An essay on the anthropology of humanitarian shame

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


Humanitarian pluralism

What are the cultural and historical forces and the physical dynamics that shape contemporary human displacements in the Middle East and the humanitarian efforts that follow?

In this essay, I want to focus on those providing aid, and specifically on the members of the ad-hoc, loosely organized group Refugees Welcome to the Arctic (RWTA) who are ordinary people seeking to right, in whatever small way they can, what Stephen O’Brien (UN Emergency Relief Coordinator) has coined “the humanitarian shame upon us all.” I am most interested not in exploring the effects and scale of these relief interventions—the everyday humanitarianism—or their unintended consequences, but rather in looking at these efforts from the perspective of the grassroots providers in Norway, far from the locus of the disaster.

I propose that as scholars of the human condition we can use our ethnographic approach, attentive to local voices and grounded interpretations, to closely follow the refugees along the different routes they take—from the camps and detention barracks, to points of transit, and then further. Following them as far as we can to investigate what the refugee crisis reveals about what I call ‘humanitarian pluralism’, a term that illuminates the spaces/places/distances and ambivalences that surround humanitarian situations and actions.

Humanitarian nurturance

Sometimes flashes from previous, long ago fieldwork revisit us and hone our thinking in unlikely places. For me, that flash from long ago took me back to the genocide survivors in the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem who I interviewed almost two decades ago. I was revisiting their memories of being fed and cared for when in February 2016 I arrived at one of the hotspots of the refugee “crisis”: the Arctic crossing between Russia and Norway.

Syrian refugees entering Norway above the Arctic Circle, through the border town of Kirkenes, are fleeing war, but they bring with them deep memories of moments of contentment, of times filled with family, delicious meals, and sociable neighborhoods. Geographically remote and climatically harsh as it may be, this part of Norway has a long history, and its people have deep memories of another time, in this case, of World War II, of homes burning, of starvation and cold. This is a place where recollecting history matters. When World War II broke out, Kirkenes was a community drawing its livelihood from the iron ore in the surrounding mountains. During the war, it became an important military garrison for the German army and was a staging area for the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941. In October 1944, the Red Army crossed the border and pushed the Germans out of Kirkenes, thus the people of Kirkenes consider the Soviets their liberators. As the Germans retreated, they used scorched earth tactics and burned Kirkenes to the ground.

And so it is that humanitarian practices in Arctic Norway are refined not only in response to the immediate social contexts and circumstances—refugees arriving in Kirkenes in the fall and winter of 2015-16—but also by traumatic historic moments. I use the term “humanitarianism” both literally—as the process through which aid is proffered—and as a practice through which to think about compassion. My argument about how a disaster happening in one part of the world changes lives somewhere on the other side of the globe references what I think is captured in the phrase humanitarian encounter (Nefissa Naguib, “Middle East Encounters 69 Degrees North Latitude: Syrian Refugees and Everyday Humanitarianism in the Arctic.” In International Journal of Middle East Studies 49/4 (2017), 645-60). Humanitarian encounter is a trope I developed to suggest both the geographical voyages of humanitarian disasters—the great distances, the abrupt juxtaposition of cultures and histories, and the many trails of relief—and the very concrete nature of encounters between the recipients of aid and the providers who are caught up in the super-charged terrains of emergencies.

RWTA tactics have a particular resonance in this context, and the focus of its activities—its demands that refugees are fed well and often—have brought issues of global humanitarian solidarity to the forefront. Food is conceived of broadly, not as simply providing necessary calories, but as an essential element in creating living and resting spaces that make other humanitarian activities possible. Members of the RWTA saw in food an experiment in new, collective forms of commitment to global issues. This was one of the defining features of RWTA—it was both a solidarity association and a laboratory for alternative humanitarian forms. Part of the humanitarian experiment was determining how to keep refugees reasonably clothed, fed, and cared for so far away from their homes.

Food, and the way in which it became a core issue for RWTA, is a medium for communicating an alternate vision, both for food humanitarian action and for refugee regulations—an approach based on solidarity. A regular volunteer reflected that, “I feel this is like throwing one Christmas dinner party after another.” Another noted, “We are like mums and dads preparing food for a sports event. You never know how many will turn up or what the score will be.”

In humanitarian thinking, food tells us something about human struggles and vulnerability. As a core issue of humanitarian relief, we see that food makes and unmakes humanity. Food, as an object, and eating, as an act, resonate with attitudes and emotions relating to human understanding of and feelings about self and others and their underlying interactions. Emmanuel Levinas speaks about passivity in our encounters with other people’s sufferings and offers affinity as an alternative.

By contrasting, as Levinas does, the choice of providing with not providing, he can guide contemporary humanitarian research on questions of responsibility, obligation, and social integrity. He encourages us to pay attention to the face-to-face encounter, since it is in the face-to-face that the face of despair becomes transformative. Central to almost all of Levinas’s works is the concept of nourishment, in one form or another. Nourishment is an eminently personal affair: it gives us a sense of who we are in the world, and providing nourishment for others is a specificity of human responsibility and repair (Emmanuel Levinas, Humanism of the Other, trans. Nidra Poller (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2003)).


I like to think that this Arctic experience—in all its bizarre juxtapositions of disquiet and tranquility, of people from “down there” and those “at the top of the map” as a Syrian mother of two put it, of food and want—has created a new and rich archive of memory, sorrow, and optimism. It gives us the opportunity to develop scholarship on what Sherry Ortner terms the “anthropology of morality and ethics” (Sherry Ortner, “Dark Anthropology and Its Others: Theory since the Eighties,” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6 (2016): 47–73. 59) and, as I witnessed the efforts by RWTA, this extends into an “anthropology of compassion.” Surely, the limits of compassion cut to the heart of our research and the politics of it all – “the humanitarian shame upon us all” – every time we read about how many die on their way to a safe harbor, and when individuals are met by high fences, armed police, and terrifying guard dogs. Our engagement as anthropologists is with the world and the human condition, and some of us are engaged in urgent research — with a “reasonable optimism”—tempered, certainly, with a certain realistic pessimism—but nevertheless based on a belief in the unquenchable human appetite for attachment to the world, imperfect and sometimes horrifying as it is.


Acknowledgments: Quotes from RWTA volunteers were recorded during research carried out in Kirkenes in the fall and winter of 2015 and into 2016. Research included participant observation and interviews, as well as informal encounters. I am immensely grateful to my interlocutors for the explanations and the thoughtful conversations to which I have been privy.

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