From Fellow Michael Mascarenhas: I have found the notion of sovereignty a particularly useful entry point for understanding the global humanitarian complex.

The unprecedented rise of NGOs, combined with increasing decision-making authority concerning how particular humanitarian conditions are defined, whom is to be helped, and how to go about helping them and, consequently, who can be left behind amounted to a new form of sovereignty or even empire.


Key Terms

Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs): Weiss and Gordenker (1996) define NGOs as “a special set of organizations that are private in their form but public in their purpose,” thus distinguishing them from intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) and transnational corporations (TNCs).  However, while an NGO might adopt a particular structure, in practice it is much more difficult to identify its boundaries (Hilhorst 2003).

Sovereignty: Sovereignty is the power to make decisions over who lives and who dies.  This power, or legitimate authority, is most often associated with nation states.  However, increasingly non-governmental organizations are making decisions over who lives and who dies, and therefore making sovereign decisions that are not necessarily tied to national boundaries.

Biopolitics: According to Michel Foucault biopolitics involves “a set of processes such as the ratio of births to deaths, the rate of reproduction, the fertility of a population, and so on” to address a “whole series of related economic and political problems associated with human development” (1997, 243).  The mechanisms introduced by biopolitics, Foucault argued, included forecasts, statistical estimates, censuses, demographic surveys, and overall measures that provided extensive knowledge about the population that was deemed essential by the state to provide for the well-being of its population.

Post-colonialism: Postcolonialism or postcolonial studies is an interdisciplinary discipline concerned with understanding the different ways in which representations about the so-called developing countries and their people are constructed and maintained, largely for the benefit of those in the West.

Discussion Questions

1) In what ways might the notion of sovereignty be changing?

2) How do non-governmental organizations engage in sovereign-like practices?

3) How do you explain the rapid rise of NGOs in the 1990s?

Supplemental Readings

Barnett, M. (2011). Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Fassin, D. (2011). Humanitarian Reason. A Moral History of the Present. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Moyo, D. (2010). Dead Aid. Why Aid is Not Working and How There is Another Way for Africa. London, UK: Penguin Books.

Can be taught with these chapters

Rights by Alex Perullo

Rules by Tim Bartley