Understanding Conceptions of Legitimate Humanitarianism


The aid world is currently undergoing substantial and radical change, and with the growing significance of non-Western governments and societies in international humanitarian assistance.  But do all cultures understand humanitarianism in the same way? Is there consensus on what constitutes a legitimate humanitarian actor and legitimate humanitarian action?

Responses to questions about what constitutes legitimate humanitarian action are often premised on judging the degree to which non-Western approaches to humanitarianism conform to or deviate from the structures and principles of the established international humanitarian system. This can contribute to perceptions that humanitarianism is not universal but a hegemonic Western discourse, fuelling tension and suspicion.

This paper argues that to address this problem we need to develop an alternative, robust framework to analyze conceptions of legitimate humanitarianism across different cultures and societies; one that enables us to understand actors on their own terms rather than necessarily privileging established definitions. It presents a four-part framework for examining conceptions of who and what constitutes legitimate humanitarian agency. It then applies this to conceptions and practices of humanitarianism in the dynamic region of East Asia, reflecting on approaches to humanitarianism found in China, Japan and Indonesia. This analysis seeks to elucidate important commonalities and differences in conceptions and practices of humanitarianism in East Asia, but also to illustrate how this four part framework can provide a basis for analysis of and informed dialogue across different ‘cultures’ of humanitarianism.

Jacinta O'Hagan is a Fellow in the Department of International Relations and former diplomat with the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs. Her current area of research and recent publications relate to the politics of humanitarianism. She is currently working on collaborative projects that explore culture and humanitarianism in the Asia-Pacific, and on the relationship between new media and political violence. She teaches courses in the areas of humanitarianism, international history, and ethics and culture in world politics.

This seminar forms part of the new Power, Ethics & World Order seminar series presented by the Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.

Photo credit: UN Photo/Sylvain Leichti

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