1st Edition

Humanitarianism and the Quantification of Human Needs Minimal Humanity

By Joël Glasman Copyright 2020
    274 Pages 41 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    274 Pages 41 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    This book provides the first historical inquiry into the quantification of needs in humanitarian assistance. Ultimately the book argues that we cannot understand the global humanitarian aid movement, if we do not understand how humanitarian agencies made human suffering commensurable across borders in the first place.

    The book identifies four basic elements of needs: as a concept, as a system of classification and triage, as a form of material apparatus, and as a codified standard. Drawing on a range of archival sources ranging from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), and the Sphere Project, the book traces the concept of needs from their emergence in the 1960s right through to the modern day, and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's call for "evidence-based humanitarianism". Finally the book assesses how the international governmentality of needs played out in a recent humanitarian crisis, drawing on detailed ethnographic research of Central African refugees in the Cameroonian borderland in 2014-2016.

    This important historical enquiry into the universal nature of human suffering will be an important read for humanitarian researchers and practitioners, as well as readers with an interest in international history and development.

    Introduction: Minimal Humanity: The Commensuration of Human Suffering on a Global Scale 

    1. Concepts. Elements for a genealogy of needology 

    2. Classifications. UNHCR and the legibility of refugees in Central Africa 

    3. Measures. Malnutrition, MUAC, and the materialization of anthropometry 

    4. Standards. The 'Sphere project' and the universalization of the vital minimum after Goma 

    5. Registration. Refugees and the emergence of a humanitarian field in Cameroun 

    6. Vulnerability. Impartial algorithms and analog malnutrition  Conclusion: Infrastructures of commensurability


    Joël Glasman is a Professor of African History at University of Bayreuth, Germany

    "In this innovative and grounded study, Joël Glasman reveals how it came to be that the smallest unit of our shared humanity—its least common denominator—is neither you nor me, but the calorie, the liter of water, the metrics of our need in our moments of deepest distress. This fascinating work deserves wide readership and demands deep reflection."Gregory Mann, author of From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel: the Road to Nongovernmentality (2015)

    "Combining a provocative perspective with a meticulous eye for detail, Joël Glasman’s insightful history traces humanitarian efforts to define human suffering through an index of vital needs. Minimal Humanity reminds us of the fundamental complexity of apparently simple matters."Peter Redfield, author of Life in Crisis: The Ethical Journey of Doctors Without Borders (2013)

    "This is a fascinating historical study of how and why humanitarian organizations quantified basic human needs over the course of the 20th century. Glasman (Univ. of Bayreuth, Germany) provides an engaging intellectual genealogy of the transition from subjective approaches to evaluating suffering to relying on allegedly objective and universal measurements. Using methods such as measuring the left arms of children for malnutrition allowed humanitarian organizations to claim they avoided politicizing assistance. However, organizations frequently debated how needs should be defined, as Glasman describes in detail with the Sphere Handbook, a humanitarian needs manual published in the 1990s. Just as humanitarian organizations claimed to be serving a generic humanity not defined by culture or politics, aid personnel also promoted an idea of consensus between the global North and South regarding needs. The author convincingly argues that this aspirational ideal of a common, measurable set of needs actually obscures the financial and political inequities between North and South, using Cameroon as a case study of the political and economic realities of how needs are measured in a humanitarian crisis. Specialists in humanitarianism should definitely read this book."J. M. Rich, Marywood University, Choice Review, Highly Recommended, November 2020 Vol. 58 No. 3

    "In his insightful and wonderfully jargon-free book, Humanitarianism and the Quantification of Human Needs, Joël Glasman delves into the history of what he calls the "bookkeeping of human suffering on a world scale (...) Glasman’s book is much richer than can be described here. It is highly recommended for scholars of refugees, humanitarianism, data, and the production of knowledge. Given his extremely readable writing style, the book can also be recommended to those engaged in the humanitarian field who may not have the time or patience to slog through other academic critiques of their work."Brett Shadle, African Studies Review