Trivial Complaints, No. 1: ‘Humanitarian Crisis’

‘Humanitarian Crisis’

Tsunamis, like the one that stuck Aceh, Indonesia, can cause serious flooding and submerge entire villages. (United States Navy, via

Tsunamis, like the one that stuck Aceh, Indonesia, cause crises, all right—no adjective needed. (United States Navy, via

What the dickens is an ‘humanitarian crisis’?  An humanitarian is one who engages in, I would assume, humane acts, ones undertaken with a good heart to benefit people (there is probably a fine line between an ‘humanitarian’ and a ‘do-gooder’, depending perhaps on who is doing the labeling).  Bill Gates, having made pots of money selling software for personal computers, is now presumably an humanitarian for having established a foundation that is working to eradicate diseases in Africa.

The word has come to denote those with an idea, an ethos, of performing—or perhaps just advocating—good works for whole groups of people, even all mankind.  There are now professional humanitarians; they find employment with entities called ‘Non-Governmental Organizations’, popularly ‘NGOs’.  All well and good, I suppose.  But what is an ‘humanitarian crisis’?

The phrase is bandied about in the media to denote a situation where a lot of people find themselves in trouble, perhaps as the result of a tsunami (see photo), or a plague, or a war.  They need help, and soon, so for them it is justifiably a ‘crisis’.  And help for them would doubtless qualify as ‘humanitarian’.  So if it were impossible to deliver the needed help, then that might become a ‘crisis in delivering humanitarian aid’, which could reasonably be elided to ‘humanitarian crisis’.

But that is not what’s being said.  In the news media, an ‘humanitarian crisis’ is just a crisis of people in need of help.  But not any kind of help.  Not military help, for instance; maybe not even financial help; just humanitarian help, whatever that may be.

I think the original point might have been to distinguish one type of crisis from another, but what we end up with is a catchphrase without any clear meaning.  The situation with the foreign children pouring across the southern border of the United States might justifiably be called a ‘crisis’, since no one seems to know what to do about them, not even the administration which bears the responsibility for their presence.  But since no one is thinking of bringing in the army to shoot them, to call this an ‘humanitarian crisis’ is at best redundant.  It is just a plain crisis, pure and simple.  And, I will add, one which should never have occurred. /LEJ

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