The concept, which is supposed to transcend ideology, obscures the role of the west in creating disasters in the first place.

'Humanitarianism is what the west uniquely practises, bringing its kindness and goodwill to dark places of the world.' Photograph: Marco Ugarte/AP

Humanitarianism: this abstract noun gained wide currency during the high noon of neoliberalism. It connotes philanthropy and benevolence, a charitable impulse towards the unfortunate from those capable of alleviating poverty, disaster or war. It suggests a benign doctrine, even a profession of faith.

Claims to humanitarianism are always heard most loudly after some spectacular act of inhumanity. The end of the second world war provided a particularly compelling example. After Europe had been laid waste by the ideology of Nazism, a creed born in what had promoted itself for centuries as “the cradle of civilisation”, redemptive action was vital. Not only did “the economy” – the site of the breakdown – become the object of rapid rehabilitation, but “development assistance” to former imperial territories began; most of these had defected to “socialism”, and the west offered “development” as the alternative. In an age of globalisation, development has been superseded by a fitting successor – humanitarian intervention.

“Humanitarian”, originally a theological term, referred to one who affirmed the humanity of Christ, while denying his divine existence. It came to mean the application of purely human action – without religious sanction – to the resolution of social problems. In this sense it first appears in the early 19th century; at that time it carried ironic overtones, suggesting an excess of zeal or sentimentality in those who would change the world.

International commitment to “humanitarianism” grew out of imperial missionary and charitable activity. The abolition of slavery gave an impulse to a movement which did not yet call itself humanitarian; even though the principle has existed, in one form or another, in all human societies; and is, for example, according to Qur’anic and prophetic texts, an essential and obligatory element of Muslim religious practice.

For Christian missionaries, medical advances in the 19th century made material healing an important adjunct to the spiritual work of evangelists; no doubt, tangible improvements in the material condition of the people also assisted the spiritual “healing” required in the conversion of the heathen; and the importance of the human often took precedence over a theoretical religious “mission”.

A significant moment in this secularisation of humanitarian action came as a result of the battle of Solferino in 1859, when Swiss businessman Henry Dunant, passing through Castiglione, was appalled by the fact that soldiers on both sides had simply been left on the battlefield to die. His proposal for trained medical personnel to be present at such scenes of suffering led to the establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1863.

Despite the detachment of humanitarianism from religion, the idea still retains something of its otherworldly roots, since it is seen as a work of rescue, even of salvation, and produces a sense of reverential piety. “Humanitarian” aid is supposed to transcend all ideologies, cultures and beliefs. It is the essence of human fellow-feeling, not to be contested or questioned. In other words, it is an ideal vehicle for the monopoly of compassion often implied by its western promoters.

As soon as any belief or doctrine becomes an “-ism” we should be on our guard, for that is the sign that it is in the process of hardening into ideology.

Humanitarianism is what the west uniquely practises, bringing its kindness and goodwill to dark places of the world, where savagery and barbarism still rule (or have reappeared) at the heart of “primitive” or regressive cultures.

It is significant that we hear much about “our values” when it comes to humanitarian help in places ravaged by war, particularly when the west has been instrumental in, or indifferent towards, the creation of strife, to which we must bring the urgent capacity for relief of a concerned “international community”.

In this way, even our “humanitarianism” is an old story, but with a contemporary inflection. It implies that love of humanity and compassion are defective in places that cry out for “our” intercession. Not only is it at the core of “liberal interventionism”, which topples dictators and dismantles dictatorships, but it is also called into being to support campaigns of violence as a lesser evil; notably in the arbitrarily established entities of the former Ottoman empire, created at the end of the first world war by powers who had not yet discovered their own humanitarian potential.

Humanitarianism, therefore, justifies all over again what “we” give to “them”. Its supreme appeal is that it trumps all other systems and faiths, since it brings succour to those persecuted in the name of all ideologies, religious and secular. It is elevated over all other forms of giving. Dissent falls silent in the presence of such magnanimity, and we drop our coins into the great collecting box of conscience, satisfied we have done our duty.

In such a context, it should not astonish us if humanitarian assistance is sometimes invoked even in the form of bombs, dropped to prevent greater wrongs – to protect innocent civilians or to halt the “cancer” of extremism.

Perhaps the most extraordinary example of humanitarianism in action may be seen in the recent appeal to help the afflicted, the mutilated and bereaved of Gaza. When the buildings have been razed, the bodies counted, the rubble turned over, sorrowing peoples are invited to offer assistance to those whose lives have been ruined or abridged; but no one – including those who were in a position to do so – invoked humanitarianism to prevent the carnage from happening in the first place. Humanitarianism after the event savours of hypocrisy as much as of philanthropy.

This suggests the humanitarianism of our age demands – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, Libya – flattened cities, heaps of corpses, strife and bloodshed in order to find its fullest expression. Should it surprise us if the imperialists of compassion themselves sometimes contribute to the supply of scenes of misery, which then call forth their exhibitions of altruism before a wondering world?

Jeremy Seabrook is an author and journalist specialising in social, environmental and development issues. His most recent book is The Song of the Shirt, published by Navayana in New Delhi

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