How to Help?

A group of Geneva citizens founded the International Committee of the Red Cross (then called the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded) on this day in 1863. While still one of the most respected aid agencies in the world, the Red Cross and similar organizations now find themselves at a crossroads, say Michael Barnett and Thomas G. Weiss in Humanitarianism in Question. On one hand, the number of recent worldwide emergency responses indicates such a “growing willingness and ability of outsiders to help those at risk” that “humanitarianism is experiencing a golden era.” On the other hand, the ethical complexity and procedural confusion surrounding those responses suggests that the international aid community is “careening from one major emergency to another,” if not “descending into a new dark age”:

Although willing to answer the call, humanitarian organizations have been generally ill-equipped for what they have found: war zones where civilian populations were the intended victims, where access is difficult, where aid workers are in danger of being received as a threat or as a resource to be captured, and where their own physical safety is in doubt. Their standard operating procedures provided little guidance for how they might operate in places like Bosnia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, and Iraq, forcing them to improvise constantly. When, if ever, should they request armed protection and work with states?

Would armed protection facilitate access or create the impression that aid workers were now one of the warring parties? Should they provide aid unconditionally? What if doing so meant feeding the armies, militias, and killers who were responsible for and clearly benefited from the terror of civilian populations? At what point should aid workers withdraw because the situation had become too dangerous? Can aid really make a difference? The contemporary moment has proved so challenging that even stalwart defenders of humanitarianism concede that the moral necessity of humanitarian action is no longer self-evident.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at