Of refugees and states: how vernacular humanitarianism draws together disparate scales of statecraft

This post is part of a series linked to the workshop “Assessing the Anthropology of Humanitarianism: Ethnography, Impact, Critique”.


“He [Pero] is a refugee person [izbegličko lice], we have to help him. Pero received a small flat consisting of a room, a kitchen and a small WC. An electric meter was installed in the flat and he only has to pay the electricity bill” (Zlatan, 29.8.2013).

This is how the clerk of the self-governmental unit of the Local Council (šef kancelarije Mesne Zajednice) of Donje Selo explained his institution’s support for Pero Krajišnik, a former Croatian refugee and a Serbian citizen since 2003. In 2008, Pero had begun to “fall through the cracks” of the non-encompassing scales and spaces of the Serbian welfare state – too young for a pension, apparently not sick enough for social aid (though treated in hospital for alcohol abuse), too-long-term unemployed for benefits. Instead, Pero became the subject of local community attention to ‘our refugee’. Vernacular humanitarianism (Brković 2017b), drawing from the displaced experiences of the 1990s, became the vehicle of care by Donje Selo’s actors on- and off-state (Benda-Beckmann and Benda-Beckmann 1998). Local Council supervisor Miro especially exercised his yearning for social and ethical citizenship by pushing for support. Villagers gave Pero food, beverages, work, firewood, and informal credit, and the Local Council provided free housing, subsidized electricity, and repeatedly selected Pero for public works. This made Pero visible as a “social case” and bridged the divide with the municipal welfare sector. By 2012, Pero’s neediness and deservingness were affirmed through the monthly payment of 6500 Dinar (55 EUR) by the municipal Centre for Social Work.

Tracing Pero’s extended case of local state care, I began wondering about the link between humanitarian reason and statecraft. The anthropology of the state has recently moved towards a relational approach analyzing how multiple modalities of statecraft are mediated by social relations (Thelen, Vetters, and Benda-Beckmann 2017; Thiemann, n.d.). In Europe, with its long-standing public-private dichotomies, the state is seen as public and defined in contradistinction to its supposedly private other – civil society, domestic space, or kinship (Weintraub 1997; Thelen, Thiemann, and Roth 2017). This divide is nonetheless bridged by concepts like embeddedness, belonging, and citizenship. Relational boundary work – the reproduction of hegemonic discourses – reinstates the divide (Thelen and Alber 2018).

Here, I focus on vernacular humanitarianism (Brković 2017b) as a bridging concept and an emerging modality of local statecraft. Andrew Gilbert (2016) has recently highlighted the entanglements of non-governmental refugee aid with local state politics . In 2002, seven years after the end of the war, Bosnian NGO activists convened meetings in a Local Council and convinced Councilors to distribute humanitarian aid irrespective of the internal ethnic divides of their community. Such practices complicated the public claims of NGO apoliticism, through which non-governmental organizations derived international funding by performing civil society “at the frontiers of the state” (Mikuš 2018). To maintain that positionality, pragmatic declarations of being “apolitical” constituted the boundary work that (re)produced the local (European) compartmentalization of social process and channeled widespread discontent with the neoliberalising state into ambivalent critiques of state corruption and yearnings for a functioning state (Jansen 2015; Brković 2017a). In Serbia, apoliticism even reorganized local democracy building. It legitimized USAID state funding of democratic, apolitical local community leaders who ironically turned into political elites, translating their enhanced personal capacities into symbolic capital by standing for election in their Local Council (Vetta 2009). In my fieldwork in rural central Serbia, I analyzed the boundary work of such apolitical Local Councils (Thiemann 2016, chaps 2–4).

Two decades after the Yugoslav civil wars, the refugee question in Serbia has long become decategorized as a field of political activity. As the humanitarian project cycle closed and international and local NGOs largely left, new forms of integration fostered hybrid “refugee-citizens” (for Tchad, Behrends 2018). Humanitarian reasons only resurfaced in Pero’s crisis situation (for Bosnian working class politics, see Gilbert). I argue that the local state is emergent at the (lack of) intersection between scales and spaces of statecraft. Scales of statecraft do not encompass each other like Russian dolls (Ferguson and Gupta 2002), and at the heart of local politics – at least in my view – stands the agency to realign the state scales and spaces for local state projects from below. Between 1995 and 2002, Donje Selo had provided some 50 refugees with food, shelter and asymmetrical integration, but then the local branch of the municipal refugee camp was closed by the Local Council President to pressure the municipality to cover the electricity bills that clogged the Council’s budget. By 2009, the largest chunks of the Council’s budget were still earmarked for infrastructural development and for sports and culture. While there remained a small space of discretion for “emergency expenditures”, welfare appeared a municipal and central state responsibility, a scale or two removed.

In the intervening years, the welfare state net drifted apart, as austerity-induced budget freezes hit an increasingly dispossessed population. In a “moral neoliberal” move, the local community was interpellated by the state to care (Muehlebach 2012). The vaguely defined and underfinanced duty of care led to conflict, deteriorating medical and social services, and humanitarian actions in which unstable networks of citizens collected emergency monies (Brković 2017a). But in Serbia, it surprisingly also led to a re-legitimization of the (since 1990) customary, “post-communist” Local Councils (Šević 2001; Vetta 2009; Vukelić 2009). By the mid-2000s, the Local Councils were revalued (Gadjanova 2006) and received new statutes (SMZ 2005).

The case study of Pero then illuminates the local mobilizing potential of yearnings for social citizenship. Refugeeness was appropriated by the Local Council as an apolitical claim for moral neoliberal care, but ironically (self-)addressed at the local state. Far from agonistically challenging the status quo, however, the ensuing humanitarian reason (Fassin 2012) drew together and “encompassed from below” disparate scales and spaces of statecraft. Echoing Yugoslav claims for popular solidarity, the emerging modality of apolitical statecraft highlighted the openness and in-betweeness of a local self-governmental process rife with ambivalent exclusions and inclusions.



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