Intersectional theory emphasizes the important complexity of human identity and power relations. It insists that we stop seeing each other simplistically as a single type—male, female, black, white, rich, poor, oppressor or oppressed. Instead we need to recognize how different socio-economic factors ‘intersect’ in every person to give them a range of experience as human beings.
This emphasis on mutable multiple identities sounds very different to a classical humanitarian approach, which foregrounds an essentialist meta identity in people—their humanity. Principled humanitarian action appears to resist distinguishing individuals and groups on the basis of differences in class, race and political beliefs when trying to protect and assist people.
Does this make intersectionality and impartiality impossible to reconcile? Is it wise to embrace intersectional theory more explicitly? Or, should humanitarian impartiality and neutrality avoid association with a vanguard method of progressive liberalism, which may clash with the conservatism of many societies?
At first glance, these two radical approaches to human experience may seem like polar opposites that look set for some sort of ethical and political car crash if they are applied next to one another in humanitarian practice.
A closer look suggests that intersectional analysis is already embedded in good humanitarian practice and can be emphasized even more in many situations without undermining principled humanitarian action. Humanitarian action’s concentration on people’s needs involves a careful appreciation of the many factors intersecting their lives.
Intersectionality focuses on every possible difference in human identity to shed light on the particularity of power relations, individual experience and group conditions. Its purpose is to encourage inclusive political activism and accurately inform public policy.
Intersectional theory’s great strength is to show that there is seldom just one factor in a person’s life that shapes our lived experience and makes us who we are. Instead, there are usually a variety of personal, political and social dimensions which intersect our lives and shape our experience of power. We can be poor and white, rich and black, female and powerful, male and weak, oppressive in some relationships and oppressed in others.
Intersectionality suggests that each one of us lives as in a web, where different strands of power, identity, ability and choice intersect to shape the conditions in which we live. Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge put it like this:
When it comes to social inequality, people’s lives and the organization of power in a given society are better understood as being shaped not by a single axis of social division, be it race or gender or class, but by many axes that work together and influence each other.
This multi-stranded approach to social analysis has been known and applied for many years, but is usefully highlighted in the single explanatory metaphor of intersecting—like the different colour threads woven together in a tapestry.
Various factors intersect in each of us to shape our socio-political advantages and disadvantages. I may be a middle-class professional woman of colour with strong social networks who is also a wheelchair user, and so, excluded from large parts of society and the regular object of stigma and stereotyping. This gives my life a pattern of intersecting power and vulnerability. Labelling me with just one of these factors would be profoundly inaccurate. Or I may be a white heterosexual man in a very poor part of England where my life expectancy is fifteen years less than a person in a rich area. To label me simplistically with the implicitly privileged identity as a straight white British man makes no sense.
Different spaces and different moments also change the nature of risk and opportunity in our identities. For example, a brilliant young businesswoman may hold exceptional power and feel deeply confident in her office, but then feel fearful and vulnerable when she leaves it late at night to walk to the car park in the dark. Our experience of power and vulnerability are situational as well as fixed.
The humanitarian principle of impartiality seems to turn a blind eye to difference in order to avoid political entanglement. Impartiality insists that humanitarian action ‘makes no discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinion. It endeavours to relieve the suffering of individuals, being guided solely by their needs, and give priority to the most urgent cases of distress’.
But impartiality’s commitment around difference is not to ignore it and naively discount it as irrelevant. Instead, it is to recognize differences in needs, but avoid adverse discrimination which would prioritize assistance and protection on the basis of singular political identities. Like intersectionality, impartiality deliberately avoids simplistic identities that are vested with political preference and seeks to go beneath these labels to understand more precisely how people suffer.
International humanitarian law (IHL) and humanitarian action know well that people’s needs are structured by who they are, what has happened to them, and what power and vulnerability they possess. This means intersectional analysis of suffering and need, survival and recovery is intrinsic to humanitarian norms and practice. Humane treatment is understood in intersectional terms in the recent ICRC Commentary on Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions:
Humane treatment is context specific and has to be considered in the concrete circumstances of each case, taking into account both objective and subjective elements, such as the environment, the physical and mental conditions of the person, as well as his or her age, social, cultural, religious or political background and past experiences . . . with a growing acknowledgement that women, men, girls and boys are affected by conflict in different ways.
Impartiality does not preclude intersectional analysis. It enables it with a gaze that appreciates individual needs over primary political identity. Impartiality’s main ethical concern is to ensure that a radical equality determines who receives humanitarian action by resisting adverse bias.
The problem of humanitarian categories
Despite this clear commitment to an intersecting analysis of needs, the modern elaboration of humanitarian norms and policy may have accidentally created a damaging social simplification in human labelling of their own. Humanitarian action has a history of imposing single types of humanitarian identity on people.
Individuals are singularly labelled as ‘civilians’ or ‘IDPs’ or ‘women and children’ or ‘female household heads’ or ‘hosts’ or ‘migrants’ or ‘disabled’ or ‘detainees’ or ‘beneficiaries’ or ‘victims’ of one thing or another. Women and girls have increasingly been prioritized within these categories.
Men and boys have often been lost behind these foregrounded identity types, but are gradually becoming a category in their own right, along with older people and the mentally ill. Sexuality will probably be the next (and highly contested) category as humanitarian policy reaches out to specifically protect homosexual and transgender people.
These single axis humanitarian definitions are anathema to intersectional analysis and often stereotype people under one label which then dangerously fixes their power relations and possibilities. Such categories are essential to drive norms and lawful conduct in armed conflict, but humanitarian response always needs to get beneath the apparent simplicity of these categories to understand individual needs.
In practice, all good humanitarian action looks more deeply into people’s individual experience when designing a response. All guidance and standards for humanitarian action require humanitarian analysis to break out a sophisticated social, economic and political understanding of people’s risks and opportunities as they struggle to survive armed conflict and disaster.
Moving beyond humanitarian types
Intersectional analysis can really help to get humanitarian action beyond its own labels, especially in highly individual casework where particular attention can be given to individuals and families. In these situations, humanitarian professionals can work directly with people on important intersections in their lives and the risks and opportunities they present.
Less nuanced social analysis may be inevitable in crisis management of larger demographics. Humanitarian response using single categories like the hungry, the sick, the displaced and the vulnerable may be the only possible short cuts in the early moments of a mass emergency.
Impartiality stands firm as a fundamental humanitarian principle: nobody is shown priority because of a simple political identity. The intersectional analysis embedded in IHL and impartial assessment should be embraced as an essential tool to identify needs more precisely and refine response. This will ensure that humanitarian practice breaks through simplistic single categories to develop a better understanding of the needs of particular civilians, IDPs, women, men, girls and boys.
Impartiality ensures humanitarian fairness and objectivity. Intersectional analysis enables humanitarian precision by recognizing people as complex subjects, not singular object categories. Humanitarian action needs both.
Dr Hugo Slim is Head of Policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva. Before joining ICRC in 2015, he was Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict (ELAC) at the University of Oxford where he led research on humanitarian ethics and the protection of civilians. Hugo has combined a career between academia and practice. He was Chief Scholar at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue from 2003–2007 and Reader in International Humanitarianism at Oxford Brookes University from 1994–2003. Between 1983 and 1994, Hugo worked for Save the Children and the United Nations in Morocco, Sudan, Ethiopia, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Bangladesh. He received his PhD in humanitarian ethics from Oxford Brookes University in 2002. His most recent books are Humanitarian Ethics: A Guide to the Morality of Aid in War and Disaster (2015 Hurst/OUP) and Killing Civilians: Method, Madness and Morality in War (2007 Hurst/OUP).
 Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge, Intersectionality, Polity, Cambridge, UK, 2016, p2.
 ICRC Commentary to Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, para 553, https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/applic/ihl/ihl.nsf/Comment.xsp?action=openDocument&documentId=59F6CDFA490736C1C1257F7D004BA0EC.