The humanitarians' tragedy: escapable and inescapable cruelties


  • This paper is based on the author's keynote address to the first World Conference on Humanitarian Studies, Groningen, The Netherlands, 4 February 2009.

Alex de Waal, Social Science Research Council, One Pierrepont Plaza, New York, NY 10021, United States. E-mail:


Paradoxically, elements of cruelty are intrinsic to the humanitarian enterprise.1 This paper focuses on some of these. Escapable cruelties arise from technical failings, but the gradual professionalisation of the field and improvements in relief technologies mean that they have been significantly reduced in comparison to earlier eras. Other cruelties arise from clashes among rights, and the tensions inherent in trying to promote humanity amid the horrors of war. These are inescapable and constitute the ‘humanitarians' tragedy’. Among them is the individual cruelty of failing to do good at the margin: a clash between the individual's impulses and ideals and the constraints of operating in constrained circumstances. This is a version of triage. In addition, there is the cruelty of compromising dearly-held principles when faced with other competing or overriding demands. There is also the cruelty whereby humanitarians feed victims' dreams that there is an alternative reality, which in fact cannot be attained.