Date of Award


Document Type

Honors Thesis (Open Access)


Colby College. Global Studies Program


Matthew Archibald

Second Advisor

Jennifer Yoder

Third Advisor

Elsa L. Fan


Medical humanitarianism is generally viewed very positively by society. Selfless humanitarians are going to war-torn, disaster-affected, or otherwise undesirable locations to provide medical care to those who are in need. However, when considered more carefully, it becomes clear that there are many problematic aspects of humanitarian aid. That is not to say that humanitarian aid is unnecessary, but rather that humanitarian actions are likely to have some unintended consequences or fail to live up to their potential no matter how well-meaning the intentions. Acknowledging that medical humanitarianism is but a single component of the response to complex humanitarian emergencies and lacks the ability to end wars or change political systems, medical aid is an important consideration in how populations emerge from such emergency situations. This study will examine how medical humanitarian groups operate in the context of complex humanitarian emergencies and how their varied approaches impact the effectiveness of their interventions. In order to examine this question, I will consider the unique histories and approaches of two of the most important actors on the medical humanitarian scene, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), and how these unique histories and approaches impacted their effectiveness in the case of the Great Lakes refugee crisis following the Rwandan genocide. Analysis of the actions of both the ICRC and MSF found that both organizations had some successes during the Great Lakes crisis, but also had many shortcomings that prevented their aid from being as effective as it had the potential to be. Following the Great Lakes crisis, a number of actions were taken to address the shortcomings of the aid community, but adjustments will need to be continuously made as humanitarian emergencies continue to evolve.


humanitarianism, medicine, public health

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