Paper: The State as a humanitarian actor: Opportunities and Challenges in decolonizing humanitarianism

Paper details

Paper authors Oscar A. Gomez
In panel on Who or what constitutes the humanitarian?
Paper presenter(s) will be presenting In-Person / Online


There is a strong anti-State bias in the humanitarian community. Under the assumptions of the incapacity or unwillingness to cover humanitarian needs, humanitarian studies primarily focus on non-state actors. This is problematic because, among many other reasons, it perpetuates the colonial structure of humanitarianism, in which rich Western states are benefactors through (also Western) non-state humanitarian actors helping the weak and wicked rest. This paper argues that any effort to salvage humanitarianism in a post-liberal world will require recognizing and scrutinizing the State's role as a humanitarian actor. Therefore, this paper asks: What kind of humanitarian actor is the State? What are its characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses? How does it change our understanding of humanitarian action? What opportunities and challenges does it bring? I use the case study of Colombia and its long-standing struggle with multiple humanitarian needs to answer these questions. The paper follows two analytical tracks: first, it analyses the semantics/discourse of humanitarianism in the country, describing a long resistance from the nineteenth century until the nineteen nineties, when a transformation gradually started until today, resulting in multiple State offices declaring humanitarian mandates. Second, I turn to practices and how the State slowly and, sometimes selectively, absorbs humanitarian action and makes it part of its functions. Finally, I provide a profile of the State as a humanitarian actor, outlining the commonalities and differences with traditional actors and the implications for the future of humanitarian protection.