Making Humanitarian Action Possible

Delivering humanitarian aid in postwar societies can be difficult in the face of political pressures and great demand for limited resources. In order for aid to be effective, the criteria for what constitutes legitimate humanitarian action must be established and maintained in an ongoing negotiation with a diverse range of stakeholders. This crucial yet understudied cultural and social process plays a decisive role in shaping humanitarian aid and its effects.

McMaster Researcher


“From Humanitarianism to humanitarianization: Intimacy, estrangement, and international aid in postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina.” American Ethnologist. Volume 43, Issue 4.

Funded by

What is this research about?

The Bosnian war was the first major conflict to be dubbed a “humanitarian crisis” and many citizens were forced to leave the country as refugees in order to escape the violence. Once the war had ended, many refugees were returned to Bosnia. However, many of their homes had been destroyed in the war and local authorities were often hostile to the prospect of refugee return. There was a large effort on the part of international organizations to deliver aid to the returnees in the form of housing reconstruction, but this effort took place under circumstances when the humanitarian nature of the aid could not be taken for granted. This research examines the non-technical work that aid workers had to do in order to establish and maintain a humanitarian field of action, a process the researcher defines as humanitarianization.

What did the researchers do?

The researcher accompanied humanitarian aid workers in post-war Bosnia and witnessed the meetings and interactions that “humanitarianized” how aid was to be distributed among returnees. Using this field research as a case study, the researcher illustrates the challenges of providing humanitarian aid in a postwar context.

What did the researchers find?

This study found that in order to establish an environment conducive to the delivery of aid and to avoid a range of political and social obstacles, the staff of international NGOs had to define themselves and their aid projects as legitimately humanitarian. The most effective way to do this was to distinguish their aid work from “politics.” In order for this claim to be humanitarian to succeed, however, aid workers required that others—returning refugees, international donors, local government officials—recognize and agree to that claim.  Securing and maintaining such recognition was difficult in a context of competing ideas about what constituted “politics” and what made a person, project, or action “humanitarian.”  In fact, most Bosnians expected to see “politics” whenever large resources, like those dedicated to housing reconstruction, were involved.    
This research offers examples of how this unfolded in practice as aid workers worked to define the parameters of what counted as humanitarian and what did not; in postwar Bosnia, this meant claiming to serve those most in need.  Once these parameters were established, aid workers had to consistently demonstrate that they were distributing aid consistent with them and not according to other factors motivating the distribution of resources, such as wartime suffering, ethnic identity, or political party affiliation.
Sometimes aid workers were accused of not being humanitarian, i.e. not operating according to their own criteria of need. In order to illustrate the stakes of such accusations, the research provides an example when unreliable information provided by returnees and a lack of cooperation from local officials raised suspicions that threatened the integrity of the selection procedures.  The risk of being seen as “political,” as not humanitarian, was significant enough that aid workers suspended a housing reconstruction project.

How can you use this research?

This research can be used by international humanitarian organizations to gain a better understanding of the technical, social, and cultural requirements involved in the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Have you seen an impact of this research?

Suggest an Impact