All posts by Alexis A Berry

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