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The Haiti EarthquakeInside HumanitarianismInside the Documentary

What is Humanitarianism?

We’ve gathered a selection of thoughts from humanitarian workers,
thinkers and leaders to capture some of their criticisms of and hopes for humanitarianism.

Anas Qtiesh (CC)

The majority of humanitarian aid workers come from the countries in which they work. Humanitarian aid workers are national and international, male and female, and reflect all cultures, ideologies and backgrounds. ”United Nations World Humanitarian Day 2010 press release

[Humanitarianism is about] bringing a measure of humanity, always insufficient, into situations that should not exist.”Anonymous ICRC official, quoted in David Rieff, A Bed for the Night

The fact that we can’t solve all the problems of the world does not absolve us of the responsibility of solving the ones we can.”Bob Macauley, Founder & Chairman, AmeriCares

Marion Doss (CC)

Humanitarianism is by definition an emblem of failure, not success. The disaster has already happened; the famine has started; the cholera is raging; or the refugees are already on the move.”David Rieff, A Bed for the Night

Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”Matthew 25:40

There are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems … refugee problems are essentially political in origin and therefore have to be addressed through political action.”Sadako Ogata, Former UNHCR High Commissioner

East Loathian Museums (CC)

Politicians and governments have abused humanitarianism to disengage from their own responsibilities, and, in doing so, have provoked an enormous and grave confusion.” – Cornelio Sommaruga, ICRC. Quoted in David Rieff, A Bed for the Night

It may seem unpalatable to scrutinise and criticise the motives and activities of humanitarian organizations. But just like any other industry, the aid industry must be examined.”The Lancet, January 2010 Editorial

Only compassion sells. It is the basis of fundraising for humanitarian agencies. We can’t seem to do without it.” – Jean-Francois Vidal, Action Against Hunger. Quoted in David Rieff, A Bed for the Night

We have no other agenda than saving lives and delivering the basics of life – food, water, shelter, medical care, and protection for the most vulnerable. Yet in too many places where humanitarians work, whereas once we were respected, today we are targeted.”John Holmes, UN Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator


Colonialism is ‘philanthropy plus five percent.’”Cecil Rhodes (quoted in David Rieff’s “First, Do No Harm”, The New Republic, 12 July 2010)

The only crimes equaling inhumanity are the crimes of indifference, silence and forgetting.”James Orbinski, An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action in the Twenty-First Century

By calling some terrible historical event a humanitarian crisis, it is almost inevitable that all the fundamental questions of politics, of culture, of history, and morality without which the crisis can never be properly understood will be avoided.”David Rieff, A Bed for the Night

Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”Martin Luther King, Jr, Strength to Love


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