Very contemporary history

A recent discussion with the coordinator of the Global History of Modern Humanitarian Action project at the Overseas Development Institute got me thinking about the very recent history of humanitarianism. It was interesting for me to try and think historically about what still feel like current events, way outside my own period of expertise. Here are the unfootnoted and speculative, but hopefully useful, thoughts I came up with. Comments welcome.

In an article published in 2006, Tony Vaux analyzed the international context within which humanitarian agencies, especially Western ones, operate. ‘The current trend’, he wrote, ‘is towards greater assertiveness by the Western powers and less consensus about their legitimacy’—a trend which created many worries for agencies that found themselves, for example, being perceived as tools of Western governments. This led to wide-ranging, and soul-searching, discussions in the field: Vaux’s article was part of a big special issue of Development in Practice on trends and dilemmas for humanitarian practitioners. (There’s a link at the bottom of this post.) But is his description still accurate?


Part of the context for western humanitarian action, c.2001–2009

It seems to me that Vaux’s statement quite clearly dates from that distinct but now-vanished period between the end of the Cold War and the 2008 financial crisis. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the constraints on Western—essentially American—interventions elsewhere in the world appeared to have been loosened entirely. Iraq in 1991, Kosovo in 1997, Britain’s intervention in Sierra Leone in the late 90s, Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq again in 2003: in a unipolar world the trend appeared to be towards unilateral interventions by untrammeled Western power—albeit with setbacks (Somalia) and deliberate non-interventions (Rwanda). This trend was radicalized after 9/11.

Western humanitarian agencies had to live with this geopolitical strutting. In some senses it created problems for them— that’s why aid workers get murdered in Afghan villages—but in other senses they probably shared the arrogance of the times: one reason why they’re having trouble adjusting to what are still termed ‘new actors’ in the humanitarian field, the increasingly active and influential agencies based in countries outside the old ‘West’ (some Turkish NGOs, for example, are now operating in dozens of countries).

So: ‘greater assertiveness by the Western powers and less consensus about their legitimacy’ is a pretty accurate depiction of the period from, say, 1990 to 2005. It was reinforced by the Asian economic crisis of 1997, which handily slapped down the ‘tigers’ that had been growling increasingly loudly, and it survived the short recession that affected many western countries when the dotcom bubble burst.

In retrospect, though, there were already underlying shifts. China is an important one: its phenomenal, rapid growth throughout the 1990s and 2000s was changing all sorts of basic equations in the distribution of global political and economic power. The largest single holder of US government debt; a crucial export market for both industrialized and extractive economies (ie, for both the West and the Third World, two already questionable terms which have become more outdated with every percentage point of Chinese GDP growth); an alternative source of financial and diplomatic backing for states and non-state actors… The context within which Western humanitarian agencies became accustomed to operating from the 1980s as the Soviet Union declined was temporary and contingent, not a permanent restructuring. Think back only a decade or so to how many books and articles were talking about a unipolar world, and how shortsighted they seem now. And plenty of other shifts have taken place too, many—though not all—of them linked to this one. Brazil, for example, has combined an economic boom that owes a great deal to commodity exports (directly and indirectly linked to China) with growing political stability and self-confidence. In my churchgoing youth I was often exposed to depictions of colourful poverty in Brazil, produced by Catholic aid agencies. But what should CAFOD do in the era of the bolsa familial?

Mavi Marmara

A ‘new actor’ making some pretty big waves

Equally, the gung-ho interventionism of western powers rapidly ran up against external and internal constraints. The cake-walks to Kabul and Baghdad were followed by long, costly, and unsuccessful occupations that have amply demonstrated the limits of US power: unequalled destructive capacity can only get you so far. The extravagant cost of these military adventures, meanwhile, is one of many factors that contributed to the financial crisis of 2008 and the contraction of most western economies, large and small, since then. (That’s why I gave 2008 as the end of the ‘post-Cold War’ period, though to cover both these aspects the hinge point really needs to be 2005/2008.)

All of which means that ‘less consensus about [Western powers’] legitimacy’ is increasingly true—but I’m less convinced that the bit about their ‘greater assertiveness’ is still the case. (Libya does not represent a significant exception to this.) I think that western humanitarian agencies, whose own budgets have suffered from the financial crisis, are now living through a period where the self-confident zeal of the 1990s is giving way to much greater self-doubt: partly because of the model that China and other cases present (of successful state-led development that owes little to western aid agencies) and partly because of the alternative sources of aid that they represent for other countries.

None of this is to take any of these emerging features of a changing landscape for granted as permanent, either. But those changes, which I’m sure the humanitarian sector is still grappling with, have now gone beyond a ‘greater assertiveness’ of Western powers.

Tony Vaux, ‘Humanitarian Trends and Dilemmas’, Development in Practice, vol. 16, nos 3-4 (2006), pp. 240–256, quote on p. 241.

Click images for source


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