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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2001, Vol. 4 No. 2 .

Reflections on Humanitarian Action: Principles, Ethics and Contradictions
Humanitarian Studies Unit (eds.)

London: Pluto Press, 2001
208pp. Pb.: £14.99; ISBN 0-7453-1726 X.

The period since the end of the Cold War has witnessed an increase in so-called humanitarian action. 'Reflections on Humanitarian Action' is one of a number of recent examinations of this multifaceted humanitarianism(s). It is relevant to the study of ethnic conflict, as humanitarian action plays an important role in many of these conflicts. Of course the term humanitarian is used to describe action as different as military intervention in support of 'human rights abuses' and the delivery of food and other services to populations in need. The book, which has been well translated from its Spanish original, sets out to unravel the different components of the 'humanitarian sector' and perhaps provide some clarity. Most of the major issues that concern scholars of humanitarianism are covered here to varying degrees. Perhaps inevitably the book provides more questions than answers.

Adam Roberts helps to map the terrain in his opening chapter on humanitarianism in the 1990s. Roberts work is familiar to many of us but this may not be the case with some of the Spanish authors in the book. Joana Abrisketa examines the right of 'victims' of conflict to humanitarian aid. This right is not particularly well defined but is, in her opinion, 'recognised in a very subtle manner' (p.73). Xabier Etxeberría then highlights some of the interesting ethical questions that arise around humanitarian action, particularly with regard to neutrality and impartiality. Francisco Rey examines the issues that have arisen due to the increased number of humanitarian actors in the field and the difficulties of co-ordination that ensue. He suggests a role for the ICRC as a possible lead agency in this enterprise. Mariano Aguirre provides a fairly standard analysis of the role that the media play in the framing of 'humanitarian crises' while Joanne Raisin and Alexander Ramsbotham examine the relief-development continuum, particularly as it applies in conflict situations. In keeping with most contributors in the book they suggest that, 'there can be no neutrality within conflict' (p.154).

Much of the recent work on the subject of humanitarian action has been critical of, among other things, the perceived naiveté and inefficiency of non-governmental relief organisations. David Sogge continues in this vein as he examines the perspective of the recipients of aid, the subalterns. His is a harsh critique of the aid organisations, maybe too harsh, but none the less interesting for that. He paints a picture of aid as fairly peripheral and even irrelevant and while some might disagree with his argument it is undoubtedly a well written and challenging piece.

If perhaps out of necessity it is indeed the case that some of the more trenchant criticisms of humanitarian action have been written by those from within 'the humanitarian industry'. The final chapter, written by the Spanish section of the aid organisation Médecins Sans Frontières, is a case in point. Here MSF analyse Operation Lifeline Sudan and in keeping with many within MSF are refreshingly open and self-critical.

In short this book is recommended. Readers familiar with the field of humanitarianism will find themselves covering much well trodden ground but there is enough here to keep them interested. For those new to the subject this is a worthwhile book that raises many of the questions that occupy the thoughts of those working in the area.

Liam O'Hagan

Liam O' Hagan, INCORE

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