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Introducing the 2016/2017 Working Group of the IAPSS Academic Think Tank

This year’s IAPSS theme, “The Meaning of Politics,” is a topic that has begun to buzz with new theorization following the development of political events over the course of 2016, namely Brexit and the result of the U.S. presidential elections. Academic discourse speaks of an emerging era of anti-democratic and anti-progressive post-truth politics[1] appealing to emotional rather than objective reasoning.[2] All of this along with the continuation and development of major humanitarian catastrophes affects and shapes humanitarian efforts or the lack thereof, thus bringing us to the topic of the IAPSS Academic Think Tank (ATT).

In 2017, the ATT will focus its research efforts on the topic of “The Role of Politics in Humanitarianism.” Discussions on this topic have appreciated in value and significance and a renewed urgency and relevance has emerged in the light of the aforementioned recent global developments, including but not limited to the seeming inaction of the international community in the face of humanitarian disaster in Aleppo and elsewhere. In the current state of affairs, political humanitarianism and human rights in general seem to have fallen out of favor with many of the world’s political elites. According to Human Rights Watch, “[t]he rise of populist leaders in the United States and Europe poses a dangerous threat to basic rights protections while encouraging abuse by autocrats around the world.”[3] Anti-immigration rhetoric and rising xenophobia is increasingly prevalent in even the most tolerant of societies.

In the words of Gilles Carbonnier, author of the recently published “Humanitarian Economics” and professor of development economics at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, albeit there has been an “expansion of humanitarianism as an ideology and a global movement, war crimes are on the rise and international humanitarian organizations have very limited access where it matters most: in the heart of armed conflicts. As a result, millions of people go largely unprotected and unassisted.”[4]

The refugee crisis, protracted conflict, and complete humanitarian failure in Syria have had several far-reaching effects and devastating impacts on individuals and communities, challenging both the way we think about the politics of humanitarianism and the role of political science in addressing contemporary history. More broadly, extremism, nationalism, and populism seem to be leading politics into a more anti-humanitarian direction. What might the current state of affairs imply for the norms of human rights and the principles of humanitarianism? For what reasons was the Responsibility to Protect developed if not to prevent such humanitarian catastrophes as we see today in Syria and South Sudan?

The world appears to perhaps be leaning away from humanitarianism, the international community regressing in terms of the evolution of human rights. During this time of accelerating global upheaval and humanitarian crises, the work of political theorists and philosophers provides important resources from which to situate the political situation of today in the context of the annals and research of political science and related fields. What can scholars and researchers in these areas bring to this discourse?

It has been 15 years since the Overseas Development Institute organized its conferences on “Politics and Humanitarian Aid, Debates, Dilemmas and Dissension,” an event preempted by the recognition of the emergence of a ‘new humanitarianism’ from lessons from conflicts in Afghanistan, Serbia and Sierra Leone. Today, a new set of conflicts has emerged, prompting a look back not only at scholarly contributions to the discourse of humanitarianism, but also the principles and relevant research that have taken on renewed importance given the current state of the realm of politics today.

What happens when global powers formerly proponents of instilling the promotion and adherence to human rights in the spirit of humanitarianism and global engagement veer further towards isolationism and retrenchment? As countries recalibrate the new developments in the context of international relations, what effect will increasingly isolationist rhetoric and policies have on the application of international law and diplomacy in light of prolonged, intractable conflicts? What effect might non-state actors and channels not traditionally analyzed play in humanitarianism and politics related to and affecting it?

Over the course of 2017, the IAPSS ATT members will engage with several overarching themes and questions guided by the topic of the role of politics in humanitarianism and grounded in the discipline of political science whilst not omitting those disciplines closely related and complementary to the overarching field. Drawing from our collective strengths and sub-disciplines in international law, anthropology, sociology, and development studies, the IAPSS ATT will develop a series of blog posts, op-eds, papers, and book reviews that situate the nature of the role of politics in humanitarianism in current events and in the body of political science and international relations literature addressing the topic.

Truly global in nature, the IAPSS ATT will draw from regional expertise in Africa, Western and Eastern Europe, and the U.S. to contextualize the nature of humanitarianism in light of current events and the role of politics in humanitarian action, policies, and decision-making. Topics addressed by the ATT – both as individual researchers and within teams – will include areas of work such as the significance of the role of visual representation in humanitarian communication in the terms of hidden power relations and in collective identity perception and formation as well as in marketing as a means of promotion of humanitarian policy and emotional power politics,[5] the role of humanitarian aid for the reputation of states, the seeming paralysis of the international community in enacting the principle of R2P, and a critical evaluation of NGOs versus state sponsored actors in humanitarian aid and policies. The ATT will review work such as “The Shock Doctrine: Rise of Disaster Capitalism” by social activist Naomi Klein and the book “Humanitarianism contested: Where Angels fear to Tread” by Michael Barnett and Thomas G. Weiss and newly released works such as Brian Klaas’s 2016, “The Despot’s Accomplice: How the West is Aiding and Abetting the Decline of Democracy.” The ATT will also organize a panel at the 2017 IAPSS World Congress to bring together research on the central topic addressing the theme of the politics of humanitarianism. By the end of our term as IAPSS ATT members, we aim to advance a number of contributions that address and contextualize the changing nature of politics of humanitarianism through the overarching perspective of political science.

Authors: Charlotte Hammer (ATT Coordinator), Michelle DeFreese, Nino Rusidze, Matsiko Samuel, Jordan Shapiro, Kamila Suchomel (Members of the ATT Working Group 2016/2017)


[1] Tallis, Benjamin. “01/2016 Editorial – Living in Post-Truth: Power/Knowledge/Responsibility.” CEE New Perspectives, July 30, 2016.

[2] “Post-Truth – Definition of Post-Truth in English | Oxford Dictionaries.” Oxford Dictionaries | English. Accessed January 15, 2017.

[3] Human Rights Watch. “World Report 2017: Demagogues Threaten Human Rights.” Human Rights Watch, January 12, 2017.

[4] “Interview – Gilles Carbonnier.” E-International Relations. Accessed January 15, 2017.

[5] Emma Hutchison, “Humanitarian Emotions Through History: Imaging Suffering and Performing Aid.” Accessed January 15, 2017.

IAPSS Academic Department
Under this account posts authored by members and collaborators of the IAPSS Academic Department are published.

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