Humanitarianism: a site of post/colonial tension

In the popular imagination, humanitarianism is an altruistic endeavor to seek and promote human welfare (11).  However, in the execution of humanitarianism, health officials and lawmakers create and arbitrarily follow policies that relegate people on the receiving end to a subhuman existence void of basic rights, such as freedom of mobility, steady employment, and health care (1). There is no universality to humanitarian practices, which are instead contingent on a specific political setting at hand. However, in Doctors, Borders, and Life in Crisis as well as Where Ethics and Politics Meet: The Violence of Humanitarianism in France, both Redfield and Ticktin, respectively, identify a common thread across humanitarianism: aid workers whose practices produce patients with “a limited version of what it means to be human” (2).

As Ticktin illustrates, humanitarianism reinforces colonial subjugation as well as racial and gender hierarchies in what is, arguably, a postcolonial context. The case of Fatima is particularly disturbing because her “suffering body” is a site of common moral ground – between she and the nurses – on which they consciously and inadvertently project tropes of the “oppressed Muslim woman”. Popular French colonial discourse on Algeria informs stereotypes of Algerians that continue to pervade discriminatory employment, education and other policies that privilege white citizens (3). The ability of health care workers to assign political value to lives brings the underlying violence of humanitarianism into sharp relief (2). Philosopher Giorgio Agamben conceptualized that zoë is the minimum level of existence common across all organisms (i.e. bare life). On the other hand, bios describes a life rich with networks and communities unique to humans (2). Unfortunately, the work of humanitarian agencies reinforces life as zoë through temporary and often undignified relief projects (1).

While the nature of humanitarianism is ostensibly apolitical, to either grant or deny an immigrant a permit is a political end in and of itself. According to psychiatrist Jonathan Metzl, “diagnoses can…define, circumscribe, and contain abject populations in ways that harm people in these populations under the guise of helping them” (4). As Ticktin demonstrates, the process of diagnoses is often governed by emotion. Moreover, “fear during particular moments of historical stress” (e.g. immigration and changing demographics of a country) influence how health workers perceive and interact with patients (4). The case of the nurse’s aversion to an Algerian man seeking a renewed permit is situated in France’s political climate that has historically denied and currently withholds citizenship from Arab men for “lack of integration” (5; 6).

Similar reluctance towards immigrants is felt throughout European governing bodies. In 2014, British Defense Secretary, Michael Fallon, asserted that British towns are “under siege” and “swamped” by immigrants (7). Essentially, his diction equates immigrants to enemy forces. Prior to these insensitive remarks, the Italian navy documented 2,500 accounts of drowned or missing refugees in the Mediterranean (8). Despite Italian operations (termed ‘Mare Nostrum’) that saved 150,000 individuals between 2013 and 2014, officials decided to defund the program (8). This withdrawal of funds, on the grounds that it was “not sustainable”, came as UK Foreign Minister, Lady Anelay, claimed that rescue operations create an “unintended ‘pull’ factor” (9). In other words, humanitarian efforts to save migrants would result in a surge of immigrants to Europe. Both European officials and the French nurse demonstrate that humanitarian efforts regulate the “other” and “become(s) (a) gatekeeper to…‘humanity’ ” (2).

After dismantling Mare Nostrum, the joint European Union initiative created a more passive program called Operation Triton, which has a third of the funding as its predecessor (8). While these rescue efforts are a noble cause that saves lives, heightened xenophobia and racism towards “boat people” pervades not only Sicily and Italy but also former colonizers, such as France (10). As such, Algerian and other individuals who land in Europe will most likely encounter a “postcolonial space created through…politics of humanitarianism (that continue) in the manner of its colonial predecessors, reconfigured for ever-greater forms of exclusion” (2).

In the wake of African and Middle Eastern refugees coming to Europe, it is clear that sentiments of unease characterize France and other country’s humanitarian policies designed to “help” these populations. While one of the aims of humanitarianism is “to build spaces of normalcy in the midst of profoundly abnormal” situations, to what extent is the process of dehumanization a greater source of harm than a health condition in question (1)? How do definitions of “normalcy” and health oppress certain populations?


Discussion Questions:

  1. In my audio response on “Essential Medicines and the Pharmaceutical Fix”, I stated that an “emphasis on drugs doesn’t fix (structural issues) it just makes living under inequality more bearable”. If we understand the ethical implications of humanitarian work, where life is “bearable” but is still “bare life”, what measures can we take to improve its application?
  1. Given the relationship between humanitarianism and colonialism, to what extent is it possible to reform humanitarian such that it no longer maintains hierarchies of difference?


Works Cited:

(1)       Redfield, Peter. “Doctors, Borders, and Life in Crisis.” Cultural Anthropology 20.3 (2005): 328-61. JSTOR. Wiley, Aug. 2005. Web. 11 June 2015.

(2)       Ticktin, Miriam. “Where Ethics and Politics Meeting: The Violence of Humanitarianism in France.” American Ethnologist 33.1 (2006): 33-49. Web.

(3)       Dillender, Amber Nichole. “The Integration of African Muslim Minority: A Critique of French Philosophy and Policy.” Scholar Commons. University of South Florida, 2011. Web.

(4)       Metzl, Jonathan. The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease. Boston: Beacon, 2009. Print.

(5)       Fredette, Jennifer. “Are French Muslims Integrated? Depends on What You Mean by Integration.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 29 July 2014. Web.

(6)       Willsher, Kim. “Algerian-born Man Living in France Is Refused French Nationality.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 9 June 2011. Web.

(7)       Syal, Rajeev. “Michael Fallon Withdraws ‘careless’ Immigration Remark.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 27 Oct. 2014. Web.

(8)       Graham, Georgia. “UK Will Not Support Rescue of Mediterranean Migrants.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 28 Oct. 2014. Web. 07 Nov. 2015.

(9)       Bajekal, Naina. “Italy to End Naval Operation That Rescued Thousands of Migrants.” Time. Time, 28 Oct. 2014. Web.

(10)     Scammell, Rosie. “Rising Xenophobia in Sicily at the ‘boat People'” AlJazeera. Al Jazeera Media Network, May 2015. Web. 07 Nov. 2015.

(11)     Webster

14 thoughts on “Humanitarianism: a site of post/colonial tension”

  1. Hi Alexis! The example you brought up of the Mare Nostrum / Operation Triton intrigued me a lot. Personally, I believe it’s a little appalling that the EU decided to continue the same program, but with only a third of the previous funding. If they anticipated a wave of immigrants as a result of humanitarian sea operations, it seems that they are purposely choosing to only save a third of people in the water, despite the fact that they know there are and will be more people. In this way, the act of humanitarian aid is deeply political, embedded in attempts to curb the influx of political subjects. The choice to save some migrants but not others is then infused with the uneven power dynamics of colonialism. As you note, it is in this humanitarian space where past and present social mechanisms combine to maintain a hierarchy of difference.

    In regards to your second question, it then seems incredibly difficult to reform a space so embedded in historical, political mechanisms. Is there any way, at all, to separate (colonialist) politics from humanitarianism? Although some organizations like MSF claim to do such a thing, even a so-called lack of political involvement produces social and political consequences as exemplified by the sans papiers in France: although their citizenship is based on “health alone”, their livelihood depends on the politics of that humanitarian decision to give citizenship but then nothing else needed to successfully function in society.

    It seems that attempting to separate humanitarianism from politics in a world so deeply embedded in the latter can be as dangerous as it is difficult. If the sea operations in Italy were to sever its political influence and claim that they were to save everyone they could regardless of funding etc., there is still the issue of migrants receiving support and citizenship once in Italy. One “apolitical” decision is inevitably followed by a political consequence. So, I wonder if the question is not of how to disentangle humanitarian and politics so completely, but of how to reach a productive, unbiased and positive synergy that interrogates and dismantles hierarchies of difference. This process might look a little like probing colonialist policies to produce a political economy that is receptive and supportive of humanitarian work and its inevitably political results.

    1. Hi Alexis!

      First of all, thanks so much for your insightful post. I am equally as horrified that the EU caps the number of refugees they allow in, and I believe that this problem is deeply rooted in inherently racist views, which you touched on in reference to the case of Fatima and the reinforcement of stereotypes of Algerians. In order to be an entity deserving of honor, respect, and to be considered truly humanitarian, the EU (as well as the United States) must step up and take in any and all refugees of crisis that are willing to make the journey.

      I’d like to focus on your first discussion question. It is disheartening that as we become more knowledgeable about the nuances of humanitarian work we learn that perhaps it is not the utopian fix-all that one may naïvely assume. Unfortunately, it seems like humanitarian organizations, particularly ones like Médecins sans frontières, whose goal is to stay in the field for as short as possible, will never be the ones willing to provide sustainable change. In addition, due to their necessity of avoiding all things political, they are morally restrained in prospective efforts to implement lasting change. Tragically, it would ultimately be unproductive for them to take a political stance because it would destroy the amnesty they receive to provide emergency aid in the first place.

      Perhaps our best hope is that rapid medical intervention groups publicize their location as much as possible in an effort to bring attention to the political and social injustices that occur there. It just may be that this would ignite a flame among more politically powerful bodies.

    2. I agree, the transition from Mare Nostrum to Operation Triton does highlight the political nature of humanitarian efforts. I would argue, however, that choosing to switch to a program with a third of the funding goes beyond “choosing to save only a third of the people in the water” but instead choosing to discourage 2/3 of people from getting in the water at all. I’d like to clarify that I’m not painting this as a good thing – Alexis mentions Lady Anelay’s assertion that these program create a pulling program, thereby drawing even more immigrants in.

      The unspoken narrative here also has to do with people’s sense of being welcome, which is of course closely related to their dignity and humanity. If the UK demonstrates (through funding/programs) that it devalues the lives of refugees, less individuals will consider escaping their current conflict a valid option. So not only is this a problem where the number of individuals being saved is decreased, but it is a statement which dehumanizes a much larger population at the same time.

      1. Jacob,
        I agree that the UK decision to defund Mare Nostrum and transition to Operation Triton highlights how the lives of refugees are largely viewed as expendable. You mention particularly that defunding makes a statement against refugees and “dehumanizes a much larger population at the same time”. However, I would push back on the idea that defunding the program means, “less individuals will consider escaping their current conflict a valid option”. Despite the defunding of Mare Nostrum, thousands of refugees continue to cross the Mediterranean into Europe, knowing full well that they are unwelcome. In addition, Syrian refugees aware of Hungary’s harsh political climate, manifested most immediately with spiked border fences to block migrant flows, continue to seek asylum in the EU. For many, remaining in their home country is starvation and death, which trumps concerns about feeling “devalued” or unwelcome elsewhere.

    3. Hi Lily,
      Thanks for your thoughts. I agree with your point that trying to separate humanitarianism from politics is a lofty goal, if not an impossible one. As you point out, “one “apolitical” decision is inevitably followed by a political consequence”. Therefore, your suggestion for nations to question and thereby attempt to address hierarchies of difference is a valuable one. While I don’t think it is possible for humanitarianism to operate in an “unbiased” manner, there is a potential for systemic change if Euro-American stakeholders probe into colonialist sentiments underlying humanitarian policies to help chip away at existing power structures.

  2. Hi Alexis,
    Thank you for raising so many important questions to consider. I found your conclusion especially intriguing. Perhaps dehumanization, in a sense, is the greatest illness of society – after all, it is arguably the inability to treat all humans as humans that causes and exacerbates (health) inequalities.

    To be honest, I’m not sure what measures can be implemented to improve the application of humanitarianism – especially in the case of immigration/rescuing. While groups like MRS may not place an emphasis on cost-effectiveness and may take an “apolitical” view (though, as you point out, this apolitical characteristic can be dubious), humanitarianism is unfortunately highly embedded in a country’s economic and political interests – especially because humanitarian work is often occurring in contexts of political/social/economic turmoil. We can see this in the case of the Mare Nostrum; from what I’m understanding, the program being “unsustainable” essentially means that the program wasn’t “appropriate for political/economic interests.” I’d argue that fixing humanitarian work is not possible without altering these political and economic interests – which I’m not sure how to do.

    In regards to your second question, I think that humanitarian aid has to take more of a horizontal approach in its care. PHC would hopefully lessen the likelihood of gate-keeping and instead would focus on helping whole populations on a continuous level. However, I find myself doubting the feasibility of this option because, again, of the fact that humanitarian aid is meant to occur in states of urgency/in tumultuous contexts.

    1. Nini,
      Thank you for your insights! I agree with your idea that politicians deemed Mare Nostrum unsustainable because it did not meet the EU’s socio-political and economic interests. I was also unsure about what measures can be implemented to improve the application of humanitarianism. A previous comment from Lily suggested that rather than trying to divorce humanitarianism from politics (because this is impossible, as “one “apolitical” decision is inevitably followed by a political consequence”), there could be more investigations into the social and racial issues embedded in humanitarian actions. Perhaps this could take the form of government committees that collaborate with grassroots organizations to identify practices that perpetuate hierarchies of difference. With more dialogue and thereby transparency, there is potential for systemic change through policy adjustment.

      This is pretty idealistic, and it will be a long journey to “alter political/economic interests” that currently focus more on maintaining borders and tight budgets than on helping people. But your idea of reconfiguring political and economic interests is an important one, because this is the root of many humanitarian issues!

  3. Hello Alexis!

    You mentioned that the ability of health care workers to assign political value to lives brings relief to the underlying violence of humanitarianism. You then go on further to cite the example of the nurse’s repulsion towards the Algerian man. Although I completely agree with your initial statement, I do not think that it is ethical for these kinds of moral judgments to lie completely in the hands of aid workers. As the example with the Algerian man effectively portrays, these aid workers are still humans. Thus even though they are gracious towards some, they are dismissive towards others. Furthermore, the dismissive behavior is usually based on prejudice or discrimination. Since there is no standard form of moral judgment, humanitarian workers administer their personal moral judgment wherever they desire. I realize that this is easier said than done… but if possible there should be some sort of rubric in place to help prevent such subjective decisions. If these decisions are ultimately make or break these disadvantaged individuals, they should at least be more fair.

    My following paragraph is in response to your second question. In theory humanitarian efforts aim to be apolitical, unreligious, racially unbiased, etc. However, it is almost impossible to do so because humanitarian efforts are run by humans. By nature we all have complex history and passionate opinions with all these subjects. Even if these differentiating aspects are removed from the humanitarian framework, they will still be present in the individuals running these initiatives. Thus, it is difficult to completely remove these differentiating aspects. Even if you were somehow able to remove these issues of politics, race and religion there would still be differences. By nature humanitarianism involves a country of power assisting a country with less power. The more powerful country will always have the upper hand and therefore a sense of elitism may always exist. However, I like the fact that you ask this question because I think it is important to be aware of these differences in order to combat them.

    1. Derana,
      Thanks for your responses. I, too, do not believe that it is ethical for these kinds of “moral judgments” to lie completely in the hands of aid workers, as you put it. The readings demonstrated that the outcomes of patient-nurse interactions were less about moral judgment and more in line with the emotional responses that certain patients evoked within the nurses. In which case, the health workers’ assumptions and the degree to which they thought a patient needed help determined who obtained health care.
      While it would be productive to improve existing guidelines for more “objective” decision-making, I would fear consequences associated technical rationality in a system already clogged with regulatory documents. In addition, writing guidelines does not necessarily guarantee that nurses will follow them. As you mention, “even if these differentiating aspects (politics, religion, etc.) are removed from the humanitarian framework, they will still be present in the individuals running these initiatives”. My suggestion would be not just to have French nurses in the clinic but also Algerian, Syrian, etc. health care workers who can probably better relate to patients and help evaluate patient-nurse interactions.

  4. In regards to your second question, given that we (westerners) largely contributed to the financial and health inequalities present in other countries, it only seems right that we ought to aid in fixing a complex set of problems we started. In doing so, this can also reify “hierarchies of difference,” as you pointed out. However, I feel that being complicit also, if not to a greater degree, perpetuates these differences. Action is necessary, and as we have discussed in class, a good way of helping while also not being domineering could be to integrate local knowledge and people in humanitarian endeavors from planning to execution. I also think this could have the benefit of creating jobs and bios, instead of zoes. Locals would not only receive basic treatment but could also be trained and hopefully compensated to help serve back and participate, somewhat similar to what we learned in class about the barefoot doctors in China. This certainly opens up a host of problems such as sustainability and competency, yet with every endeavor brings about unintended consequences. Which consequences are worth inviting? Additionally, I wonder at what point are Western interventions satisfactory?

  5. I appreciate you’re calling out the inherently political structure of humanitarian practices – that humanitarian aid is not universal suggests that when humanitarianism “strikes,” it is inherently a charged decision, and this lends this work to being political. There is nothing apolitical about a humanitarianism that “reinforces colonial subjugation as well as racial and gender hierarchies” as you so well put.

    your highlighting of Fallon’s description of British towns as “under siege” by immigrants points out the implication of immigrants as an enemy, as well as something that requires urgent, pointed, and strategic response to protect the safety of the British people (this thought, which establishes that “British” towns are ones inhabited by citizens of Britain, affirms patriotic and exclusionary understandings of nationalism and brings into question what nationalism means in our world of increased flow).

  6. You made some really good points about post-colonial aspect of humanitarianism and dehumanization of immigrants. To answer your first question, I think the goal would be to make humanitarian relief efforts more of a horizontal approach. While groups like MSF are meant to be temporary relief efforts in crisis zones, I still think its necessary to do more to bring a sense of personhood back to the victims. One possible way of doing this is to extend the amount of time they spend in particular area and implement programs that improve the infrastructure. While something like this would be ideal, it seems unlikely because it would go against the goals of organizations like MSF that avoid becoming overly involved with governments.
    And to answer your second question, one way to separate humanitarianism from its colonial aspect is to get the local people involved. That way instead of being an outside force that imposes itself onto communities, it would bring people from the community into the work so that there’s more of a sense of autonomy.

  7. Great post Alexis. Your first question draws on some issues which I’ve been thinking about a lot from these readings. The goal of humanitarianism does seem to be zoë and not bios – in so doing it tries to apolitically defend life yet it also politically categorizes those in need and dehumanizes them by not providing bios.

    Yet as Derana mentioned, these aid workers are human, and subject to prejudices and limitations. And helping human life flourish is hard work.

    I wonder if the word humanitarianism itself is limited. Clearly we need organizations which protect zoë, and pull people out of the water. Clearly we can be upset with funding caps set out by EU to limit the applications of these sorts of aid.

    Yet it seems like our criticisms post-colonial value enforcing and harmful diagnosis are of a slightly different sort – or at least overlap with a harder issue, which is how to, in general, improve the quality of life of others without imposing not universal values on what that life should entail. Maybe there needs to be a second kind of humanitarian aid, which strives to progress from zoë to bios? Maybe certain humanitarian organizations should attempt to do “less”, but do it better – in ensuring that all humans have the basic necessities of survival, and relying on other systems to encourage human flourishing.

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