Ian Smillie and Larry Minear 276 pages (Kumarian Press, 2004)

Ian Smillie and Larry Minear apply decades of professional expertise and research experience to their new book, a thoughtful probe into the difficulties humanitarian organizations face in relieving suffering throughout the world. The authors do not restrain their critique, observing that humanitarianism has become commercialized, entrepreneurial, and opportunistic – not redeeming qualities for a field with the explicit purpose of saving lives and mitigating human crises. The authors’ frustration with the failures of humanitarian action is palpable on every page, and they find plenty of agencies and organizations to blame.

The book begins with the simple yet powerful observation that humanitarianism is linked to charity, an option rather than an obvious moral imperative. Nations choose to donate funds for humanitarian action, but the funds are neither guaranteed nor consistent. While humanitarian organizations bear part of the blame for inadequate responses to humanitarian crises, the title of the book and much of the analysis emphasizes the role of nations in these failures. While the perspective of the book tends to present humanitarian organizations as pawns in a much larger game, Smillie and Minear conclude that “the political economy of humanitarianism is based to a great extent on the needs and demands of those with the resources – donor governments – and to a decreasing extent on the professional assessments and capacities of front-line delivery agencies.”

Government priorities do not always align with those of humanitarian agencies, creating “forgotten emergencies” and problematic responses to human suffering. Moreover, the inconsistency of funding and the whimsical interests of donor nations also create conflicts and competition between humanitarian organizations.

Much of the literature on nonprofits in the United States stresses the need for greater accountability and transparency. Smillie and Minear suggest that accountability involves recipients and donors. Who assesses the foundations and government agencies that fund nonprofits? They suggest that nations need to begin to recognize their role in the failure of a number of humanitarian interventions.

The main problem with the book lies not in the critique of the humanitarian sector but in the solutions to problems. Impressive case studies of Sierra Leone, East Timor, and Afghanistan demonstrate the complexities inherent in dealing with humanitarian crises, but the case studies are so nuanced that they make change in the sector seem unlikely at best. In every chapter of the book the authors indicate that governments, organizations, and individuals have divergent and sometimes conflicting stakes in humanitarian action. Many organizations have entrenched identities and missions, and they have no desire to cede control and independence. Similarly, nations donate funds when and how they deem necessary, often to the detriment of suffering populations.

Nevertheless, along with a number of other solutions, the authors conclude that funding needs to be stabilized and that the United Nations needs to have a more powerful coordinating and managerial role in humanitarianism. The solution is reasonable, but the authors never address the question of whether or not their solution is plausible. In a field hindered by the diverse political, managerial, and institutional priorities, “Charity of Nations” needs to present more of a road map for how to transform the international “alms bazaar” and achieve the solutions the authors posit.