Follow Us

Follow on Twitter    Follow on Facebook    YouTube Channel    Vimeo Channel    Tumblr    SoundCloud Channel    iPhone App    iPhone App

The Early Plight of Humanitarianism

[Cover of Keith David Watenpaugh, [Cover of Keith David Watenpaugh, "Bread from Stones: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism"]

Keith David Watenpaugh, Bread from Stones: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015

America is a comfortable and rich country. We have safe homes….Their homes are in ruins….The moan of a race moves out across the heart of a stricken world.

This emotive call from a Near East Relief (NER) pamphlet to assist destitute Armenians, entitled The Cry of a Million: Exiled Destitute Dying, was published in 1916, but its words resonate across Europe a century later. The mass deportation and genocide of the Armenian community in 1915 helped trigger new ways of thinking about “human rights” and “humanitarianism,” including categorization of the “refugee.” In the context of empire and colonialism, Keith David Watenpaugh traces how the “humanitarian acts” practiced by Western actors in the Eastern Mediterranean in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century shaped an ideology of a humanitarianism based on professionalism—marking a shift away from previously missionary intervention in the region.

The beginning of the twentieth century witnessed a number of humanitarian crises, caused by both men and nature, which were dealt with very differently by the burgeoning international aid community. In 1915, a plague of locusts decimated the lands of the Levant, leading to starvation in Beirut, Jerusalem, and Baghdad. Calls for emergency relief from Baghdad fell on deaf ears, while they were answered generously in Beirut and Jerusalem. Also in 1915, the Rockefeller Foundation commissioned a War Relief Commission report to document the plight of the Armenian people and concluded that “the Armenian communities have been broken up so thoroughly that temporary relief cannot repair the damage.” The Greco-Turkish and Anatolian civil wars led to the expulsion from their homelands of the very refugee communities that American relief agencies were assisting; and the newly established Soviet Union grew hostile to the presence of Western aid workers in the Caucasus.

Bread from Stones: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism adds to a growing body of historical literature that examines modern humanitarianism as a unique collection of practices that were contemporaneous to, and informed by, the early twentieth-century ideologies of nationalism and colonialism. It contextualizes the practice of compassion, the disjuncture between the nation state and humanitarian principles, and the creation and manipulation of the humanitarian subject in the context of the birth of an “international community.” In trying to disentangle the “aspirational idealism” of human rights from other forms of social governance, Watenpaugh highlights the inherent weakness of humanitarianism and how it ultimately never escaped the influence of nationalist ideas and agendas. Indeed, going further, he shows how the nation state was strengthened in the very act of subverting humanitarianism, by marshaling its sovereignty and thus ensuring the continued suffering of the stateless and minorities it rejected.

In 1915, Armenians were deported from Ottoman Turkey, enduring death marches, rapes, confinement in concentration camps, and murder. The genocide prompted the first cases of charitable assistance—the American Near East Relief (NER) charitable organization was established in 1915, just after the deportations began—and the first instance of the “humanitarian report.” The dispatches of Henry Morgenthau, the American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and testimonies collected by historian Arnold J. Toynbee in the 1916 The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire galvanized much support for the Armenians among the American public. It was the plight of the Armenians, alongside the decimation and displacement caused by the First World War, which also prompted the formation of the first international humanitarian regime for refugees.

Right from the start, humanitarianism was hamstrung by the prioritization of the nascent nation-state system in the wake of the collapse of empire. Distinguishing the Ottoman state’s concerns about the way accepting foreign humanitarian assistance might undermine its sovereignty, Watenpaugh tells us, is critical to understanding how choices were made by both Western humanitarians and the Ottoman state about which groups received assistance and why. And it was the “growing power and organizational capabilities of the Ottoman government and its military” which meant that humanitarian intervention failed to prevent the mass deportations, rape, and massacres of the Armenians. Arguably the humanitarian spirit itself was a nationalist construct, employed only to favorably shape the imagination of the nation providing humanitarian assistance. The helping of Armenia was turned into an “American” obligation, asserting a national heroism and a pride in righting global wrongs. In one poster, a neoclassical Columbia is portrayed with a sword protecting a waifish Armenian child dressed in rags—the secular nation re-imagined in a religious light. Something similar could be said of Turkey’s hospitality to Syrian refugees today. Later, the efforts to assist Armenians scattered across Syria, Lebanon, and Russia in maintaining their cultural distinction and language ran alongside French colonial strategies to foster the political development of non-Arab communities in order to halt the impacts of a swelling pan-Arab nationalism.

Watenpaugh goes so far as to suggest that “the modern state can even welcome the modes of humanitarian action as an adjunct to the act of genocide itself.” He uses as the basis for this argument a War Relief Commission report produced by the Rockefeller Foundation, which concluded that relief to the interior of Anatolia would not be possible at that moment since “[t]he Turks feel that the Armenian communities have been broken up so thoroughly that temporary relief cannot repair the damage.” The clinical reasoning of that sentence resonates with the larger critique of humanitarianism’s inability to prevent suffering.

The formation of the League of Nations in the wake of World War I was a reflection of the growing ideology of “shared humanity,” but this was very much a Western construct. The Nansen passport, the legal document given to refugees to allow them to travel freely, made no provision for the refugees to have any ability to act politically in any arena. It put the onus on the state  by providing them with a “reservoir of controllable workers” who had no political agency or civil rights. Watenpaugh argues that the passports “bear witness to the moral and ethical vacuity (even uselessness) of the interwar refugee regime.” In a damning reflection on the abilities of the international community to effect change, Watenpaugh writes: “The relegation of the problem of the postgenocide Ottoman Armenians to that level after decades of international advocacy on their behalf demonstrates how swiftly a humanitarian emergency can fade from view or become an inconvenient and forgettable problem for humanity.” This is a lose-lose situation for humanity—not important enough for the nation state and lost in the melee of international agendas. He goes on to describe the “substitution of humanitarianism for Politics,” in which “the actual root cause of human suffering...was met with purposeful silence and a formal indifference”.

What is human suffering? Questioning and delineating it became popular in the face of the devastation wrought by war, displacement, human misery, and depravity. Aleppo Rescue Home and Neutral Houses in Istanbul, as well as various orphanages around the Levant such as the one in Aintoura in Lebanon, housed thousands of rescued Armenian women and children, many of them orphans, who had been trafficked in the immediate aftermath of the Armenian genocide. Efforts to rescue this demographic, Watenpaugh argues, signaled that the definition of “suffering” had extended to include the legal status of women and children. For Karen Jeppe, the Danish administrator of the League of Nations Rescue Home in Aleppo, the process of rehabilitation was not just an educational and training process but also a cultural act, in which the rescued would be turned back into “human beings.” The young American aid worker Stanley Kerr similarly viewed his job not just as immediate relief, but also an act of “restorative justice” for the Armenians—the repatriation of Armenians to their homelands under the auspices of a European protectorate. By implication, their suffering could only end once they’d achieved self-determination.

This broadening notion of suffering was influenced heavily by Woodrow Wilson’s ideas about community, and liberal nationalism’s emphasis on the extension of categories of rights to nations and, in the modern sense, ethnicities. This extension had wide implications, not only for the international reach of humanitarianism, but also for obligations towards post-conflict society. The practice of humanitarianism became both a matter of emergency relief and of development to alleviate violations of “human rights.” Watenpaugh avoids too much discussion about the development of human rights discourse, other than to say human rights and humanitarianism have an interwined history that is difficult to disentangle. But he highlights the importance of neutrality, selectivity, and nongovernmentality to the practice of humanitarianism, and how rights abuse (civil, human, or national) figures in the historical conceptualization of human suffering.

If human suffering included cultural denigration and being stripped of dignity, the solution was posited as the nation state and self-determination. But whose job was it to impose this? Watenpaugh’s most interesting reflections on the Armenian situation come in his discussions of reconciling obsessions over ethnicity with restorative justice, and thus reconciling the universal with the particular. He points out that helping rescued and orphaned Armenian children was a problem of humanity in general, but also a specific problem for the Armenian community. The problem of humanity posed by the existence of a denationalized and stateless refugee population would still be a problem for humanity, not at the level of the state, but rather at the nexus of international institutions, philanthropic organizations, and diasporic political parties and civil society groups. It was this debate over the most appropriate form of development that led the NER (which had become the NEF by this stage) to later release a statement of purpose in 1930 calling for a divorce of “rights-based development” from “traditional” humanitarian development—implementing “minimally invasive” projects that would address human security issues but not engage in any actions that might provide opportunities to provide political and social rights (this again may seem as recognition of the primacy of sovereignty). It stated: “People on the field would rather have less money and a statesman like program than large sums for objects that are not carefully thought out.” But this “statesman like program” often precluded addressing root problems of social and economic inequality or political disenfranchisement.

But alongside the belief in preserving ethnicities through the act of self-determination there was a paradoxical racism at the heart of humanitarianism, which resisted the notion of self-determination of different ethnicities. The creation of the humanitarian subject itself was an exercise in homogenization. Decisions about the ethnicity of orphans in the Istanbul Neutral House were made on the basis of observations about their past, such as nursery rhymes and folk songs, but very few of the disputed children were determined to be Muslim. The Christians in Jerusalem and Beirut were more worthy of assistance than the Muslims in Baghdad. The humanitarian attachment of Mabel Evelyn Elliott, the American humanitarian worker assisting Armenian women, was strengthened by her affinity of class and gender to the educated young Armenian women—perhaps unfairly, as Watenpaugh suggests. The Armenians were to be pitied so much precisely because they were being oppressed by Turks and Arabs, and they were consequently unique in the degree to which their cause mattered in Geneva and Washington (efforts to expand the coverage of the Nansen passport to other stateless refugees, including Jewish refugees in Romania and Roma and Hungarians scattered throughout Europe, were generally opposed).

Watenpaugh uses these examples to argue that at the centre of humanitarian logic is the project of “unstrangering the object of humanitarianism”. As part of this project, the humanitarian subject is imagined to be “knowable, even to the point of being envisioned as an extension of the self or community of that subject.” He suggests that the massacres and deportations qualified as genocide, which was a problem for humanity precisely because it entailed the destruction of people “like ourselves.” But extending this logic suggests that humanitarianism can never apply to those “others” who are not “like ourselves” and is thus at its core an indirectly elitist ideology.

Such an argument undermines the project of a shared humanity itself and weighs heavily on the project of an egalitarian humanitarianism, calling into question its very possibility. Racism against minorities, the stateless, and the dispossessed does not easily allow for their protection or assistance. In the early twentieth century, self-determination was heralded as being the end point of suffering, but inherent racism between nations and a failure to place the international community, which then existed in the form of the League of Nations, above state agendas inevitably led to people falling through the gaps. This is a circular argument, which brings no closer solutions for the situation of the displaced and stateless. The failure of the international community to grant Armenia a state, despite much support, is the most obvious example of such a failure. This left two options for such stateless individuals—assimilation or rejection.

Tonight, the most bitter cold of all this winter….Our orphans, old women and men will remain in our compounds….Perhaps by remaining here we can protect the remaining Armenians from massacre….We are in great danger, but not without hope….No matter what happens remember that I am ready to make any sacrifice even death.

These words were written by Stanley Kerr, a twenty-three year old American Near East Relief (NER) official, to his parents back home in Philadelphia. They highlight the individual integrity, selflessness, and belief in humanitarian principles that guided many early Western aid workers offering relief in the Eastern Mediterranean. Unlike previous work on the subject, such as Michael Barnett’s highly critical study on the bureaucratization of humanitarianism, Watenpaugh places personal narratives at the center of his work. It is this struggle to reconcile the personal acts of sacrifice and individual moral belief in humanitarianism with the broader “system of humanitarianism,” often detrimental to its subjects, which forms one of the most valuable paradoxes of the book. How is it that the selfless work of individuals like Kerr and Karen Jeppe, the Danish Director of the Aleppo Rescue Home, can contribute to a broadly ineffective system? How is it possible to extrapolate individual acts of goodness to a system of true egalitarianism? It is a tension that continues to frame much debate in the development world, but it is unlikely to find an optimistic slant in this retelling of earlier humanitarian endeavors.

This begs the question of whether a politics of compassion can exist alongside the state system. The status of Armenian refugees, stateless and without prospect of self-determination, prompted “what has since become a question lying at the heart of modern humanitarianism: who is responsible for displaced and stateless peoples?” The remains the most relevant question to today’s refugee and migrant crisis. But the fundamental paradoxes present at the birth of modern humanitarianism continue to undermine it today. One community suffers at the expense of another. The humanitarian’s ethics of neutrality is in tension with its inherent politicization. The creation of the humanitarian subject is biased. This latter point, as was the case for Armenian refugees being privileged in the American conscience above Russians and Jews, is today helping to delineate between Syrian and other refugees, between classified and non-classified refugees, between refugees and migrants. Ultimately, Watenpaugh, in placing humanitarianism within a historical and intellectual context that explain its connections with other kinds of aspirational idealism, shows us how its flaws are intrinsic and how its tension with the state system and the insecurities of the international community were built into its very architecture. Building a system of humanitarianism that overcomes these flaws will therefore necessarily entail rethinking its relationship to the state and to international governance.

If you prefer, email your comments to




Apply for an ASI Internship now!


Political Economy Project

Issues a

Call for Letters of Interest


Jadaliyya Launches its

Political Economy




F O R    T H E    C L A S S R O O M 

Roundtable: Harold Wolpe’s Intellectual Agenda and Writing on Palestine


The 1967 Defeat and the Conditions of the Now: A Roundtable


E N G A G E M E N T