Humanitarian theory and practice: the book-summary

Benoît Miribel
Benoît MiribelHe is the General Secretary of the One Sustainable Health for All Foundation, launched in June 2020 under the guardianship of the Bullukian Foundation (Lyon). He has been a member of the Economic, Social and Environmental Council (CESE) since May 2021 and chairs the Bioport association (humanitarian and solidarity logistics) and Earthwake (plastic recycling). He is a member of the think-tank Santé Mondiale 2030, the think-tank (Re) Sources (water and sanitation), the Board of Friendship (Bangladesh) and co-founder of the bilingual review Humanitarian Alternatives. He chaired the French Centre for Funds and Foundations (CFF) (2015-2022) and headed Fondation Mérieux (2007-2017) before becoming Director of Public Health at Institut Mérieux (2018-2020). Honorary Chairman of Action contre la Faim (ACF), an association which he chaired (2010/2013) and directed (2003/2006), after having been Director of the Institut Bioforce (1997/2002). He was a member of the Board of VOICE (European Network of professional humanitarian NGOs). (last update : April 2024)
Droit et pratique de l’action humanitaire
Marina Eudes, Philippe Ryfman, Sandra Szurek (dir.)
L.G.D.J, Collection Traités, October 2019
(published in French)

How can the theory and practice of humanitarian action be brought together in a single book? This ambition is perfectly embodied in this book-summary, produced under the triple direction of Sandra Szurek and Marina Eudes, masterfully accompanied by Philippe Ryfman.

Together, they have accomplished the feat of mobilising nearly eighty experts to tackle this colossal task. These include well-known personalities such as Xavier Emmanuelli and Jean-François Mattei, but also field practitioners, leaders of organisations, and researchers. The focus of the three coordinators is that of a legal approach combined, depending on the case, with the resources of other disciplines, such as political science, sociology, economics, anthropology, history and the contributions of experienced practitioners. The book therefore seeks to respond to the need for a general, systematic and scientifically-established vision of an often controversial field in international life: humanitarian action.

With a diverse wealth of contributions over 970 pages, the book is built around four main parts, the first of which deals with humanitarian assistance, with its normative and contextual components. The second part discusses the humanitarian offer and describes the actors and the economy of aid, and the coordination and conduct of humanitarian action. The third part concerns the reception of humanitarian aid, with a description of the beneficiaries according to different contexts and access conditions, together with a reflection on the purposes of this aid. The last part highlights the risks and responsibilities in light of legal and ethical considerations.

There is no doubt that this extensive and well-documented book has already established itself as a reference for all those interested in and concerned by the field of humanitarian action.

Through its four main parts, this treatise allows us to navigate between an academic and a practical approach, with specific sections written by an expert. The result is a kaleidoscope of knowledge and experience from women and men, mostly well-known and recognised professionals in the field of humanitarian action.

This plural approach to humanitarian action, expressed by so many experts, perfectly reflects the diversity of actors, observers and researchers involved, as well as the scope of a field that it is often difficult to contain within specific boundaries. One of the directors’ main achievements is to have succeeded in rendering the nuances that colour “the international humanitarian action of the twenty-first century,” from development to peacekeeping, by way of emergency action. This international humanitarian action, as they write in the introduction, “is one of the first, if not the first, international public policy across all continents.”

So what can we say, besides saluting this immense work condensed into a single book, and encouraging you to read it? We can say that there is a strong basis for an updated second edition, that will no doubt be published in due course. How could it enrich this first edition?

Although reference is made to the complexity of the “mandates for action,” with their differing normative frameworks between international humanitarian law and the various existing texts in the face of natural disasters or epidemics, a section on humanitarian principles as such would be of great interest. But what about the motivation and commitment of humanitarian actors involved in humanitarian organisations, from the field up to the headquarters? A section that would reflect the commitment of the various actors, as well as paying tribute to them, would enable a better understanding of the sources of action, solidarity, dignity, and justice, between indignation, compassion and cooperation. In addition, a section that would bring together examples of major positions taken by humanitarian organisations in complex situations would be welcome, as it would highlight the power of advocacy and media communication, indispensable for NGOs to avoid sinking into a kind of industrialisation and instrumentalisation of their actions. Similarly, in the current chapter on contemporary characteristics, why not include a section on climate refugees or the debates that animate the sector, for example those concerning obstacles to humanitarian action? Finally, a chapter on the role of coordination, coalitions, consortia and capacity-sharing mechanisms would be enlightening. These are all avenues that hint at the full developmental potential of a book that, from a treaty, would have the vocation – and why not? – to become an encyclopaedia in perpetual movement, as closely related as possible to emerging issues.

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