Friday, August 17, 2007

Humanitarian motives?

Yesterday's NY Times featured CARE's refusal of almost $50 million in federal funding in protest against American food aid policy. One of the world's largest providers of humanitarian relief, CARE's decision stemmed from its disapproval of U.S.-funded aid groups' sale of tons of subsidized American crops in African countries whose farmers are struggling to compete in their own domestic markets. This move has divided the humanitarian community, with some NGOs who receive federal funds arguing that the current system works just fine, thank you. Jimmy Carter warned of the political power of this position, noting that charities "speak from the standpoint of angels" and are thus difficult for politicos to dismiss. As the UN peacekeeper scandals have demonstrated most vividly, we need to be asking harder questions about the motivation and practices of humanitarian groups. A good start can be found in Rights in Exile: Janus-Faced Humanitarianism, a recent book by Guglielmo Verdirame and Barbara Harrell-Bond that investigates international organizations responsible for refugee protection, finding extensive and avoidable violations of the rights of the migrants in their care. While we should of course support the vital work that these groups perform, we should not be blinded to their shortcomings because of their humanitarian nature.
On a related note, a study recently reported in the Economist argues that "[c]harity is just as 'selfish' as self-indulgence." Dr. Geoffrey Miller of the University of New Mexico theorizes that because men look for self-sacrifice in their partner, women demonstrate blatant benevolence as a mating strategy (while men demonstrate their ability to provide through conspicuous consumption). I wasn't entirely convinced by this hypothesis; perhaps it was the gender stereotyping or the obliviousness to sexual orientation (at least as reported). But I'm interested in your thoughts, reader, as to whether the predominance of women in the international human rights field (discussed here) might stem in part from this impulse . . .

1 comment:

Naomi Norberg said...

I prefer to think that humanitarian work is the non-militarized route to seeing the world and learning about other cultures that might be chosen by women because of their interest in people, places, languages, cultures and travel. Men used to and still do join the merchant marines for some of these reasons, and the Army plays on the see the world factor to recruit. If you don't want to do that, or be an airline hostess, a nurse or an English teacher, humanitarian work may seem like the best option.