The rise of political humanitarianism (1)

From The Thin Blue Line: How humanitarianism went to war, by Conor Foley (Verso, 2010), p. 28.

It is probably no coincidence that the human rights movement attained its respectability in Britain just as the Northern Ireland conflict was coming to a close and before the start of George Bush’s war on terror. It is always easier to condemn human rights violations in far-off places than those committed nearer home by your own government or its closest allies. The end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union also convinced many on the left that human rights could, in the words of Professor Boaventura de Sousa Santos, ‘fill the void left by socialist politics’.

The metamorphosis of many anti-colonial freedom fighters into corrupt autocrats, such as Robert Mugabe, discredited the notion that groups mouthing radical slogans can be trusted to help the people they claim to represent. There now exists a burgeoning literature dedicated to documenting the almost complete failure of international aid to have any impact on poverty reduction in Africa over the last few decades. Aid agencies such as Save the Children, Oxfam and CARE explicitly adopted a ‘rights-based’ approach to their programming during the 1990s. This replaced what David Reiff calls ‘third worldism’, which often manifested itself in romanticism about the revolutionary liberation movements about Africa and Latin America. Collective ownership and state-led economic development went out of fashion. By focussing on the essentially liberal notion of individual rights, they repositioned themselves in response to the wider political changes taking place in the world.


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