Medical humanitarianism, human rights and political advocacy: The case of the Israeli Open Clinic

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In the context of neo-liberal retrenchments humanitarian NGOs have become alternative healthcare providers that partially fill the vacuum left by the welfare state's withdrawal from the provision of services to migrants and other marginalized populations. In many cases they thus help to build legitimacy for the state's retreat from social responsibilities. Human rights organizations play an important role in advocating for migrants' rights, but in many cases they represent a legalistic and individualized conceptualization of the right to health that limits their claims for social justice. This paper analyzes the interactions and tensions between the discourses of medical humanitarianism, human rights and political advocacy using the example of an "Open Clinic" run by an Israeli human rights organization as a case-study: In 2007 dramatically increasing patient numbers provoked an intense internal debate concerning the proposal to temporarily close the "Open Clinic" in order to press the government to take action. Based on protocols from internal meetings and parliamentary hearings and in-depth interviews, we have analyzed divergent contextualizations of the Clinic's closure. These reflect conflicting notions regarding the Clinic's variegated spectrum of roles - humanitarian, political, legitimizing, symbolic, empowering and organizational - and underlying conceptualizations of migrants' " deservingness" Our case-study thus helps to illuminate NGOs' role in the realm of migrant healthcare and points out options for a possible fruitful relationship between the divergent paradigms of medical humanitarianism, human rights and political advocacy.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)839-845
Number of pages7
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
Issue number6
StatePublished - 1 Mar 2012


  • Access to healthcare
  • Asylum seekers
  • Human rights
  • Israel
  • Medical humanitarianism
  • Migrant workers
  • NGOs
  • Political advocacy

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Health(social science)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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