Humanitarianism and the Quantification of Human Needs: Minimal Humanity, 1st Edition (Hardback) book cover

Humanitarianism and the Quantification of Human Needs

Minimal Humanity, 1st Edition

By Joël Glasman


260 pages | 41 B/W Illus.

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Paperback: 9780367464165
pub: 2019-12-10
Hardback: 9780367222154
pub: 2019-12-16
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This book provides a historical inquiry into the quantification of needs in humanitarian assistance. Needs are increasingly seen as the lowest common denominator of humanity. Standard definitions of basic needs, however, set a minimalist version of humanity – both in the sense that they are narrow in what they compare, and that they set a low bar for satisfaction. The book argues that we cannot understand humanitarian governance 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 material apparatus, and as a set of standards. Drawing on a range of archival sources, including the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), and the Sphere Project, the book traces the concept of needs from its emergence in the 1960s right through to the present 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 has played out in a recent humanitarian crisis, drawing on field research on Central African refugees in the Cameroonian borderland in 2014–2016.

This important historical inquiry 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.


"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)

Table of Contents

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

About the Author

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

About the Series

Routledge Humanitarian Studies

The Routledge Humanitarian Studies series in collaboration with the International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA) takes a comprehensive approach to the growing field of expertise that is humanitarian studies. This field is concerned with humanitarian crises caused by natural disaster, conflict or political instability and deals with the study of how humanitarian crises evolve, how they affect people and their institutions and societies, and the responses they trigger.

We invite book proposals that address, amongst other topics, questions of aid delivery, institutional aspects of service provision, the dynamics of rebel wars, state building after war, the international architecture of peacekeeping, the ways in which ordinary people continue to make a living throughout crises, and the effect of crises on gender relations.

This interdisciplinary series draws on and is relevant to a range of disciplines, including development studies, international relations, international law, anthropology, peace and conflict studies, public health and migration studies.

To submit proposals, please contact the Development Studies Editor, Helena Hurd ([email protected]).

Series Editors:

Alex de Waal, Tufts University, USA

Dorothea Hilhorst, Wageningen University, The Netherlands

Learn more…

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Disasters & Disaster Relief
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Developing Countries