I propose to concentrate on international humanitarian assistance that really lives up to its name. Accordingly, I will be confining my attention to well-meaning international interventions. To be sure, some interventions carried out under the banner of alleged humanitarian assistance are really attempts to grab power or to pursue national or institutional interests. Such interventions are not worthy of the name “humanitarian assistance.” I will limit my attention to the well-meaning cases. To be sure, as we will see, those who mean well may operate with blinkered or parochial or condescending ideas about what would assist others; but they do mean well, unlike those who use the appearance of humanitarianism to further their narrow self-interest. I will also limit my attention to interventions. Some well-meaning attempts to influence international affairs should not be counted as interventions. For example, offering asylum to people overseas because they seem to need exit from where they are, though intended to influence their situation, does not seem to interfere with them or with the nation in which they live. Again, I propose to focus my attention on well-meaning international interventions, of which international humanitarian assistance, properly so-called, is a special case.
Although the kind of example just given would complicate any analysis, an intervention is an action intended to alter another's life or activities. Since I will be focusing on interventions, I will not be directly concerning myself with attitudes such as arrogance or structural problems such as an absence of consultation mechanisms, except insofar as these give rise to problematic actions. Nonetheless, since I will analyze paternalism as a kind of action that is taken from a certain attitude, my account will help pinpoint relevant attitudes; and since structural problems can often be seen to tend to give rise to objectionable actions, my account could also indirectly help indicate what structural problems exacerbate or give rise to paternalist interventions.
Those engaged in international humanitarian assistance have become used to being called paternalistic – not only by those they are intending to aid but also by various third-party commentators. This is hardly a neutral description. As Michael N. Barnett observes, “[W]hereas in the nineteenth century being called a paternalist was not necessarily an insult, today it is.”
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