The book examines the reasons behind accusations of dysfunctional humanitarian identities and the loss of space for impartial action. Through a combination of practical examples in case studies from the field with a theoretical and philosophical approach to questions of voluntary service, community and identity, it reconsiders the exceptional discourse that constructs these identities and drives humanitarian response in environments of complex emergency. By recognizing both the strength and the limits of its social and political agency, the study presents opportunities for the construction of a less exceptional space, or ‘niche’ within the humanitarian sector, where the politics is around one of an ordinary humanitarian society instead of an ordered humanitarian system.
Alasdair Gordon-Gibson worked for twenty-five years in the field of humanitarian response, mainly with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. He holds the degrees of master of philosophy and doctor of philosophy from the University of St Andrews.
Chapter 1. Humanitarian Relations
Chapter 2. Voluntary Service: Its Place in the Social Fabric
Chapter 3. Evolving Expressions of Humanitarian Space
Chapter 4. The Social Identity of the Niche
Chapter 5. Risks and Opportunities
Chapter 6. The Spirit of Humanity: A Universal Appeal
Chapter 7. Case Studies
Chapter 8. Re-Harbouring the Humanitarians
Chapter 9. Changing the Social Order
This dense and intriguing book brings together philosophy, IR and reflections on humanitarian practice in a novel manner. It is concerned with the exploration of identity markers and patterns of engagement – with a particular focus on volunteering as a cornerstone of humanitarian identities. It is grounded in wide ranging readings and does not shy away from tackling the most complex concepts. It builds on theories of identity and trust to establish notions of social identity relevant to humanitarian work, communal trust. While largely theoretical in tone and in its sources, it does not shy away from looking into the historical defining of humanitarian concepts in the 1960s and from exploring these concepts in action through early 2000s field experiences. This makes this book an original and brave voice in a field which needs more bridges between theory and praxis.
I for one found it a stimulating and engaging read worth coming back to.
This is an important book that demands to be taken off the shelf and read. In an age of mounting skepticism towards humanitarian action, Alasdair Gordon-Gibson provides a searing new vision which translates humanitarianism’s founding values of voluntary service and shows how they can be put to work to address some of the world’s most difficult crises. Combining a lifetime’s work for the Red Cross and Red Crescent with a sophisticated understanding of social identity theory, it sheds genuinely new light on old problems and shows how a new and more sustainable humanitarianism can be fostered by embedding it within the societies it lives within rather than treating it as a profession apart. It is nothing short of a call for a revolution in humanitarian affairs that will drive debate, thought, and practice for years to come.
It is rare that I read a text on conflict and development and find both an excellent treatment of practical issues and also fascinating theoretical suggestions for how to address the failings of humanitarian action. Gordon-Gibson’s long career in the logistics and delivery of aid and his use of extensive archival sources helps us understand the narrative of aid, which he argues has lost its way. This makes for a very unusual approach. The sophistication of the blend of these elements is practically unique in my experience. It also makes the important suggestion that the aid sector needs to refind its roots and its legitimacy not only with the donors but also with the recipients. Aid has become far too divorced from the human dimension and been superseded by political imperatives. It needs a renewed sense of meaning. This a stupendous achievement for a first major book.
Humanitarians on the Frontier by Alasdair Gordon-Gibson examines the possibility of recasting or reimagining the identity of humanitarian actors to achieve greater legitimacy and access for such actors to communities in need of assistance. It argues for a stable yet contingent identity as an auxiliary to state responsibilities in situations of humanitarian crisis. It provides a cogent critique of modern approaches to humanitarianism and humanitarian identity while pushing the boundaries of what is possible. It is wide ranging and explicitly multidisciplinary in its approach, drawing on philosophy, social psychology, anthropology, and politics/international relations, as well as literature from the humanitarian community and the author’s significant experience in the field. As such, the thesis goes beyond traditional literatures which focus, in particular, on the practical and international political contexts of humanitarian action, to examine the construction of identity and trust in broader socio-political contexts.
Indeed, it is Gordon-Gibson’s extensive experience as a humanitarian practitioner that provides unique insights and perspectives on the construction and legitimacy of humanitarian action. Rather than focus on the more prominent principles of humanitarian action – namely neutrality, impartiality, and independence – which are most frequently cited and studied in the literature, the thesis examines two other ‘core’ principles (at least from the Red Cross Movement perspective) which are understudied – voluntary service and universality to construct a unique argument in favour of a more minimalist, universal humanitarian identity capable of responding and adapting to a variety of contexts with a community-centred approach. This very deep multi-disciplinary philosophical approach is thus a unique contribution to the study of humanitarianism. It is critical, reflective, and forward-looking while drawing on historical experience. It has the potential to lead to a reassessment of discourse around identity of humanitarian actors, and as such is essential reading both for humanitarian practitioners and those seeking to understand humanitarian action.
In Humanitarians on the Frontier, Alasdair Gordon-Gibson masterfully deconstructs humanitarian identity to its core – and reassembles it again around the often-overlooked concepts of voluntary service and universality. Diving into the philosophical dilemmas of humanitarian identity through history and across diverse practices and cases, the book offers hope for a universalist idea of a community with a common purpose – a more inclusive, prosocial, and representative humanitarian space. The book is written with a deep sense of concern for a humanitarian system in a crisis, amid the growing public mistrust of political authority and humanitarian neutrality and impartiality around the world. It is only through reconnecting the humanitarian sector with those it seeks to assist and by ‘rehumanising’ humanitarian discourse – as the author expertly argues – that better, interdependent, and more trusted humanitarian relations can be established.