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‘Small things’ in humanitarian work

Anaïs Rességuier, researcher in humanitarian ethics at SciencesPo Paris, reflects on the importance of small acts of kindness and humanity in humanitarian work

Is small beautiful? Or is small… just small, as a speaker wondered at the recent Humanitarian Innovation Conference in Oxford?

In one way, there is no doubt, small is just small.

Over the past few decades, the humanitarian community has developed significantly and is now able to achieve greater impacts through the deployment of a complex and professionalized system. Today, humanitarians bring to crisis-affected people far more than a cup of water and a few bandages. We are far from the simple bowl of soup in Francisco de Goya’s print “De qué sirve una taza” (“What is the use of a cup?”) representing a humanitarian gesture in famine-stricken Spain at the beginning of the 19th century. This bowl of soup will temporarily warm up the body and soul of the woman, but it will not put her out of her misery. Though a very moving gesture, it is also a very small one. And in that sense, small is just small, indeed.

However, a certain form of celebration of this smallness, is not just small.

In his critique of pity, Nietzsche has powerfully shown what is sick, harmful, and destructive in the celebration of smallness. Rejoicing over weakness and powerlessness is a victory of suffering, a refusal of strength and height. In that sense, small is certainly not beautiful, and it is not just small. It is miserable and ugly – ultimately, a hostility toward life. Miserabilism is the greatest enemy of humanitarian action.

But there are also small things that are truly worth rejoicing over. And these are actually very beautiful.

In humanitarian work, Paul Bouvier reminds us of the value of “very little things”, “small things… so derisory that they rarely dare to appear in reports, accounts, and media articles on humanitarian action in the field”. They may take different shapes: “like a cup of coffee, pictures of flowers, animals, and landscapes, or a few drops of perfume” (Bouvier, 2012). Or they may be a particular look or smile, a cigarette shared with a beneficiary, a brief chat with a refugee child, or a sense of shared commitment across one’s team or organisation, as I recently heard in my interviews with humanitarian actors in Jordan and Lebanon. These experiences are not the “cherry on the cake”, they are the cake itself: the main chunk of what makes our lives meaningful and worth living.

What are these little things actually about? Paul Bouvier sees them as “intense moments; moments of shared humanity” (Bouvier, 2012). I will leave for another day the idea of “shared humanity” and will concentrate on the intensity of this moment. Indeed, these experiences do not remain at the surface of our life. They touch and move us, appeal to our senses and resonate in our body. In that sense, they are truly aesthetical experiences in the etymological sense of the word: experiences of the senses (aesthetic comes from the Greek noun aesthesis, ‘sensation’).

These experiences do not come without a certain shivering; a shaking that takes us out of a daily existence that we tend to live as automatons. They constitute a little irregularity interrupting the daily chain of reproduction of the same and its dangers. Strict reproduction of the same in everyday life is dangerous indeed. It is the path which, in humanitarian work, inevitably takes us to being “cynical, cautious, bureaucratic, self-interested, inefficient and prefer{ing} to sit with our laptops rather than with people suffering around us.” (Slim, 2015) Hugo Slim rightly reminds us in his recent book on Humanitarian Ethics that virtue, i.e. a particular form of strength, needs to be “cultivated carefully” to be a humanitarian. Little things that bring meaning, beauty and intensity to our life and work are possibly the most essential ingredients of this cultivation.

To conclude, small can be just small indeed. And in the face of the great human sufferings that we are surrounded by, a rejoicing over what is small, is not just small, it is also ugly and sick – a negation of life.

But small can also be intense and beautiful when it comes to touch us from within. It is what connects us to the real matter, to what really matters. In that sense, it is the heart of the ethical experience.



Bouvier, Paul, 2011, “‘Yo lo vi’. Goya witnessing the disasters of war: an appeal to the sentiment of humanity”, in International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 93, No 884. I am grateful to Paul Bouvier for writing on this series of prints by Francisco de Goya on “The Disasters of War”. A copy of the print referred to is available here.

Bouvier, Paul, 2012, “Humanitarian care and small things in dehumanised places”, in International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 94, No 888.

Nietzsche, Frederic, 1888, The Antichrist.

Slim, Hugo, 2015, Humanitarian Ethics. A Guide to the Morality of Aid in War and Disaster, Hurst Publishing.

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