The rise of political humanitarianism (2)

From The Thin Blue Line: How humanitarianism went to war, by Conor Foley (Verso, 2010), p. 29.

For many involved in international development work, human rights and political humanitarianism seemed to provide the basis for a new movement for social justice. According to one estimate, humanitarian expenditure witnessed a six-fold increase during the 1980s and 1990s. This came while most western governments were cutting back on their long-term development assistance budgets. Development purists have traditionally dismissed humanitarian assistance as ‘ambulance chasing’, but, after the billions spent trying to support economic and social development in some of the poorest countries in the world, its supporters could retort that at least they were saving lives. Political humanitarianism conveys a sense of urgency and righteousness that attracts the same kind of idealistic partisan for development. For many former leftists growing to middle age, it also provides a comforting connection between the youthful idealistic dreams that ‘another world is possible’ and the increasing material possessions that make their previous socialist certainties seem less plausible. A liberal-leftist in the early 1980s might have gone to pick Nicaraguan coffee with the Sandinistas, but was more likely ten years later to be campaigning to lift the siege of Sarajevo or protesting the genocide in Rwanda.

Political humanitarianism was also partly a response to the declining participation in mainstream politics in Europe and North America. Amnesty International UK now has over a quarter of a million members, overtaking that of the British Labour Party. Oxfam Great Britain has over 100,000 active supporters and the combined supporter bases of the main aid charities in Britain easily exceeds those of the three major main political parties. These organizations are also highly effective at using the media and have gained real influence with opinion-formers and decision-makers. Through their advocacy efforts they play a leading role in defining what constitutes a humanitarian crisis, and have become an important factor in shaping the foreign policy of western governments.

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