Commodifying Humanitarianism (response paper)

this is a response paper I wrote for my Health & Migration class at Wits University.

Gabriella Mikiewicz
Response Paper – Session 7
Migration & Health – Jo Vearey
Wits University, Johannesburg

Commodifying Humanitarianism:
Reinforcing the capitalist world system

Could humanitarianism exist outside of a neoliberal, capitalist world system? Does an unequal distribution of wealth and resources, inherent in this system, have to exist in order for humanitarianism to exist? According to Patricia Daley, neoliberalism “seeks to commodify all that has never before been treated as commodities” (Daley 2013, 377). In the ongoing process of commodification — “of the individual, of identity, of personality”  (Daley, 378) or even of the public health system — humanitarianism has also been commodified. It has been shaped by people with power and money and sold to us – the simple consumers of the capitalist world system who participate in what we believe is ‘helping’.

Humanitarianism can negatively affect the recipient’s agency (especially in the case of ‘African’ recipients (Daley, 376)), and can be paternalistic – which could reinforce stereotypes and stigmatization, and even reinforce the hegemony: “[h]umanitarian action tends to reinforce hegemonic discourse by tapping into preconceived images and stereotypes of people and (distant) places” (376). A noticeable point was that even in these readings, the word ‘consumer’ was used for anyone who was ‘receiving’ health care from a ‘provider’, such as in the Van Damme 2002 article (Van Damme 2002, 50). This language might strengthen the continuous process of commodification of human beings and healthcare. It is also worth noting that the authors from today’s readings come from predominantly the ‘Global North’ (except for Wilhelm-Solomon and Pedersen, based out of Johannesburg) and use broad terms such as ‘Africa’ in their writing. The lack of specificity is what may reinforce the the global status quo and inequality. Are these papers just another example of ‘chastising’ Western governments and organisations while doing little to dismantle the power structure on a larger scale to fix the system? I would be interested to see more acknowledgment of the needs and wants of those who are the ‘recipients’ of humanitarianism.

In this response paper, I argue that the very idea of humanitarianism is the product of an unequal capitalist system, and humanitarianism plays a role in reinforcing this system. I will also discuss the  imperialist and neocolonial attitudes of the ‘global north’ to the ‘global south’.

Humanitarianism as a product of an inequality

I believe that it is important for us to think critically about the very nature of humanitarianism. Who is ‘helping’ whom, and why do those people need help in the first place? According to Wilhelm-Solomon and Jens Pedersen, humanitarianism has origins in the inequality of a capitalist world system. They write: “the origins of humanitarianism can also be traced to responses to the formation of slums and urban maladies as a result of capitalist development characterized by ‘rapid societal transformation marked by an expanding market, urbanization, and modernization’” (Wilhelm-Solomon and Pedersen 2017, 7). Continuing this argument, the authors assert that there are present “power relations between humanitarian providers and recipients” (ibid). This makes me wonder: would humanitarianism exist if neoliberalism didn’t, if a capitalist world system didn’t? I believe that in order for humanitarian programs to exist in the way they do now, an unequal distribution based on a capitalist and neoliberal global market must be in place to create the disparities between ‘giver’ and ‘receiver’.  

Reinforcing the system

One key point I noticed in the readings was the idea that humanitarian interventions can reinforce the current world system. According to Daley, “[s]ome celebrities, while chastising Western governments for doing little to alleviate humanitarian disasters in the global South, adopt neoliberal solutions that involve shifting part of the responsibility to Western individuals as consumers” (Daley, 379). While Westerners are urged to ‘help’ ‘underprivileged’ populations, what is expected of those individuals (us) other than opening their (our) wallets? While I hear cries of help from celebrities or other figures in my life – as I do on Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms daily – I rarely hear more than a cry for donations. Rarely are the structural difficulties and historical contexts that created this mass inequality discussed. And even more ‘rarely’ can we see any calls to action for dismantling the world system that created the need for humanitarianism. Instead, let’s just throw money at the problem. I believe that when humanitarianism is propagated by the rich and famous, it can be seen as another form of promoting consumption by a world of consumers.

Daley also bring up the concept of ‘accumulation by dispossesion’, a notion rooted in Marxist ideology criticising capitalism. She argues that through the commodification of humanitarianism, many celebrities, humanitarian agencies, and corporations, working in the name of humanitarianism, actually profit from the work: “joint collaborations may produce mutual benefits” (Daley, 379). I would argue that while celebrities, humanitarian organizations, politicians, or whoever is getting involved, continues to erase the context of the ‘crisis’ they’re attempting to fix, without listening to the recipient’s needs or demands, humanitarianism plays a role in securing ‘Northern’ dominance over certain populations.

Is humanitarianism imperialist?

Some questions that were raised in the readings ask if humanitarianism is a new form of imperialism? Do expats then signify a new form of colonialism? There is no clear, black-and-white, yes-or-no answer. According to Redfield, MSF has colonial origins, both literally (“the legacy of the Belgian Congo for the section based in Brussels, for example” (Redfield 2012, 362)) but also figuratively with the image of the MSF aid worker. The MSF aid worker represents the same figure as the “explorer or crusading adventurer” (ibid) from colonial times as the original MSF workers were some hybrid of a ‘doctor/cowboy/explorer’. The problem with this role is that foreigners are often given the role of the ‘expert’ over the people who may have more knowledge of the specific situation. The “MSF expat was ever an outsider who exerted control,” (Redfield, 374) argues Redfield. After criticism about its structural hierarchies, MSF did attempt to ‘decolonialise’ its organisation (360). Attempts such as these, which show self-reflexivity and understanding of the many negative impacts that humanitarian organisations can have, are a first step in the right direction of ‘decolonising’ humanitarianism and separating it from an unequal world order.

Conclusion: but what can we do?!

I have argued that humanitarianism as we know it can only exist in an unequal, capitalist world system fueled by neoliberal forces. If we were to dismantle this global power structure, humanitarianism might not have to exist, and neither would the problems that it reinforces. Of course, we can talk all day about ‘dismantling the global power system’ – but what can we actually do, now? By being aware of our position at consumers in this global capitalist system, and by being critical of what aid we buy into, we have the power to support projects that give agency and respect to those who we want to ‘help’. One example of this is supporting primary health care projects, which can give autonomy and participation to recipients (Van Damme, 50). As Wilhelm-Solomon and Pedersen argue, humanitarian interventions require a “questioning of the politics and principles of humanitarianism” (Wilhelm-Solomon and Pedersen, 5). In this paper, I have been very critical of humanitarian efforts, which is ironic because I might even consider myself a humanitarian (seeing as I donate to NGOs and volunteer at refugee shelters, right?). I would like to briefly defend humanitarianism by stating that there is a large difference between a full-blown attempt at reinforcing global power dynamics or a direct attempt at neocolonialism, and a simple ignorance that many of us and humanitarian workers may have regarding the complexities. I do believe that people want to help, and I do not want to overly criticize the efforts of humanitarians, but more criticize the power structures that we support everyday that created an environment where this type of humanitarianism is ‘needed’, supported by celebrities and politicians, backed by huge amounts of money, and uncriticized by the public.

In a final attempt to provoke critical thought, I will finish this response paper with a story told by Ernesto Sirolli, an experienced humanitarian and aid worker in a TedTalk. Sirolli recounts his time working for an Italian NGO in ‘Africa’, saying that every project they set up failed. One such project was an attempt to “teach Zambian people how to grow food” (Ernesto Sirolli, Youtube). Sirolli and others from his NGO arrived with Italian seeds in southern Zambia and he says that the local people had absolutely no interest in learning to grow Italian tomatoes and zucchinis. He continues:

“we were amazed that the local people, in such a fertile valley, would not have any agriculture. But instead of asking them how come they were not growing anything, we simply said, ‘Thank God we’re here. Just in the nick of time to save the Zambian people from starvation’ […] We had these magnificent tomatoes […] and we were telling the Zambians, look how easy agriculture is!’ When the tomatoes were nice and ripe and red, overnight, some 200 hippos came out from the river and they ate everything. And we said to the Zambians, ‘My God, the hippos!’ and the Zambians said ‘Yes, that’s why we have no agriculture here.’ ‘Why didn’t you tell us?’ ‘You never asked’”.

Works Cited:

• Daley, P. (2013). Rescuing African bodies: celebrities, consumerism and neoliberal humanitarianism. Review of African Political Economy, 40:137, 375-393, DOI: 10.1080/03056244.2013.816944.

• Ernesto Sirolli: Want to help someone? Shut up and listen! TED. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=chXsLtHqfdM

• Redfield, P. (2012). The Unbearable Lightness of Expats: Double Binds of Humanitarian Mobility. Cultural Anthropology, 27:2, 358-382, DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1360.2012.01147.x.

• Van Damme, W. et al. (2002). Primary health care vs. emergency medical assistance: a conceptual framework. Health Policy and Planning, 17(1), 49-60.

• Wilhelm-Solomon, M. and Pedersen, J. (2017). Crossing the Borders of Humanitarianism: Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in Inner-City Johannesburg. Urban Forum, 28, 5-26. DOI 10.1007/s12132-016-9285-9.

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