What is the relevance of humanitarianism in Australia? While many Australians can conjure hazy notions of what humanitarians do overseas—images of aid workers delivering convoys of food to victims of war, famine or disaster come to mind—it is less clear whether or how humanitarianism is practiced in Australia during times of disaster or in response to human needs.
This lack of clarity arguably derives from a long-standing association with humanitarian action as an international project aimed at the amelioration of “distant suffering” by the “heroic humanitarian worker”. Historically, this popular construction has not only concealed the relationship between Western humanitarian aid and Western imperialism, but further perpetuated a myth that humanitarian response is something that only happens ‘over there’ among lower income countries.
Yet if humanitarian principles and values are indeed universal, then the exercise of humanitarian values, knowledge, and practices, is relevant whether at home or abroad.
Australia has faced various unprecedented challenges in recent years: the extended bushfire season of 2019–20, wide-spread and increasingly severe storms and flooding, and the grave health and socio-economic impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Such events have prompted greater awareness of our shared vulnerability to disasters. They have also exacerbated food insecurity, homelessness, poverty, family violence, and increased the vulnerability of refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia. Where disasters and similar issues are identified in low-income countries, they are typically framed in terms of humanitarian need and may even be the subject of international humanitarian action.
Why is it then, that the language and practices of humanitarianism are not ordinarily applied in Australian settings? What indeed is humanitarianism when it is not international? What, if anything, do international experiences of humanitarianism have to offer in Australian contexts?
Towards the aim of deepening our understanding of humanitarianism and decolonising humanitarian practice, this paper describes some preliminary findings derived from the perspectives of Australian practitioners on the notion of ‘humanitarianism at home’.