For those who want to choose connection, to resist the politics of hate and xenophobia, humanitarian compassion often appears as an alternative to government policies of disregard and disdain for mass suffering. In the United States, “no hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here” has been a powerful slogan of opposition to the Trump administration’s massive reduction in the number of refugees admitted to the country. In Australia, activists organized Palm Sunday marches to demand better conditions for refugees, asking people to “bring your banners, bring your voices and show your compassion.” In Europe, a campaign is under way to gather signatures in support of an initiative titled: “We are a welcoming Europe, let us help.”
In recent decades, humanitarianism has provided a central framework to conceptualize and respond to international crises that put millions of lives in danger. Humanitarianism, which originated in the nineteenth century (the trans-Atlantic movement to abolish chattel slavery being one of its earliest incarnations), means, generally, caring about “strangers” because of a recognition of shared humanity and doing something to alleviate their suffering. These days, the language of humanitarian concern links a vast array of international interventions; it encompasses relief in the aftermath of natural disasters, warfare ostensibly motivated to save people at risk from violence perpetrated by their own governments or local armed groups, and the provision of aid to feed and shelter displaced persons in conflict settings. By these measures, the refusal of assistance to people in need is justified through a kind of humanitarian calculus, turning on whether would-be beneficiaries are deserving of the brands of compassion that motivate interventions. Governmental determinations about individuals’ refugee status and asylum claims are central moments for calculating and evaluating the quality of suffering. At the individual level, humanitarianism operates through donations, given or withheld, as means of passing judgement about innocence. Both an insistence on compassion and its widespread refusal are products of the humanitarian world in which we live.
In this complex, dangerous world, humanitarianism can appear as an unsullied way to try to ease suffering and ensure survival. But as we contemplate how to act, who to pressure and what to demand, it is vitally necessary to also ask what it means to choose a path that is “the least we can do.” What are the consequences of viewing global crises through a humanitarian lens? What human possibilities does this framework occlude?
For some, humanitarian intervention—especially the militarized variety—represents the latest iteration of colonial and imperial sensibilities that deny equality through the guise of compassion. Many contemporary wars have been fought under the banner of humanitarianism, continuing a long tradition of, in Gayatri Spivak’s phrasing, “white men…saving brown women from brown men.” Whatever the intentions, humanitarian idioms have a way of crowding out other possible avenues for engagement, such as political solidarity, global justice or even revolutionary politics. Rony Brauman, former head of Médecins sans Frontières-France, famously commented that if Auschwitz was in operation today, it would be described as a “humanitarian emergency”—and he did not mean this in a positive light.
There are plenty of examples of political actors using humanitarian language and institutions to pursue distinctly non-humanitarian ends, not to mention the fact that humanitarian interventions may prolong conflicts and exacerbate crises that cause the suffering they seek to alleviate. But the problems with humanitarianism are not only what Fiona Terry calls the “paradox of humanitarian action” and David Kennedy describes as the “dark sides of virtue.” The principles of neutrality that undergird the militarized prerogative to intervene, framed in terms of a “right to protect—R2P,” may impede the possibility of bringing perpetrators to account. The criteria for providing assistance or granting asylum and the procedures for identifying and registering refugees may—and often do—impose new restrictions on victims’ actions and options. The need to mobilize international compassion to support humanitarian endeavors may involve the exploitation of people’s suffering, where pity and benevolence rather than human equality drive actions.
Few humanitarian agencies would consider it within their purview to work actively toward a resolution to underlying causes of suffering, and indeed most see “neutrality” from politics as crucial to their ability to accomplish their goals. At best, humanitarian actors hope that carving out a “humanitarian space” where they can protect lives and alleviate suffering will provide local actors with the political space in which to conclude conflicts and adjudicate responsibility. The fact that warring parties may use the breathing room—or even the services—that humanitarianism provides to extend their violent campaigns is a source of great anguish for these agencies.
Humanitarianism, as presently conceived, can never provide a solution to global inequity that is one of the deepest roots of global suffering. That there is no existing means to counter the vast inequality of resources and the unequal distribution of vulnerability speaks to the poverty of our political imagination. As important as it is to cast a critical eye on the structures of aid organizations—their funding mechanisms, procedures for determining eligibility, restrictions imposed on aid recipients, and the violence they sometimes enact in the course of providing aid—it is vital that progressive communities consider what we fail to see, and what we fail to imagine when we call for humanitarian compassion.
A humanitarian lens impoverishes responses in several ways. If the aims of humanitarian action are necessary, they also are necessarily limited to saving lives and easing suffering. Too often, “the least we can do” is also “the least we can imagine doing.” Samuel Moyn has argued that today’s human rights are “not enough” because they do not address matters of inequality nor chart a course for their redress. The terrain of humanitarian action, like that of human rights activism, apprehends people as lives that must be saved. This serves, functionally, to target conditions rather than the causes that produce vulnerability and perpetuate exclusions and refusals.
The impoverishment of the humanitarian imagination lies in part in the ways this lens misconstrues existing relations across distance among the world’s population. Structured as it is by the dyad of “helper” and “helped,” humanitarian language divides the globe into these categories—with the Global North in the position of helper and the Global South in repeated need of assistance. What impoverishes the imagination is the inherent limits of noblesse oblige and the contingencies of compassion. To forcefully address the conditions that cause, exacerbate and maintain large-scale suffering, we need another lens, a broader capacity to imagine, a different means of acknowledging historical realities and conceiving of the perpetration of suffering. As difficult as that is, we need a different language and another politics.
1. Harriet Agerholm, “German Newspaper Publishes Names of 33,000 Refugees Who Died Trying to Reach Europe,” The Independent, November 13, 2007.
2. Didier Fassin, “Compassion and Repression: The Moral Economy of Immigration Policies in France,” Cultural Anthropology 20/3 (2005).
3. Miriam Ticktin, “A World without Innocence,” American Ethnologist 44/4 (2017).
4. Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman, eds. Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader (Hertfordshire, UK: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994), p. 93.
5. Fiona Terry, Condemned to Repeat? The Paradox of Humanitarian Action (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002).
6. David Kennedy, The Dark Sides of Virtue: Reassessing International Humanitarianism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).
7. Samuel Moyn, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).