This paper was prepared for the Social Science Research Council seminar series “The Transformation of Humanitarian Action”, April 2005.
Let me declare my position at the outset. I am sceptical about some of the claims made for humanitarian action, which often seem to me more a matter of aspiration or hope than of substance; but I believe in the humanitarian imperative and the essential justification for international humanitarian action. Having practiced for a number of years in this field, I am very conscious of the problems facing decision-makers at every level in the sector and the high degree of uncertainty with which they have to operate. I am equally conscious of the highly arbitrary way in which judgements about effectiveness tend to be made. I will argue that this degree of arbitrariness is neither necessary nor justifiable: the question of effectiveness can and should be more than a matter of belief or speculation, even if it is never fully ‘knowable’. There appear to be some structural reasons why the humanitarian sector is evasive on this question. I will suggest that the answer lies as much in the way the humanitarian problem is framed, and in transparency concerning the rationale for intervention, as it does in the empirical demonstration of impact. I will also argue that the theory on which humanitarian problem analysis is typically based is inadequate to the task, and will sketch a possible alternative model.