Thinking Power Relations across Humanitarian Geographies: Southism as a Mode of Analysis

This piece is posted as part of the blog series, Thinking through the Global South.  You can read the series here.

In this blog post Dr Estella Carpi examines the impact of the structural relationships between the Global North and Global South and puts forward the concept of ‘Southism’. This term is used to describe the unequal power relations, practices and belief systems that enable Northern humanitarian actors and organisations to assume a right to care for, rescue and assist Global South settings and people that it preconceives to be disempowered and incapable. Dr Carpi also examines how “epistemic failure”, and “material discrimination” influence and shape the encounters between humanitarian providers and their beneficiaries and suggests a ‘geography-free’ approach to enable us to critically question geographies of birth and national passports as assumed sole identifiers of power.

This piece was posted on the 23rd January, 2019.

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

In my chapter for the Routledge Handbook of South-South Relations, I sought to uncover the multifaceted power relations that underpin the ways that humanitarian practitioners lead their lives and encounter and think about local residents, governors, infrastructure, providers and refugee groups in the context of Lebanon’s humanitarian crises. My contribution, ‘The “Need to Be There”: North-South Encounters and Imaginations in the Humanitarian Economy’ also seeks to explore how the so-called international community of humanitarian practitioners is perceived by local and refugee populations.

My chapter specifically considers the Lebanese humanitarian provision systems in place during the Israel-Lebanon July 2006 war and in response to the Syrian refugee influx into Lebanon from 2011. In these settings, it can be argued that there is a relationship between aid providers and recipients that cements the Global South as the key source of the Global North’s empowerment, accountability and capability to develop and assist vulnerable settings and people. This is a relationship that I explore in more detail below.

Aiming to problematise ethnic and political geographies within this context of provider-recipient power relations, my chapter suggests the concept of Southism as an analytical tool.  The complex role of international and local aid workers in crisis-driven transnational labour, and the ad hoc relevance of nationality within humanitarian economies, demonstrates to interrelated dynamics: on the one hand, the paternalistic behaviour of the humanitarian apparatus which deems itself as “necessary” in areas of need and, on the other hand, the complex relationships that exist between local, regional and international NGOs. For some displaced people I had the chance to speak to in Lebanon, these provider-recipient power relations seemingly form a homogenous arm of governance unable to either empathize with them or enact solidarity. It is in this articulated context that I explore North-South actual encounters and perceptions within the humanitarian economy.

My field research in Lebanon between 2011 and 2013 pointed to a tension between the philanthropic spirit of the humanitarian system, and local and refugee responses to the “Southist” intent. This Southist intent of the Northern humanitarian system to care for, rescue, upgrade and assist settings in the Global South combines personal affection and collective compassion with professional aspirations. By using the concept of Southism, I intend to resonate with Gayatri Spivak’s “monumentalization of the margins”, that is the overemphasis of needs and areas of need exclusively in the Global South. As such, Southism indicates a structural relationship, rather than a mere act of assisting the South with a philanthropic spirit. Specifically, it preconceives the South as disempowered and incapable.

To examine these concepts further, in my chapter I identify “epistemic failure” and “material discrimination” as key issues that influence and shape the encounters between humanitarian providers and their beneficiaries, and the latter’s perceptions of the former. Epistemic failure, or the failure of the humanitarian system to accumulate local knowledge concerning the cultures, languages and capacities of the areas of intervention exists at the same time as valuing the geographic diversification of professional experience and the standardization of operational skills. This creates a problematic disconnection between humanitarian practices and lifestyles on the one hand and aid recipients on the other.

In turn, material discrimination refers to the different pay-scales set up for local and international staff, heavily disadvantaging the former. In addition, I propose that “humanitarian tourism”, “politics of blame” and the “betrayal of the international community” represent local and refugee perceptions of global humanitarian worldviews, ways of being and lifestyles. “Humanitarian tourism’ represents the temporary as well as voyeuristic international interest in crisis-stricken settings. There is also a humanitarian tendency to blame local staff, infrastructure and politics for operational failures: “the politics of blame”. Lastly, “the betrayal of the international community” refers to the moral wound felt by forcibly displaced people who denounce the fictitious intervention of the international community and its inability or unwillingness to eradicate injustice and the very causes of crisis.

The humanitarian approaches to thinking about and assisting the needy that I discuss in my chapter relate to disparate sides of the world and, therefore, it questions geographies of birth and national passports as a priori sole identifiers of power. The global humanitarian way of being that I explore in Lebanon’s humanitarian crises is also about the social class and economic status of aid workers, and their own freedom to move inside (and away from) vulnerable areas and opt for educational and professional migration.

From this perspective, I strive towards a geography-free interpretation of Southism. While passports and nationalities still prove their efficaciousness in times of risk, my research in Lebanon has rather aimed to identify comfort zones which protect social statuses, ease and privilege across passports. The hegemonic culture which underpins the “NGOization” of postcolonial settings, on the one hand, can sometimes be adopted regardless of the geographic context of its primary actors. On the other hand, an exploration of hegemonic culture can unearth the organisational and individual ethics of international and local practitioners in approaching southern settings affected by crisis.

This geography-free approach helps to highlight and critically examine the “too-easy West-and-the-rest polarizations sometimes rampant in colonial and postcolonial discourse studies”. To understand the contextuality of humanitarian action and its impact on societies, we therefore need a flexible geography of Southism, which disappears when irrelevant and re-emerges when able to uncover the ad hoc performative roles of nationality.

Nonetheless, in my chapter I limit myself to showing some of the moral and material implications of Southism. After all, the feelings, intentions and aspirations which often underlie the humanitarian career make such Southism not a matter which can be straightforwardly addressed in the short term. Humanitarian actors’ tendency to believe that, whenever a new emergency breaks out, Lebanon – like other “fragile states” – would collapse without international humanitarian help is a belief that requires longstanding cultural intervention.

As I affirm in my chapter, “Southism does not merely make the Global South, or Southern elements in the North, its special place – as Edward Said does with the Orient – but it is, rather, employed by Northern and Southern actors to reassert, solidify and legitimise the Northern humanitarian presence and actions”. As long as the very aim remains the politico-pragmatic role and the moral survival of the Global North, “polycentric forms of knowledge, politics and practice” – as stated by Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Daley in the introduction– are unlikely to emerge and produce tangible transformations. My contribution, in line with the other 30 chapters of the Handbook, has attempted to prompt critical framings of everyday political geographies that form our material lives, actions, and conceptual referents.

This extract from Dr Carpi’s chapter in The Handbook of South-South Relations, edited by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Patricia Daley, has been slightly edited for the purposes of this blog post. For more information about the Handbook, see here, and for other pieces published as part of the Southern Responses blog series on Thinking through the Global South, click here.

 For further readings on the themes addressed in this post please read:

Thinking through ‘the global South’ and ‘Southern-responses to displacement’: An introduction – in this introductory piece to our new blog series, Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh sets out a series of questions that our project is exploring with reference to how to think about, and through ‘the South.’

Conceptualising the South and South-South Encounters – in this extract from their introduction to the new book, Handbook of South-South Relations, Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Prof. Patricia Daley explore different ways of conceptualising and studying ‘the global South’ and diverse encounters that take place across and between diversely positioned people and institutions around the world.

Histories and spaces of Southern-led responses to displacement – In this blog post Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh highlights the need for the analyses of local responses to be more attentive to the longstanding history of diverse “local/Southern” actors and examines the ways in which Southern-led responses can work alongside, or explicitly challenge, Northern-led responses to displacement.

Empires of Inclusion – In this post Dr Estella Carpi explores the implications of the concept and process of ‘inclusion’ in relation to South-South Cooperation.

The Localisation of Aid and Southern-led Responses to Displacement: Beyond instrumentalising local actors – In this blog Dr Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh examines a number of questions relating to recent action by international humanitarian actors responding to displacement and the new impetus to localise aid by engaging with ‘local’ actors in and from the global South.

Does Faith-Based Aid Provision always Localise Aid? – In this blog post Dr Estella Carpi argues that there is a need to reflect on local contexts to ensure engagement with local faith communities do not rely on essentialising practices that assume certain groups speak on behalf of a homogenous ‘locale.’

Featured image:  Al-Hikma Modern Hospital, Zarqa.  © E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh (2018)

 

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