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Reflections on humanitarianism: David Rieff’s "A Bed for the Night"

30-09-2003 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 851, by Andras Vailin


Andras Vailin
is a freelance development consultant working mainly with North American and European NGOs. 
 In A Bed for the Night , David Rieff explains his frustration at the limitations and shortcomings of contemporary humanitarianism. He investigates the gap between the admirable norms of the human rights movement and the unpleasant facts of the humanitarian crises in Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo and Afghanistan. He urges us to revise our assumptions about the reach of the human rights revolution and the workings of the international community. He concludes that, however much one might wish it otherwise, independent humanitarianism is not capable, on its own, of advancing the cause of human rights, contributing to stopping wars, or furthering social justice. Humanitarianism only makes sense as part of a larger international response to human rights crises. It is a “saving idea that cannot save”. And, for the humanitarian enterprise, the risks of collaborating in such a wider response are considerable.  
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