Ethical Humanitarianisms

Project Team:

Divine Fuh (HUMA)

Kwaku Arhin-Sam (FIFE)


This project addresses the ethical quandaries that underpin humanitarian work in Africa, asking how to build more ethical humanitarian interventions in a world of conflicting ethics. It interrogates the irony and contradiction of humanitarianism worried about its own ethics. The project takes its cue from contemporary ethical dilemmas confronting humanitarian work worldwide, with a particular focus on the African continent where the enterprise of solidarity and generosity has seen a boom over the past years. It critically examines shifts in the fundamental principles that underpin humanitarian work – justice, beneficence, non-maleficence, and autonomy. What new moral, ethical and legal challenges confront the business of saving lives and preserving human dignity? What new ideas and notions of personhood and dignity underpin conceptions of universal values? What compromises are being made and what is being compromised? We approach humanitarianism more broadly as a notion that incorporates diverse acts of kindness towards humans. These acts of kindness are local and transnational, external and internal, in kind, cash, technical support, advice, amongst others that activate care and caring relationships. The project thus interrogates the ontological and epistemological assumptions that underpin different imaginaries of humanitarianism, and ask what it will mean and take to decolonise these. That is, how to account for acts of kindness that is normally not included in “formal” humanitarian projects or conceptions of humanitarianism. What is philanthropy? What is humanitarian work, who gets to define what constitutes humanitarian work, and what are the ethical backgrounds of these classifications?

The project is conceptualised within the framework of a collaboration/partnership between HUMA – Institute for Humanities in Africa in South Africa headed by Divine Fuh, and Friedensau Institute for Evaluation (FIFE) in Germany headed by Kwaku Arhin-Sam. It starts with monthly roundtable discussion and workshop series addresses the questions raised in the concept note, accompanied by a podcast/video cast series. The research programme will involve scholars, policy makers and various actors and stakeholders in the humanitarian sector.