Upholding Humanity in the Face of Failure

Theo AnastopouloLeland

12th Class Mickey Leland International Hunger Fellow Theo Anastopoulo (far left) enjoys a meal and discussion with the rest of his class at the Global Food Security Conference in Leuven, Belgium, April 2024.

The Leland Fellows recently attended the Global Food Security Conference in Leuven, Belgium. Our reunion was ideal for sharing observations and experiences working in the global humanitarian and aid systems. Among the topics we discussed were our convictions, many of which were renewed, some outright dropped, and still others newly formed. Against the backdrop of the conference, where important deliberations scrutinized novel approaches to achieving food security, one cohort discussion in particular reminded me of the role of ethics in steering sound humanitarian action.

Of the four humanitarian principles necessary for effective humanitarianism– humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence – my conviction that the first is the most fundamental remains unwavering. Upholding humanity as the foremost guiding principle of humanitarian action anchors the idea that, even amidst larger goals of peace, or freedom, or justice, recognizing and preserving the value of an individual human life is the ultimate good. It is the humanitarian’s commitment to universal humanity in and of itself that makes all people deserving of assistance. The 1945 UN Charter states this conviction in unequivocal terms: the “fundamental moral principle of humanity” is preserved only when “the dignity and worth of the human person” is fully appreciated. It is the humanitarian’s moral duty, therefore, to value the richness of human life.

It is a moral tragedy that humanitarians do not always cherish this principle.

This fact was made painfully clear when, during a recent trip to Mogadishu, a “technical expert” launched into an awkwardly one-sided conversation fundamentally attacking the merits of humanitarian action in Somalia. At some point he even chastised me as a “boy” – read that as “fool” – for “even coming to Mogadishu.” Why this label applied specifically to me was unclear, as the man’s passionately cynical lecture on the futility of humanitarianism in Somalia left no time for debate. It was jarring to think such negativity occupied a position at the highest level of a major international organization.

Certainly, neither I nor any of the Leland Fellows harbor illusions about the challenges inherent in any humanitarian response – much less one in grievously climate-affected Somalia. At all levels there are institutional, structural, and technical obstacles that could jeopardize effective action. What’s more, if humanitarian agencies cannot overcome these obstacles, they “[run] the moral risk of doing things badly and deceiving the people who trust the organization and are investing in it.”1

It is one thing to acknowledge challenges to humanitarian action and the principles, virtues, and ethics needed to implement it well, but to outright deny the value of humanitarianism writ large I believe is an immoral violation of the principle of humanity.

During a picnic I raised this point with the other Fellows, all of whom agreed. But our agreement hardly assuaged us of the fact that humanitarians often fail in their aims. One need look no further than the 1990s, when a litany of humanitarian failures in Bosnia, Iraq, Rwanda, and Somalia deserted millions of innocent civilians, rocked the global humanitarian system, and changed politics the world over. Till this day, these examples remain a stain on the humanitarian’s reputation. Alex de Waal rightfully referred to this period as a “humanitarian carnival,” whereby the unfeasible and paternalistic ambitions of the humanitarian system did more harm than good.

Still, my colleagues reminded me that humanitarians bearing witness to these operational and moral failures, in addition to the wider atrocities in which they took place, was indeed a direct application of the principle of humanity. Even if they were powerless to alter broader forces during these crises, humanitarians learned, adjusted, and shared widely the human cost of these failures. Even De Waal admits this. There is now growing empirical evidence demonstrating the increasing effectiveness of humanitarian action, in no small part due to the growing role of localized actors, decolonized approaches, greater accountability, and a prevailing recognition that the paternalism of past humanitarian action was unethical, harmful, and a lingering vestige of colonialism.

Botched humanitarian responses nonetheless continue. Crises today in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gaza, Haiti, Somalia, and Sudan underline the need for more global cooperation, constant self-scrutinization of our methods, and like after the 1990s, operational and theoretical reforms. Underscoring humanity in these efforts means decision-making should be ethical, bold, and commensurate with the scale of the crises we face. I am thankful for the opportunity to work alongside a cohort that already understands the absolute necessity of centering humanity in our work.


The 12th Class of Leland Fellows in Leuven, Belgium

  1. Slim, Hugo. 2015. Humanitarian Ethics: A Guide to the Morality of Aid in War and Disaster. Oxford University Press. []

About the Authors

Theo is a proud Greek-American from Charleston, South Carolina. He studied global food security at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, where he earned a master's degree in 2023. For two years Theo has served as a research assistant for a USAID project studying famine typologies and trajectories, which forms the basis of his graduate thesis, "Famine that Annihilates." He has also interned with International Crisis Group and The Fund for Peace. Theo is particularly interested in the political economy of hunger, famine trajectories, and anthropological approaches to the study of famine. Before graduate school Theo helped refugee populations learn English in Athens, Greece, volunteered with the Peace Corps in Mozambique, and worked as an AmeriCorps Member in South Carolina. He completed his undergraduate degree in history at Clemson University. Theo's favorite book is The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

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