The mother of all battles

Boris Martin
Boris MartinEditor-in-Chief of the revue
L’humanitaire sous l’emprise du néolibéralisme
Bertrand Bréqueville
Preface by Boris Martin
Éditions Charles Léopold Mayer, 2021
(published in French)

The article below is a slightly modified version of the foreword that Boris Martin wrote for Bertrand Bréqueville’s book. Here, as with the work in question, Boris Martin expresses his opinions as an independent author and editor, and not as the editor-in-chief of the Humanitarian Alternatives review.

I could only take it as a compliment that Bertrand Bréqueville was so inspired by L’Adieu à l’humanitaire ?[1]Boris Martin, L’Adieu à l’humanitaire ? Les ONG au défi de l’offensive néolibérale, Éditions Charles Léopold Mayer, 2015. (“Farewell to humanitarian aid?”) that he resolved to tackle the issue in greater depth in L’humanitaire sous l’emprise du néolibéralisme (“Humanitarian aid caught in the grips of neoliberalism”). For an author, it is immensely satisfying to see one’s work ignite a spark that not only sheds light on one’s own musings but also kindles new ones. To then be asked by Bertrand Bréqueville to write the foreword for his book was an honour.

One could say that our two titles paint a pessimistic picture – and even represent a serious indictment of – the entire humanitarian sector and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) more specifically. This could not be further from the truth. Our two publications defend those whom David Rieff refers to as “the last of the just, these humanitarians”[2]David Rieff, A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis, Simon and Schuster, 2002, p.184.. From spending years among them myself, I have also come to realise the pertinence of these words by Rieff: “There is nothing small or insufficient about what they do, except, that is, in the tragic human sense that all effort is insufficient, all glory transient, all solutions inadequate to the challenge, all aid insufficient to the need.”[3]Ibid. And it is precisely because the commitment of aid workers deserves our admiration that we must heed the imminent perils faced by NGOs. This includes the growing onslaught by the neoliberal ecosystem. L’humanitaire sous l’emprise du néolibéralisme draws from the same concerns of seeing NGOs stripped of their capacity to fight back, impeded from effecting real change in the world and robbed of their very purpose.

What is particularly worrying is observing the humanitarian sector’s general apathy regarding what I refer to as the “neoliberal offensive”. Bertrand Bréqueville goes one further by criticising the “slide towards a humanitarian system that has become so self-satisfied due to a lack of any truly critical look at its own doctrine that renders it increasingly powerless against the prevailing neoliberalism”. He has a worthy ally in Rony Bauman, who warned as far back as 1992 that “the humanitarian system is sliding downhill into humanitarianism, the latter a weaker and diluted version of the former, like moralism relative to morality”[4]Rony Brauman, « Contre l’humanitarisme », CRASH, 1er juin 1992, How is it that, after having been warned for so long, the humanitarian system has put up such little resistance to this sea change?

Bertrand Bréqueville sees three positions that might offer an explanation. The first is held by those who advocate a “closer working relationship with the private, for-profit sector”, proponents of the “well-defined partnership”, defenders of the “capitulation in mid-campaign” approach – to use the author’s words. The second by those who consider that the humanitarian sector has fallen “victim to neoliberalism’s enforced conscription” – the “blinded” deer in the headlights syndrome. The last one relates to a position of “detachment, often skilfully concealed behind a pragmatism that smacks of fieldwork”. Despite professing their commitment to fighting against the blights ravaging our planet, NGOs too often forego entering the battle against the system that produced them. Bertrand Bréqueville has a way with words – which makes his writing so enthralling –, one cannot help but quote him when he paraphrases Bossuet: “There is something tragic in a humanitarian system that almost seems to embrace the systemic causes of the ills that it intends to alleviate.”

The world has no shortage of ills, and NGOs are always present on the frontlines to tend to the wounds. They are spurred to action by the many and multifaceted, sometimes recurrent and almost always complex, crises that create their day-to-day workload and occasionally make the news headlines. To be clear, NGOs do not let themselves get bogged down by the system but endeavour to resolve the fundamental issues that subsume these crises. Issues such as security, new technologies, epidemics and climate change that – whether accelerators of these crises or operational constraints – NGOs make it their business to explore further.

Yet all this seems to occur as if – beyond the positions Bertrand Bréqueville describes – they fail to see that most of these issues are, in one way or another, connected to the “neoliberal rationale” raised by the author. Indeed, the matter of security calls into question the unsettling role private military firms play. While new technologies offer opportunities to the humanitarian sector as they do others, it is reasonable that NGOs should still maintain a healthy dose of suspicion of the companies that develop them. Furthermore, it is hardly a tough case to make that epidemics and climate change should be examined through the prism of heavy industry, in particular the most polluting ones. When you throw in matters such as governance that, within NGOs, is increasingly adopting the private management model, you realise that no issue – nor the way it is dealt with – can escape the grip of the neoliberal machine.

In all honesty, no sector is truly out of reach. And this is evident if we each look at our own lives; social services, hospitals, higher education and research, science across the board, culture, agriculture, the food industry and the media have all fallen under its influence. Even geography is powerless to resist. Last February, the municipal council of Vendôme, a city in central France, sold the rights to use its name to LVMH for 10,000 euros for “all collections or products related to luxury jewellery”[5]Blaise Mao, « La ville de Vendôme vend son nom à LVMH contre des emplois », Usbek & Rica, 9 février 2001, … Continue reading. These minor acts by which the system expands its reach may seem anecdotal. They are not.

In L’Adieu à l’humanitaire ?, I showed how liberal thinking has slowly crept into the public arena, first through local authorities using public-private partnerships and then branching out to national non-profits through social impact bonds[6]“Innovative” financial mechanisms that Bertrand Bréqueville describes in detail.. From there, they extended to international development organisations. Back in 2015, I naively wondered when these mechanisms might be adopted by humanitarian organisations. It took just two years. In 2017, the first “humanitarian impact bond” was launched by a Swiss bank that “had invested colossal sums of money in companies that manufacture internationally banned weapons,” explains Bertrand Bréqueville.

For he had already started to seriously think about the issue – picking up, in some manner, where I had left off. In my own essay, I endeavoured to describe – by applying it to NGOs – the dynamic of this neoliberal system that, in some ways, is fascinatingly flexible. Along the way, I theorised on an objective alliance between companies and the State to explain the alarming ease with which it had gradually begun to draw the humanitarian relief system into its web. One key question remained: why do NGOs have such a hard time being convinced – a vital step, wouldn’t you agree?  – before starting to defend themselves? Have they become so smug that they think they can keep the steamroller at bay or even send it in a different direction?

Taking up the baton from me on questions to which I had not found any real answers, Bertrand Bréqueville decided to go further and dig deeper: he entered the humanitarian system matrix, deciphered its genetic code and formulated a hypothesis. According to him, “the humanitarian system is not the sidekick of neoliberalism; it is its travel companion”. Nothing slanderous per se, especially when you put these words in their historical and systemic context. Rising from the ashes (that it helped to stoke) of third-worldism, modern humanitarianism appeared to the liberal camp to be the perfect ally in the fight against communism and to ensure victory for the market economy. With Fukuyama announcing “The End of History” and the machine turning into more than just an economic system – an ideology, perhaps the only one –, no more fail-safes appear to be in place to prevent the humanitarian system from transforming into humanitarianism.

What would be slanderous would be to let this process run its natural course. It would be a failure for humanitarian NGOs and their admirable history if they refused to cut their ties and rise above and beyond their origins to fight the toxic effects of a system that has grown beyond all reason. For at present, as if under the influence of the “perpetual motion principle” that drives it, the neoliberal machine has started to attack its own travel companion. Rising neoliberal humanitarianism has become, in a way, the atrophied, misleading and perverted reflection of the humanitarian system, like the portrait of Dorian Gray who, silently in the shadows, assumed all of the physical flaws that his model so curiously escaped.

Since the eradication of neoliberal humanitarianism that Bertrand Bréqueville calls for has not entirely happened, it is time to prepare for the mother of all battles, one that will eclipse all the others. From social services to the media, from research to the cultural sector, there is no shortage of energy to eschew the sum of short-term interests and find meaning in the common good. In their own camp, NGOs would have plenty of allies if it were to unite, with all its financial and reputational might, the whole of civil society. Could the Covid-19 pandemic be that catalyst? Bertrand Bréqueville suggests as much. Whatever the outcome, this worldwide event will have revealed the deadly consequences of an unchecked neoliberal system, especially with regard to the social inequality that it has created. Here too, humanitarian NGOs have often been on the frontline and so should stay there, fight the fight and reclaim their fundamental purpose.

To do this, Bertrand Bréqueville’s book suggests several paths, as inspiring as his analysis is sharp (and sometimes biting), well-evidenced and constructive. We hope that the author’s work will also inspire new ways of thinking, raise awareness and, most importantly of all, rally people to defend a humanitarian system ready to defend itself.

Translated from the French by Darin Reisman

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1 Boris Martin, L’Adieu à l’humanitaire ? Les ONG au défi de l’offensive néolibérale, Éditions Charles Léopold Mayer, 2015.
2 David Rieff, A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis, Simon and Schuster, 2002, p.184.
3 Ibid.
4 Rony Brauman, « Contre l’humanitarisme », CRASH, 1er juin 1992,
5 Blaise Mao, « La ville de Vendôme vend son nom à LVMH contre des emplois », Usbek & Rica, 9 février 2001,
6 “Innovative” financial mechanisms that Bertrand Bréqueville describes in detail.

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