Teaching humanitarianism in Lebanon, Turkey, and Italy

In an attempt to reflect on some lectures I have delivered on humanitarianism in Lebanese, Turkish, and Italian universities over the last three years, I would like to advance a few reflections on the “public afterlife” of my experience of teaching, the language I used in those classes, and the response I received from different cohorts of students. Delving into the afterlife of my humanitarianism classes allows me to tease out some of the current epistemological challenges of my primary area of studies and underscore the very importance of de-centring the humanitarian discourse.

Humanitarianism was born from the will to assist crisis-stricken populations and alleviate their suffering, thus humanitarian intervention has historically been a symptom that states are not doing too well. As such, speaking of and teaching humanitarianism cannot produce the same effects everywhere, especially when the framework used to explain theories and concepts is not culturally customised, but is rather drawn on the one developed in British and Northern American universities and institutions.

The act of teaching humanitarian ideologies, policies, and practices is thus necessarily an act of social positioning. It is about positioning the social and public Self as a teacher, and it is about the teacher presupposing the social positioning of her own audience.

More generally, in order to teach, we all rely on what Pierre Bourdieu used to define as “linguistic capital”, the set of linguistic capabilities, ways of expressing oneself, and embracement of normative terminologies which characterise everyone’s speech. In that sense, we are all linguistically political when we choose a term at the expense of another one.

As lecturers in class we own the biggest linguistic and epistemic power: But is the language I use legitimate in response to different students and backgrounds? I am not a native English speaker myself, but having received my postgraduate education in humanitarianism in an Australian university, English is my mother tongue for teaching humanitarianism. This became a factor which is worth reflecting on, especially when I delivered lectures in countries diversely familiar with the English language, and where English is not the official language.

What shapes the cultural pattern of students across Lebanon, Turkey, and Italy is certainly not their very national origin, but I here refer to an overarching cultural framing of a multiplicity of backgrounds that come to forming an identifiable “academic culture” within different countries. It is in this sense that I will now compare my teaching experience in Lebanon, Turkey, and Italy.

In this post, my primary goal is to explain how this long established theoretical framework, that increasingly populates academic books and media outlets, does not meet its listeners identically. I believe teaching humanitarianism particularly tests the students’ cultural dispositions – dually meant as both habitus and cultural capital – with respect to teaching something like physical quantum theory or algorithms. This is not because quanta and algorithms are bereft of imperial history: Let’s think of the way such scientific studies emerged, of the social classes in which they became objects of study, and the way these studies were funded and even traded worldwide. Rather, what I mean is that speaking humanitarianism overtly puts down the veils of the relationships between Others, breaks down the Other and the Self, demolishes certainties between the Self and the Other through the exploration of the necessarily dialogic act of assistance provision and aid reception.

Likewise, teaching exposes the lecturer to multiple encounters at once. The encounter with the students first – the immediate interlocutors of the teaching frame. Second, the encounter with one’s own society at large, which may identify with a single geographic space or more than one – as the teacher, by conveying knowledge and, hopefully, triggering critical stimuli, comes with an experiential baggage accumulated in one or more societies that historically shape the teacher’s way of thinking, speaking, and building the teacher-student encounter. Third, it is also an encounter with the multiple societies of the others, that is all of the societies “summarised” into the intellectual presence of each student in class.

It is exactly this collective moment, made of several encounters at once, that characterises the ways in which humanitarianism is both individually thought and culturally nuanced.

In light of this, each academic culture frames displacement, migration, and humanitarian action differently. The latter are undoubtedly tied up to broader politics and social processes which often intertwine, but each of them is differently thought and responded to in Lebanon, Turkey, and Italy. I experienced solipsism when I lectured in Turkey, as I realised how unfamiliar the students were with my Anglo-centric way of explaining humanitarianism-related topics. The most responsive to my lectures were the Lebanese students, who seemed to be highly familiar with the catastrophe discourse. This therefore led me to further reflections, as the fact that Lebanon has historically been more exposed to crisis than Italy and Turkey did not sound entirely convincing to me. There are, in fact, two factors that contribute to the students’ response to humanitarianism delivered in the form of an academic framework: The first is academic literature, and the second is postcoloniality – which, surely, to some extent, underlies the former. In fact, the Anglo-centric character of the humanitarianism framework – as it is globally discussed nowadays – is fully reflected in the academic literature which is delivered to students. Neither literature nor students themselves are bereft of political history.

Lebanon, having become home to several refugee groups, has often been studied in international academia in the context of the catastrophe discourse. Thus, humanitarianism has framed a large part of local learning about external interventions, especially since the years of the 1948 Palestinian Nakba. In this vein, even local infrastructures and local populations in Lebanon have drawn greater academic attention when turning into humanitarian spaces, host communities, displaced people, or migrants. Contrarily, Turkey is a country where catastrophe does not need to be there to justify tough security, anti-democratic measures, and political states of exception. Therefore, Turkish scholars have set up a mostly legal and policy-oriented framework for discussing refugee influxes and humanitarian practices,. The catastrophe narrative neither needs to strengthen a state which is already centralised and has rather enhanced domestic accountability by carefully gate-keeping refugee-populated areas, international support and involvement in domestic humanitarian affairs. In other words, in Turkey refugee influxes have been studied as a means to capture domestic changes, e.g. in market, employment, and housing. In Lebanon, however, the very goal of humanitarian research has long since revolved around refugees and NGOs themselves. Scholars of humanitarianism now increasingly address Lebanese people, governance, and services in light of the Syrian crisis. However, local people and services are still approached in the light of their response to crisis and given their relationship with refugee-related issues. In Italy, humanitarianism-related issues start stimulating academic curiosity in the wake of the Kosovo war in 1999, the 2001 western intervention in Afghanistan, and more recently, the migration flows from African, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries. Often unfamiliar with the anglo-centric ways of setting and naming the humanitarian framework, Italian students increasingly find themselves in the need to manage a foreign language and tackle diverse conceptual universes (mainly published in English) before encountering humanitarianism in their own language and academic culture. It is indeed meaningful that domestic emergency crises and humanitarian management – such as the earthquakes in central Italy– have primarily been tackled through the lens of disaster and risk reduction.

The postcolonial character of Lebanon vis-à-vis Turkey and Italy also sets up different student responses to learning humanitarianism in class today.

The French colonial mandate in Lebanon between 1920 and 1943 consistently shapes today’s student response to humanitarianism; familiar with postcolonial governance and catastrophisation as a way of understanding the current humanitarian discourse, my Lebanese students seemed to rely on categories of thinking which easily suit the humanitarian framework. The colonial mandate and the intervention of international assistance providers to back domestic parties and local communities gradually overshadowed the pre-existing thick network of local community services in academic literature. The present literal inundation of international crisis managers in Lebanon makes local students suitable interlocutors on the humanitarian mainstream narrative as well as its critiques.

In Turkey, humanitarianism has been acquiring international colours way before the beginning of the Syrian refugee influxes and the latest intervention of several humanitarian agencies. The 1915 Armenian genocide and deportations from Ottoman Turkey prompted the first cases of foreign charitable assistance in the region, in addition to the international refugee regime set up to deal with the massive displacement caused by the First World War. Overall, Ottoman authorities were reluctant to accept unconditional international assistance because they did not want to see their political power undermined. Traditionally decentralised and domestically managed, humanitarian services to forced migrants during the Ottoman Empire were mostly delegated to local communities, making the contemporary humanitarian approach to crisis and assistance unsuitable in the Turkish context. Nevertheless, while the Turkish government has already been pursuing a politics of intervention in Somalia since 2011, the recent intervention of international humanitarian agencies inside Turkey in response to the Syrian crisis is unprecedented.

Italy seemingly looks to humanitarianism with an ambiguous gaze. Past colonial governors in the Horn of Africa, and historically imbued with the Christian Catholic culture of assistance to the vulnerable, Italian students responded to my humanitarianism classes with the curiosity of the potential missionary. Approaching the catastrophe discourse to understand how new migration flows are shaping politics and ethics in the Mediterranean doorway, Italian students tended to associate humanitarianism either with human rights – which would require several political steps ahead – or with philanthropic charity. Italian students were rather inspired by the future possibility of doing good, and focussed on humanitarian sentimentalism, such as the pros and cons of compassion: Humanitarian governmentality, managerialism, donorship, and bureaucracy seemed to scarcely inhabit their humanitarian imaginary.

These reflections of mine also suggest that alternative humanitarianisms should be taught at school to unlearn their “alternative” – that is non-mainstream – character. This can be done if students are also allowed to develop contents and critical consciousness in their first language too. Skipping these stages leads to the imposition of one among many possible understandings of – and ways of teaching – humanitarianism. Individual responses, cultural patterns, ideologies, and material circumstances will always colour humanitarianism differently. The teacher’s challenge should be expanding the students’ gaze across political histories, human behaviours and moral expectations, while conveying one’s own identity peacefully. This is certainly not an easy job.

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