Civilian protection and humanitarian organisations: Rationality or culture?

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science


Horace Campbell

Second Advisor

Robert Rubinstein


Humanitarianism, War on Terrorism, International organizations, Sri Lanka, Civilian protection, Philippines

Subject Categories

Political Science | Social and Behavioral Sciences


This dissertation theoretically explains the behaviour of international humanitarian organisations vis-à-vis protection of civilians in armed conflicts. Empirically, it is nested within global efforts to 'mainstream' protection into the day-to-day activities of intergovernmental and international non-governmental humanitarian organisations over the past 15 years. The real world puzzle motivating this study is the variation in space and time of the proactiveness of different humanitarian organisations towards civilian protection.

The research question that is the central point of investigation for the dissertation is whether international organisations respond to 'Power' or to 'Ideas'. These two concepts are extrapolated from the 'Third Debate' of International Relations theory between rationalism and culturalism. The study tests the two competing explanations for the behaviour of international organisations offered by the 'Third Debate' through structured-focussed comparisons of 10 humanitarian organisations in two protracted internal war theatres- the North and East of Sri Lanka and south-western Philippines.

On the basis of over three years of field research and peacekeeping experience in these two war zones, the author finds that 'Power' and 'Ideas' combine to cause humanitarian behaviour towards civilian protection. While each of these two can cause IO behaviour on its own very rarely, "chemical", combinatorial or multiple causation makes IOs respond frequently to both Power and Ideas and set priorities when the two interact.

The study also finds that rationality and culture are second order causes of humanitarian behaviour. They combine because of common ancestry in structures of oppression and violence, viz. patriarchy and the capitalist world-system. Therefore, it is argued that the 'Third Debate' has to transcend the obsession with rationalism and culturalism and begin exploring the roots of political behaviour in flexible structures.

For practitioners, this dissertation conveys that tinkering at the margins with international humanitarian organisations is unproductive as long as they are structurally colonised to collaborate with or facilitate the interests of violent capitalist donors, host states and rebels. For 'mainstreaming' to succeed, it is recommended that humanitarian organisations shed attachments to liberal imperialist values, free themselves from the military-humanitarian complex, and open doors to radical local civil society.


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