianism.