The Duck of Minerva

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The Paradox of Humanitarian Action

April 21, 2006

I have been quite busy this week hosting Fiona Terry, author of Condemned to Repeat? The Paradox of Humanitarian Action, and 2006 winner of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. She’s been a great guest and the book is truly worth your time.

Terry, by the way, has a PhD in Political Science and International Relations from Australian National University — and has been a humanitarian field worker for about 15 years. At the time she published the book, she was research director for the French section of the Nobel-winning group, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).

Terry’s passport reflects a large part of the political history of the post-cold war era. She served in Somalia in the early 1990s, then (I’m not 100% sure of the order) Vietnam, northern Iraq, Rwanda, Liberia, and across the border from North Korea. She’s been in Myanmar (Burma) for about two and a half years and will leave there in October for some other global hotspot.

Today, before flying back to her current post for the International Red Cross, Terry was on a local public radio interview program, “State of Affairs.” If you are interested in her ideas, but don’t have access to the book, listen to the entire program from the website.

The archive is here. The April 21 show is not yet there, but I’ll try to post a link when it appears.

The Cornell University Press website explains the book’s main argument:

Humanitarian groups have failed, Fiona Terry believes, to face up to the core paradox of their activity: humanitarian action aims to alleviate suffering, but by inadvertently sustaining conflict it potentially prolongs suffering….

[She] makes clear that the paradox of aid demands immediate attention by organizations and governments around the world. The author stresses that, if international agencies are to meet the needs of populations in crisis, their organizational behavior must adjust to the wider political and socioeconomic contexts in which aid occurs.

Most recently, by the way, Terry’s book was seen under the arm of one of the world’s most famous international aid advocates. If you get People magazine, check out p. 13 of the April 3, 2006 edition.

Note: The University of Louisville gives the Grawemeyer World Order awardannually and I have administered it since 1995. There are four other $200,000 awards: for Religion, Psychology, Education and Music.

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.