– An Exploration –

The proposition

What actually drives humanitarian action – unrecognised mutual self-interest or sympathetic compassion? In light of the power dynamics that govern the formal humanitarian sector, humanitarian threats and responses increasingly need to be sensitive to ever more complex systems and interactions that go well beyond the sector. Yet, even though the sector appears more sensitive to the evolving dynamics of geo-political and socio-economic change, and even as a plethora of ‘new’ actors continues to emerge, the humanitarian sector continues to hold fast to Western presumptions of its authority and the universality of its principles – key tenets of the belief in the nobility of its charitable enterprise.

In turn these are underpinned by references to motives such as compassion, pity, the needy and the provider, the developed/resilient North and the inadequate/vulnerable South. Is it time to revisit these assumptions? Do they reflect the emerging world order, and perhaps even more importantly, do they reflect a far more nuanced and sensitive approach to understanding the real drivers of human interaction? Is a new paradigm required — one that reflects humanitarian action based upon mutual self-interest and beneficial exchange? And, one that the present sector needs to learn, understand and appreciate?

Four key themes

In attempting to understand the forces which drive humanitarian action, there is a plethora of explanations – some re-enforcing, others diametrically opposed. Many have to do with propositions about institutional survival, which all too frequently results in disruptive competition even in the midst of crises. Others have to do with issues such as the disregard of humanitarian principles, because humanitarians are seen to be used as ‘fig leaves to veil government action and inaction in the face of war crimes and genocide.’’[1]

And, of course, others regard humanitarian efforts to assist victims of disasters and emergencies as reflections of contending social forces where the well-intentioned confront the institutional disregard and disinterest of non-humanitarian actors.

The exploration which underpins the Mutual Self-Interest versus Compassion discourse, however, is not intended to venture directly into these sorts of debates. Rather its purpose is to explore whether there is an overarching zeitgeist  that explains and characterises more accurately and usefully the system’s responses to humanitarian crises. This is not to ignore the cruelties that sustain and exacerbate, for example, the plight of refugees and internally displaced persons. Nor, for that matter is it to ignore the fact that the sources of disasters and emergencies are generally speaking reflections of the ways that human beings live their ‘normal lives’, the ways that they structure their societies and determine and prioritise their resources. Nor, finally, is it to ignore the very positive and human foundations of compassion.

Rather this initial Mutual Self-Interest versus Compassion discussion focuses on four broad themes:

  1. To what extent does the concept of compassion – and related terms such as empathy, sympathy, care, concern, kindness, pity – reflect a unique, independent and overarching characteristic of human beings? To what extent does it ‘work’ as a unique and overarching definition of humanitarian motivation?

    One prevailing assumption underpinning the predominant humanitarian paradigm is that there is an inherent human motivation that explains why human beings respond to the plight of other human beings, namely, an overarching moral sense of responsibility, benevolence and empathy that is universal and exceptional. This abiding motivation in turn justifies what are regarded as universal humanitarian principles; and reinforces a powerful hierarchy between giver/saviour and recipient/beggar. Morality as motivation and universal principles, however, ignore the relationship between crises and the ways that they test and reinforce basic values – religious, spiritual, philosophical. There are profound differences in the ways that societies explain and interpret their respective worlds.[2] Furthermore, this dynamic ignores real world motivations such as the interests of the individual, organisations  or donor.

  2. Is there a dichotomy between mutual iself-interest and compassion, and if not, are the two intertwined? Do they reflect a complex and dynamic hierarchy of values, where one does not necessarily preclude the other?

    According to one well known observer of human behaviour, ‘The myth of human identity, that vision of common human needs and common human pain that binds viewer and sufferer together, is itself fraught with ambiguity. White viewers who mail cheques on behalf of black victims at the other side of the globe may combine their generosity with very different behaviour towards blacks nearer home.’[3] This perspective suggests the complexity that may link compassion with perceived biases and self-interests. The issue is that while a human-being combines both compassion and self-interest, their position on a hierarchy of values should be fluid rather than presumed, not necessarily predictable and determined by inherently subjective values.[4]

  3. To what extent will emerging global complexity and growing interdependencies challenge the underpinnings of the ‘charity model’?

    Increasingly, ‘we will have to deal with “contending” and not “universal principles,” suggests the renowned anthropologist, Arjun Appadurai. In a world in which different power structures will emerge, with their concomitant local and regional perspectives and values, the presumption of common principles will be less and less relevant. More and more, perceptions of self-interest and the potential to unlock mutual self-interest will be at the heart of humanitarian action. Can we hasten that progression by putting forth a complementary ‘model’?

    Students of humanitarian affairs will have ‘to deal with “tactical humanism” – a humanism that is prepared to see universals as asymptotically approached goals, subject to endless negotiation, not based on prior axioms….[This is] not a recommendation in disguise for relativism, for tactical humanism does not believe in the equal claims of all possible moral worlds. It believes in producing values out of engaged debate.’[5]

  4. To what extent do humanitarianism’s compassion model and universalist values directly influence other areas of assistance, such as development; and, what might be the implications in terms of the Mutual Self-Interest versus Compassion debate?

    How has the moral lustre of humanitarianism’s compassion model and universalist values been used to justify much wider engagement in the social, economic and political fabric of other states and societies? Is the belief in our compassion contributing to the “dominant power and engrained bias [that] leaves us unable to see humanitarian work as anything but a universal imperative”?[6]  Does that power re-enforce humanitarian concepts and practices being seen as mechanisms to address “human suffering previously thought to exist beyond the realm of humanitarian concern”?[7]

    It has been suggested that an ‘expanded humanitarianism’ influences such things as societal transformation and development, human rights, peace and good governance. This intentionally or unintentionally might be seen as fostering a boundless international welfarism, full of paternalistic and on occasion messianic initiatives, where presumed universal values’ too often render invisible  their actual collision with different cultural and societal values. Further still, this model of humanitarian action ignores the evolving complexity in the nature of crises, and the degree to which there is a compassion and a mutual self-interest that connects us all.


[1] Antonio Donini (ed), The Golden Fleece: Manipulation and Independence in Humanitarian Action, Kumarian Press, 2012

[2]  ‘Thank you for explaining your principles,’ said a member of a Middle Eastern group that had come to hear an ICRC delegate’s explanation of the organisation’s humanitarian role. ‘However, we, too, have our own principles,’ he continued, ‘Ours begins with justice. To what extent do your principles incorporate the concept of justice?’ In so many ways, the avowedly universal principles presented by humanitarians reflect a Western hegemony that can be traced to the age of discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries, to the age of industrialisation, colonialism and economic dominance of the 18th and 19th centuries – past Solferino – and clearly into the 20th century in the post 1945 world.

[3]  Michael Ignatieff, The Warrior’s Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience, p.17, Metropolitan Books, New York, 1998

[4]  See, for example, Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Vintage Books, 2011, pp.193ff; Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, , p.147, Rider, London, 2004

[5]  A. Appadurai, ‘Tactical Humanism’, in Jerome Binde, The Future of Values, UNESCO, Paris, 2001, p.18

[6] Marc DuBois, The New Humanitarian Basics, Overseas Development Institute, 2018, p. 6.

[7] Fiori, Juliano et al. (2016) The Echo Chamber: Results, Management, and the Humanitarian Effectiveness Agenda. London: Save the Children