Book Review: Between Samaritans and States: The Political Ethics of Humanitarian INGOs

Reviewed by Bradley Williams

Between Samaritans and States: The Political Ethics of Humanitarian INGOs by Jennifer C. Rubenstein


How should scholars, activists, and states understand not only the activities of humanitarian INGOs, but also ethically? Humanitarian INGOs (international non-governmental organizations) tend to be characterized by ‘donor’ countries, those usually western countries that provide assistance, as either purely altruistic Samaritans, as unqualified and intrusive agents, or as cold and calculating corporate organizations.

Rubenstein shows that none of these conceptions is adequate and instead proposes intelligent alternatives far more complex than these all or nothing identities. This book illustrates a ‘political ethics’ approach that elides all simplification. Rubenstein identities four main questions that she thoroughly examines:

  • what kind of actors are humanitarian INGOs?
  • what types of ethical predicaments do humanitarian INGOs regularly face?
  • are there better and worse ways for them to respond to the ethical predicaments they face?
  • how does close study of humanitarian INGO political ethics broaden our understanding of democratic, humanitarian, egalitarian, and justice-based norms?

Rubenstein outlines eight approaches to understanding the work of humanitarian INGOs that are dominant in scholarly literature, public and governmental discourse. Due to the depth of analysis provided in the book, I will generally highlight some the many insights that can be found.

First, INGOs are seen as apolitical ‘rescuers’ that only respond to crises. This suggests that INGOs do not go through significant planning or only rescue in short-term, one-off operations. Actually, INGOs “deliberate, in advance, about how to allocate about how to allocate their limited resources among countries, regions, issues, and types of activities, including tradeoffs between emergency aid and other activities” (p.31). This insight corresponds to a critique, which Rubenstein makes, of how humanitarian norms are operationalized in the work of INGOs.

Second, humanitarian INGOs can be characterized as ‘partner.’ Partnership implies that INGOs have an equal status as domestic NGOs, community-based and civil society organizations, and government agencies. INGOs have different, often greater access, to resources that are not bound by the sovereign jurisdiction of the state of the country in question. Also INGOs have priorities that often conflict with any responsibility to empower domestic actors with which they communicate.

Third, Rubenstein notes that INGOs have responsibility to meet the preferences or interests of their donors. Yet, INGOs are normatively guided by principles that do not fit easily with the political priorities of any one or group of donors. While donors might have distinct moral interests, it seems misleading to primarily characterize INGOs as even being capable of navigating effectively between competing normative priorities. As Rubenstein also points out, not only do donors influence INGOs, but INGOs also project a significant amount of influence of their donors, by shaping their perceptions about issues of sever poverty and famine, for instance (p.39).

Fourth, humanitarian INGOs are sometimes thought of as ‘agents for their intended beneficiaries.’ This means that INGOs are merely required to fulfill the interests of the populations to the extent that there is no need for a discussion of political ethics. Like their relationship with donor, INGOs often have somewhat competing priorities with their beneficiaries. Beneficiaries are also not bound by the resource limitation of INGOs.

Fifth, INGOs have a responsibility to be first and foremost ‘accountable.’ Accountability ensures that INGOs can justify their actions to the various parties affected by their work and meaningful sanctions if they fail to meet these standards. INGOs are rarely accountable to any one group, or sanctioned in a way that would somehow provide a meaningful compensation for failing to meet stated responsibilities.

The sixth account of humanitarian INGOs states that they are primarily identifiable by their adherence to traditional humanitarian principles. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, these principles include “humanity,” “impartiality,” and “independence.” Of course, these principles only apply when performing humanitarian activities, and as Rubenstein clearly states, there is much more to the work of INGOs than humanitarianism could encompass.

The seventh characterization is that of ‘neo-colonialist.’ This is the most negative of the list and implies that “any account of INGO political ethics is beside the point, and indeed serves only to further legitimate organizations that should not exist” (p.45).

Finally, the eighth account sees INGOs as merely another form of multinational corporation (MNC). This is the account addressed in works such as Alexander Colley and James Ron’s The NGO Scramble. This account sees an analogy between INGOs and MNCs, donors and shareholders, aid recipients and customers. Rubenstein clearly defines a much more accurate portrayal, by describing, if anything, donors as analogous to customers, because donors can use market forces to check INGOs that do not perform to their liking.

Furthermore, MNCs are guided by principles that characterized as ‘business ethics’ (p.49). The ethical principles would be in such disharmony with democratic, egalitarian, justice-based, and humanitarian norms as to make the work of INGOs make little sense or be totally ineffective. This does not seem to be the case for any organization, let alone an INGO, which lasts for any length of time.
Rubenstein continues to describe four ethical predicaments that seem to be unaccounted or not fully accounted for in the eight accounts of humanitarian INGOs. INGOs are sometimes somewhat governmental, in that they often enact governance activities, such as conventional governance similar to states and they also enact global governance activities by seeking to change the structure and operation of international governance structures.

Also, INGOs are often “second-best actors,” in that they may either displace actors such as domestic NGOs, civil society or local government organizations that could better meet the needs of beneficiaries. As Rubenstein points out, it is sometimes the best plan of action for INGOs to know when to back away from directly promoting a population and empowering populations or domestic organizations to act on their own behalf. INGOs are highly political. They exercise discursive power through the framing of issues. Secondly, INGO activities often have unintended consequences, such as when violent groups repurpose aid resources. INGOs are given ‘moral permissions,’ specific entitlements granted to them based on the level of responsibilities they have. This complicates the activities of INGOs, because again INGOs are often ‘second-best actors,’ that should not be held to the same standards as governments.

After describing the limitations of orthodox conceptions of INGOs’ ethics, Rubenstein offers four political ethical areas that can better characterize some of the politically sensitive predicaments they encounter. She uses an interesting cartographic analogy that helps the reader navigate the otherwise dense material. Her analogy of maps is an innovative interpretive frame that I think other scholars could benefit from. For instance, in situations where INGOs should decide whether or not to leave when their actions may actually perpetuate the injustices that they seek to alleviate. She states that INGOs should justify their decision to stay or go and that they are morally responsible for their decisions.

INGOs should be aware of their capabilities and always be ready to relinquish their position to other actors that can better serve beneficiaries, particularly ones that have more experience “on the ground” (125). Rubenstein also provides a nuanced approach to conceptualizing the ethical conundrum of INGOs faced with questions about minimizing harm and refusing to act when harmful situations seem unavoidable or unmanageable. Finally, Rubenstein describes a situation she calls the “moral motivation tradeoff” (p.185). This describes situations where the images used in campaigns, which are seen as beneficial for gaining donors, yet run the risk of degrading the people they portray. This is an interesting issue, and one that previous literature has not adequately dealt with.

Though I have not previously read Rubenstein’s work, I think her work is very interesting. Regarding the focus of the book, I think this is one of the most insightful works available on the subject. Much of the book addresses the question of whether or not a discussion of political ethics is necessary, which I think she successfully answers: yes, it definitely is. The book addresses most of the competing approaches with depth and clarity, leaving nothing of importance wanting from the discussion. Rubenstein does not wholly discount any of the other ethical approaches. This book is useful for anyone that finds the sheer number of approaches hard to navigate. The book definitely progresses the discussion, and I think scholars will be remiss not to cite it when conducting research into the ethical implication of humanitarian INGOs. It is a great tool for students of non-state governance in various fields, practitioners, and educators.

Bradley W. Williams is a doctoral researcher at George Mason University. He studies transnational governance, social movements, peace and organizational processes. Twitter: @B_W_Williams


Categories: Reviews

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *