Blurred lines: development, human rights, humanitarianism

Last week, we read Bornstein and Redfield’s introductory chapter to Forces of Compassion. In it, the authors outline a distinction among development, human rights, and humanitarianism. The temporal orientation, disciplinary foci, and the professions associated with each of these forms of social action seem to distinguish them from each other. The authors state, for example, that development is associated with economics, livelihoods and poverty, and are progressive/future-oriented, while human rights organizations are concerned with law, and correcting past wrongs. Humanitarianism is medical and preoccupied with the present, the ‘right now.’ They draw this distinction, I think, because there’s a group of anthropologists who have lumped the work of improving and ‘saving’ lives under ‘humanitarianism’ — the suggestion here being that humanitarianism’s particularity is rooted in a particular conception of ‘humanity’ and ‘life’ and an ethos or structure of feeling, rather than professional and bureaucratic categories. The authors note that their three-pronged schematic is crude, but I think it is telling that they need to provide this schematic at all. Again, I think it lies in humanitarian and development professionals’ clarity about what distinguishes them from each other, and the kind of ethics and professional practice these different kinds of intervention entail. Yet the institutions engaged in these forms of social action not only perform many of these functions at once, but also find themselves using multiple frames simultaneously to justify and continue their work.

As a kind of thought exercise, I went to several international non-governmental organization (iNGO) websites and looked at the short program publicity reports to see how well Bornstein and Redfield’s categories hold up in ‘practice’ — or at least in the routine NGO practice of describing projects for a general audience. I cut and paste these excerpts into a quiz and asked students to identify whether they described humanitarianism, development or human rights programs, as defined by Bornstein and Redfield. Although I was sure to pull excerpts that generally fit the descriptions provided by the authors, students still had some trouble placing the quotes into categories: could the participatory health program that held health facility managers accountable be considered a human rights  (on the issues of participation and rights-oriented language) and a humanitarian (for its medical orientation) program? Of course, the crude association of categories of intervention with professions and disciplines was perhaps less useful than the more analytical move of highlighting the temporal and ideological orientations that we associate with these approaches.

To drive the point home that these distinctions are quite blurred in practice — and manifest in different framing of social problems and, therefore, programs — I asked students to look at the websites of five different organizations (two human rights iNGOs, two development/relief iNGOs and a UN agency) and see how each organization addresses water issues. Of course, many of the largest iNGOs, like CARE or Oxfam, which are firmly situated in all three traditions, describe the problem in multiple ways; they have ‘cornered the market,’ so to speak. On CARE’s water website, for example, they use the language of emergency and crisis; that of long-term investment; and of public health and rights.


A search for ‘water’ on two human rights websites, Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights, framed the issue much differently. In addition to suggesting that access to water was a human right, most of their reports concerned water access issues in terms of violations: police crackdowns on water access protesters; shaming mining companies that polluted water sources or displaced people from clean water; disease outbreaks due to poor prison conditions, etc.