Posts Tagged With: compassion

The damage aid workers can do – with just their words (by Tammam Aloudat)

The damage aid workers can do – with just their words

Through its language and psychology, the aid sector has divided the world into saviours and ‘beneficiaries’

Tammam AloudatTammam Aloudat

March 26, 2021

Try getting through this paragraph without becoming bored or confused:

“Our humanitarian field operations have focused on high-impact, cost-effective implementation of activities through local partners. We have provided the target population with platforms to empower our beneficiaries – particularly women, children, and other vulnerable groups – and provide them with sustainable and scalable solutions to build resilience and preserve dignity. Through the deployment of teams of expatriate staff to the front lines, our humanitarian operation allowed us to effectively address the needs and raise awareness, giving voice to the voiceless victims while building the capacity of local actors.”

If you work in the humanitarian sector, you could read through it without batting an eyelid. At first glance, it might sound like something (not particularly well-written) one finds in a report posted on a humanitarian or development organisation’s website. In this case, I invented it to illustrate a point.

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The problem is not just the displeasure you experience trying to wade through the syntax. It’s what lies beyond the words – what they tell us both about humanitarians and, ultimately, the current state of humanitarian aid.

The obvious disclaimer here is that this view is neither a judgement on the character of any given humanitarian worker – I am one of them – nor a cliched “call to action” about humanitarian language (though by all means, feel free to act). It is, rather, an interrogation of the way humanitarianism teaches us to think, and what lurks beneath its surface.

The mid-20th century Martinique political philosopher Frantz Fanon once wrote about the effect of language: “To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilisation.”

Like every discipline, humanitarianism has developed its own language and imagery that reflects not only the means to communicate among its practitioners, but also its conception of the world and how it understands, and hence behaves, in it.

This language of humanitarianism is hardly static. It evolves with the changing contexts in which humanitarian action takes place, the pressures of donors and benefactors and the social and cultural norms of the societies – usually in the West – where those organisations are based and where western narratives are most important.

Despite the evolution, however, the abstractions, jargon, and acronyms so common to humanitarian-speak still aim for, and manage to achieve, several things.

First, it defines the field of action, humanitarianism, and draws its parameters, principles, and tactics; second, it justifies and moralises the act itself and asserts the legitimacy of its existence and consequences; and third, it sustains the power, worldview, and future of those who control the narrative.

Those goals are not explicit, that is to say they are not written in formal documents or articulated in strategic plans. They, however, can be discerned from the use of the language itself.

In my own attempt to resolve my long-standing discomfort with the language I was using every day, I posted a Tweet last month asking for words or expressions that we humanitarians use regularly but are inappropriate.

To my surprise, many answers came, and the objectionable words and phrases spanned beyond the obvious. The full list is too long to include here. However, some of them remain, and are difficult to excise from our daily professional lives. Others are widely agreed to be unacceptable now or because they are emerging as such influenced with a renewed debate about the asymmetries of power in the humanitarian sector.https://d-10335907221585136272.ampproject.net/2103240330001/frame.html

Those include “beneficiaries” to describe people who receive aid in emergencies, “capacity building” as a main NGO activity, “target population”, “speaking out on behalf of…”, “vulnerability” (especially in formulations like “women, children, and other vulnerable groups”), “resilience” as something that can be built in communities by external actors. It even includes some of what are considered fundamental principles, such as “neutrality” or the word “humanitarian” itself.

And yet, all of these words linger.

While it is optimistic to see the changes that are gradually happening to humanitarian language and the way this has been raised into collective awareness, the road to moving humanitarian action away from its still-dominant Eurocentric view of the world is just beginning. Writing glossaries of more appropriate terms to use in communication is one step. But what language tells us about power hierarchies is far more interesting because it gives a window to the current state of humanitarian action, as well as its possible futures.

A Palestinian walks past a ceramic sign of a USAID project in Hebron in the West Bank in 2019. Reuters
A Palestinian walks past a ceramic sign of a USAID project in Hebron in the West Bank in 2019. Reuters

For a humanitarian to exist and to be justified, his or her opposite – a beneficiary – is necessary. As the French philosopher Jacques Derrida once wrote, a concept is implicit in its opposite, and one cannot exist without the other.

For the humanitarian – a person defined by their highest moral impulse being to help others – the beneficiary has to exist as a helpless person with little agency, who is defined not by their communal or individual attributes, but rather their benefit from the moral action of the humanitarian.

There are plenty of other problematic oppositions: developing/developed, resilient/vulnerable, donor/recipient, and international/local. None of those is neutral or free from value judgement. They are based on generalisations and stereotypes, and all of them, as they are used today, assert the existing powers and their resistance to change.

Glossaries and style guides are unlikely in themselves to ever change the culture and power hierarchies that hide behind the language. But they are still a necessary step in going forward.

Edward Said once argued that the orientalist invents an oriental that only exists in their mind

As we have seen in growing social justice and solidarity movements concerned with racial and gender-based discrimination, the change of terms by those they dehumanise or oppress is being accepted as a necessary step in allowing people to assert their own self-perception. It also sets a threshold for response, by daring everyone else to recognise the imbalance and correct it.

Moreover, just like the Palestinian scholar Edward Said once argued that the orientalist invents an oriental that only exists in their mind rather than in reality, the humanitarian who accepts the narrative of a beneficiary without a say or agency, without knowledge or will, is prone to go to the “field” and act as if they are the only one with knowledge, will, or benevolence. In doing so, they further disempowering the very people they are meant to aid.

Forty years ago, the African-American writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde, in talking about the lack of representation of people like her in society’s wider conversations reminded us that “the master’s tool will never dismantle the master’s house”. We need to find a new language, a world view and the tools to create the words that talk about the poor, the sick and crisis survivors as the owners of their fate, rather than an inconvenience that has to be overcome in the grand humanitarian narrative. It will not be simple to achieve, but then, no one should expect humanitarianism to be a simple matter.

Dr Tammam Aloudat is a Syrian physician and a senior strategic adviser to MSF in Geneva

Categories: Middle East | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Migration Influxes and European Compassion: How Long Do We Need to Wait for an Informed Sustainability? (by Estella Carpi, November 2015)

hungary migrants new m

(Photo taken from France24)

http://trendsinstitution.org/?p=1520

Over the last two months, everyone with internet access has surely come across the picture of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler drowned in Turkish waters on a beach of Bodrum last September 2.  It seems the photo of Aylan, along with waves of refugees trying to cross to Eastern Europe – mainly from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan – have finally shaken the Western public from its lethargy and has made frighteningly tangible to all of us the human limit to which political crises, transnational disputes, and the controversies of a “North-South” humanitarian system have led us.

According to the studies of Lili Chouliaraki, the phenomenon that we currently witness consists of new “ironic spectators” watching the suffering of the Other: so to speak, the user of the compassionate “Facebook like” vocabulary, who celebrates and self-advertises her/his acts of charity, and exchanges the ethical consumption of solidarity for information and sustainability. Once again, the ephemeral solidarity cultivated in the media, and the compassion towards an abstract multitude of “desperate migrants”, too rarely claim back the historicity of the events, and are rather concerned with telling us their sad stories to consequently stimulate our intentions and defend them.

Once again, the solidarity that seldom questions the reasons behind the European public rapidly turning from indifference to mass sympathy, is promoted in terms of lifestyle rather than informed and responsive civic-mindedness.

After the diffusion of the picture of the lifeless body of the little Aylan, European media have offered much more space to the discussion of the (in)formal aid that civilians are providing to refugees, and their civil protests organised to express a “European spirit” of solidarity. These initiatives, until the Syrian emergency and the chronic predicament of neighbouring populations were mostly affecting the Middle Eastern region, had not been implemented in the European Union (EU) to the same extent as presently.

The public compassion in the wake of the massive “refugee crisis” – a definition that is actually able to conceal the political causes and the external responsibilities underlying such crises –[1] has now become the driving force of transnational assistance, pushing couch spectators beyond their mere sympathy.

The “sentimental education” that Richard Rorty[2] was advancing may be able to cultivate at school a co-feeling of empathy among the youth and provide a new common ground to tackle international crises. While human sensitivity to differences should not be taken for granted and should rather be taught, how can we prevent the culture of rights, traditionally championed by the so-called “Global North”, from remaining ephemeral as much as the public attention to desperate exoduses and displacements? In the current media morass, the promotion of human rights through philanthropic campaigns and the proliferation of NGOs, which has long tasted of Western neoliberalism and paternalistic third worldism, still struggles to offer deeper explanations to such crises.  And it is even more alarming that the average European spectator remains unlikely to accept that the stories recounting South-North migrations are not all necessarily sad.

The average European spectator has proved, once again, to mobilise and face her/his encounter with refugees and migrants in purely humanitarian terms, and not in the political recognition of their right to a new life, asylum, or protection. It is not only the fact that “they suffer like us” that should be pitied and recognised. That ”at the end of the day they suffer like us”, although being a sine qua non prelude of generosity, is still unable to give birth to informed and sustainable solidarities. As long as refugee crises and political failures are not recounted to the open public with substantial historical information and upcoming legal challenges, individual spectators will keep struggling to identify continuities between the physical presence of refugees and their need for assistance in the host country, as well as the need for politically recognising their rights and the ways in which naturalisation of rights can be dealt with in contemporary societies. The humanitarian effort, regrettably, is presented as a moral duty that remains independent from immigration issues.

Over the past months, the temporary restoration of border controls in Germany and Austria, the construction of the wall at the Serbian-Hungarian border, and Hungarian journalist Petra Laszlo tripping a Syrian refugee, all clearly point to the reinforcement of moral and material borders in the countries most affected by the refugee influx. These episodes point to something that seems to be much larger than a mere “refugee influx”, as they are rather unraveling a massive crisis of human encounters.

Moreover, recent developments have shown that EU countries cannot cope alone with these migration flows, and the overall UN commitment to the provision of relief has therefore become more consistent within their boundaries. One of the greatest challenges is now the adaption of the conventional humanitarian response, normally provided in refugee camps populated by sedentary residents, to multitudes of mobile people, who tend to remain in a place for a few days, or even for a few hours, before seeking to continue to the desired destination. The management of what can be called a “transit emergency”, especially in Italy, Greece, Serbia, and Hungary, is still an unexplored way of intervening for European humanitarian organisations. The opening of new local offices of some international NGOs – such as World Vision, Islamic Relief, and Action Aid – has therefore become inevitable.

Europeans should now reconsider their North-South neoliberal policies, embraced under the historical banner of moral responsibility, which gradually reduced humanitarianism and development to mere instruments of international security. On this purpose, it is worth mentioning that the emergency relief provision and the development projects, which followed the Lebanon-Israel war in Hezbollah-led areas, are evidently concerned with western life and security; similarly, western securitisation was pursued in Afghanistan by toppling the Talibans from power. Also, natural disasters like drought and floods in Mozambique in the 1980s were publicly discussed as an exclusive political conflict in order to enhance foreign action.[3]

The other common challenge is realising that all individuals are advocates and actors together in different geopolitical orders that peoples on the move, and beyond, will never comply with. Facing these challenges and paving the way to understanding, rather than compassion, would not only save many lives from a bio-political perspective, but would also avert the “side effects” of such cyclical struggles for a geopolitical order from a more pragmatic angle.

Upholding and protecting the rights of asylum seekers cannot remain at the mercy of elusive and ill-informed social solidarities. Let alone in the exclusive hands of state actors and the official diplomacy. Indeed, there are still a large number of issues that can be tackled from the bottom. Some of these real challenges are to imperatively fill with deeper contextual knowledge the numerous calls for material assistance on the grounds of mere emotional piety; educate the public via media and school programmes to the legality of rights and the material hardships that displacement exposes to; and, consequently, support such rights subtending migration and refugeehood when the “fifteen minutes of fame” of the ongoing mass compassion will have come to their end.

NGOs and UN agencies issuing reports, news-makers, scholars, and researchers involved in migration issues, should rather realise their actual potential to make the general public more critical and analytic. This would already progressively mark a decisive turning point.

As a tangible result of a more responsive and informed public, grassroots’ initiatives could be advanced in coordination with state and NGO efforts.

There are several examples of how grassroots’ initiatives made a real difference, accepting refugees and migrants into their own community and not merely assisting them as humanitarian victims who need to biologically survive. For instance, in the city of Kalmar in Sweden, in a bid to help refugees integrate, the Swedish migration board, after consulting with local residents, decided to offer to asylum seekers free bus passes. Provided that refugee accommodation centers are generally located on the outskirts of towns, this move materially allowed the newcomers to come outside of their communities and be given the opportunity to influence public spaces and local cultural forms.

Similarly, in the Italian region of Veneto, when a tornado ripped through the outskirts of Venice last July causing massive destruction, recent refugees and migrants were called upon by local citizens to provide help, thereforerevealing the will to include the new civic agents into the local community, and going beyond simple aid provision. Likewise, a few years ago, the municipality of Riace in South Italy took abandoned homes and made them into spaces for the homeless. The refugees brought new life to a dying town, constituting the future human capital of the small town.

Despite the widespread determinism through which wars and disasters are frequently viewed as unavoidable or unresolvable, grassroots’ action and even individual acts, to some extent, are able to influence macrocosmic legal and political trends. However, the speed at which the latest tide of compassion is already disappearing, at the moment, does not leave much hope for far more informed, far-sighted, and effective efforts.

[1] Crisis ist the way in which political failure and the absence of will for facing social predicament or political discontent are labeled, with the practical consequence of concealing the very social, economic, and political factors leading to such crises. The expression, widespread in the international media as well as in the scholarship dealing with politics and international relations, is able to de-agentify the source of action of refugee influxes, economic downturns, and people’s resentment.

[2] Rorty, R. (1998) “Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality”, in Rorty, R., Truth and Progress. Philosophical Papers, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, pp. 167-185.

[3] Barnes, S. (1998) “Humanitarian Aid Coordination During War and Peace in Mozambique, 1985-1995”, in Studies on Emergency and Disaster Relief, Report No. 7, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

Categories: Asia, Europe, North Africa, Syria | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Flussi migratori e compassione europea: a quando informazione e sostenibilità? (by Estella Carpi, October 2015)

migrants2

Da Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations

Sembra esser stata soprattutto la foto di Aylan, il bimbo siriano di origini curde affogato nelle acque turche sulla spiaggia di Bodrum il 2 settembre, insieme alle ondate di profughi che tentano il passaggio dall’Europa orientale – provenienti soprattutto da Siria, Iraq e Afghanistan – ad avere finalmente ridestato il pubblico occidentale dal suo torpore rendendo spaventosamente tangibile il limite umano al quale ci hanno condotti le crisi politiche transnazionali e le controversie dell’assistenza umanitaria “nord-sud”.

Sull’onda degli studi di Lili Chouliaraki, il fenomeno che abbiamo di fronte è quello che potrebbe essere definito come l’emergere di un nuovo “spettatore ironico” della sofferenza altrui; l’utente del vocabolario compassionevole del “Facebook like”, che auto-celebra e pubblicizza i propri atti di carità, e scambia il consumo etico per solidarietà informata e sostenibile. Ancora una volta, la solidarietà effimera coltivata nell’ambiente mediatico, e la compassione di massa verso l’astratta moltitudine dei “disperati”, troppo raramente reclama la storicità degli eventi, e racconta le loro tristi storie per attivare le nostre intenzioni e difenderle.

Ancora una volta, la solidarietà che poco s’interroga sul perché del rapido passaggio dall’indifferenza alla compassione pubblica è promossa in termini di stile di vita, e non di una mentalità civico-politica davvero informata e reattiva.

Dopo la diffusione dell’immagine del corpo esanime del piccolo Aylan, i media europei hanno dato maggior spazio alla discussione degli aiuti informali e formali che le popolazioni forniscono ai profughi, e le proteste civili organizzate per esprimere lo spirito di solidarietà e accoglienza presenti nell’Unione europea. Iniziative che, finché l’emergenza colpiva soltanto il panorama mediorientale, non erano state attuate a pari livello.

La compassione pubblica suscitata dalla “crisi dei profughi” – un  appellativo,peraltro, capace di coprire insieme cause politiche e responsabilità esterne alla radice di tale crisi – si è ora per fortuna trasformata in motore di assistenza transnazionale, oltrepassando la mera compassione da spettatori in poltrona.

Un’educazione “sentimentale”, come la chiamava Richard Rorty, sarebbe forse utile nelle scuole europee per coltivare un sentire condiviso nelle nuove generazioni e offrire un terreno comune di condivisione ed empatia. Se da un lato, infatti, è indispensabile che la sensibilità verso la differenza non sia data per scontata e che ci venga dunque insegnata, dall’altro lato, come si può evitare che la cultura dei diritti umani, di cui il cosiddetto “nord globale” si fa paladino, resti effimera tanto quanto l’interesse pubblico verso il disperato fenomeno di esodi e dispersioni? La sponsorizzazione dei diritti umani, che ha già da tempo assunto la fisionomia del liberalismo di stampo occidentale e paternalismo terzomondista, stenta ad offrire una migliore spiegazione delle ragioni alla radice di tali crisi nel marasma mediatico odierno.

Il cittadino europeo medio ha dimostrato ancora una volta di mobilitarsi e affrontare il proprio incontro con i profughi/migranti in termini squisitamente umanitari e in relazione a uno stato di eccezione ritenuto temporaneo, restando tra l’altro restio ad affrontare la fase successiva fatta di richiesta di diritti.

Nel caos dei mesi di agosto e settembre, il temporaneo ripristino dei controlli di frontiera in Germania e Austria, la costruzione del muro al confine serbo–ungherese, e lo sgambetto teso a un profugo siriano dalla giornalista ungherese Petra Laszlo, sono segnali evidenti di un rafforzamento delle frontiere non solo materiali, ma anche morali nei paesi più toccati dalle ondate migratorie. Tali episodi sembrano significare ben più che un’ingente “crisi di profughi”: sembra trattarsi piuttosto di una vera e propria crisi delle interazioni e degli incontri umani.

Inoltre, i recenti sviluppi hanno dimostrato che i paesi Ue non possono far fronte da soli a tali flussi migratori, e l’impegno da parte dell’Onu diventa quindi sempre più radicato al loro interno. La sfida maggiore consiste nella necessità improvvisa di integrare la convenzionale risposta umanitaria, offerta all’interno di strutture di accoglienza popolate da residenti intenzionati a divenire stanziali, con percorsi per l’accoglienza di quei migranti che a volte restano per pochi giorni, o addirittura per poche ore, prima di proseguire verso la destinazione desiderata. La gestione di quello che potremmo chiamare un “transito d’emergenza”, specialmente in Italia, Grecia, Serbia, e Ungheria, è ancora un ambito ignoto alle organizzazioni umanitarie europee, e ha richiesto l’apertura di nuove sedi locali di alcune grandi organizzazioni non governative internazionali come World Vision, Islamic Relief e Action Aid.

La vera sfida in ambito europeo è riconsiderare radicalmente l’approccio verticale nord-sud e comunque ‘occidente-centrico’ perpetrato nel nome degli storici stendardi della responsabilità internazionale morale, che ha gradualmente ridotto le politiche umanitarie e di cooperazione allo sviluppo a meri strumenti di sicurezza internazionale. L’altra sfida è quella di capire di essere tutti quanti soggetti e attori di uno stesso ordine geopolitico integrato. Prendere atto di tutto questo non solo risparmierebbe molte vite, ma potrebbe probabilmente evitare molti degli  “effetti collaterali” dei ciclici conflitti internazionali.

La realizzazione dei diritti di asilo e protezione in materia d’immigrazione, in quanto diritti umani convenzionalmente riconosciuti, non dovrebbe dipendere dal carattere effimero di sfuggenti e non sempre pienamente informate solidarietà sociali. La vera scommessa sarà continuare a sostenere e implementare tali diritti quando l’attuale compassione di massa verrà meno dopo la foga ‘emergenziale’ di questi mesi.

Categories: Africa, Europe, Middle East | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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