Humanitarianism and Changing Cultures of Cooperation

5–7 June 2014

Humanitarianism – as a concept and as a practice – has become a major factor in world society. It channels an enormous amount of resources and serves as an argument for different kinds of interference into the “internal affairs” of a country. At the same time, humanitarian action is a form of cooperation that, instead of being motivated by plain utility, is based on cultures of gift-giving, but is therefore no less fraught with ambivalences and dilemmas. Against this background, the Centre for Global Cooperation Research, in cooperation with the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities (KWI), organized the conference “Humanitarianism and Changing Cultures of Cooperation” from June 5-7 2014.

During the conference, three major themes emerged: the question of motives and justifications for humanitarian action, changing environments and new actors. The issues were discussed from different disciplinary angles in the panels. Historians threw spotlight on changes in humanitarian ideas or practices, such as the turn from charity to science at the end of the imperial epoch or the global mobilization of empathy during the Biafra crisis. Anthropologists and sociologists analyzed what happens when “Western” NGOs try to cooperate with local religious authorities in campaigns to end female genital mutilation or when Islamic charities from the Arab world engage in Subsaharan Africa. Political scientists and practitioners gave accounts of problematic developments of humanitarian activities, e.g., in Afghanistan or the Congo or the emergence of private military and security companies as humanitarian actors.  

Those problematic aspects were also at the core of the ninth Käte Hamburger Lecture, delivered by Thomas G. Weiss (City University New York) in the context of the conference and dedicated to “Humanitarianisms’ Contested Culture”. It analyzed the processes of militarization, politicization and marketization, which question the narrative of the humanitarian as the Good Samaritan.

Turning to the theme of the motivational basis for humanitarianism, Fritz Breithaupt (Indiana University Bloomington) drew attention to empathy and its “dark sides”.

The emphasis on the dilemmas, ambivalences and perversions of humanitarianism was in a way counterbalanced by political philosopher Seyla Benhabib (Yale University) in her lecture entitled “From the Right to Have Rights to the Critique of Humanitarian Reason. Against the Cynical Turn in Human Rights Discourse”.

Venue: KWI, Goethestr. 31, 45128 Essen