Defining Humanitarian

Ethiopia 2 038

        What does it mean to me to be a humanitarian?  This question has been on my mind for the last few months.  The more I write on this blog, the more I have a need to sort this out.  The core of the question for me is how to separate humanitarian work from individual growth… is it about what you receive doing this kind of work or is it only about what you put out there?  And if it is only about what you give, then maybe writing about your feelings in a blog takes away from your credibility… in other words, it makes you less of a humanitarian.  Is that true?  Can you really separate what you receive and what you learn about yourself, from what you give?  Are they mutually exclusive?  The basic definitions of humanitarian address only the outward goal.  According to the Oxford English Diction, the definition of humanitarian is a person “concerned with or seeking to promote human welfare.”  Irving Babbit, one of the founders of the New Humanist movement and literary critic from the early 1900s, gave us an early definition of humanitarianism:  "A person who has sympathy for mankind in the lump, faith in its future progress, and desire to serve the great cause of this progress, should be called not a humanist, but a humanitarian, and his creed may be designated as humanitarianism."  But the concept of humanitarianism goes back to much deeper roots, roots that address the spiritual and ethical drive for doing humanitarian work – religion.    

        I was curious about the religious basis for humanitarian work, given the many, many faith-based humanitarian organizations.  Loving one’s neighbor is a Jewish and Christian commandment, rooted in the Old Testament. Maimonides, the first Jewish spiritual leader to write a systematic code of Jewish law states, “If one person is able to save another and does not save him, he transgresses the commandment. Neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor.”  In Christianity, Jesus teaches that the most important task in doing God’s will is to respond to all people’s needs as if every person is God (Matthew 25:35-36: “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me”).  Assisting the poor is one of the five pillars of Islam. Acts of humanitarianism are an essential element of religious practice for the Muslim. For Muslims, to undertake a humanitarian act is a way of receiving help from heaven, of erasing sins, and of meriting Paradise. It is also a sacred task in Buddhism. Buddhist writings teach that the Buddha nurtured all beings and always had the best interests of others in his mind and heart. In short, his every thought, word, and action arose from a heart filled with deep care and concern for others.  So, humanitarian work is an imperative for almost all religions. Religion accomplishes two things: (1) it provides a spiritual and ethical basis for engaging in humanitarian work and (2) it allows humanitarianism to unite religions rather than divide them.  

        But religion alone is not the answer.   Given the above common threads within religions, humanitarian work should surpass religion.  In my readings, I came across a Code that is followed by many humanitarian organizations both secular and faith-based.  This Code of Conduct introduces the concept of the “humanitarian imperative.” This imperative expands the principle of humanity to include the right to receive and to give humanitarian assistance. It states the obligation of the international community “to provide humanitarian assistance wherever it is needed.”  According to the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International and the Red Cross, the principle commitments of the Code are as follows:

1.    The humanitarian imperative comes first;
2.    Aid is given regardless of the race, creed or nationality of the recipients and without adverse distinction of any kind. Aid priorities are calculated on the basis of need alone;
3.    Aid will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint;
4.    We shall endeavor not to be used as an instrument of government foreign policy;
5.    We shall respect culture and custom;
6.    We shall attempt to build disaster response on local capacities;
7.    Ways shall be found to involve program beneficiaries in the management of relief aid;
8.    Relief aid must strive to reduce vulnerabilities to future disaster as well as meeting basic needs;
9.    We hold ourselves accountable to both those we seek to assist and those from whom we accept resources;
10.  In our information, publicity and advertising activities, we shall recognize disaster victims as dignified human beings, not hopeless objects.

Following the Code is a voluntary act for humanitarian organizations.  And to follow the Code, faith-based organizations do not need to lessen their spiritual vision.  In fact, the humanitarian imperative is neutral and impartial and allows the organizations and the individuals involved to heed their own religious texts, finding their own basis, their own driving force for involvement in humanitarian work.  It is because of this interplay, that I find the Code to be so much more powerful.  But this Code still doesn’t answer my question of how to (and whether I should) separate the benefits to me from the benefits to others.

        My intent is not to write a thesis on the religious basis of humanitarian work nor a thesis on the impact of the humanitarian imperative on faith-based organizations.  But rather address my own questions regarding what it means for me to do “humanitarian” work.  Why do I feel a drive to do this kind of work?  What is the basis in my own spirituality?  And does it lessen the value of the work that I do if I learn and grow from it as a person?  And, even more so, does it decrease the value of what I have done or learned if I write about it?  Ok… so I am a humanitarian.  But I have said in past blogs that in doing humanitarian work, I strive to move beyond what I am to the core of who I am. Here, the “what” and the “who” blur lines and I have difficulty separating the two.  Why do I feel a drive to do this kind of work?  Well, ultimately I seek to promote human welfare.  I know one person can make a difference, regardless of how frustrating the process can sometimes be.  My religion and my spirituality provide a strong basis for my desire to help others, to see others united in a common cause, to work hand-in-hand with other religions, other humans and other nationalities to promote human welfare.   I don’t see how I can separate my own growth with my drive and need to provide for others.  

        Why does this matter?  Humanitarian work is not easy.  I don’t do it to feel good.  I don’t do it to write about it.  I don’t do it to tell others that this is what I do.  I do it because at my core, I feel that it is my obligation as a person of faith and ultimately, as a human.  It is hard work.  In fact, it is very, very hard work.  It takes me away from my family.  It removes me from my comfort zone.  It costs me time and money.  So it is impossible for me to separate my experiences with the impact that I have on others.  We are, after all, only human.  Each of us struggles each day with our own shortcomings, our own frustrations, and our own feelings.  Why should our experience with humanitarian work be any different?  The biggest mistake we could each make would be to walk away from any experience and not learn from it.  Whether we seek to engage in a single charitable act or a long-term commitment to humanitarian work, we should seek to grow as individuals and as a community of humans who seek to better the world.  We should expect to gain some benefit from doing this kind of work… and maybe if we don’t we are not looking at ourselves closely enough. According to the classic Chinese text, Tao te Ching, “He who knows others is learned; He who knows himself is wise.” 

        I think the answer, for me at least, is to acknowledge that I do benefit personally from doing humanitarian work.  But, I do the work in spite of the benefit that I gain from it, not because of it. Above I used the pronouns “I” and “me” initially to make a point – I would argue that at some level participation in humanitarian work is about the individual.  But, maybe we should strive to start there and then take our participation to the next level.  For some the benefit (the “feel good”) might be the ultimate reward and that is ok. They are still doing good work and are no less of a humanitarian.  Instead of attempting to separate individual benefit from the outward impact of humanitarian work, we should focus on the positive impact that each person can make, regardless of the driving force.  Writing about the impact of humanitarian work allows each of us to ponder these questions for ourselves.  I would argue that it does not lessen the impact of the work we do but rather deepens our own personal experience and hopefully allows us to share that experience with those around us.  We should strive to be both learned and wise.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

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