Politicized Humanitarianism

This post is a collaboration between Margaret Killjoy and yours truly. If you find yourself in need of a co-author or ghostwriter, or just generally like to be challenged and your hopes dashed and lifted at the same time, please reach out to them.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” Desmond Tutu

Four years into the Syrian Civil War, with no end in sight, the Syrian refugee crisis is just getting worse and worse. More than four million people have fled their homes and sought refuge in Turkey, Europe, and throughout the world.

There are wonderful grassroots initiatives (most too informal to even call “organizations”) who are on the ground in Europe helping Syrian refugees navigate the nightmare they’ve been thrust into (bureaucracy and xenophobia) after the nightmare they’ve escaped (the Syrian civil war). But as crucial as it is to meet these people’s immediate needs, it will take more than emergency aid to solve the source of this crisis and ones like it. It will take radical, political solutions.

Relief organizations and related nonprofits could position themselves to advocate and act towards / in alignment with those solutions. Which is to say: we need humanitarianism, yes, but if we’re going to find long-term solutions, we also need politicized humanitarianism.

When we speak of people and groups being politicized, we don’t mean campaigning and/or voting for elected officials every few years. Instead, to be political means to do work that addresses the very way our society—and its decision-making—is structured. For many of us, to be political also means to embrace the feminist concept that the personal is political—that the way we interact with one another one-on-one cannot be divorced from the broader structures of social control.

Any attempt to solve a refugee crisis in a world divided into nations faces a simple, obvious problem: the existence of national borders. The tendency of nations is to restrict the free mobility of people. A few Western nations, whether out of an earnest desire to help or in an attempt to look sympathetic to their populations and on the world stage, are publicly considering upping their maximum yearly quotas of Syrian immigrants.

But none seem to consider the eradication of quotas, even for those displaced by war. As national borders shift, their placement often arbitrarily divides existent cultures or ignores cultures and people who themselves are traditionally migratory. Many of the Somali refugees in Dadaab, a refugee complex in Kenya, are pastoralists who follow agropastoralist migration patterns. Yet, cut off from their territory by the existence of arbitrarily-placed borders, they are left destitute, their culture fragmented. In North America, the Tohono O’odham people of the Sonoran desert saw their territory divided by the US-Mexico border in 1853. Increasing militarization of that border has seen many of the tribal members cut off from tribal resource centers across an imaginary line.

In contrast, all over the planet, capital seems to flow right through these borders. In our neoliberal world, some courts claim that corporations are people. This is a myth easily dispelled: corporations, after all, can go more or less wherever they want. Capital can go wherever it wants. People can’t.

Our end objective is to turn neoliberalism on its head: provide for the free mobility of people regardless of their national origin, while challenging the existence and global dominance of wealthy corporations.

We can better provide for human needs in both the short and long term by developing a diverse ecosystem of grassroots organizations that address both the symptoms and the root causes of the world’s problems.

A strict adherence to political neutrality has helped groups such as Doctors Without Borders (MSF) develop the reputation it needs to get into the most dangerous corners of the world and provide for human needs. The utility and admirability of that model cannot be denied. While MSF uses their neutrality to gain access, the very same adherence to political neutrality taken to an extreme often prevents state-sanctioned groups like United Nations or the Red Cross and Red Crescent from operating in countries where they have not been specifically invited by the government. Which is, in large part, why the larger and better-funded relief organizations have been unable to provide aid in Germany and other countries who are dealing with a large influx of displaced peoples.

As an example, the code of conduct of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies—which does vital, life-saving work that should not and cannot be dismissed—states that it seeks to “save lives and alleviate suffering of people-in-need as a result of a humanitarian crisis. It focuses on short-term emergency relief, providing basic life-saving services that are disrupted because of a humanitarian crisis. Humanitarian assistance is needs-based and provided in adherence to humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and operational independence.”

It’s an unfortunate truth that addressing symptoms of poverty, displacement, disaster, and the like can be considered non-political while addressing the underlying causes cannot. But it’s only through the dramatic restructuring of our society’s priorities that we might be able to achieve long-term goals like the dismantling of borders and of global economic disparity.

While politicized humanitarian organizations might find themselves operating in countries counter to the wishes of those in power, they should never serve as a colonizing force, either. A simple rubric by which many might judge a group is: do the political or technological solutions they are offering tend to emphasize or diminish the autonomy of those they serve? That is to ask, do the solutions tend towards empowering people?

The Common Ground Collective, formed in New Orleans in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, is a clear example of what can be accomplished by disaster relief that is anti-bureaucratic and openly political. Days before the government or Red Cross were in place, volunteers on bicycles were providing medical aid. They were politically-engaged, primarily along anarchist and Black Panther Party lines, and never hid that from the people they served. Their simple motto of “solidarity not charity” expresses their class consciousness, their desire to foster a culture of mutual aid practiced between peers rather than reinforce the existing social hierarchies in which care and resources come from above.

Their refusal to wait for aid to come through approved channels put them in a position to help people who simply would not have been served by the existing or forthcoming non-politicized infrastructure. They existed to empower people at the same time as they provided human needs. They did this work despite it putting them actively at odds with the “responding” military forces.

The world needs more organizations built around models of solidarity, and it needs more organizations, grassroots initiatives, and empowered individuals to come together to address the fundamental issues we face as a society. We need to start to look beyond providing immediate need. We need to start looking at long-term solutions.

Politicized humanitarianism and politically-neutral humanitarianism could very well work with the other in mind. Groups like MSF are absolutely vital to any real strategy for alleviating suffering, and any politicized humanitarian organizations would do well to bear that in mind, to work in ways that bolster existing, politically-neutral aid structures rather than fighting them.

In fact, it’s only by bolstering existing symbiotic relationships between such organizations, as well as developing a more intentional network, that we are likely to make progress at all.

It’s no surprise, then, at the end of the day, to realize what we need is solidarity between diverse groups, rather than forcing political or strategic unity onto the whole of global humanitarian efforts. Because it’s through solidarity that we raise each other up without forcing one another down. This is as true on the ground in post-Hurricane Katrina as it is on the structural level of humanitarian efforts.

But with all the crises that exist in the world, and all the crises that are sure to come, there needs to be room for politicized humanitarianism. There needs to be room for long-term solutions. There needs to be room for politics.