In: Humanitarianism: Keywords
Katerina Rozakou
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The etymology of the term “philanthropy” refers to the love of humankind (philos + anthropos) and it is associated with altruistic and disinterested giving. Humanitarianism and philanthropy have been the focus of distinct bodies of scholarly work that, to a large extent, remain disconnected. Although the historiography of philanthropy is extremely rich and vast, social science’s explorations of humanitarianism have infrequently, if at all, drawn upon relevant historical studies of philanthropy. Apart from being unproductive, such a disconnection ignores the historical roots of Western humanitarianism. As Craig Calhoun (2008) notes, the emergence of the term “humanitarian” may be traced to the late 18th and early 19th century. Initially, the concept had theological connotations and referred to the humanity of Christ, but later it came to depict systematic efforts to alleviate human suffering and advance humanity in general. In fact, initially, humanitarianism and philanthropy largely converged (Calhoun 2008: 79).

As efforts to alleviate the pain of the suffering stranger, humanitarianism and philanthropy have much in common. Yet they are based on differences in scale, scope, technologies, and modi operandi. The cosmopolitan character of humanitarianism is a key differential component. Michael Barnett (2011: 18) describes humanitarianism as “nothing less than a revolution in the ethics of care” and stresses the internationalization of care in a shifting global arena. As the impulse to alleviate the suffering of the “other,” humanitarianism has a clear orientation towards the distant stranger. Philanthropy, on the other hand, can be both local and international. Nevertheless, recent studies have unsettled the de facto cosmopolitan character of humanitarianism, focusing on small-scale local humanitarian endeavors that could easily be defined as philanthropic, such as fundraising projects for acquaintances or nearby (rather than distant) strangers. Finally, although philanthropy is often associated with an impulse and an affect, historical studies of “scientific philanthropy” have demonstrated that, like humanitarianism, philanthropy is also regularized and institutionalized (Howe 1980).

There are a few exceptions in the literature that seek to bridge the distinction between philanthropy and humanitarianism. Erica Bornstein’s ethnography of humanitarianism in New Delhi (Bornstein 2012) is one such example. Bornstein draws on the anthropological discussions on the gift to explore everyday and, mostly, informal humanitarian practices in India. As she shows, these mundane philanthropic practices are shaped by the broader global economies of philanthropy and humanitarianism, and efforts to regulate and institutionalize giving. Other studies of religious philanthropy, such as Islamic philanthropy (Benthall and Bellion-Jourdan 2003), draw upon local gifting practices and explore their manifestations in the contemporary humanitarian and philanthropic worlds. As Peter Redfield and Erica Bornstein have stressed (2010: 9), drawing parallels between humanitarianism and religious traditions can help unsettle Eurocentric assumptions around humanitarianism and, in the case of philanthropy, bring continuities and affinities to the fore.

The demarcation of spheres and ethics of care implied by the distinction between philanthropy and humanitarianism can be traced in the vernacular understandings of the two words, their genealogy, and the historical burden they carry. In the mid-19th century, the term philanthropy was widely used by the people who participated in the emerging forms of collective intervention towards the poorest sections of the population. At the beginning of the 21st century, however, particularly in Europe, philanthropy has increasingly been accompanied by criticism, at times being seen as an effect of bourgeois hypocrisy and class domination. In a similar vein, local understandings of humanitarianism underline similar inequalities and hierarchies of lives.


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

  • Benthall, J. , Bellion-Jourdan, J. (2003) The Charitable Crescent: Politics of Aid in the Muslim World. I.B. Tauris.

  • Bornstein, E. (2012) Disquieting Gifts: Humanitarianism in New Delhi . Stanford University Press.

  • Calhoun, C. (2008) The Imperative to Reduce Suffering: Charity, Progress, and Emergencies in the Field of Humanitarian Action. In: Barnett, M. , Weiss, T.G. eds. Humanitarianism in Question: Politics, Power, Ethics. Cornell University Press.

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  • Howe, B. (1980) The Emergence of Scientific Philanthropy, 1900–1920: Origins, Issues, and Outcomes. In: Arnove, R.F. ed. Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism: The Foundations at Home and Abroad. G.K. Hall.

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  • Redfield, P. , Bornstein, E. (2010) An Introduction to the Anthropology of Humanitarianism. In: Bornstein, E. , Redfield, P. eds. Forces of Compassion: Humanitarianism between Ethics and Politics. School for Advanced Research Studies.

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