All posts by Alexandra Evelyn DeFrancesco

Humanitarianism: An End to Suffering or the Destruction of Dignified Humanity?

Humanitarianism has traditionally endeavored to minimize the suffering of individuals through neutral, immediate care in crisis situations in an attempt to reconstruct human dignity (Redfield 328). Medical humanitarian organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, whose foundations are based on the alleviation of immediate suffering, however, prioritize mere physical existence, or “bare life”, at the expense of a dignified and satisfying life that extends beyond minimal survival through a refusal to combat the structural violence that is often responsible for the suffering it attempts to treat (Redfield 329-330, 340). Such a “minimal existence” is far from dignified, as there is a sharp distinction between simply living and living well (Redfield 340). One may argue that humanity is defined by recognition of one’s individual capabilities and emotions as well as the needs and desires that are not connected to one’s basic survival; our existence as social, cultivated beings is what fundamentally separates the human race from other living species. MSF’s emphasis on immediate medical treatment thus diminishes the perceived humanity of these individuals, as alleviation of their suffering is evaluated only on the basis of physical necessity and not on their personal experience with poverty, social inequality or other forms of structural violence (Redfield 342).

Individual choice is also vastly limited within MSF’s interventions, as patients are not really given the option of deciding whether to accept treatment (Redfield 337). This raises the question of whether patients are even willing to receive treatment that will essentially prolong the misery and suffering engendered by their social conditions; to what extent can immediate medical aid satisfy victims of structural violence who feel as if they have already lost everything? Humanitarianism may therefore have an extremely limited effect on broken societies in which “temporary relief cannot repair the damage” (Mackreath). Sick individuals will continue to be sick even after momentarily recovering if the underlying social and political factors exacerbating this sickness are ignored; in this sense humanitarianism does little to truly mitigate suffering (Redfield 346; Mackreath).

In France, undocumented immigrants may acquire the legal right to live in France if they possess a life-threatening illness that cannot be treated in their countries of origin (Ticktin 1-2). These immigrants consequently become defined by their illness, as their existence in France is perpetually determined by disease (Ticktin 7). As I mentioned earlier, I believe that humanity extends beyond bare life; how can these individuals therefore be publicly perceived or accepted as part of humanity when their identities are restricted to that of the “apolitical, suffering body” (Ticktin 7)? A disregard for dignified humanity may thus exacerbate the mistreatment of immigrants, who may consequently be perceived as ‘inferior’ within French society and thus undeserving of humane treatment or the maintenance of their basic human rights. These immigrants are not even provided with the foundations of a decent or fulfilling life, as they are prohibited from working and are thus denied any economic, social or political participation in France that is essential for the preservation of a dignified human existence, forced to live “with nothing to wake up to each morning except one’s illness” (Ticktin 9).

The failures of humanitarianism are further exemplified through the experiences of Syrian refugees relocated to the United States to escape the suffering engendered by structural violence and civil war. Although they are relocated on the basis of immediate need, Syrian refugees are provided with virtually no resources to sustain themselves or maintain a sense of dignity amidst their suffering (Davis and Hemish).

One may argue that suffering can only truly be ameliorated by self-determination, meaning an individual’s ability to control his or her own life; self-determination may be perceived as essential for the preservation of dignity (Mackreath). Yet humanitarianism does not bring victims closer to self-determination, as it does not grant them the ability to truly improve their lives or even decide the fundamental conditions of their existence; self-determination is virtually impossible when one’s social status as a dignified human being is compromised. As a consequence of their inability to legally work in France, for example, many immigrants are forced to obtain the means for their survival through degrading and exploitative work in the black market that exacerbates their suffering while simultaneously diminishing recognition of their humanity (Ticktin 7).

Humanitarianism cannot fully alleviate suffering or reaffirm human dignity through a narrow emphasis on immediate care without attention to the maintenance and improvement of patients’ “elaborated human experience” that is essential for a satisfying and happy life (Redfield 330). Who will address structural violence, if not those who have volunteered to help suffering individuals? Humanitarian organizations must strive to promote a dignified existence by actively challenging structural violence and political inequality to enable aid recipients to be publicly perceived and rightfully treated as human beings.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How may humanitarian organizations successfully challenge and potentially change conditions of structural violence and political inequality? Do they have the authority or power to do so, or is this far too idealistic?
  2. To what extent does humanitarianism compromise individuality? Can individuality be perceived as essential for human dignity?


Davis, Charles and Mohamed Hemish. “A Refugee’s Story: From War in Syria to Poverty in the US.” teleSUR 4 November 2015. Web. 5 November 2015.

Mackreath, Helen. “The Early Plight of Humanitarianism.” Jadaliyya 26 October 2015. Web. 4 November 2015.

Redfield, Peter. “Doctors, Borders and Life in Crisis.” Cultural Anthropology 20.3 (2008): 328-361.

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