This paper is based on the author's keynote address to the first World Conference on Humanitarian Studies, Groningen, The Netherlands, 4 February 2009.
The humanitarians' tragedy: escapable and inescapable cruelties
Article first published online: 2 FEB 2010
© 2010 The Author(s). Journal compilation © Overseas Development Institute, 2010
Special Issue: The social dynamics of humanitarian action
Volume 34, Issue Supplement s2, pages S130–S137, April 2010
How to Cite
De Waal, A. (2010), The humanitarians' tragedy: escapable and inescapable cruelties. Disasters, 34: S130–S137. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-7717.2010.01149.x
- Issue published online: 11 MAR 2010
- Article first published online: 2 FEB 2010
- humanitarian policy;
- humanitarian principles;
- Red Cross
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.