Stateless Humanitarianism

As a result of the Arab-Israeli War in 1948, 750,000 Palestinians were displaced to form refugee camps across the country of Palestine and in neighboring countries like Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. Those refugees didn’t have food, shelter, or even water, and therefore, international support was necessary in order to save them from starvation. The United Nations General Assembly resolution (302) took responsibility of this issue, stating that a new agency named UNRWA (United Nation’s Relief and Works Agency) is established to “Prevent conditions of starvation and distress… and to further conditions of peace and stability.” [1]

The complex political situation that resulted from this conflict limited the support the Palestinian refugees should get from health services and agencies. In his article, Doctors, Borders and Life in Crisis, Redfield quotes the charter of the MSF, “M6decins sans frontiers provides aid to people in need, to victims of natural and man-made disasters, wars and civil wars, irrespective of race, religion, ideology or politics” [2] Yet, this does not seem to be applied in the case of Palestinian refugees. The charter later says, “With regard to humanitarian interventions in the Palestinian territories, MSF faces difficulties when the political stakes of the situation do not easily translate into the language of victims and lives saved.” [3] According to the MSF, politics is rather disregarded when humanitarian support is needed, and at the same time members of MSF rarely suggest that their work will directly build a better social order or achieve a state of justice. “The goal is to agitate, disrupt, and encourage others to alter the world by practicing humanitarian medicine, one person at a time.” [4]

Sadly, the humanitarian support the Palestinian refugees received when they were depopulated was only a reaction to save as many lives as possible, rather than an intention to solve the causation of starvation. Palestinian refugees have been receiving basic food supplies on a monthly basis ever since, but this support is not enough to end the suffering they have to go through. Later on, Palestinians spend years inquiring for humanitarian support world wide, yet because those refugees have been stateless, humanitarianism has failed to take them seriously. In her article, Ticktin argues, “Being thrown out of one’s national community means being thrown out of humanity altogether – being stateless deprives one of the essence of humanity – its political character.” And conversely, she suggests that citizenship, a membership in a polity, conveys full belonging in the category humanity; “ humanitarianism protects individuals by virtue of their membership in humanity.” [5]

It is people who decide what they need, what rights are they missing, and the varieties of violations committed against them. Therefore, humanitarian agencies have no right to use politics, religion, or race as an excuse to reach those in need of help, and it is their responsibility to understand the needs of the victims irrespective of the systems forced upon them. As desperate as those stateless Palestinian refugees are for humanitarian support, the Rwandans are also suffering from scarce humanitarian support due to the political situation surrounding them. Ticktin argues, “The hundreds of thousands of people living and dying in awful conditions in the Rwanda-Zaire borderlands know better than anyone else on the scene what they have done, what has happened to them, why, and what they can hope for if they return to Rwanda.” [6] Yet, when voicing their suffering and struggle, Palestinian and Rwandan refugees are not taken lawfully, both because their representatives are governments that do not represent them as peoples, and also because the counter forces upon them are more powerful than they are, leaving them stateless in humanitarianism.


[2] Redfield P. 330

[3] Redfield P. 354

[4] Redfield P. 334

[5] Ticktin P. 44

[6] Ticktin P.392

20 thoughts on “Stateless Humanitarianism”

  1. Hi Maen,

    Thanks for your post. I was also so surprised to read in the article about certain MSF chapters withdrawing from the Rwandan refugee camps in 1995, due to political instability. I think there is a really interesting distribution of responsibility (and blame?) when we are dealing with volunteer humanitarian organizations like MSF, since MSF does not report to anyone. Ultimately, we would hope that MSF reports to the good of the world, but how can a volunteer organization be forced to remain in a region where they feel as though the “humanitarian space necessary” to continue operations no longer exists? Should MSF be accountable to a larger world organization like the WHO? And can we blame the MSF for leaving after MSF members were murdered in Afghanistan (or should they have accepted this risk by working in Afghanistan at the time)?

    I think this raises some tough questions that have to do with the idea of being blameworthy even while doing good. A big point of the readings, I thought, was that while MSF is certainly doing good, perhaps it is not doing enough (to maintain the humanity of the people it helps, to ensure long-lasting changes, etc.). This also brings to mind whether the role of MSF is truly to create long lasting changes instead of providing quick medical relief in disaster situations. I am curious to hear what you and others think.

    1. Your question is very Interesting and I don’t think I have an answer to it, but here is what I think.. There is no doubt that the work these humanitarian organizations do is extremely important and has in fact saved many people’s lives across the world. But I think that there must be some sort of sacrifice made when it comes to saving other people’s lives. The recent bombing of the MSF hospital in Afghanistan is a horrible act against humanity, but maybe we should be thinking more about the greater good this hospital has done towards Afghani civilians. I think that the number of innocent lives this hospital saved can make us feel slightly better about the tragedy that took place. Again, no one is expected to sacrifice their lives for another, however, when sacrificing one’s life saves hundreds of others, I think that this is the top of humanitarian work. This is why it is not the question of wether the work of such organizations is helpful or not, but it is rather the question of how much are you willing to sacrifice when doing humanitarian work, because the more you sacrifice the larger number of people you will save.

      I also think this applies to humanitarian work within complex political situations. If every humanitarian organization said that they would not be part of a complicated political conflict or that they won’t have the “humanitarian space necessary”, the people in conflict zones will never receive help. This is why sometimes sacrifice is necessary when helping others, because otherwise they will be helpless.

      1. Hi Methma and Maen,
        I thought a lot about your questions, Methma. And like Maen says, I don’t believe that people can be expected to sacrifice their lives while trying to help others; nor should they be criticized for removing themselves from risk. I think that by entering Afghanistan, MSF volunteers were aware of the risk/violence by which they were surrounded. However, even in the context of war and violence, they expected their hospital to be treated as a civilian structure under International Humanitarian Law; unfortunately, it wasn’t, and this violation of a “neutral” zone has diminished opportunities for neutral humanitarianism by politicizing it. And this raises a challenge of whether their work can — at present — continue.

        Also, here’s an interesting interview with Doctors Without Borders about these recent occurrences:

  2. Hi Maen,
    Thanks for your post. Like Methma mentioned, I also wonder whether or not humanitarian aid groups should have to be held accountable by global organizations while extending aid; perhaps being regulated would help stateless people receive necessary help/resources. However, this also raises the question of how countries themselves must also be held accountable for eliminating inequalities among their citizens (this is a question I proposed in my audio response about the Alma Ata, which itself does not implement any consequences if countries do not provide proper primary health care to its citizens). If, as you mention in your blog post, having citizenship means that someone belongs to the “category humanity,” shouldn’t citizenship entail rights to health/resources/equality? Or, if not, what defines the “category humanity”? What must someone have to be considered a ‘human’? Is this definition unique to the society in which someone lives?

    1. There’s something I’d like to add. If the MSF were to be held accountable by an organization like the WHO, an unanticipated consequence might include an increased politicization of MSF. Currently, MSF characterizes it as apolitical, though the readings and our discussion in class indicate that this is not completely possible. I think that while ideally, regulation would lead to less exclusion of people, it could also potentially lead to more.

      1. Thanks Nini for making me think more about current humanitarian work. Your questions are in place, and unfortunately I don’t have answers to them. But what I can say is that being categorized as “human” should be given once one is born. Thus I would answer yes to your question on whether countries should also be held accountable or not, because if citizenship means that someone is part of the “human category” this must entail their right to health, education, etc. Though my question is what if a country (like Palestine) is under occupation and thus does not have the control and power over its citizens? Can it be held accountable for not providing health to its citizens? And what is the role of humanitarian groups like MSF in this case? Are they supposed to save Palestinian refugees from starvation since their country cannot (even physically) provide them with such help?

        1. Hi Maen,
          I’d like to thank you for expanding upon this discussion and raising more questions. I admit that these are subjects that I have not always considered when criticizing other governments that are far from fairly distributing resources to their citizens. It seems that in cases in which countries are under occupation/lack the ability to provide for their people, humanitarianism becomes less non-compulsory and more required. This is a difficult concept to reconcile with the fact that humanitarianism is often driven by morals and generosity; when morals fall short or are hindered by political/social context, should we have global laws in place to maintain them?

          1. Very interesting question. I think that if humanitarian and international organization don’t maintain and protect the “human” aspect, one must be left helpless especially when one is stateless.

  3. HI Maen,

    I like the fact that you bring up citizenship in your post. I agree that being a citizen is tremendously important to individuals. Citizenship is often intertwined in culture, pride and belonging. It is characteristics like these that are essential to bios and constitute what makes us human. It is ironic because we often take citizenship for granted. (I said this from personal experience because although I am relatively aware of the immense benefits of being a American citizen it is not something I think about on a daily or even weekly basis). It is one of those things you may not properly appreciate until you have lost it or had to work hard to earn it.

    I also find it intriguing how you point out that citizenship is in itself a kind of power. Power that protects defends and represents you. The Palestinian and Rwandan refugees have inadvertently lost their citizenship and therefore a substantial kind of agency. That is an idea I had never really considered before but is almost intuitive now that I have.

    Citizenship aside, it is unfortunate that even members of the MSF organization realize that their work is not sustainable and does not contribute to a better social order. This is one aspect of the humanitarian organizations that I believe can be improved on. It is one thing to be removed from politics or moral issues; however, these humanitarian efforts can definitely make more of an attempt to leave some sort of constructive and valuable system behind. Even if these interventions are minuscule they are likely better than nothing.

  4. Maen,

    In your discussion of the treatment of Palestinian refugees, you get at a huge problem in humanitarianism: it’s temporality. How does one practice nearly exclusively curative medicine (acute interventions for an acute number of people) and hope to effect change in this community? It is very clear that humanitarian efforts privilege the biological life of the body, as exemplified by the contrast between “zoe” and “bios” discussed in our readings for this week.

    Your discussion of the “statelessness” of the Palestinian refugees is particularly relevant in the context of our class discussion regarding borders. As you reference Ticktin, who states that “being thrown out of one’s national community means being thrown out of humanity altogether,” this concept of what a state does to the body (provide it’s humanity) becomes particularly complex in the discussion of humanitarianism as something inherently apolitical. If humanitarianism attempts not to involve the state, and if the state is what provides humanity to the body, then how can humanitarian efforts ever address the human experience (as opposed to the experience of the biological body)?

    1. Great question. It is really sad that one has to be a citizen in order to be considered “human”. Thus I think that it is somewhat the responsibility of humanitarian and international organizations to give this “human” feature to people.

  5. Maen,

    Thank you so much for your insightful response. I am also saddened to know that MSF has withheld its abilities in select countries due to political instabilities. I’m sure that we both feel pain for the Palestinians and Rwandans that were denied proper medical care in times where instability was too extreme, though it is the backbone of MSF to work in exactly those kinds of places. Like you previously expressed, their “goal is to agitate, disrupt, and encourage others to alter the world.” But without stationed workers in these places of extreme conflict, there is no friction to ignite the flame.

    Upon reflection, however, perhaps MSF made these decisions to protect their own lives. It is possible that they thought they would be putting themselves at risk of death, which is not unreasonable when considering the recent hospital bombings in Syria. Should humanitarian workers such as those in MSF be expected to enter zones of extreme political conflict even it it’s a direct threat to their own lives? It may be unreasonable to place the blame on MSF, because without any power to defend oneself, I doubt that most people would volunteer themselves to be put in such a level of danger.

    1. I agree with you. We can not blame the MSF for withdrawing from Syria or Afghanistan when such acts take place. However, since international laws are not protecting one from being a victim of war and conflict (such as the Rwandans or even the innocent Afghanis who are always targeted by terrorism in Afghanistan), then I think that it is our responsibility as free “privileged” human beings to help our fellow humans who not allowed in the circle of “humanity”. Thus, MSF did lose members of it in a tragic way, yet all respect and humanity goes to them because they saved hundreds of lives in their career. Until international laws are activated, we must sacrifice and help each other as human beings in order to survive.

  6. Maen,

    From looking at your conversation with Nini, one question that was brought up was regarding MSF or other similar organizations obligation in providing aid to areas of strong political unrest. While I do believe sacrifice is important especially when it has the benefit of saving many lives, I wonder if it really is more efficacious to put doctors in these places where they may be more highly vulnerable to attack. Given that doctors hold specialized, specific knowledge that took many years to build, they are a scarce resource. In places like the U.S., there still aren’t enough doctors, let alone doctors who would be willing to participate in MSF. Although I am not trying to say that certain bodies are more worthy than others, I do question whether putting these doctors in these high risk positions would “save more people” in the long run. At a given time, a doctor out in Palestine would be able to save many people but if the doctor’s life is cut early, that would mean that in the long-run fewer people would be saved since the doctor wouldn’t be around to save more people. To be able to help others, one must first help one’s own self.

    This felt uncomfortable to say because if not MSF and other humanitarian organizations, who will help those in places with strong political unrest? Instead of only deploying medical aid to these countries, should western countries deploy their own military to address the political unrest first? The latter is a controversial one. Past wars that the U.S. fought received much backlash from Americans. They were angered by the fact that our resources and people were risking their lives to fight in other countries. In such cases, whose voice counts? Those risking their lives? Those who need the help?

    1. Very interesting comment. I totally agree with you that although the sacrifice is important, it is also important to save those doctor’s lives in order to benefit more people. Yet, I don’t think that military intervention is ever a better solution, and this is according to history e.g. U.S in Iraq as you said. Thus what i think is very important is that we must have a better and deeper understanding of the areas in which conflict takes place in order to help those in need of help. For instance, Palestine is a totally different place than Afghanistan or Syria. Thus we must approach them with help differently. In the context of Palestine, there exists no such terrorism because there is a clear conflict between two different states, meaning that providing humanitarian support to those in need will not jeopardize the lives of anyone. I am saying this because I am a Palestinian myself and I know for a fact that there has not been any hospital or such that was a target of the Israelis and vice versa. This is just to say that understanding the reality of such areas of conflict is extremely important when it comes to intervention and humanitarian work. And this is why I blame the MSF for not considering Palestine as a legible place for their work when it should be.

  7. Maen,

    Thanks for you post – you bring attention to some important inconsistencies in the MSF model. Claiming to be an apolitical organization implies that state nationality should have no bearing on who receives aid – yet the process of forming partnerships or delivering aid almost always goes through political or economic groups of some kind.

    I also agree with some of the comments that the lack of accountability and oversight allows for hypocrisy like the political limitations on supporting Palestinian refugees. The problem seems to be that the more checks & balances get added to an organization, the more they become the bureaucratic and bogged down entities they are trying to replace, like state/national governments. NGOs are mainly only accountable to funders, and this directs their policy, whether they admit to it or not.

    I was also distressed by Ticktin’s analysis on how citizenship seems requisite for defining a human in today’s modern world. National boundaries dictate people’s access to all sorts of things, and when discussing human rights, we seem to be talking about the things that one would expect a government to provide. Within our own country, legal residents who have had their green care for less than 5 years are ineligible for Medicaid, or food stamps, or other forms of government aid. They are paying taxes to a system that does not recognize them of worthy of receiving healthcare if they can’t afford it, and to me this also seems to be a form of denying their humanity.

    You would think an apolitical humanitarian organization like MSF would particularly increase their efforts on those humans left out of the state system.

    1. Very interesting comment. I think that if humanitarian and international organization don’t maintain and protect the “human” aspect, one must be left helpless especially when one is stateless.

  8. Hi Maen,
    Thanks for a thought-provoking post ! I particularly appreciated your discussion of how citizenship ties into the complexities of humanitarianism. This was something I hadn’t considered before, but the fact that someone needs to be a citizen in order for them to be considered a human worthy of humanitarian assistance is deeply troubling as seen in the examples you provide, refugees having been forced out of their state, are essentially ‘stateless’ and thus no longer citizens. There seems to be a paradox at play here as humanitarian organizations purport to be neutral entities and not involve the state, and yet it is the state that gives humanity to citizens, so it would seem that humanitarianism can’t be truly apolitical.

  9. Hi Maen,
    Thanks for your post, you brought up some point I haven’t thought of before. Belonging to a country is such an important part of a persons identity, and to suddenly find yourself losing that is a fate refugees are forced to face. I wonder if it is possible to truly have bios if you lack a country. Maybe this is why MSF only attempts to give people what’s necessary for maintaining bare-life. Your example using the Palestinian refugees clearly demonstrated humanitarian goals f just focusing on the zoë. And while I wish there could be more attention brought to giving refugees some sense of bios, your connection of statehood and personhood shows how difficult it is for people to maintain a sense of personhood when they no longer belong to a country. The power in belonging to a country gives people role in society, which is sadly something these refugees lose.

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