The Humanitarians: Understanding the Crisis of the Humanitarian Field
Morgan, David K.
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Faced with increasingly protracted armed conflicts, multiplying natural disasters, and new risks posed by climate change, rapid urbanization, and international migration, many observers believe that the international humanitarian regime is fast approaching its ‘breaking point’. Although calls for change have grown, past assessments of the limits of humanitarian reform provide little grounds for optimism. Some have concluded that the enterprise appears ‘condemned to repeat’, pointing to the various material constraints facing aid organizations or implicating humanitarians themselves in structures of power and governance. This dissertation takes up the question of humanitarian reform, asking: Why, despite repeated attempts to both standardize and democratize humanitarian response, has the scope of change consistently failed to meet expectations? What explains the shortcomings of past reforms, particularly efforts to improve coordination, accountability, and partnerships among international, national, and local responders? As opposed to focusing on material or normative constraints, the dissertation grounds its analysis in the internal competition that often accompanies new reform initiatives. Adopting a distinctly relational view, it interrogates the practices of authority and expertise that have become ‘normalized’ across the humanitarian field, and which have shaped the ways in which certain voices and perspectives are elevated above others in defining the direction and scope of change. Specifically, I argue that authority within the humanitarian field has solidified among a core group of elite actors, made up primarily of the humanitarian policymakers and practitioners located in international headquarters. Drawing on various sources of economic, cultural, social, and symbolic capital, this humanitarian elite has shaped the direction of reform in two ways. First, it has reinforced the influence of international perspectives and sources of expertise, whose authority is distinct from and necessarily above that of national and local governments and organizations. Second, and relatedly, it has ensured that reforms introduced over the past two decades have continued to prioritize the large-scale, international delivery of aid, typically at the expense of supporting or strengthening national and local capacities. The traditional authority of this humanitarian elite, however, may soon diminish, particularly as the humanitarian field increasingly witnesses a number of challenges ‘from below’.