Rethinking Humanitarianism | What is a humanitarian crisis, really?

Lack of adequate shelter, contaminated drinking water, natural disasters that overwhelm the capacity to respond: These humanitarian crises happen all over the world, yet they’re rarely described as such when they occur in the Global North. Instead, humanitarian crises are typically seen as an issue that plagues poor parts of the world.

So what is a humanitarian crisis, really? What’s the historical weight of that term? What happens if we change our common understanding of it?

It may seem like a game of semantics, but the answers to those questions are more consequential than we may realise, because they reveal something deeper about who we believe will perpetually be an underclass, what’s deserving of an urgent reaction, and who we see as capable of providing humanitarian assistance.

These are questions Patrick Gathara has been contending with as The New Humanitarian’s first Senior Editor for Inclusive Storytelling. On the season 4 premiere of Rethinking Humanitarianism, co-hosts Heba Aly and Melissa Fundira speak to Gathara about the colonial weight of the term ‘humanitarian crisis’; why events in the Global North are rarely described as such; and how the definition of a crisis can mask – or perpetuate – the deeper systemic injustices that lead to crises in the first place.