The Helpers and the Helped: Troubling Ideas of Human Worth in Humanitarianism

Article 3

In the case of armed conflict not of an international character occurring in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties, each Party to the conflict shall be bound to apply, as a minimum, the following provisions:

1. Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.

To this end, the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:

(a) Violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;

(b) Taking of hostages;

(c) Outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment;

(d) The passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples. (Emphases added, Fourth Geneva Convention/Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, 1949)


One of the founding documents of international humanitarian law, the Fourth Geneva Convention, makes mention in its third article of certain givens that build upon ideas of human worth. These givens imply that human beings, merely by reason of being born into the human race, are considered to be more valuable and worthy than any other creation, entity or species. This is an essential concept behind the traditional understanding of humanitarianism, where human value requires protection at times of emergency, conflict and need.

            In this article, I discuss the idea of human worth in relation to humanitarianism by reflecting on the works of three scholars from three different time periods. I depart from an argument that humanitarianism does not exist separately from the non-humanitarian world and contend, rather, that it is a product of that world. By exploring the thoughts of John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) and Martha Nussbaum (1947–), I provide my own reflections on the origins, implications and reality of human worth in humanitarianism. In examining these thoughts, I will pay close attention to John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism (1861), Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and Martha Nussbaum’s The Cosmopolitan Tradition (2019). I will begin by discussing each thinker in their own right, before concluding with my own empirical reflections on human worth and the subtle differences between the terms ‘refugee’, ‘migrant’ and ‘expat’.

John Stuart Mill: “Need I obey my conscience?” (1861, p. 30)

The humanitarian principles of humanity, independence, neutrality and impartiality can be directed towards helping those whose human dignity is being threatened or violated. In various humanitarian contexts, people can be divided into two categories: those who are being helped and those who help. A humanitarian emergency—an intriguing label and political category of its own kind—locates and identifies those in need of help. In considering this latter category, one idea worthy of exploration is utilitarianism: “a theory that the aim of action should be the largest possible balance of pleasure over pain or the greatest happiness of the greatest number” (Merriam-Webster 1).

John Stuart Mill is known as one of the most influential figures in utilitarian thought. The utilitarian principle captures the idea that human action should strive towards the maximization of overall happiness. This mission creates also a foundation for morality in which humans seek for guidance on how judgement should be passed upon wrongful deeds. Mill argues that acts that generate a high volume of happiness are probably morally correct, and acts that result in or encourage unhappiness are often founded upon immorality and should be appropriately punished. In this vein, utilitarian thought is intriguing in relation to humanitarianism. As we live in a divided, polarized and unequal world, how should we, as relatively fortunate and prosperous members of society, deal with others’ misery and misfortune? If accepting Mill’s view of individuals as cognizant seekers of utilitarian goods, what kind of behavior does this translate into, and does it have implications for humanitarianism?

On a general level, Mill considers human beings as special and clearly separated from animals. This distinction, according to Mill, is owing to human beings having a higher degree of cognitive thinking, resulting in a higher appetite for knowledge and happiness. This gratification is out of reach for animals. The often quoted “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied” (p. 10) captures the essence of this approach. This differentiation is furthered through a human’s capability to sympathize with all sentient beings: through human intelligence, humans are “capable of apprehending a community of interest between himself and the human society of which he forms a part” (p. 51). This “collective idea of his tribe, his country, or mankind” (pp. 51–52) also serves as a basis of humanitarian imagination and the collective idea of human worth: by virtue of being alive as a human, we have the ability to recognize and identify human behavior, which is entirely separate from the behavior between humans and animals or between two animals.

            Moving on from this general approach, Mill refers to certain disparities that might contribute to differing qualities of human beings or ways of living, indicative of the differences in perceived worth among humans. For Mill, utilitarian principles seem the most applicable for “the inheritance of everyone born in a civilized country”, or to “every rightly brought up human being” (p. 14; these are similar ideas to the Fourth Geneva Convention on “judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples”, see above). A typical child of his own time, Mill makes several references to the relationships between and perspectives of master and slave. These definitions leave ample room for defining “a civilized country” or what constitutes rightful upbringing, despite considerations of the time of writing and Mill’s own life. These notions are, of course, highly political and problematic considerations in the humanitarianism of our time, which historically builds upon Western imperialism and international interventionism. Moreover, according to Mill, the maximization of overall happiness does not translate into equal distribution; rather, it is essentially worthy in its own right, representing another problematic statement given the deep discrepancies between the world’s rich and poor.

The “ultimate sacrifice” of pursuing the greatest happiness of others exists in an imperfect world, but Mill takes a more moderate approach: a world in which some have more and some have less can be morally sound. For Mill, “the great positive evils of the world [such as poverty] are in themselves removable, and will, if human affairs continue to improve, be in the end reduced within narrow limits” (p. 15). Against these charged arguments, worryingly, utilitarianism represents a godly doctrine. If God desires the happiness of His creatures, then the pursuit of happiness is a religious act whether or not that happiness is evenly distributed. Individual actions are not directed for the good of the world, but rather for the good of the individuals of which the world is composed.

The origins of progressive universalism—the idea that those who are furthest behind should receive the most radical attention, such as people in humanitarian need—may been seen in Mill’s thinking: “The justice of giving equal protection to the rights of all is maintained by those who support the most outrageous inequality in the rights themselves” (p. 46). Regrettably, these approaches would require a high level of selflessness and sacrifice from those of good fortune, sacrifices that are rarely found in the realities of today—instead, financial inequality is increasing across the world. In a humanitarian context, this inequality gains importance through the prolonged duration of (hu)man-made conflicts and the prognosis of increased humanitarian need in natural disasters due to climate change. In other words, ongoing disasters and conflicts deepen and stretch, whereas “the Long Peace”, the absence of wars between major powers after World War II, generates peacefulness and stability mostly for the prosperous.

Perhaps at the root of ongoing insufficient humanitarian efforts—as well as wealth and health inequality—lies the fact that good intentions, selflessness and sacrifice do not marry awareness, acknowledgement and accountability, particularly in a historical sense. One of the reasons for this is that humans love power, money and fame. For Mill, as human beings socialize and grow into society they are unable to have a “total disregard of other people’s interests” (p. 32). However, these interests are in a continuum of power and fame: Mill suggests these interests as being a vehicle for fulfilling our wishes. Equally gratifying is our love of money:

Yet, the love of money is not only one of the strongest moving forces of human life, but money is, in many cases, desired in and for itself; the desire to possess it is often stronger than the desire to use it, and goes on increasing when all the desires which point to ends beyond it, to be compassed by it, are falling off. (p. 37)

Humanitarianism action and intervention require money and funding, and to date these have been chronically lacking. Those who have money are able to choose whether or not to allocate money to humanitarian efforts, be they individuals, governments or other organizations, an option which a poor individual, government or organization does not have. If our love of money is ultimately a manifestation of human selfishness, as stated above, the prognosis for adequately funded humanitarian efforts seems unattainable. Moreover, in respect of state funding, when a state’s own nationals are in need, what motivation is there to give to distant strangers?

            The concept of justice is central to Mill’s utilitarian thinking. Mill itemizes five elements of justice and injustice (pp. 44–45). First, depriving a person of liberty and property, which they have lawful possession of, is unjust. Second, these legal rights can include corrupt laws which may be unjust and so calls for an understanding of moral rights. Third, each person should obtain what they deserve according to their right and wrong deeds. Fourth, expressed or implied engagement becomes an unjust act should the person violate that act. Fifth, impartiality may in general be unjust, but, and responding to the previous considerations of governments’ national interests overweighing international needs, under certain circumstances favoring one’s own family and friends may be justified.

Intriguingly, Mill claims that nothing can be called ‘wrong’ unless we imply a need for the action to be punished. The power of labeling something as ‘wrong’ is an expression and struggle of power on its own. Humanitarianism is rarely labeled as wrong by its practitioners, but might be labeled so by its academic critics or, for example, by the governments whose territory has seen interventions on humanitarian grounds. This subjective understanding is lacking in Mill’s thinking. Rather, Mill ontologically sees that justice exists in a pure format: justice “is a name for certain classes of moral rules which concern the essentials of human well-being more nearly, and are therefore more absolute obligation, than any other rules for the guidance of life” (p. 59). People who act wrongly seem to have either gone against what is just or misunderstood its essence, and what is considered wrong shifts at the societal level. Addressing this before moving on to discuss Hannah Arendt’s work, I quote again from Mill:

The entire history of social improvement has been a series of transitions by which one custom or institution after another, from being a supposed primary necessity of social existence, has passed into the rank of a universally stigmatized injustice and tyranny.(p. 63.)

Hannah Arendt: “When every one is dead the Great Game is finished. Not before.” (citing Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, 1951, p. 282)

Humanitarianism is a response to the inequalities and cruelties of the world, a subject on which Hannah Arendt is a master commentator. She provides in-depth thinking on imperialism, an important theme considering the Western tradition of humanitarianism. Like colonialism, imperialism seeks to expand political power overseas by intervention in other governance regimes and ways of living. Imperialism was, and political expansionism is, often paved with alleged humanitarian intent, such as the vaunted Western riches “in education, technical know-how, and general competence” which “has plagued international relations ever since the beginning of genuine world politics” (p. 163).

            For Arendt, racism is the totalizing concept and main driver behind systematic and structural inequality and deprivation. This originates from historical developments of race-thinking (an ideology which can be considered more neutral and less politically harmful for Arendt), which was “the ever-present shadow accompanying the development of the comity of European nations” (p. 214). Race-thinking was linked with the class societies of the nation-state building West, or more precisely, their ruling class, the bourgeoisie. Imperialist political philosophy incorporated businessmen into the political arena, and the law of the state illustrated not a “question of right or wrong, but only absolute obedience, the blind conformism of bourgeois society” (p. 189). Similarly, according to Arendt, racism continues to be enabled and reproduced by bureaucracy as “bureaucracy was discovered by and first attracted the best, and sometimes even the most clear-sighted, strata of the European intelligentsia” (p. 245).

Race-thinking preceding racism stems from the fatal conceptualization of race. Race as an European ideology signifies the worst of Western civilization with the most devastating consequences: “race is, politically speaking, not the beginning of humanity but its end, not the origin of peoples but their decay, not the natural birth of man but his unnatural death” (p. 209). Similarly, a central concept for Arendt is imperialism. Arendt characterizes imperialist action as dividing “mankind into master races and slave races, into higher and lower breeds, into colored peoples and white men” (p. 202). The danger of the tradition of this thinking has not ceased to exist: we can only look at the present-day United States and how it is riven by deep racial divides and mistreatment of non-whites. Instead of nourishing the idea of humanity and its common origin, imperialist attempt directs political thinking into a “predestined by nature to war against each other until they have disappeared from the face of the earth” (p. 209). In (hu)man-made conflict leading to humanitarian needs, similar ideologies of ‘predestined war’ drive ethnic, religious, tribal and other tensions. Arendt argues that race-thinkers showcase patriotism in the ugliest of forms, denying common principles of equality and solidarity across mankind. Human worth becomes a subjective estimate based on racial origins in which Western whiteness is a default. This further shades into more nuanced understandings, such as religious differences and minority-majority politics, both representing the birthplaces of the German Nazi movement. The eradication of the Jews in Hitler’s Germany or Mussolini’s fascist Italy are extreme examples of organic doctrines that have a naturalistic appeal, which call for “ideological definitions of national unity as a substitute for political nationhood” (p. 220).

One thing that does clearly unite humanitarianism and race-thinking is political romanticism. According to Arendt, political romanticism has been correctly accused of inventing race-thinking as “every other possible irresponsible opinion”. Humanitarianism, with its goals to ameliorate the lives of the misfortunate, can be understood in a politically romanticized sense. International interventionism—which belongs to the same phenomenological family with humanitarianism—entailing stark imbalance of global resources and political power, does not provide a level playing field. Its indefinite purposes, direct and indirect effects and lack of accountability proves useful for those with the best and worst intentions. The political romanticism of humanitarianism nourishes the idea of universal human worth, and the need for protection of this worth disguises the times when humanitarianism is not used as an end, but as a tool. Humanitarianism can be understood through its principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence as life-saving action, but it can also lead to political manipulation, business platforms and the enabling and sustaining of the very structures of human terror that gave rise to it in the first place.

            The predecessors of today’s humanitarians could be seen as kinds of missionaries, which in Arendtian understanding could be the “queer quixotic protectors of the weak” (p. 273). By this Arendt is referring, for example, to certain British people traveling overseas on colonial service to teach what they saw as ‘the best’ of European and Christian traditions. Such people had a certain, if youthful integrity with correspondingly naive ideas about Western moral standards:

It was neither His Majesty’s soldier not the British higher official who could teach the natives something of the greatness of the Western world. Only those who had never been able to outgrow their boyhood ideals and therefore had enlisted in the colonial services were fit for the task. Imperialism to them was nothing but an accidental opportunity to escape a society in which a man had to forget his youth if he wanted to grow up. English society was only too glad to see them depart to faraway countries. (pp. 273–274)

Similarly, humanitarians, more often than not, represent Western nations in the Global South. Many are young volunteer workers during their gap years who buy into the idea of ‘the helper identity’, in which a) they are able to help others in foreign contexts; b) their help is needed, requested and makes a difference (for the better); c) the perceived beneficiaries would be worse-off without their intervention, and d) their engagement is limited and comes to a defined end, after which they can return back to the comfort of their own societies and homes, leaving the humanitarian reality far behind—as was the case for the staff of colonial services. Here again, humans are divided into two categories: those who help and those who are helped.

            When looking at humanitarianism from the angle of Arendt’s ‘great game’, it seems there is no end in sight for humanitarian action: “Since life itself ultimately has to be lived and loved for its own sake, adventure and love of the game for its own sake easily appear to be a most intensely human symbol of life” (p. 281). Humanitarianism is a product of the inequal world in which it is created. As such, by failing to address the root causes of the problems, the oppressive structures in which humanitarian need is created are sustained. The critics of humanitarianism often highlight the hypocrisy and mistrust that is interwoven into the system. They are right to do so, showcasing, for example, corrupt practices within the humanitarian system. Yet this critique does not take away the ongoing suffering of people in humanitarian need, nor do many of the critics provide an alternative solution to resolve this ongoing vulnerability and suffering. At times, Arendt’s discussion falls into this category.

            Against these reflections on Arendt’s work, it comes as no surprise that her thoughts have been influential in humanitarian literature. The Origins of Totalitarianism refers directly to humanitarianism only on certain occasions, yet it discusses and addresses the phenomenon as a parallel universe. Some of the secondary readings of Arendt in humanitarian studies capture this idea, particularly when the research interest lies in violence and war. One interesting example is Patricia Owens (2005) who discusses the shift from “humanitarian intervention” to “war on terror” following the events of 9/11 from an Arendtian stance. Further, she discusses the concept of “humanitarian war”. For Owens, “violence is the evil twin of Arendtian politics” (p. 50), in which violence is understood as humans radically altering and manipulating by force the earth-given nature. It is also “the realm in which the means are justified exclusively by reference to the ends” (p. 52). In the context of humanitarian war, violence becomes honorable and deliberative “if those intervening agree through fair procedures that the violent means justify ends” (p. 54). Through this logic, legitimacy and justification become conflated.

            Whereas this is a useful understanding and depiction of humanitarianism’s intersection with violence and war, capturing the nuances of what is behind a humanitarian intervention, such as political, economic and expansionist interests, is less tangible. This is not to blame Owens or her reading of Arendt or Arendt herself; rather, it is a built-in paradox of humanitarianism. One illustrative example is the related concept jus in bello. This refers to the ‘just’ and ‘fair’ conduct of armed conflict, a kind of oxymoron to begin with. Its two central ideas capture proportionality in the use of force, and the inclusion of warring parties with ‘legitimate’ interests, such as soldiers (in contrast with civilians, for example). To further illustrate this paradox, jus in bello can be seen as synonymous with international humanitarian law. They both seek to reduce human suffering in conflict. Similarly, jus ad bello lays out a framework in which beginning a conflict can be seen as ‘justified’. Humanitarianism tends to operate in the realm of idealism, in which human suffering should not be tolerated to begin with, and human dignity should be protected at all times. These approaches, including Owen’s reading of Arendt, represent rather the realpolitik of humanitarianism—given that conflicts will happen, the only option is to create rules to control them. Yet rules drawn up by whom and in whose interest are the next logical questions.

            Another secondary reading of Arendt on humanitarian war is by Iris Marion Young, who builds upon Arendt’s works On Violence and The Human Condition, providing a more skeptical and critical reading. According to Young, Arendt does not understand how racism manifests itself  in the United States. Yet, and in contrast to Owen, she finds Arendt’s thinking that “violence may be sometimes justified but never legitimate” (2002, p. 281) useful in the context of humanitarian war. As an empirical example, Young points out that the ‘humanitarian war’ during the Kosovo conflict in 1999 contributed significantly to human suffering.

It is intriguing that different scholars choose to discuss Arendt in the context of humanitarianism, particularly in relation to violence and the humanitarian intent in the wars. Arendt’s work can be indeed read as classic conflict literature. However, her work extends far beyond this approach: how the world with its societies and history can be viewed, international systems that operate within certain Arendtian logical realms and how human beings are understood, labeled and organized.

Martha Nussbaum: “The accident of being born in one country” (2019, p. 6)

Shifting to the last thinker included in this article, I will discuss Martha Nussbaum’s recent publication on the cosmopolitan tradition. Nussbaum’s idea of treating human beings as worthy and equal has shaped much of the Western political imagination. Nussbaum argues that our understanding of the undivided human dignity, the equal and unconditional worth of all human beings, arises from the cosmopolitan tradition of Hellenistic philosophy. The concept that emphasizes our shared humanity, ‘world citizenship’, can be traced back to the Cynicism of the third century bce and in particular to Diogenes the Cynic (c. 412/404 bce–323 bce). This Cynic/Stoic cosmopolitan tradition leads to “cosmopolitan politics,” which “impose stringent duties of respect, including an end to aggressive war, support for people who have been unjustly attacked, and a ban on crimes against humanity, including genocide and torture” (p. 5).

As world citizens of equal and unconditional worth, and by using the words of Nussbaum, being born is simultaneously an “accident of being born in one country” (p. 6). Nussbaum makes references to the Roman statesman Cicero, who saw Hercules as an ideal world citizen, and whose humanitarian acts made him god in Greek mythology (2019). Ultimately, humanitarianism carries the meanings of Cynic/Stoic cosmopolitan politics and the philosophical tradition, where it is one’s moral duty to help those who have been born into or face misfortune during their lifetimes, regardless of the country and context. The Western approach to humanitarianism is perhaps clear in this sense, having arisen as a product of imperialism, and the modern understanding of humanitarianism can be traced back to 19th-century Europe.

The Cynic / Stoic cosmopolitan tradition creates a world in which all human beings are to be recognized as equal and worthy, unconditionally. In this tradition, attributes such as nationality, ethnicity, class or gender do not contest these values (p. 75). Nussbaum contests this morally beautiful ideal of humanity by bringing attention to a void in the ideology—a lack of discussion on material distribution. “Stoic cosmopolitanism, like that of the Cynics, involves the thought that the so-called external goods are indifferent” (p. 79) and “not necessary for the flourishing life” (p. 142), as they are perceived as secondary to human worth. Nussbaum further analyzes the thoughts of Adam Smith (1723–1790) in this regard:

Smith also has a keen understanding of the reality of working-class life. He sees clearly what a difference habit and education make to human abilities, and he sees that circumstances of life may, if propitious, cause basic human abilities to flourish or, if malign to be starved and deformed. He sees that legal and economic arrangements have a crucial role to play in permitting people to develop their innate human capacities. (p. 143)

 From a humanitarian stance, the question of material wellbeing, the means to sustain life, is essential. Ideals of shared human worth are valueless if there is no food to eat, clean water to drink or shelter. Basic legal rights, such as the right to life and non-violent treatment, are essential as are basic economic arrangements, such as supporting one’s very basic needs and those of one’s own family. The Stoic/Cynic cosmopolitan tradition serves as an idealistic platform for principled humanitarian understanding of the world, but it lacks, in reality, a contribution on essential material grounds—reflecting the status of present-day humanitarianism. The ability to be a ‘humanitarian’ in respect of others, as guided by this tradition and way of thinking, is deeply elitist. Throughout this article the thought of who is being helped and who gets to help is paramount to the discussion. Having the capacity to help others requires prosperity and stability: without these, the material means to help are lacking. Central question, therefore, is, does materialism dictate human worth?

Refugee–migrant–expat nexus

Because only savages have nothing more to fall back upon than the minimum fact of their human origin, people cling to their nationality all the more desperately when they have lost the rights and protection that such nationality once gave them. (Arendt, p. 381)

Humanitarianism poses many troubling ideas on human worth. Not because it is unclear or unprincipled, but because its realities seem far removed from its ideals, and the fact that it arises from and contributes to regenerating the very inequalities it claims to protect people from. To bring the discussion of this article together on an empirical note, I will conclude by exploring ideas of human worth in the realm of nationality and citizenship, what I label here as the refugee–migrant–expat nexus.

            I use these terms to illustrate how people who are ‘on the move’, people who are outside  their given nationality’s geographical borders, have and give rise to differing interpretations of human worth. I was tempted to see what kind of definitions are given to these three terms. In order to use the same measure and approach to each, I consulted the Merriam-Webster dictionary. ‘Refugee’ is defined as “one that flees”, or “a person who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution” (Merriam-Webster 2). ‘Migrant’ is defined as “one that migrates”, or “a person who moves regularly in order to find work especially in harvesting crops” (Merriam-Webster 3). ‘Expat’ is “an expatriate person”, where ‘expatriate’ stands for “to withdraw (oneself) from residence in or allegiance to one’s native country” or “to leave one’s native country to live elsewhere” (Merriam-Webster 4).

Somehow, the levels of autonomy, independence and voluntary action seem to increase with each given definition in this order. There are several other, possibly still unnamed, categories that fall in between and perhaps beyond these three definitions describing people on the move, for example a ‘settler’ as in settler societies such as the United States, South Africa or Australia. Both visible and hidden hierarchies are present in the chosen terminology and each of the three terms carries connotations that are tied to both context and time. For example, the definition of ‘migrant’ as relating to harvesting crops seems outdated in relation to the Global North usage of the term. However, it is one thing to discuss definitions and terminology, and another to explore the phenomenology itself. In exploring how these categories manifest in today’s world and their relationship to nationalities and citizenship, I turn to some illustrative empirics.

According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, 68 percent of refugees displaced across borders come from just five countries: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar (UNHCR, 2020). This high percentage gives ‘refugeeship’ a nationalist flavor. One mark of citizenship status, a passport, is another interesting empirical measure. The world’s passports are ranked according to their ability to grant holders access to other countries. Out of the 198 countries whose passports are ranked in this way (in which first place is granted to the highest utility and easiest border-crossing access), a Syrian passport ranks 197, Venezuelan  91, Afghan 198, South Sudanese 182 and finally, Burmese 191 (Passport Index 2020). These rankings serve as manifestations of the likelihood of other nations welcoming these nationalities into their societies. The category of ‘refugee’, combined with these empirical considerations, illustrates differing rankings of human worth within the world.

Moving to the category of ‘migrant’, less clear-cut empirics avail themselves. Internet data, especially that from Global North locations, often indicates migrants’ country of departure. According to the World Migration Report 2020 produced by the United Nations’ migration agency, IOM, in 2019, one in thirty people were considered as an international migrants (IOM, 2020). Europe and Asia were the receiving areas of 61 percent of the migrants. The top five destinations for migrants were the United States, Germany, Saudi Arabia, the Russian Federation and the United Kingdom. The top five origins for migrants were India, Mexico, China, the Russian Federation and Syria. Illustratively, “in regard to the distribution of international migrants by countries’ income group, nearly two thirds of international migrants resided in high-income countries in 2019” (p. 26). This would signify that the category of ‘migrant’ often indicates a striving for economic betterment, signifying a conscious choice to seek a better life than one’s own country can offer. Human worth in this context seems somehow agency-dependent—where individuals face an unfavorable structure, they can use their own agency in changing their surroundings. Yet this leaves a certain power dynamic out of the equation—migrants, particularly those moving from lower- or middle-income countries into high-income countries, often face harder realities than persons born into the high-income society.

Lastly, when discussing the term ‘expat’, it seems we have reached the highest rung of the ladder. One indication of this is that expat as a term and social category manifests in the development cooperation category. Expats often work for the organization; they are not its targeted beneficiaries. InterNations, an online “community for expatriates & global minds”, seeks to explain expatriation as follows:

The term “expat” derives from the Latin prefix ex (out of) and the noun patria (home country, native country, or fatherland). In today’s globalized world, as the reasons for going abroad become more diverse, it’s no longer easy to find a concrete definition for this term. That said, the word “expat” is generally used to refer to people who temporarily or permanently live in a different country than the one they were born in or whose nationality they have. Expats usually choose to leave their native country for a career boost, or to fulfill a personal dream or goal, rather than as a result of dire economic necessity. (InterNations, n. d., emphasis added)

Fulfilling dreams or career goals are different for expats than the economic push-factors for migrants. Online searches suggest that expats’ reasons for being ‘on the move’ ooze liberal global citizenship, even hinting at the ideal ‘world citizen’ that Nussbaum discusses in relation to the Stoic/Cynic cosmopolitan tradition. Possible key differences, or distinguishing characteristics of expat status compared with the two other categories are financial independence, high-brow/white-collar professional affiliation and fulfillment of one’s own humanity on the basis of independence and viable choice. In this category human worth seems ever-present and flourishing.

            This brief empirical and reflective discussion on the troubling ideas of human worth also resonates with humanitarianism. From the perspective of humanitarian needs—those who are being helped—the most relevant of the given categories seem to be refugees. Yet not all those seeking refuge are in need of humanitarian assistance. From the perspective of the humanitarians—those who help—the most relevant of the given categories seems to be expats. Expats as the world-travelling professionals feed into the professionalization of the humanitarian field, of which Thomas G. Weiss and Michael Barnett write:

In other words, [humanitarian] volunteers began as amateurs. But increasingly the humanitarian enterprise frowned upon such naïfs and began demanding that staff have real expertise and rewarded them accordingly. A CEO or CFO of a major not-for-profit aid agency should not require less training or fewer skills or relevant work experience than a CEO or CFO of a for-profit Fortune 500 company. And if they are experts, they expect to be paid accordingly. (2013, p. 116.)

To conclude, given both the reflective discussion on the three thinkers discussed in this article and the empirical refugee–migrant–expat nexus, I remain skeptical about the universally perceived concept of human worth in humanitarianism and beyond.


Arendt, H., and Power, S. (2004 [1951]). The Origins of Totalitarianism. Schocken.

Barnett, M., and Weiss, T. (2013). Humanitarianism Contested: Where Angels Fear to Tread. Vol. 51. Routledge.

International Organization for Migration (IOM). 2020. World Migration Report 2020. Available at

InterNations. (n.d.). What’s an Expat Anyway: Defining the Expat. Available at

Merriam-Webster 1, dictionary definition for “utilitarianism”, available at

Merriam-Webster 2, dictionary definition for “refugee”, available at

Merriam-Webster 3, dictionary definition for “migrant”, available at

Merriam-Webster 4, dictionary definition for “expat”, available at

Mill, J. S. (2009 [1861]). Utilitarianism. Floating Press.

Nussbaum, M. (2019 [1951]). The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble but Flawed Ideal. Harvard University Press.

Owens, P. (2005). Hannah Arendt, Violence, and the Inescapable Fact of Humanity. In: A. F. Lang Jr and J. Williams, eds., Hannah Arendt and International Relations: Readings Across the Lines, Palgrave, pp. 41–65.      

Passport Index. (2020). Available at, data collected in September 15, 2020.

UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). (2020). Refugee Facts: What is a Refugee? Available at

Weizman, E. (2011). The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza. Verso.

Young, I. M. (2002). Power, Violence, and Legitimacy: A Reading of Hannah Arendt in an Age of Police Brutality and Humanitarian Intervention. In: M. Minow, ed., Breaking the Cycles of Hatred: Memory, Law, and Repair, Princeton University Press, pp. 260–287.

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