Humanitarianism and Postcoloniality: A Look at Academic Texts

In this blog post Southern Responses’ Research Associate, Dr Estella Carpi, uses her experience of teaching humanitarianism in Lebanon, Turkey and Italy, to examine how ‘northern-born’ theories and frameworks of humanitarianism interact with the ‘cultural dispositions’ of students and how, in turn, these interactions influence student responses to humanitarian teaching. 

Humanitarianism and Postcoloniality:  A Look at Academic Texts 

By Dr Estella Carpi, Research Associate, Southern Responses to Displacement project.

In this post, I draw on my experiences of teaching humanitarianism in Lebanon, Turkey and Italy to explain how the long established theoretical framework of humanitarianism, that increasingly populates academic books and media outlets, does not meet its listeners identically. In this vein, the Southern Responses project makes the effort to decentralise the mainstream humanitarian narrative. However, understanding southern responses to displacement does not merely mean explaining in class new approaches to displacement and models of care in school and academic programmes.

I believe teaching humanitarianism particularly tests the students’ cultural dispositions – dually meant as both habitus and cultural capital – with respect to teaching something like physical quantum theory or algorithms. This is not because quanta and algorithms are bereft of imperial history: Let’s think of the way such scientific studies emerged, of the social classes in which they became objects of study, and the way these studies were funded and even traded worldwide. Rather, what I mean is that speaking humanitarianism overtly puts down the veils of the relationships between Others, breaks down the Other and the Self, demolishes certainties between the Self and the Other through the exploration of the necessarily dialogic act of assistance provision and aid reception.

Lebanon has historically been more exposed to crisis than Italy and Turkey; however, I am not entirely convinced that this is what influences students’ response to the teaching of humanitarianism. There are, in fact, two factors that contribute to the students’ response to humanitarianism delivered in the form of an academic framework: The first is academic literature, and the second is postcoloniality – which, surely, to some extent, underlies the former. In fact, the Anglo-centric character of the humanitarianism framework – as it is globally discussed nowadays – is fully reflected in the academic literature which is delivered to students. Neither literature nor students themselves are bereft of political history.

Lebanon, having become home to several refugee groups, has often been studied in international academia in the context of the catastrophe discourse. Thus, humanitarianism has framed a large part of local learning about external interventions, especially since the years of the 1948 Palestinian Nakba. In this vein, even local infrastructures and local populations in Lebanon have drawn greater academic attention when turning into humanitarian spaces, host communities, displaced people, or migrants. Contrarily, Turkey is a country where catastrophe does not need to be there to justify tough security, anti-democratic measures, and political states of exception. Therefore, Turkish scholars have set up a mostly legal and policy-oriented framework for discussing refugee influxes and humanitarian practices. The catastrophe narrative neither needs to strengthen a state which is already centralised and has rather enhanced domestic accountability by carefully gate-keeping refugee-populated areas, international support and involvement in domestic humanitarian affairs. In other words, in Turkey refugee influxes have been studied as a means to capture domestic changes, e.g. in market, employment, and housing. In Lebanon, however, the very goal of humanitarian research has long since revolved around refugees and NGOs themselves. Scholars of humanitarianism now increasingly address Lebanese people, governance, and services in light of the Syrian crisis. However, local people and services are still approached in light of their response to crisis and given their relationship with refugee-related issues. In Italy, humanitarianism-related issues start stimulating academic curiosity in the wake of the Kosovo war in 1999, the 2001 western intervention in Afghanistan, and more recently, the migration flows from African, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries. Often unfamiliar with the anglo-centric ways of setting and naming the humanitarian framework, Italian students increasingly find themselves in the need to manage a foreign language and tackle diverse conceptual universes (mainly published in English) before encountering humanitarianism in their own language and academic culture. It is indeed meaningful that domestic emergency crises and humanitarian management – such as the earthquakes in central Italy– have primarily been tackled through the lens of disaster and risk reduction.

The postcolonial character of Lebanon vis-à-vis Turkey and Italy also sets up different student responses to learning humanitarianism in class today.

The French colonial mandate in Lebanon between 1920 and 1943 consistently shapes today’s student response to humanitarianism; familiar with postcolonial governance and catastrophisation as a way of understanding the current humanitarian discourse, my Lebanese students seemed to rely on categories of thinking which easily suit the humanitarian framework. The colonial mandate and the intervention of international assistance providers to back domestic parties and local communities gradually overshadowed the pre-existing thick network of local community services in academic literature. The present literal inundation of international crisis managers in Lebanon makes local students suitable interlocutors on the humanitarian mainstream narrative as well as its critiques.

In Turkey, humanitarianism has been acquiring international colours way before the beginning of the Syrian refugee influxes and the latest intervention of several humanitarian agencies. The 1915 Armenian genocide and deportations from Ottoman Turkey prompted the first cases of foreign charitable assistance in the region, in addition to the international refugee regime set up to deal with the massive displacement caused by the First World War. Overall, Ottoman authorities were reluctant to accept unconditional international assistance because they did not want to see their political power undermined. Traditionally decentralised and domestically managed, humanitarian services to forced migrants during the Ottoman Empire were mostly delegated to local communities, making the contemporary humanitarian approach to crisis and assistance unsuitable in the Turkish context. Nevertheless, while the Turkish government has already been pursuing a politics of intervention in Somalia since 2011, the recent intervention of international humanitarian agencies inside Turkey in response to the Syrian crisis is unprecedented.

Italy seemingly looks to humanitarianism with an ambiguous gaze. Past colonial governors in the Horn of Africa, and historically imbued with the Christian Catholic culture of assistance to the vulnerable, Italian students responded to my humanitarianism classes with the curiosity of the potential missionary. Approaching the catastrophe discourse to understand how new migration flows are shaping politics and ethics in the Mediterranean doorway, Italian students tended to associate humanitarianism either with human rights – which would require several political steps ahead – or with philanthropic charity. Italian students were rather inspired by the future possibility of doing good, and focussed on humanitarian sentimentalism, such as the pros and cons of compassion: Humanitarian governmentality, managerialism, donorship, and bureaucracy seemed to scarcely inhabit their humanitarian imaginary.

In the light of these observations, understanding South-South assistance should start with questioning the current narratives and counter-narratives of northern-born humanitarianism; and with acknowledging the different nuances that southern politics, ideologies and economies attribute to the definition and the functioning of humanitarianism and crisis. In this effort, being fully aware of the culturality of academic texts and the political history at hand can only generate more responsible and effective forms of teaching.

A longer version of this article was published at: http://publicanthropologist.cmi.no/2018/04/26/teaching-humanitarianism-in-lebanon-turkey-and-italy/.

For further reading on this topic please read:  

Teaching Humanitarianism:  The Need for a More Responsive Framework:  In this blog post Southern Responses Research Associate Dr Estella Carpi reflects on her experiences of teaching humanitarianism in different countries and languages.  These experiences have led her to acknowledge and question different academic cultural frameworks of displacement, migration and humanitarian action and provided insight into how this can help to challenge and remould the humanitarian mainstream narrative.

Featured photo:  Beit Atfal as-Sumud Beirut Shatila Camp (c) E. Carpi, 2013

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