An anthropological perspective
The historical role of anthropology in creating the concept of race and propagating it into a colonial reality of global power systems provides key context to probing both today’s role and challenges of the field at its intersection with humanitarian action. This article applies an anthropological perspective to humanitarian racial dynamics, progressively identifying five principle mechanisms which serve to uphold oppressive infrastructures. These racial dynamics and mechanisms will here be conceptualised, contextualised and then unpacked – drawing their bases from specific examples of case studies in contexts of institutional fragility in Gulu, Juba and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The anthropological analysis of humanitarian propagation of racism illuminates key corresponding challenges for the sector in fragile settings. Racial inequality impedes and undermines the core humanitarian mission, and addressing it presents an essential contemporary challenge to the sector.
2. SETTING THE SCENE
Establishing key concepts as well as the context within which they will be applied is imperative. Before evaluating the role of anthropology in the humanitarian sphere and the challenges it faces in fragile states, it is necessary to elaborate on the key elements of said inquiry so as to better understand their deployment throughout.
2.1.1.What is institutional fragility?
The context of institutional fragility, or the ‘fragile state’, is one which in itself presents a challenge to humanitarian actors. Fragile states are traditionally considered those whose:
‘state structures lack political will and/or capacity to provide the basic functions needed for poverty reduction, development and to safeguard the security and human rights of their population.’
Recent years have seen this definition evolving into an even more vague one of ‘fragility as a combination of risks and coping capacities in economic, environmental, political, security and societal dimensions’.
Fragility also designates failure, violence and a threat to the international community. It has thus been critiqued for its location of culpability in affected nations which ignores (and distracts from) failures and involvements and international and subnational levels. Such a location of culpability legitimises intervention through justification by negation that solutions to this ‘fragility’ come from ‘non-fragile’ states and their actors, without interrogating existing power structures or their implications. Therefore, being present in such a problematic context as institutional fragility in itself poses a challenge to humanitarian action and its non-political agenda.
2.1.2.What is anthropology?
Anthropology almost defies definition, leaving it up to its practitioners and those who engage with it to dictate of what it consists. Such lack of definition is corroborated by Perrson-Fischier:
‘Anthropology is the study of man (GR. anthropos). Anthropologists study humans, culture and societies all over the world. This means that anthropology does not have a specific subject matter as its objective of study […] As long as it involves humans, anything and everything can be the object of study for anthropologists.’
Such an interpretation of the field as so broad as to be without a ‘specific subject matter as its objective of study’ suggests that the role of anthropology in society is similarly relative and vast, however the rather stricter history of anthropology as a racial science has held enormous impact in dictating and defining comprehensions of ‘man’. This has far-reaching consequences in the constructs through which we understand cultures, societies and people. It is therefore essential to contextualise anthropology by delving into its history in order to be able to discuss its role in humanitarian action as well as the challenges the sector faces.
2.2.1. A reflexive turn
Nazaruk’s assertion that anthropology is steeped in subjectivity, and their emphasis on the ‘reflexive turn’ (auto-anthropology) leads me to make a contextualising self-analysis. Bearing a life-experience of whiteness, resource-rich privilege, euro-centric education and systems of knowledge which ‘other’ those identified as divergent from the values of neoliberal capitalism, risks colouring my anthropological perspective. Furthermore, having no contact with affected people whilst undergoing studies which render them academic subjects, my understandings are detached from the reality they attempt to engage with. Although this paper will article to be thoroughly well-founded it is inevitable that it will be affected by said factors.
2.2.2. Anthropological history: the construction of race
Nell Irvin Painter’s book The History of White People outlines in detail how anthropological scientists toiled for centuries in (now-denounced as baseless) efforts to construct the idea of human races and categorise people based on physical traits and ‘moral’ characteristics; race as a concept predicated on the superiority in terms of beauty, slavery, labour and class of the white race(s). These anthropologists consist of western academic elites whose pseudoscientific efforts to validate their own superiority would last for centuries and still retain much legitimacy.
‘Biologists and geneticists (not to mention literary critics) no longer believe in the physical existence of races – though they recognize the continuing power of racism […] It took some two centuries to reach this conclusion, after countless racial schemes had spun out countless different numbers of races, even of white races, and attempts at classification produced frustration.’
Irvin Painter’s analysis is corroborated by that of Hoyt which highlights the danger such a construct’s consequences continue to perpetuate. This construction of race pedalled by anthropologists with all the legitimised weight of academia and science behind them, as well as the concept’s inextricable link with superiority, has acted as an essential axis of oppression since the eighteenth century whilst playing an integral role in violent and political measures against the poor, working class and people of colour, as well as the colonial project.
Anthropology has therefore done much to dehumanise the human and its legacy is powerful since the construct of race feeds essentially into the way people and cultures are still understood. In light of this, in the current context of humanitarian action in fragile states, it is crucial to look at the role anthropology plays in terms of understanding racial dynamics in these settings. Particularly since such themes surrounding race often go superficially passed over. Consequently, interrogating the role of anthropology in the racial dynamics and racialization of the sector is an endeavour which this paper will undertake.
3. ANTHROPOLOGY OF RACIAL DYNAMICS IN HUMANITARIAN ACTION
Racial dynamics are immense, complex and pervasive in the humanitarian sector, and will not be fully addressed in this paper. It is of course far from the truth to imply that all westerners are white and all those affected by humanitarian crises are people of colour. Nonetheless, although such false binaries certainly exist, there are real tendencies of affected populations to be largely non-western people of colour and humanitarian ‘international personnel’ to be white westerners. When addressing such dynamics it must be with the consciousness that race does not only mean skin colour. Whiteness is a construct of power and will be treated as such going forward.
3.1. Racial binaries in humanitarian language and literature
A key aspect of racial dynamics in humanitarian aid is the propagation of artificial racial binaries: the white race versus the otherized non-white race. This is because the concept of humanitarianism is ‘predicated on whiteness’. Whiteness with its inherent meaning of superiority defines by negation those who do not fall within its category as non-white and therefore inferior: a binary which is consistently exemplified in both theory and practise.
Baker identifies this binary in his discussion of humanitarianism as neocolonialism, interpreting it as a ‘space that exists between a privileged U.S. ‘helper’ and a the subaltern African ‘helped’. A space that was historically constructed around, and still manifests itself today because of, whiteness’. Such a space is reinforced by the language which steeps the humanitarian sector, a reinforcement which a brief look at its linguistics can confirm. ‘Humanitarian action’ lays out a definition of those who are active, and by negation those who are passive; ‘recipients’ differentiates between those who actively give and those who passively receive; ‘beneficiaries’ similarly differentiates between those who passively benefit, and those who act in order to create/ provide this benefit, and, ‘victim’ connotes passivity, contributing to stereotypes that erase individuals by equating them to their situations: the grammatically active subject and the passive object are clearly divided. Such language is reproduced throughout the sector in practise and literature, and, although not of itself a core generator of racial dynamics, is emblematic of the racialized concepts which scaffold humanitarian ideologies.
In humanitarian agencies’ Codes of Conduct such differences are clear cut: rules and regulations are starkly different with regards to affected people and humanitarian professionals, with the official literature hinging on such vocabulary and the dynamics it entails. Although there is meaningful room for this differentiation – such as in terms of safeguarding – a failure to diverge whatsoever from this binary erases the reality of humanitarian action as something undertaken first and foremost by affected people themselves, when almost all humanitarian professionals are from affected communities. Such binaries propagate damaging and reductive racialized ideologies of white saviourism and fail to recognise the complex realities of humanitarian work, eschewing affected people into passive invisibilities and subtly upholding racial stereotypes.
3.2. Racial inequality in (mal)practice
The racialized ideological binaries inevitably translate from theory and linguistics into practise. The case of humanitarian intervention in Gulu, Uganda from 2006 exemplifies this. The town with a population of just over 100, 000 had over 500 NGOs operating within it. It was consequently flooded with white foreign humanitarian workers, most of whom were afforded gated and guarded private accommodation, 4x4s and, most importantly, immense salaries (frequently over $100 000 per annum) with Ugandan people performing the same or similar work receiving salaries which were small fractions of this sum. White humanitarian professionals were also afforded regional management or director positions with little or no experience. The intervention provoked reactions in regional press such as ‘What are all those NGOs doing in Gulu?’ as well as investigations alleging the organisations’ direct contribution to child labour and exploitation in the district. The ‘space’ identified by Baker and DuBois exists here physically in the form of keen lifestyle and resource disparity. It is a disparity which demonstrates the tangible manifestation of a propagation of racialized ideologies. A vocabulary of beneficiaries, help, aid, recipients etc. quickly becomes inadequate and distorted under this anthropological spotlight.
Catastrophically, the inequalities evidentiated in Gulu are emblematic of the worldwide humanitarian presence.
“When you are local, you’re not paid equally to international employees, and that determines where you will live, what type of car you use, how you are able to enhance your own security.”
Local staff are paid, on average, four times less than their international counterparts (nine times less in pacific countries) despite similar levels of education and experience – with international staff also often having extensive benefits including double the quantity of annual leave as well as accommodation, health insurance, additional training, psychosocial support and even children’s school fees paid for by their organisation. This standardised dual salary systems is cited as an ‘economic apartheid’ creating damaging brain drains in places of operation. Over 80% of local humanitarian workers said that their pay was not sufficient to meet their everyday needs. The dire practical manifestations of such disparate ideological binaries therefore fiercely perpetuate racist inequality as well as poverty and fragility itself. The effect this has on the safety of local professionals is of serious concern, and is reproduced by the recent rise of ‘Remote Management’ which, despite potential advantages (such as efficiency and cost reduction), effectively outsources personal risk to national staff.
These differences have life and death consequences. Worldwide, 80% of humanitarian personnel killed, kidnapped or seriously wounded are local staff (overwhelmingly people of colour) working in their country of nationality. This lethal inequality was identified in an OCHA publication as increasing alongside fatality in 2017, with improved risk sharing measures urgently needed.
3.3. The scales and silences of humanitarian racism
Racial and national inequalities are therefore formal systemic elements of the humanitarian industry. Not only that, however, oppressive racial dynamics are equally rife among humanitarian individuals. Importantly, the Australian wage gap study also reveals a culture of silence and taboo amongst staff surrounding their material inequalities. White international staff are cited as as being reluctant to discuss such issues due to personal vested interests, and quickly defensive when addressed, whereas national staff are generally unable to discuss them due to dependence on their organisations and the entrenched unequal hierarchies and power dynamics to which they are subjected. As well as silence as tacit complicity, innumerous testimonials evidence other overtly racist prejudice and behaviour of individual humanitarians. It is thus clear that racial power dynamics are at play on every scale of humanitarian sphere.
These inequalities created by humanitarian action are not exclusively the result of racial dynamics. Oppressive racial dynamics do however, play a fundamental role by feeding into such material realities. Racialized concepts of whiteness as western, superior and more valuable logically translates into the treatment of white westerners as just that – more valuable beings in the humanitarian organism who are provided greater wealth, resources, quality of life and safety.
4. RACIAL DYNAMICS OF CORPOREALIZATION AND DEVALUATION
The humanitarian sector’s dehumanising objectification and invisibilization of people of colour who have survived sexual violence contributes to oppressive racial constructs that position people of colour (particularly females) as inherently less human and valuable. The handling of sexual violence ‘scandals’ alongside a brief look at case studies of South Sudan and the DRC will provide context for this interpretation, demonstrating how decades of failure to carry out real inclusion, participation and centring of affected people is linked with a denial to adopt a ‘reflexive turn’ or meaningfully interrogate the racial power dynamics of humanitarian work from an anthropological perspective.
Recurrent corporealization of survivors of sexual violence, as well as devaluation in comparison to white counterparts, speaks to the subject-object binary that humanitarianism perpetuates. Both processes are linked, acting as methods of dehumanisation and playing key roles in contexts of institutional fragility.
4.1. The comparative valuation of violated bodies
A report from the Feinstein International Centre shows that following the high-profile subjugation of a group of female humanitarian aid workers to sexual violence in Juba, South Sudan, women who were international staff were immediately evacuated from the country and provided with relevant physical, psychosocial and emotional healthcare and put on indefinite sick leave. The Sudanese staff members however who had experienced the same thing, were left in Juba, with the report declaring it ‘unclear’ what support they were provided, if any, and suggesting that it is likely they would be expected to rely themselves on local health care services since resident staff have different packages. It concludes that national staff are ‘often disadvantaged in the care they receive’. An extreme reproduction of the material inequalities earlier exposed, this example of race dynamics in South Sudan demonstrates the dehumanisation and devaluation of black bodies, with white humanity and pain being comparatively centralised.
Such valuation is further evidentiated by the continued overt sexual exploitation exacted by the aid industry on affected people. With internal inquiries dating back to 2001 and over 40 major organisations implicated, the scale of systemic sexual violence is both astonishing, prolonged and well known by the sector itself. In a ‘Do No Harm’ roundtable on the issue, INGO representatives chose to emphasise the scandals’ impact on on the integrity and funding of their organisations, conceding that 5% of ‘complaints’ made by beneficiaries are relating to (highly unreported) sexual violence, but dismissing the complaints as being ‘often a way to vent’. The crude dismissal of voices of affected people on their experiences of sexual violence, alongside a focus on industry priorities demonstrates the extent of the devaluation taking place.
Affected people of colour lose when comparatively valued against the vested interests of white international workers and their organisations.
4.2. Spectacular Suffering: white narratives invisibilize Congolese humanities
Elisa García-Mingo’s anthropological paper ‘Cuando los cuerpos hablan’ draws from ethnographic research with survivors of sexual violence in the DRC and discusses how they are both regarded and treated by humanitarian actors as mere bodies, passive objects of violation with narratives heavily focused on the brutalisation of their physicality which invisibilises and disenfranchises them as individuals and actors with stakes and control in their own situation. Survivors’ own narratives are demonstrated as being distorted and written over by humanitarian actors who contribute to a relocating of testimonials’ power and truth in objectified interpretations focusing on physical aspects. García-Mingo attests that the humanitarian sphere ‘concibe los cuerpos de las mujeres como “cuerpos sociales”, en el sentido de que la guerra transforma los cuerpos individuales en cuerpos sociales.’ The study outlines how humanitarian organisations actively reproduce reductive and damaging stereotypes of Congolese people and the DRC as a country, as well as reinforcing inter and extra-sectorial colonial amnesia.
The systematic dehumanisation of Congolese women for the purpose of gaining funds and legitimising intervention has led to ‘mass-mediafication’ of human suffering, and its transformation into a spectacle, as evidenced by decades of humanitarian campaigning hinging on reductive racial narratives.
‘Este tipo de historia […] encaja en los estereotipos que circulan sobre la salvajería del África Negra […] Las agencias humanitarias y los productores de conocimiento han contribuido a elaborar una imagen problemática de la RDC que tiende a la simplificación y al reduccionismo.’
Such narratives are created for western audiences, and erase the identities and existences of their subjects by emphasising shocking corporal horror without including names, testimonials, voices or perspectives of the people themselves. Congolese women are thus corporealized by whitewashing their narratives which transforms them into the object of their bodies.
Such dehumanisation and devaluation fuels entrenchment of racist structures in humanitarian action through the commodification of black bodies and their suffering as objects of consumption for western audiences and donors.
5. ARCHITECTURE VERSUS BLUEPRINT
The metaphor of humanitarian architecture against its blueprint efficiently resumes the key challenges of anthropology in the sector. The case studies from contexts of institutional fragility in Uganda, DRC and South Sudan have helped demonstrate the existence of complex and oppressive racial structures throughout the profession. These are however, in stark contrast to the ‘blueprint’; the aspired functioning of the humanitarian organism. The blueprint consists of essential principles and focuses which supposedly lie at the core of humanitarian work. In practise however, an anthropological perspective on racial dynamics has shown this not to be so.
5.1. Key challenges for humanitarian action
The humanitarian sector’s perpetuation of racial inequality is in direct contradiction to the reasons for which it purports to exist. The core humanitarian principles, particularly those of humanity and impartiality, are actively impeded and turned on their head by these inequalities. The ultimate humanitarian mission of saving lives and a needs-based alleviation of human suffering is doomed so long as the sector’s own structures propagate oppression which causes suffering and costs the lives of affected people of colour. So long as humanitarian actors continue to manufacture the very poverty and fragility they aim to address, the challenge of dismantling their oppressive racial structures will remain absolutely paramount.
Contexts of institutional fragility are those of humanitarian action’s standard operation (presented in this paper’s case studies) and heighten these inequalities due to the increased vulnerability factors affecting their residents. Institutional weakness, corruption, or collapse provokes an environment highly conducive to the exploitation of unequal power dynamics. It is therefore essential the sector interrogates its racist structures and holds itself accountable, because it is uniquely positioned to impunatively exploit them.
The structural mechanisms afore-identified and explored, here collected, include:
> Enforcement of an ideology of binaries between employees and ‘beneficiaries’. (3.1.)
> Vastly different renumeration, benefits and promotion practices between white people and resident people of colour. (3.2.)
> Cultures of wilful silence on racial inequality. (3.3.)
> The devaluation of objectified bodies of colour in favour of white interests. (4.1.)
> The imposition of white narratives: dehumanising erasures. (4.2.)
The meaningful addressing and deconstructing of each of these structures pose key challenges to the humanitarian sector. Until it meets them, its core principles and focuses which pretend a prioritisation of humanity, will translate ineffectively, if at all, from paper to reality.
5.2. The central position of anthropology
As a field concerned by humans, cultures and societies, anthropology is excellently positioned to study, denounce, discuss and deconstruct what it once constructed: race. A concerted and continuous effort to sustain such a spotlight could contribute to mitigating the extent and proliferation of racial inequality by humanitarian actors. An anthropological focus could also illuminate the interaction of racial dynamics in complex social networks with those of nationality, class, gender identity, functionality, sexuality and other social axes. Such an sorely needed undertaking should challenge the perpetuation of inequality’s exploitation in fragile contexts of silence and taboo.
Perhaps through dismantling the humanitarian edifice and reconstructing a more levelled one in accordance with its raison d’être, it could for the first time somewhat resemble its paper counterpart.
The humanitarian propagation of structural racism around the world, both within and without of its own remit, is partly evidenced in this anthropological perspective on the sector’s racial dynamics and racialization. Formal and informal industry-wide standard racial inequalities serve to make white humanitarian actors into their own ‘beneficiaries’ whilst disadvantaging and endangering affected people of colour. At both individual and systemic levels these social dynamics are in play, and serve to transform humanitarianism into a mechanism of racial oppression.
The comparative valuing and centring of white voices, narratives, bodies and lives as superior upholds racist and colonial constructs, particularly in contexts of institutional ‘fragility’, the exploitation of which presents a key contemporary challenge to the humanitarian sector going forward, and the role of anthropology within.
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