Anne-Meike Fechter: Helping Distant Strangers? Proximity and Distance in Everyday Humanitarianism

Helping Distant Strangers?
Proximity and Distance in Everyday Humanitarianism

Anne-Meike Fechter, Reader in Anthropology, University of Sussex


An advertisement for the US-American Peace Corps

Public imagination has often prioritised distance—and the differences that come with it—as a driving factor for humanitarianism. The notion of distance, physical and social, looms large in how some organisations, philosophers and ordinary people construct responsibilities towards others. An advertisement for the US-American Peace Corps once confidently declared that ‘the difference between a career and a purpose is about 8,000 miles’, asserting that service is most meaningful undertaken far away from home.  Geographical distance here invites action to support others that is more significant than what could be achieved in a mundane career in people’s home countries, doing one’s paid work. 

Notions of humanitarianism are shot through with references to distance, in the form of geographical scale. This is prominently embodied in the figure of the ‘distant stranger’, a trope which is ubiquitous and simplistic in equal measure. What role does distance play exactly for people’s desire to intervene in the lives of others? What compels them to support neighbours, or rather those living across nation states and continents? Looking at forms of everyday humanitarianism, that is, people who set up their own, privately funded aid projects, the centrality of distance becomes more uncertain. Humanitarian distance—between those offering support, and those receiving it—emerges as something that is not fixed and far away, but fluid and flexible. Rather than distance being central to supporting others, everyday humanitarians make and use their own scales, sliding from the geographically far away, which may instigate humanitarian action in the first place, to proximity, and back again.

When I asked everyday humanitarians from the Global North who were active in Cambodia why they had chosen to intervene abroad rather than at home, a common response was efficacy—they felt that the needs there were greater, but also that they could make ‘a bigger difference’ to people’s lives there. At the same time, a taste for travel and adventure that accompanied their activities was also evident—a form of ‘helping plus’, as one respondent described it, and liking the ‘colour and the chaos’ which embellished their lives abroad.

At the same time, being in close proximity to poverty brought its own challenges. Coming face-to-face with extreme poverty on their ways around town, such as mothers holding up malnourished babies to passers-by on pavements, children cleaning car windows in dense traffic, or landmine victims moving around on repurposed trolleys. Being close to poverty meant that some everyday humanitarians developed scripts how to deal with certain situations, such as what to do in response to a person begging. The constant calculations of what was the appropriate course of action was not what they had bargained for among those searching for the colourful difference that they also enjoyed. The physical proximity to poverty was also seen as a moral good, however. Being ‘close to the people’ that they were supporting, sharing the kinds of food, shopping at traditional markets, using local transport, and living in conditions not as removed as privileged Cambodians might do, was considered appropriate. It might even foster the impact they could have, by sharing an understanding of people’s living conditions. Sometimes however, people felt there was a limit to how much they could bear to engage with at close range, and explained that they had to actively ‘keep things at bay’ and mentally remove themselves from constant witnessing of inequalities.

Indeed, among some everyday humanitarians, the insight grew that despite their best efforts, they could not escape being part of what some called a ‘parallel society’. They felt uncomfortable living alongside—but not equally affected by—a society characterised by corruption, injustice, and disregard for human rights, while they were able to enjoy a relatively privileged lifestyle if they wanted to. Some decided that the right way forward was not to tolerate such proximity to poverty, but rather, putting distance between themselves and Cambodians in need. For some, this translated into a decision to take responsibility at home. One couple returned to their home in the Netherlands to adopt a child locally; one took a job back in Australia to support asylum-seekers there; and another decided that rather than working overseas, setting up an organic farm in the UK was a more sustainable way forward to foster social change.

Unpacking these movements and the scale-making that underpins them, shows how humanitarian distance is not fixed, but dynamic and flexible. Those who intervene outside of their country of origin can be attracted to help in faraway places; once there, they move between immersing themselves, and withdrawing when it becomes overwhelming. As practitioners are using such sliding scales, humanitarian distance emerges not as fixed, but segmented into mobile, interlocking and dynamic scales, which they deploy as it suits their purpose. People make their own scales of proximity and distance, to guide and make sense of their humanitarian actions. Such evidence unsettles conventional tropes of ‘distant strangers’ as the archetypical humanitarian object. It invites a more nuanced understanding of the interplay between proximity and distance, and how ordinary citizens may use such scales to imagine, justify or abandon their humanitarian practice.

This blog post is based on a presentation at the AHN EASA 2020 Panel “Locating the Humanitarian Impulse: Questions of Scale and Space” (Session I – P005a – 21 July 2020, 14:00 – 15:45). The commentary on the presentation and panel session by Nell Gabiam can be read here.

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