Smart Humanitarianism: Re-imagining Human Rights in the Age of Enterprise

John Dale, David Kyle
Published in
Critical Sociology

A paradigmatic shift around the central role of ‘social entrepreneurs’ is captivating a broad, diverse range of social actors refashioning the institutional landscape of human rights and humanitarian practices. For this special issue dedicated to ‘Re-imagining Human Rights’, we explore some of the implications of these revolutionary changes in human rights practices, and their consequences for sociological study and political critique in the 21st century. Following a discussion of the state of the sociology of human rights practices, we describe the remaking of the human rights arena into a site of technocratic organizations with an emphasis on the ‘triple bottom line’ (financial, social and environmental sustainability). This market-led rights paradigm also promotes a new kind of empathy required for social problem-solving and humanitarian action – one less sentimental, much more technocratic and managerial. We offer some critical observations on this ‘smart humanitarianism’, which emphasizes the human-machine partnership via online technologies, apps, and expert systems management strategies; they redistribute the cognitive responsibilities of determining and delivering goods for greatest measurable impact with a quid-pro-quo of reframing inequality. We introduce the other contributing articles, signposting notable elements and the implications for wider socio-political critique, especially regarding ‘smart humanitarianism’.