The far side: the meta functions of humanitarianism in a globalised world


  • This paper expands on Donini (2008).

E-mail: Antonio Donini (


This paper explores the meta functions of humanitarianism—that is, the functions that, as an ideology, a movement and a profession, it performs, wittingly or unwittingly, in the early twenty-first century.1 The term humanitarianism is used as shorthand to encompass a complex set of currents of thought, actions and institutions of which the boundaries are unclear. The focus is on mainstream humanitarianism, the dominant Northern/Western enterprise. The paper first discusses the relationship between humanitarianism and globalised power. It goes on to examine three types of functions that humanitarianism and humanitarian action perform: ‘macro’ functions—the deep undercurrents, power relations and values that humanitarianism articulates and transmits; ‘meso’ functions—those that relate to the political economy of humanitarian action and to the mechanics (rather than to the ideology) of globalisation; and ‘micro’ functions that relate to the motivations of the individuals who devote their energies to humanitarianism.