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Paternalism in Humanitarian Efforts: Despicable, Justifiable or Both?

08 Jun 2015
George Washington University professor of International Affairs & Political Science Michael Barnett (Understanding Modern Humanitarianism) gave this talk on “Paternalism Beyond Borders” at the Universidad de los Andes (Colombia) last April 7th, 2015.

If paternalism can be defined as “one actor’s substitution of his judgment for another’s on the grounds that it is in the latter’s interest, welfare or happiness,” then paternalism is ever present in humanitarian action. This includes emergency relief, development, peace building, public health and human rights.  Barnett considers the mix of elements that give rise to it:  a combination of the will to do good for others, inequality of power, and the justification by the powerful or expert that those they seek to help are incompetent or incapable of helping themselves.  Paternalism is not a factor when the goal of intervention is domination, because paternalism melds care and control. It comes into play when one more powerful seeks to tell another what is good for him – for his own good.  Justification for such imposition is easiest closest to home and hardest as the arena expands. Barnett explains some of the factors that make paternalism harder to defend in the international context (like spatial and cultural distance, lack of community, etc) and some of the reasons why it does and even perhaps should continue to exist (like illegitimate states that do not represent their citizens as well as the international community would).

 


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