Bring out the Human in Humanitarianism

The context of global humanitarianism has been growing throughout the years. Peter Redfield’s Doctors, Boarders, and Life in Crisis, along with Miriam Ticktin’s The Violence of Humanitarianism in France, really paint a picture of major consequences that are associated with humanitarianism. The first are the consequences associated with this transition of humanitarianism to politics. The second is the possible dehumanization of those who are being helped. After reading the examples provided by both authors, it is clear that there has been a shift in what humanitarianism is and that sometimes it creates a limited version of what it means to be human.

This shift of humanitarianism to politics is illustrated with the “illness clause” in French law. This clause gives people with serious illness the right to stay in France regardless of if they are an undocumented immigrant. This clause was created as an alternative to human rights discourse and for those who did not obtain rights based on the states interests (Ticktin, 5). Due to this, the illness clause made sickness a primary way for undocumented citizens to get papers to stay in France. People would even go as far as infecting themselves with an illness such as HIV/ AIDs just so they could stay in France and “live more fully.” In this case, humanitarianism, seen with the illness clause, shifting to politics resulted in a consequence where the undocumented were giving up bodily integrity for human dignity. These immigrants would rather live a fuller life infected with HIV/AIDS than be completely healthy and deported. Some citizens even took up identities of friends who had died of HIV/AIDS just to stay in the country (Ticktin, 8). In essence, this clause is allowing undocumented immigrants to place less value on their lives and create a limited version of what it means to be human. In France these people are giving up an opportunity to a healthy life just to be considered a citizen.

The dehumanization that can be associated with humanitarianism can be seen in the refugee camps mentioned in Doctors, Boarders and Life in Crisis. Even though these camps foster the possibility of mass survival, the figure of a human still emerges from behind that of a citizen (Redfield, 341). The goal of these refugee camps may be to aid those who have suffered from severe political and ecological instability, however, it is important to note that they do play a role of devaluing human life. In these camps, the refugee’s dignity and citizenship are put into question. Here the only things that matter are calorie intake, hydration and shelter (Redfield, 342). Yes these are very important aspects of life that need to be protected. However, because these aspects are the biggest and only concerns of the camp, individuals loose their ability to voice their opinions and perform acts of civil virtue. In this sense, the person is being seen not as a person but just as another body in the camp.

This is again seen in the worlds second largest refugee camp in Jordan. This camp holds more that 80,000 people whose lives are on hold and going nowhere (Swan, BBC). For some of these refugees, life in the camp holds such little value and hope that they would rather return home to Syria. On one hand obviously these refugee camps are providing safety and life to those who were in danger, but on the other hand these people are losing what it means to be alive. An important question must be asked: what, if anything, should we do to help these people who are already suffering maintain the feeling of what it means to be alive?


Discussion questions:

  1. How do humanitarians ensure that in providing necessary materials for living, that they are also providing what is essential to feel human?
  2. Is there a way to stop or at least limit this shift of    humanitarianism to politics?


Work Cited:

Redfield, Peter. 2008. “Doctors, Borders, and Life in Crisis.” Cultural Anthropology 20(3): 328-361

Ticktin, Miriam. 2006. “Where Ethics and Politics Meet: The Violence of Humanitarianism in France.” American Ethnologist 33(1): 33-49.

“Lives on Hold: The Scots Helping Syrians in a Refugee Camp – BBC News.” BBC News. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Nov. 2015.

15 thoughts on “Bring out the Human in Humanitarianism”

  1. Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for your article – I think the issue of the politicization of humanitarian efforts is a very important question to consider. It seems like we are once again dealing with a vertical vs. horizontal approach kind of quandary. On one hand, MSF prides itself on working in many different types of disaster zones, and helping a large number of people in each. However, the care they provide (and the idea of refugee camps in general) are certainly a type of quick fix, which is not ideal.

    I agree that we should be looking for long-term solutions and finding a way to still provide for the more emotional needs of the people MSF works with (just as I believe that we need horizontal approaches to work alongside vertical approaches). I think this inevitably becomes a cost-effective/”most pressing need” kind of solution though: it is much easier to fix the pressing physical needs of a large group of people (and it certainly feels better immediately, for those working with these people) than it is to provide them with the homes and jobs in a new area to relocate to. With a limited amount of funding, what is more important or are zoe and bios equally important? I also wonder whether it is the role of MSF to implement these more long term solutions? It seems like that should be the role of individual state governments (perhaps nudged or mandated by an international organization like the WHO?). I would be interested to hear your and others’ thoughts on this issue.

    1. Hi Methma,
      I also agree that long-term solutions must be found in order to provide people with true opportunities to feel human. But unfortunately, as you mention, in the context of war and violence, humanitarian groups and NGOs often have to pick cost-effective methods in an attempt to help many people and to produce tangible effects.

      You’ve raised an interesting question of whether zoe and bios is more important; I propose that neither is because they are highly interdependent. In a state of “emergency” (though, admittedly, an “emergency/crisis” is hard to define), humanitarian organizations find it easier/more feasible to focus on zoe. Perhaps this is because bios is not possible without zoe; restructuring society for someone to achieve personhood is irrelevant without the presence of life. On the other hand, I do not think that zoe is possible without bios; after all, bios, as we’ve seen in class and in readings, greatly informs someone’s biological health.

    2. Hi Methma,

      Thank you for your comment and questions. Like we discussed in class I think that it important for funding to be distributed in a way that humanitarian aid can reach the middle ground in-between zoe and bios. Ideally these funds would be allocated in a way that effected all the issues seen with both zoe and bios but finding that middle ground is more realistic.

      I also agree that there needs to be more responsibility of the state government and the WHO. If humanitarian aid could establish a stronger partnership with state government and the WHO I think that addressing more of the issue seen with bios would be more realistic.

  2. Hi Sarah,
    You have pointed out several of the shortcomings of humanitarianism, and like Methma commented, it seems that these faults boil down to this debate between horizontal vs. horizontal work. While I do not discount the work of humanitarian organizations and do appreciate MSF’s objective of saving lives, I, too, would like to see what possible changes could occur in society if aid groups focused on not only saving lives, but also combating structural violence.

    I think you’ve also presented an issue that is critical to contemplate: by focusing only on saving lives and not on fixing underlying inequalities, are humanitarian organizations themselves becoming complicit in structural violence? This is an extremely difficult concept to decipher, and I think part of this difficulty stems from the fact that, as discussed in class, the objective of saving a life is hard to criticize. And to be honest, I don’t know the answer to this question. But I would like to point out that while it’s important to scrutinize humanitarianism for the sake of reformation/improvement, it’s equally – if not more – important to scrutinize the governments and bodies that are allowing the structural violence to occur. After all, I’d argue that dehumanization does not originate in humanitarian work but rather can be ingrained in societies and exacerbated by corruption and inaction of people in power.

    Regarding your first question, in order for humanitarians to ensure that they are providing necessary materials for living and for feeling human, it’s important to focus on working WITH the people you are trying to help rather than just FOR them (this is a topic I’ve talked about in my audio responses). I think that a lot of feeling human has to do with feeling like you have agency, and I think agency involves being able to voice your own wants and needs. In order to humanitarian organizations to provide this agency, they not only have to save lives, but also recognize the importance of listening and understanding the populations in need of help. I think attempting to work WITH these populations is also the best way to limit the shift of humanitarianism to politics. As the readings mentioned, politics can greatly hinder humanitarian aid to as well as silence certain populations; if humanitarian organizations work on listening to these populations, they can combat the act of silencing oppressed people.

    But I’d also like to raise the question of whether, instead of trying to eliminate politics from humanitarian aid, humanitarian organizations and global bodies like the WHO should use politics to hold governments accountable for taking care of their citizens. What is your opinion on this?

    1. Hi Nini,

      Thank you for comment. I think you raise a great point about how the WHO should use poltics to hold governments accountable for taking care of their citizens. I believe that there needs to be more of a parnership between the WHO and these governments. With a strong partnership the WHO will be able to have more of an influence on how these governments are accountable.

      I also really agree with your point about working with people rather than just for them. I think if we make this change and start working with people, we will see more of an affect of humanitarian aid on bios and not just on zoe.

      1. Hi Sarah,
        Thanks for your response!
        I’ve been thinking about the WHO using politics to hold governments accountable, and I think a similar model could be extended to NGOs as well. On one hand, some humanitarian organizations like to be completely apolitical. But on the other hand, groups like PIH emphasize the need to collaborate with local governments to make efforts more sustainable. As we saw in the readings, using governmental bodies can be a pretty effective way to incorporate local members in foreign aid work. I do, however, wonder about possible unanticipated consequences of trying to involve governments in humanitarian work… Just something to think about!

  3. Hi Sarah!

    The refugee camps in Doctors, Boarders and Life in Crisis are a good example of the unintended consequences of humanitarian efforts. Most humanitarian interventions, including these refuge camps, are seen as temporary. However, people became dependent on these interventions and now whole generations are growing up in these refugee camps. This is especially unfortunate because although these camps support bare life, they do not give its inhabitants a sense of “human dignity”. I wonder if these lack of “human dignity” is partially on purpose. Ignoring bios may helps these places achieve the goal of being more “temporary”. Unfortunately, many of these individuals are now trapped. These refugee camps are their home. Most of their family and friends may live in these camps with them and by leaving they even risk losing the “bare life” they have maintained.
    However, not all individuals are the same. As you point out in your second paragraph some individuals would go so far as to infect themselves with HIV/AIDS to get French citizenship. This illustrates how to these people bare life is equally important as human dignity.

    I wonder if being part of a collective versus being alone plays any part in these two situations. Even though the refugee camps are definitely dehumanizing there is still some semblance of a community. In contrast, the individuals in France are usually removed from their families and live in isolation. Even though it is not much the small sense of community may give the people in refugee camps slightly more relief than the individuals in France. These ideas fall under the category of social suffering and it is interesting to see how it may play a role in these circumstances.

    1. Hi Derana,

      Thank you for your comment. I think the point you made about differences seen as a collective versus individual is really thought provoking. I hadn’t thought about this point until you brought it up. It would be really interesting to look into this difference more but I do believe that there is more relief in refugee camps where a community has been created rather than in France where there is more of an impact on an individual. Social suffering present in refugee camps I think also play a large role of how relief is perceived. Relief for a group that is suffering together may appear to have more of an impact than relief that is provided to someone who is suffering on their own. This also can relate to population vs. individual and which stance is better to take.

  4. Hi Sarah!

    You bring up a really important discussion surrounding what it means to be human, how humanitarianism allows for a limited version of humanity, and the active dehumanization often implicit in the act of “helping.” Your point about people injecting themselves with HIV/AIDS so as to stay in France, in an attempt to “live more fully,” becomes even more complicated in the wake of Adia Benton’s HIV Exceptionalism, which critiques the idea of “living positively” with HIV and what it means to look well and live well.

    Your discussion of the politicizing of humanitarian aid is a really compelling one in the context of this discussion of “health as a human right” with regards to Global Health initiatives most broadly, and it brings into question who has the right to access care and for whom are borders most permeable. Also going back to Benton’s text, the idea that those who have “outed” themselves as HIV positive have the most to gain from their political structures, and similar themes persist here in the asylum of refugees in France.

    Your discussion of the quality of life in refugee camps is particularly poignant in the difference between zoe and bios: what life is “worth” living? What bodies are deserving of life? Of humanity? Of personhood?

  5. Sarah,

    You bring up really poignant examples of loss of humanity in humanitarianism. When hearing about condemnations of the consequences of humanitarianism, I often rebuttal with, “Yes, but what are the consequences of a *lack* of humanitarianism?” Your response has led me to an answer quite different than I typically find: in the cases of the illness clause in France and the refugee camp in Jordan, where people said they would rather go back to Syria, it seems like the world may be a better place without humanitarian efforts.

    However, I know that in countries receiving aid from Médecins sans frontières, a countless number of people would have died in their absence. I’m aware that my argument is qualified by the conditions of “bare life” that these people experience, but are we to prioritize slow-paced structural change to immediate medical emergencies? It’s impossible for one organization to fix the world. So if we have to choose between horizontal change and emergency humanitarianism, I’d have to pick the latter.

    Referring back to preventable humanitarian dehumanization, such as losing bodily integrity in France, how can we alter laws to benefit immigrants as much as possible? Or perhaps more pressing, how do we convince French citizens (as well as all citizens in developed countries) that a change in laws is necessary when we are still living in a world plagued with xenophobia and racism?

  6. Nini brought up a great point, you can’t have the bio without the zoe, and humanitarian organizations shouldn’t be entirely responsible for creating that transition. Governments and other legislative bodies should be responsible for this. I wonder if MSF paid greater attention to this issue, quantity, i.e. the number of people MSF could treat, would be compromised in the pursuit of quality care (producing bios).

    In regards to your second question on a way to limit a shift from humanitarianism to politics, I think the goal shouldn’t be to limit the shift because it may pave the way for human rights discourse, policy creation/refinement on these matters. Setting/refining these policies are important because they allow for greater accountability and consistency, depending on how well-defined the policies are. However, I know they are not without issues. The “illness clause” in France led to many refugees seeking illness to gain the benefits in the clause. Another example is the “right to health” in Brazil. Many parents of children with the rare disease, MPS, demanded costly treatment for their kids using their “right to health” as a justification (When People Come First, p. 326). This presents a double-edged sword. Policies too well-defined can be restrictive, while policies too flexible leave room for manipulation and confusion.

  7. Hi Sarah!

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post! Your question of how to conduct humanitarian work in global health in such a way that provides what is essential for survival but also maintains human dignity is interesting and seems to me to be the most pressing issue at the centre of humanitarianism. By definition, humanitarianism is a moral obligation to save lives and relieve suffering in the short term, i.e. in an immediate crisis or emergency. It seems that from this week’s readings, humanitarian intervention is expected when bodily integrity is threatened, thus prioritizing biological pathologies as the most ‘care-worthy’ type of suffering.
    As you point out, this becomes super problematic as trying to compare or place value on one person’s suffering over another person’s suffering is ethically dubious to say the least. For me, as I was thinking through this, it made me think of Peter Singer and his ideas of utilitarianism because it seems that when you think of humanitarianism and suffering in this way, you risk straying into the murky waters of placing value on one person’s life over another person.

  8. Very thoughtful and informative post Sarah. The influence of politics on humanitarianism action, even for “apolitical” organizations like MSF, is definitely troubling. The illness clause in French law was meant to codify a humanitarian virtue – that since health is a human right, those with “serious” illnesses would not be deported despite their lack of political national identity as a French citizen. Yet in doing so, they made the status of being sick a possible substitute for political identity, and caused people to sacrifice their health or identity to ensure other elements of their well-being. Obviously this is problematic, but it is hard to think of a concrete solution that doesn’t do away with the difficult bureaucratic process of obtaining citizenship in general.

    I also think the dehumanization you describe in refugee camps is a difficult problem to approach. Many commenters here have mentioned that zoe is a prerequisite to bio, and that criticizing an aid organization for only providing people with shelter and food is a hard stance to take – at least they are doing something. I think the problem I have is with what those terms implies, and the question of what it means to be a human. Zoe protects one’s life – their ability to survive. But having a network and being included in a society, given opportunities to advance one’s situation and contribute to culture, these might be part of what it should mean to be a human. What are humanitarian organizations goals if not protecting peoples rights to be human – or should we have another, different organization, after these goals?

  9. Dear Sarah,

    I think you bring up some excellent points. The reality that some people must sacrifice their bodily integrity to gain political rights, and visa-versa, is a sad one. It only serves to emphasize a common theme in this course that, in order to create truly successful programs, you have to consider all aspects of the human experience.

    One thing I find particularly distressing is that a lot of the time this imbalance (gaining one right, only to lose another) is not only caused by the unintended consequences of immigrant legislation, but also by development programs. I was reading in another course a book called Microfinance and its Discontents. In one of the chapters. the author described one of the profound success stories of microfinance, where a stay-at-home mother was able to start an enormously successful business and earn enough to completely provide for herself and her children.

    However, this resulted. as in many other cases, in the husband feeling emasculated (largely because of cultural norms) and asserting his control over the household in violent ways. So although the woman described in the book gained economic rights, she suffered from exacerbated gender inequality. Likewise, in health, sometimes gaining better biological well-being (the Zoe) results in reduced civil and human rights. Going off your blog, I think it is important to realize that the enhancement of one type of right does not necessarily lead to the enhancement of another.

  10. Hi Sarah,
    Thanks for your post! You brought up some really interesting points regarding the need to bring bios into the lives of people living in refugee camps. The current way humanitarian organizations like MSF operate, maintaining the zoë of refugees is what’s deemed most important. Which I would agree most definitely should be the main focus. Bare-life is all MSF is equipped to do because it is meant to provide a temporary solution to areas in crisis. But when these interventions lasts months or years, personhood is stripped away because living in bare-life situations for a stretch of time removes humanity. I’m not sure how to change this because it’s so hard to assess what needs for attaining zoë are possible to meet in such a setting. Returning bios requires giving people a role in society, and as you said, their lives are put on hold in the camps, which makes doing this difficult. I think the only ways to do this is by returning some sense of normalcy to the camp. Which I guess could take on many forms. I wonder what your thoughts are on what is needed to give people a sense of personhood.

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