Forces of Compassion: Humanitarianism Between Ethics and Politics

Edited by Erica L. Bornstein and Peter Redfield

Forces of CompassionForces of CompassionForces of Compassion

Although suffering and charity are hardly new, the final decades of the twentieth century witnessed the emergence of changes in the forms and norms of both. Natural disasters and civilian suffering in war now feature the recurring drama of “humanitarian crisis” for the international media, while a vast complex of interstate entities and nongovernmental organizations seek to supply aid to victims. “The impulse to alleviate suffering, known as humanitarianism, is a central element in international moral discourse,” say Erica Bornstein and Peter Redfield, editors of Forces of Compassion. But although humanitarian action has provoked considerable commentary, “there are as yet relatively few in-depth ethnographic and historical accounts of humanitarian organizations, cosmologies, and encounters,” they say.

The contemporary aid world is a mosaic of aid sectors, each skewed slightly toward a particular aspect of need and action. The development sector focuses on alleviating poverty, while the human rights sector aims to rectify identifiable wrongs. Humanitarianism directly addresses physical and psychological suffering. The contributors to Forces of Compassion examine this sector through the lens of anthropology, looking at dominant practices, tensions, and beliefs.

Forces of Compassion...asks why the suffering of distant strangers is compelling, why response is organized in the specific ways it is, and what unintended consequences are bundled into humanitarian action,” says Craig Calhoun, president of the Social Science Research Council and professor at New York University.

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