Nell Gabiam’s Reflections on the Papers Presented at Session I, AHN EASA 2020

Nell Gabiam

Associate Professor of Anthropology and Political Science

Iowa State University


Panel: Locating the Humanitarian Impulse: Questions of Scale and Space

Session I – P005a – 21 July 2020, 14:00 – 15:45

Main Question: Do particular scales and spaces affect the extent to which humanitarian actors feel a sense of belonging and responsibility to respond?


Anne-Meike Fechter: “Helping Distant Strangers?: Proximity and Distance in Humanitarian Responsibility

Katriina Huttunen: “Making of Scientific-humanitarian-Touristic Subjectivities: The Case of a Touristic Vaccine Trial in West Africa”

Nauja Kleist: “Somali Diaspora Humanitarianism and Humanitarian Infrastructure: Entangled Spaces and Scales in Vernacular Crisis Relief

Alice Robinson: “Precarious Humanitarians: The Creativity and Risk of Local NGO Work in South Sudan

I/ Contribution of the Panel and Papers

The EASA panel, Locating the Humanitarian Impulse: Questions of Scale and Space took place virtually in three different sessions on July 21, 22, and 24. The July 21 session, for which I served as discussant, asked us to consider the following question: Do particular scales and spaces affect the extent to which humanitarian actors feel a sense of belonging and responsibility to respond? 

The presenters, Anne-Meike Fechter, Katrina Huttunen, Nauja Kleist, and Alice Robinson all did a great job of moving academic debates about the purpose and effects of humanitarianism beyond the dichotomy of aid provider versus aid recipient and the power imbalance that characterises this dichotomy. While this dichotomy is still relevant, the presenters’ papers contribute to widening the field of inquiry about humanitarianism through their attention to scale. Through the presenters’ scalar analysis, issues of class, race, ethnicity, national belonging, colonial legacies, and mobility were explicitly brought into their reflections on the humanitarian impulse.

A major theme that ran through all of the presentation was that of distance versus proximity, a theme that needs be understood not just geographically but, as the presentations demonstrate, also politically, culturally, and racially. The presenters also touched on other important themes such as the diversity and hierarchies that characterise the spectrum of humanitarian actors. Overall, they illustrated how attention to scale results in a flexible, ‘elastic,’ multi-dimensional frame that is particularly effective in capturing the multiplicity of factors that influence the humanitarian impulse and its manifestation on the ground.

Distance vs. Proximity

In her presentation, Anne-Meike Fechter analysed the figure of the distant stranger, a figure that is ubiquitous in the literature on humanitarianism and that we tend to take for granted. She focused on what happens when the geographically distant humanitarian actor, following the humanitarian impulse, gets close and sometimes too close for their own comfort to this distant stranger. She pointed out that distance plays a major role in compelling Westerners to engage in humanitarian action in Cambodia. At the same time, once these humanitarian actors are in Cambodia, their proximity to humanitarian issues and subjects has effects, including the need for some of these actors to further change their scale of engagement. Some humanitarian actors decide to reduce their proximity to those whose suffering they seek to alleviate or even return to Europe, thus re-establishing the category of the distant stranger. These decisions may be due to an inability to cope with proximity to human suffering in the form of daily exposure to extreme social inequality in Cambodia or the inability to live in the community in which one is trying to alleviate suffering and have to witness this suffering on a daily basis. For other Western humanitarian actors, though, proximity to Cambodia’s humanitarian context produces a positive sense of separation from their lives back home which were stifling in some respect, whereas working in Cambodia opens up possibilities to reinvent themselves or to find new forms of freedom.

In sum, the motivation for acting on the humanitarian impulse, distancing oneself from this impulse, or turning away from it completely is in part a matter of scale; where one is situated on the spectrum of distance from–proximity to a particular humanitarian crisis. It is important to point out here that distance and proximity should not be understood solely from a geographical perspective, but also in terms of the global hierarchies/inequalities that contribute to the suffering that one is trying to alleviate. Fechter’s paper compels us to question the category of the  “distant stranger”, to think about whether it is misguided or, at the very least, more complex and more fluid than we make it to be.

Katriina’s Huttunen’s presentation continued with the theme of distance-proximity by giving us a close up view of a humanitarian project that entailed hundreds of Finnish citizens travelling to Benin to take part in a vaccine trial aiming to wipe out a certain form of diarrhea in West Africa. Huttunen pointed out that this vaccine trial appears to overturn some of the power dichotomies that are found in the medical and pharmaceutical industries: volunteers from the Global North are donating their bodies for the development of a vaccine that will primarily benefit individuals in the Global South. However, she also notes that pre-existing power dichotomies are very much present in the vaccine trial and can be read along the axis of distance versus proximity. There is a geographical/historical/political distancing on the part of the Finnish participants in the vaccine trial. For example, Finland’s distance from the main European former slave trading and colonial powers and, thus, from the historical project of colonialism and slavery, becomes an excuse for the Finnish participants to elide reflection on colonial legacies as well as the legacy of white supremacy in Africa, and the extent to which these participants might be perpetuating such legacies, despite their good intentions (that is, leading to the creation of a vaccine). Huttunen’s presentation compels us to think about the kinds of insights we would we get if these Finnish participants were more self-reflective about their whiteness, their European-ness, and their positionality in global hierarchies of power. It compels us to think about European and postcolonial relations and white supremacy outside of the frame of the main European colonial powers.

Nauja Kleist’s presentation examined mobilisation on the part of the Somali diaspora to address humanitarian issues affecting Somalians in Somalia. Kleist’s presentation moves us away from the prototypical figure of the distant stranger to a more complex one: we are faced with a humanitarian context where the humanitarian actors may be geographically distant but are ethnically close. One immediate question this raises is the extent to which this duality disturbs/reshapes the figure of the distant stranger. At a broader level, Kleist’s presentation offers a methodological perspective for exploring the humanitarian impulse at the diasporic scale. Looking at humanitarianism from a diasporic scale takes us away from dominant forms of humanitarian intervention and the kinds of relationship that characterise them. The diasporic humanitarian interventions covered by Kleist are not predicated on movement to the epicentre of crisis and are not led by formal humanitarian entities such as international NGOs. For example, Somali humanitarian actors are often based in Sweden but, through their local mosques in Sweden (which are part of a larger religious network linking Somalia and Sweden), or clan networks that connect Sweden to the Somali homeland, they are able to get aid to Somalis in Somalia. Even a very intimate scale such as that of the family can be a space of intervention due to the diasporic ties and networks of material exchange that link Somalis in Sweden to Somalis in Somalia.

The spectrum of distance-proximity is, again, relevant here and brings up methodological questions. The Somali humanitarian actors based in Sweden might not necessarily have to move in order to participate in humanitarian action in Somalia while the aid that at is the heart of this action circulates across kin and other networks. As Kleist points out, from an anthropological perspective, the effects of this aid would be hard to fully measure without physically traveling to Somalia and engaging in ethnographic fieldwork there with the presumed beneficiaries of this aid. Such a task would be difficult given that Somalia continues to be affected by conflict and not easily accessible. Kleist offer some suggestions for effectively carrying out ethnographic fieldwork focusing on diasporic forms of humanitarian action. First, she encourages collective research, which would entail research collaboration with individuals located along the transnational circuit of diasporic Somali humanitarian aid. She also suggests framing research on diasporic humanitarianism through the concept of humanitarian infrastructure, following anthropologist Brian Larkin’s definition of infrastructure as “matter that enables the movement of other matter.”

One implication of such suggestions is that fieldwork focusing on humanitarian action within a diasporic context is not necessarily about the anthropologist unilaterally conquering distance or transcending the scale of the fieldwork but, in a sense, accepting both the scale and distance and engaging in collaborations along the humanitarian infrastructure. Finally, the methodological framework that emerges from Kleist’s presentation goes beyond the context of fieldwork on diasporic humanitarianism. Its call to collaborate from a distance is also relevant to fieldwork in the current moment, one in which we are faced with a global pandemic and the need to maintain social distance. Finally, Kleist’s focus on collaboration with those who are located along the aid circuit might contribute to ethical attempts to mitigate the unequal power relations within which anthropological fieldwork is embedded.

Alice Robinson’ s presentation highlighted precariousness, not in relation to aid recipients, but in relation to NGOs—in this case, local NGOs in the Global South. This focus sheds light on the hierarchies that regulate global humanitarian action. Again, the distance-proximity spectrum is relevant here. The local NGOs that Robinson focused on based in South Sudan, are distant from centres of humanitarian power such as the UN and affiliated international organisations through which most of the humanitarian funding is dispersed. This distance limits their ability to live up to the moral ideals through which they justify their work. These NGOs are concurrently limited by the proximity of their members to family and kin networks who make demands in the name of precariousness and their proximity to the humanitarian crisis itself. Proximity to family and kin results in demands that exceed the NGO’s capacity. Proximity to the crisis, for its part, increases the vulnerability of local humanitarian actors. Unlike their international counterparts, local NGOs are limited in terms of their ability to distance themselves from the crisis when facing situations of life and death. Leaving is not necessarily an option. One question that emerges from Robinson’s presentation, which focused on the negative consequences of local NGOs’ positionality in the field of humanitarian actions, is whether there might be some advantages for local NGOs in terms of being close to the crisis or distant from powerful humanitarian actors.

As shown in all the papers that were presented, the scale of intervention conceived in terms of either distance or proximity to the humanitarian crisis raises moral questions and dilemmas for humanitarian actors. What about us, the anthropologists who study these humanitarian interventions? What are some of the challenges or moral dilemmas that are highlighted when we think about our fieldwork in terms of scale, in terms of distance or proximity to the humanitarian interventions that are the focus of our fieldwork? I refer here to distance/proximity of the anthropologist to the providers as well as purported beneficiaries of humanitarian aid; to the regional, national or cultural context within which humanitarian intervention is taking place; and the power hierarchies at the root of particular humanitarian crises or those that are perpetuated through the practice of humanitarianism. These questions might be worth addressing in a future panel.

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