Global Governance Centre
28 October 2020

A critique of humanitarianism: promethean, arrogant, provincial and redemptive

Humanitarianism is often associated with noble acts of compassion. It is, after all, an organized attempt to improve the welfare of communities in need.

But what about its colonial, racist and civilisational elements? Or its inherent arrogance and redemptive ambitions?

On 26 October 2020, Davide Rodogno, Professor of International History at The Graduate Institute, provided a different perspective on the motivations and modalities of international humanitarianism, with emphasis on the early 20th century.

The talk was part of the Global Governance Centre’s colloquium series, which provides scholars of governance issues a platform to present and discuss works in progress across disciplinary boundaries.

Prof. Rodogno used four concepts rarely associated with humanitarianism to frame his illuminating critique: promethean, arrogant, provincial and redemptive.

International humanitarianism can be promethean, as humanitarians take on mythical, hero-like aspirations to rationalise their interventions.

This entails a certain arrogance, in the sense of the Latin word arrogare, which means “to adopt”, thus making humanitarianism very paternalistic.

Questioning its cosmopolitan assumptions, humanitarianism can also be seen as rather provincial, speaking to the domestic bases of the need to provide help.

The act of rescuing those in need is also redemptive, for the aid recipients and for humanitarians themselves, thus pointing to humanitarianism’s underlying motivations.

Following the thought-provoking presentation, Chiara Redaelli, Research Fellow at The Geneva Academy and Graduate Institute alumna (PhD International Law, 2018), kicked off the discussion.

Invoking legal expertise and personal experiences as a humanitarian in emergency and non-emergency contexts, Dr. Redaelli reflected on how to address the power dynamics underpinning humanitarian interventions to empower aid recipients.

Around 50 international participants joined the event both in person and on line, contributing to the lively discussion about the governance of humanitarian interventions, past, present and future.

Stay tuned to this page for more information on our upcoming events. Our next colloquium will take place on 9 November 2020.