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Doing Good: Social accountability in humanitarianism Open Access

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Since the end of World War II, humanitarian non-governmental organizations (HNGOs), such as Oxfam, CARE and World Vision, have responded to natural disasters and complex emergencies by providing life-saving emergency relief aid across borders. International society perceives humanitarianism, defined as the desire to relieve human suffering, as an ethical obligation--the right thing to do. Yet, there is no singular or obvious definition of what is good or right in the international system. Indeed, since WWII, the practice and meaning of humanitarianism has changed. In the 1960s-1970s, "doing good" meant providing rapid, palliative, emergency aid while demonstrating financial accountability to financial donors. By the 1990s, "doing good" evolved to mean supplying relief assistance in a way that addressed the root causes of conflicts and minimized the negative impacts of aid on local populations. Moreover, the focus of HNGO accountability shifted to the recipients of relief aid. This project investigates why the meaning and practice of humanitarianism changed and the affect of these changes on HNGO accountability. How do HNGO perceptions of problems in humanitarianism impact how they define accountability? I demonstrate that HNGO accountability did not move towards stringent regulation and external oversight by financial donors as rationalist approaches would predict. Instead, HNGO accountability evolved to reflect a complex social understanding of accountability and thus HNGOs' considerations for social legitimacy, not efficiency, drove change. Specifically, HNGOs' perceptions of ethical problems--hypocrisy, character dissonance, ethical dilemma and ethical failure--impact how they define accountability.To investigate the process of ethical change, I conducted a historical case study analysis of three HNGO responses to complex emergencies in Biafra/Nigeria (1968-1970), Ethiopia (1984-1986) and Rwanda (1994-1996). I employed multiple methods, including content analysis, process tracing and interviews, to investigate the ethical perceptions of three key groups: the global public, HNGOs and donors. This project contributes to scholarship in international relations, international ethics and sociology by explaining the processes through which ethical progress occurs. It contributes to literature on global governance by conceptualizing social accountability, which is based on principled authority and ethical obligations, in contrast to conventional notions of political or democratic accountability.

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