Whither humanitarianism? Reflections on World Red Cross Red Crescent Day

May 8, 2014
Mukesh Kapila, Professor of Global Health & Humanitarian Affairs, University of Manchester; Former Under Secretary General, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
Portrait of Henry Dunant

Letter to Henry Dunant, father of the Red Cross, born 8 May 1828, died 30 Oct 1910

Dear Henry,

We commemorate your birthday today – 8 May – as World Red Cross Red Crescent Day. If you were alive now, you would be 186 years old. But you are not really gone. We remember you, everywhere and everyday. Everywhere – in the physical symbols and structures of your beloved creation, the Red Cross Red Crescent, scattered across neighbourhoods worldwide. Everyday – whenever someone extends a hand of friendship and compassion to a stranger in distress.

But who were you?

You never smiled during your lifetime. How could you – seeing what you did of the atrocities at the Battle of Solferino in 1859? In your own words:

“How many silent tears were shed that miserable night when all false pride, all human decency even, were forgotten!”

Today, you would be diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and counselled or medicated out of your obsession to change the world. But you resisted and your smartness lay in recognising that the best way to disarm evil is by doing good. Would your dark brooding countenance in your endlessly reproduced portrait lighten a little knowing that two in every 1000 people in today’s world volunteer for the Red Cross Red Crescent?

You were not afraid to speak truth to power as you coaxed and cajoled kings and generals into your universal Red Cross project. Your refusal to compromise on principles ensured solid foundations for international humanitarian law. If you had not stood firm, I wonder if the Geneva Conventions we know would have survived so many turbulent decades, or if we would have the conviction to negotiate them afresh today?

You were also remarkably resilient in the face of extraordinary opposition and abuse. Your own associates exiled you from your birthplace of Geneva and nearly succeeded in airbrushing you out of history. You suffered many long years in obscurity and poverty. But, much to your own bemusement, you were “re-discovered” at a convenient moment when a wounded world needed some feel-good do-good stories. Myth-making was thus your final service to humanity. This is important as your more feeble successors need constant injections of courage in the continued fight against stigma, discrimination, and myriad other social ills, hatreds and cruelties that plague our society.

And what of the Red Cross Red Crescent itself? Your original committee of five good men (from which your stubbornness got you thrown out) has transformed into national entities that cover 189 countries in what is now the world’s largest humanitarian network serving over 155 million most needy and desperate people through some 16 million volunteers and 500,000 staff, and expending around US$35 billion annually.

And yet… are you satisfied? Perhaps you turn in your grave as you contemplate today’s global humanitarian enterprise?

This is now a multi-billion dollar industry with thousands of brand-conscious humanitarian organisations competing in the marketplace of human misery. They employ hundreds of thousands of ambitious professionals for whom humanitarian work is a career track or sometimes, even a lifestyle choice. Humanitarianism has become a respectable academic discipline as researchers dissect its inner mysteries, policy-makers codify its workings, and trainers make a useful livelihood by inducting others into its complex rituals. It is also an indispensable tool for muscular governments vying with each other as they strut on the international stage. It is even a cool affair for film and rock stars to burnish their image by associating with it.

Do you fret that in an age of such amazing capabilities and immense resources, we have, arguably, lessening humanitarian access, even as needs and vulnerabilities from conflicts, crises, and disasters expand? Millions go cold and hungry in Syria, suffer barbarism in the Central African Republic, and endure genocidal assault in Sudan, to name just a few of the contemporary Solferinos.

The humanitarian corpus has metamorphosed but its soul has shrunk. We need you back to remind us that the humanitarian instinct – the urge to help others – is innate in all of us. It can be better tuned and guided, of course, but it cannot be squeezed into a neat corporate package. It needs to remain unruly, and always challenge our complacency. This is because the ultimate message of humanitarianism is that of permanent hope for a better world – by remaining dissatisfied and challenging everyone to do more, do better, and reach further. Just like you did.

So Happy Birthday, dear Henry. There can be no rest in peace for you, as your job is not done.

You can follow Mukesh Kapila on twitter @mukeshkapila.


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