Thirty years ago, few people could have identified a humanitarian aid organization other than the International Committee of the Red Cross. Today, humanitarian organizations like the International Rescue Committee, Save the Children, and the Paris-based Doctors Without Borders have become household names to millions of people in Western Europe and a growing number in the United States.
In Europe, humanitarianism, as Francois Jean, a leading official at Doctors Without Borders, has remarked, "occupies a central place." The contemporary form of humanitarianism, although the brainchild of left-wing French intellectuals of the May 1968 generation, has become so mainstream that France has a junior minister for humanitarian affairs. Things have proceeded more slowly in the United States, where humanitarian organizations have tended to rely on their ties to the State Department and the Agency for International Development (aid) more than their ability to mobilize the general public.
Nonetheless, even if most Americans are not ready to accept that there is a "right" to humanitarian intervention in extreme cases, as Doctors Without Borders claims, aid organizations have captured the public imagination. Here are people engaged in an activity that is wholly admirable, and that one need not view skeptically. Even in the last Congress, where the pressure to cut the foreign aid budget and the State Department's allocations for consular offices was fanatical, appropriations for the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance sailed through with bipartisan support. As a bitter State Department official in Rwanda recently told me, "There is money for weapons, and money for starving refugees, and that's about it."
Small wonder, then, that over the past two decades the established aid agencies have grown enormously, and new agencies, some no bigger than a half-dozen people -- there are no licensing requirements -- have proliferated. In 1982, 144 humanitarian aid agencies were registered with aid; 12 years later, the number had grown to 419. As the British journalist and observer of disaster relief operations Lindsey Hilsum wrote in 1995, "the emergency aid business" grew from "a small element in
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