All posts by Silvia A Garcia


As the global North moves more and more into a position of benevolent humanitarian for the global South, the reasons behind their actions, as well as the creation of the whole humanitarian ideology begins to come into question. In Miriam Ticktin’s book, the problematic idea behind humanitarianism is revealed . In the humanitarian laws of France, there is a focus on bare life, instead of a well-lived life, free of poverty and inequality (1). This type of action is representative of not only French humanitarianism, but humanitarianism worldwide. Which thus, leads me to ask if it is even plausible for a shift away from the habit of focusing solely on saving lives and ignoring the fact that medical intervention cannot cure impoverished miserable situations. Would a project that embarks on such a big mission (changing the structural violence in a community) ever be possible? In Peter Redfield’s piece the Doctors Without Boarders are introduced and depicted as volunteer doctors (usually from developed nations) who come into a country of disaster, heal the injured or diseased individuals and then leave (2). Although this may seem like the problematic tactic of sweeping in and quickly sweeping out, it in fact brings a set of quick, specialized results that people in disasterous situations need. If Doctors Without Boarders implemented a long-term structural goal that changes the socio-political inequalities of the community, the work would require a lot more time; something that countries in conflict do not have the luxery of spending. By focusing only on saving lives, the MSF organization is able to target a specific issue and work towards reaching a very tangible goal (2); which comes back to the successes of vertical programs over more long-term horizontal programs. Although the focus on bare life does bring with it unintended consequences ( keeps people in the  same position of inequality as they were in before), it addresses the crucial question of health and survival in a way that a more horizontal approach would not be able to. In order to improve your socio-economic position in society, you must first stay alive.

Much Like the immigration issue presented by Ticktin, humanitarianism overlaps with refugee laws. Although at first glance it may seem like these laws are put into place to help individuals abroad, we begin to see that even when things are under the label “humanitarian” they still are based on very political, hierarchical goals (3). The very concept of humanitarianism has increasingly shifted towards an “ideology of hegemonic states in the era of globalization . . . with a growing North-South divide” (3). Are humanitarian causes (especially those that involve the government) every really free of selfish, benefiting reasons for taking action? What is so sexy about a developed country implementing programs of aid to people in far-off underdeveloped countries? Although it is easy to brush off this fact and say that regardless of intention, much needed humanitarian work and policies are being implemented which greatly help those people who are suffering the most. However, this becomes problematic, because without looking at intention, we do not realize that this is why the very idea of bare life appeals to countries of power. In order to seem like benevolent, compassionate governments hard facts and statistics are needed to show that something was actually accomplished. Social change cannot be as quantified as lives saved. For instance, the U.S. embarks on many projects to save the lives of people abroad but never focuses on the structural inequality present in many impoverished towns of their own. However, addressing these domestic needs does not make the U.S. seem as much of a hero as if they saved lives abroad. Intentionality can be a great indicator of program/law directionality.


Discussion Questions

  1. Taking into consideration Ticktin’s reading, is it possible for developed countries to implement humanitarian policies where the sole intention lies in morals and ethics? How does politics fit into this?
  2. Although the focus on zoe, or bare life brings with it many unintended consequences, as pointed out in the readings, what are the unintended consequences of focusing on the social well-being of a person? Is it plausible for humanitarian interventions to focus not only on bare vertical  programs but also horizontal programs in  a time efficient way


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

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

(3) Chimni, B.S. 2000. “Globalization, Humanitarianism and the Erosion of Refugee Protection” Journal of Refugee Studies pg. 243-263