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Tom Scott-Smith writes for Debating Development, looking at diverse uses of the term 'humanitarianism'

UNHCR emergency aid flight arrives in Benin © UNHCR / H M Gologo
UNHCR emergency aid flight arrives in Benin

Humanitarianism is a frustratingly vague term, encompassing a variety of activities; in recent years it has referred to international law, medical relief, peacekeeping troops, and democratic elections. Three new books further demonstrate this diversity. All described as studies of humanitarianism, they nevertheless address very different topics: Erica Bornstein’s Disquieting Gifts looks at gift relationships in New Delhi, Miriam Ticktin’s Casualties of Care looks at French immigration policy, and Didier Fassin’s Humanitarian Reason examines a range of topics, from AIDS to refugee camps. Reading these fascinating books, one cannot help but conclude that humanitarianism is a catch-all term, which has only become vaguer with the establishment of oxymoronic monstrosities such as ‘humanitarian war’ and ‘humanitarian bombing’.


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