SMALL STATES - Check out our new series on multilateralism and small states →

The Business and Politics of Good Samaritans


Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan
Building toilet blocks in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan for Syrians fleeing the civil war in their country. The camp, in the desert, houses about 90,000 people. OXFAM INTERNATIONAL

“Humanitarian” and “business” are juxtaposed in the title of my new book, “Humanitarian Business,” for two reasons: provocation and accuracy. It jars those who idealize the humanitarian enterprise because the adjective has uncontested positive connotations while the noun is associated with wheeling and dealing and thus at odds with the self-image of true believers. The adjective is rooted in morality and principle — the parable of the Good Samaritan jumps to mind — because humanitarians are only interested in the welfare of those in their care and are unaffected by political and market factors in the countries that provide or receive relief. If humanitarian action claims the moral high ground, “business” is customarily seen to reside on less lofty territory. In contrast to humanitarians, businesspeople operate in an arena where deals are routinely cut, money buys access, the common good is ignored, talk is cheap and tough decisions about profit margins overlook human costs.

Reality is otherwise, of course. Humanitarians are steeped in politics. The day-to-day functioning of aid agencies intersects in myriad ways with home and host governments, with armed insurgents as well as military peacekeepers and local populations; and most crucially, these agencies confront the priorities of funding sources. As agents engaged in resource acquisition and distribution, where they get their resources and how and to whom they deliver aid can have significant political consequences.

Over the last two decades, three transformative trends have had an enormous impact on the international humanitarian system: militarization, politicization and marketization. Many analysts have written about the impact of the first two: boots on the ground and humanitarian intervention (or “responsibility to protect“) and the post-9/11 world in which humanitarians are viewed, by Colin Powell and others, as “force multipliers.”

While militarization and politicization have made humanitarian action more dangerous and yet more necessary, the third factor is no less central to explaining the ongoing humanitarian identity crisis — namely, the impact of the marketplace.

The thawing and end of the cold war opened the latest chapter in the history of humanitarianism, and one distinguishing characteristic is the dramatic expansion of “suppliers” in terms of numbers, diversity and resources. While the number of United Nations organizations has not grown, their budgets have — and at least 2,500 international nongovernmental organizations are in the business even if only a tenth of them are truly significant. The UN Development Program estimates that there could be 37,000 international nongovernmental organizations with some relevance for what Linda Polman calls “the crisis caravan,” and that on average 1,000 international and local nongovernmental organizations show up for any contemporary emergency.

The current global bottom line is some $18 billion (with the UN accounting for some $11 billion of the total). This number would strike most M.B.A.s as a substantial commercial opportunity. Some individual agencies (like the International Rescue Committee) or federations (like Oxfam and Save the Children) are big businesses while others are far smaller, and include some mom-and-pop enterprises. The market drives businesses, but it also drives humanitarians; and Naomi Klein has described the business model behind providing emergency relief as “disaster capitalism.”

PassBlue Related Articles
You might be interested in these posts.
[display-posts taxonomy="category" tax_term="current" orderby="date" posts_per_page="3" wrapper="ul" content_class="pb-inpost-list" wrapper_class="pb-inpost-layout" exclude_current="true"]

What is to be done? As improbable as it sounds, we need to reverse a familiar adage: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” More reflection and less reaction are in order because aid agencies face a steep learning curve in war zones.  Responding effectively requires a heightened degree of knowledge and professionalism. There have been a number of international initiatives designed to improve the quality and reliability of humanitarian action by enhancing the training, preparation and qualifications of aid workers — in short, “professionalizing” their sector in the same way as associations of accountants and physicians.

Progress has not been insignificant, but an entirely different level of openness to evidenced-based action is required. Responding from the heart remains a humanitarian trademark, but effectiveness in today’s complex emergencies requires an equal dose of well-informed tough-mindedness. Humanitarian personnel are specific targets of warring parties; insignia no longer affords protection, and emergency responses are but one element of the complex processes of conflict resolution and reconstruction. The dominant culture is rapid reaction rather than reserved reflection.

But humanitarian impulses and good will are no longer adequate, if indeed they ever were. We require the humanitarian equivalent of military science.

Careful research could bring substantial benefits to victims. This recommendation is not a self-serving justification by a researcher but a conviction that more data-based social scientific reflection and less visceral reaction would help the humanitarian business function better. The strength of social science lies in its ability to gather, organize, interpret and disseminate evidence-based recommendations. Humanitarians require discrete and usable knowledge that reformulates how to think about the marketplace and that better specifies cause-effect relationships. Delivery and protection is the business of aid officials and properly preoccupies them, but processing information, correcting errors and devising alternative strategies and tactics could be the value-added of social scientists. A partnership would be beneficial for aid agencies and academics as well as the denizens of war-torn societies.

As a result of ongoing transformations, civilian humanitarians are arguing among themselves about first principles—independence, impartiality and neutrality — and undergoing a collective identity crisis in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Those who are clear about the costs of deviating from these principles will be more successful in helping victims than those with no principles or with inflexible ones (otherwise known as “ideology”).

Modesty is a virtue for aid workers and social scientists. Many observers, and among them many of the most committed humanitarians, would have us believe in the humanitarian “imperative,” the moral obligation to treat affected populations similarly and react to crises consistently wherever they may be. No two crises are the same, however, and such a notion flies in the face of politics, which consists of drawing lines as well as weighing options and limited resources to make tough decisions about doing the greatest good or the least harm.

A more accurate and laudable description of contemporary efforts to come to the rescue would be the humanitarian “impulse” — sometimes we can act and sometimes we cannot. Humanitarian action is desirable, not obligatory. The humanitarian impulse is permissive; the humanitarian imperative is peremptory. The transformation of war and the marketplace requires the transformation of humanitarianism as well. Altering the slope of the curves for demand and supply necessitates hardheaded analysis rather than the rigid application of moral absolutes.

Frequently, the word “dilemma” is employed to describe painful decision-making, but the word “quandary” is more apt. A dilemma involves two or more alternative courses of action with unintended, unavoidable and equally undesirable consequences. If consequences are equally unpalatable, then remaining on the sidelines is a viable and moral option rather than entering the scrum. Humanitarians find themselves perplexed or in a quandary, but they are not and should not be immobilized by contemporary wars. The key lies in making a good-faith effort to analyze the advantages and disadvantages of any military or civilian course of action and opt for what often amounts to the least-worst option.

The calculus is agonizing but inescapable for those working in today’s humanitarian business.

This essay originally appeared in The Global Journal.

Related articles

Fewer People May Be Going Hungry, but Extreme Hunger Persists

Deep Flaws in UN Response to Sri Lanka Include R2P Failure

Thomas G. Weiss is Presidential Professor of Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center; Distinguished Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs; and Global Eminent Scholar at Korea’s Kyung Hee University. His recent books include “The ‘Third’ United Nations” (with Tatiana Carayannis).


We would love your thoughts. Please comment:

The Business and Politics of Good Samaritans
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Related Posts


Global Connections Television - The only talk show of its kind in the world
Democracy needs news. News needs you. Give now.

Subscribe to PassBlue


Don't miss a story

Subscribe now to send the smartest news

on the UN directly to your inbox.

Stay informed, stay connected!

We respect your privacy and take protecting it seriously