How universal is humanitarianism? Does it belong to the imaginary and politics of the West, not only that of so-called humanitarian organisations, such as Doctors Without Borders, Doctors of the World, Oxfam, Care, Unicef, but also that of states leading alleged humanitarian military interventions, like in Somalia, northern Iraq, former Yugoslavia and even Libya, or should it be recognised in other parts of the world in the form of vernacular humanitarianisms? This is the main question posed by the authors of this fascinating set of articles.
This was also the question I asked myself when I was appointed some years ago as Visiting Professor at the University of Hong Kong to participate in the development of a research programme on humanitarianism. Indeed, my earlier empirical work on humanitarian reason had been mostly conducted in France and on French humanitarian organisations operating in Kosovo, Palestine and Iraq, with the only exceptions of the aftermath of a natural disaster in Venezuela and the case of AIDS orphans in South Africa. Moreover, the history of humanitarianism that I proposed referred to the moral philosophy of Enlightenment, the abolitionist movement of the late eighteenth century in Britain and the birth of the International Red Cross at the end of the nineteenth century, while the deeper genealogy delved into Christian roots with the ideology of compassion, charity and life-saving. Was it not an obvious case of ethnocentrism? As the programme involved Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean and Singaporean social scientists, was there not a risk of exporting Western models into countries where Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Hinduism, Islam and, although marginally, Christianity had developed their own philosophies regarding empathy toward the suffering of others and the care required for its relief? In fact, I discovered that there was not one but various local forms of humanitarianism in Hong Kong, with, among others, an active autonomous branch of Doctors Without Borders established in 1994 also operating in mainland China, a strong ethics of Buddhist mindfulness present in organisations related to the government and a revival of Confucianism supported by the Chinese Communist Party. In other words, vernacular humanitarianism did not exclude international humanitarianism. Rather, the former corresponded to the re-invention of a tradition, while the latter was re-appropriated.
At the time, the most frequently mentioned humanitarian moment in the region had been when, after the 2008 earthquake that caused more than 68,000 deaths in northern Sichuan, the Chinese Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, visiting shattered towns and cities and meeting with newly orphaned children, had shed tears. This empathetic and caring attitude combined with the state's benevolent aid to the victims was in dramatic contrast with the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, in which more than 240,000 people lost their lives and for which the politics of the Cultural Revolution forbid the mourning of the dead. In the aftermath of the natural disasters of the 2010s in the country, expression of compassion and mobilisation of assistance became the norm in mainland China. But humanitarianism also took an expansionist turn in the 2020s with the Coronavirus pandemic for which the Republic of China substantially increased its international aid, donating material to one hundred and fifty countries and sending medical teams to twenty-seven of them, thus adding a new dimension to its so-called Silk Road Initiative. Thus, as had been the case in the West, humanitarianism was key to imperial politics.
The question of the universal in humanitarianism is therefore dual: it is about universality and universalism. On the one hand, there is a universal presence of humanitarian forms. The articles in this volume give examples of this situated universality, with grassroots search and rescue movements in China, religiously neutral charity organisations in Sri Lanka, modestly scaled interventions in Cambodia, welcoming practices toward migrants in Colombia and the engagement of civil society in favour of refugees in Norway. These local forms are, in each case, if not determined, at least influenced by the legacies of the past, but they are also novelties in reaction to present situations. They are both historically grounded and socially adapted. But on the other hand, the universalist ambition of humanitarianism remains. The contributions are less explicitly interested in this interventionist universalism, which has often been analysed in international relations studies as well as in anthropology. It is the expression of altruistic imperialism, in the best case, and cynical instrumentalisation of good sentiments, in the worst. Regarding the former, even well-intentioned initiatives of humanitarian organisations rely on the dissemination of liberal values with little consideration for the meaning of local norms and moralities, as has been shown for the treatment of women in Islamic countries. Regarding the latter, suffice to mention the use of the United Nations Responsibility to Protect principle by France, Britain, Italy and the United States to justify a military intervention in Libya, officially to avoid the massacre of a population, unofficially to remove Muammar Gaddafi from power.
The two dimensions are not exclusive. The recognition of the universality of humanitarian practices under multiple forms does not contradict the recognition of the universalism of humanitarian politics on the international as well as on each national scene. Universality refers to vernacular innovation; universalism to global imagination. This was the lesson from my years in Hong Kong. Ignoring situated humanitarianism would have been an ethnographic mistake. Ignoring international humanitarianism would have been a political error. Acknowledging both dimensions is crucial for a decolonial approach to humanitarianism.
Although they have chosen a small-scale method, the texts put together in this special issue are an invitation to think about the vernacular without losing sight of the international. In Colombia, the Christian ethics of the helpers of the Pastoral for Migrants adopt the global language of psychologists. In Sri Lanka, Catholic priests and nuns develop their own version of the humanitarian rhetoric, and tentative links between the Red Cross and the Red Lotus are established. In Cambodia, the senior citizens offering their assistance come from the United States, Britain, Germany, Malaysia, and the fable of the Star Fish they pass on to each other is drawn from a book of short stories published by a US anthropologist. Even in China, search and rescue volunteers differentiate themselves from large international organisations, and distinct words designate domestic assistance and aid abroad. And Norwegians who support refugees refer negatively to what they call the Swedish conditions, by which they mean the disorders caused by an excess of exiles and a deficit of integration. In sum, each of these local humanitarian activities and discourses are embedded in a broader international scope.
One question yet remains open when one reads these articles. Are they really speaking of humanitarianism? Why not solidarity, charity, assistance, care? Why not everyday ethics? The authors do not ignore this issue, and some of them discuss it or simply use these words interchangeably. There is a tension here. Whereas the researchers claim an emic approach to their fieldwork, their decision to call humanitarian the facts they study proceeds from an etic perspective in most cases. However, this tension can be seen as a refusal of nominalism. After all, humanitarianism depends on the definition one gives to it.
In my own work, I have attempted, beyond particular contexts, to apprehend the moral economy of humanitarianism, that is, the norms, values and affects that are produced, distributed and appropriated around the suffering of others and the dangers to which they are exposed in situations of war, persecution, disaster, poverty, disease, immigration, asylum. The collection of studies edited by Čarna Brković convincingly pluralises this concept by exploring the moral economies of humanitarianism.