© G. Frazao

Navigating the blurred boundaries of aid. On the pitfalls of post-humanitarian encounters

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


The critique of humanitarian aid is not a prerogative of academic scholars. Aid workers know too well the limitations, risks and threats of large-scale aid work; they have questioned in detail the efficiency and legitimacy of formalized structures, the fiction of political neutrality, the competition between agencies, the lie of nonbusiness, and the production of differences and dependencies. Recent allegations of corruption, financing of the arms trade and even sex abuse have shown again how messy and imperfect the aid world can be. Humanitarian interventionism today seems to be at a breaking point. Against the backdrop of this critique and a still persisting perception of “crisis,” we observe the emergence of a new type of “aid culture”: Grassroots initiatives, faith-based encounters, activists’ movements – all generally non-formalized actors, many of which appear in an ad hoc manner in an attempt to respond to a lack of state presence in moments of emergency. These initiatives want to face the problems they still see and make a difference by striving towards a non-bureaucratic, nonprofit, non-hierarchical way of solidary, humane forms of social interaction.

In an attempt to offer some food for critical thinking for understanding the particularities of “vernacular humanitarianism” (Brkovic 2017), “solidarity humanitarianism” (Rozakou 2017) and the ‘neoliberal borderlands’ of help (Besteman 2016), I will use this blog to explore the pitfalls of encounters in a social setting in which helpers try to move beyond the logics, terms and temporalities of large-scale, formalized versions of humanitarian aid, and the recipients of help navigate a support structure that is both informalized and hyper-diversified. I will trace the trajectory of Rosemonde, a woman originally from Haiti, who I met while carrying out anthropological fieldwork on migratory trajectories in São Paulo, Brazil, and combine short interview samples with ethnographic impressions from the field.

When does a crisis end?

“We heard we could go to Brazil while we stayed in Santo Domingo [Dominican Republic]. Préval and Lula, they were friends. They said it on the radio; they would receive us here. We took a plane to Ecuador, then we came by bus. On the border we did some paper work with the polícia federal, but this was simple.”

Rosemonde reached the city in 2012, several months after a devastating earthquake had hit the town in which she lived. Many Haitians repeat the narrative of apolitical friendship between René Préval (former president of the Haitian Republic) and Luiz Lula da Silva President of Brazil at the time, which depicts Brazil as a caring friend in a context of a severe national crisis. Due to the special circumstances of Haitian migration, which was caused by environmental, not political reasons, Haitians would not have been eligible to asylum in Brazil. At the same time, however, Brazil was the leading partner in the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti and, therefore, there was a general acceptance that Haitian migrants should not be returned to their country of origin. Given the need to regularize the stay of these large numbers of recent arrivals, the National Immigration Council created a special ‘humanitarian visa’ for this exceptional case, which grants Haitians permanent residency along with the documentation of their first entry (Moulin and Thomaz 2016). After a first phase of Haitian migration to Brazil, during which Haitian men found temporary employment in São Paulo’s construction industry relatively easily, Haitian women took the same route – some following their male partners, kin or friends, others travelling on their own. Rosemonde was one of them. She stayed at the casa migrante, a public shelter organized by the Missão Paz, a Catholic mission, during the first two months after her arrival in São Paulo. Many migrants receive bureaucratic and legal support here after their arrival, and also continue to refer here later to access certain social services.

Rosemonde and I first met in the huge yard in front of this church. Together with perhaps a hundred other immigrants, she queued to get access to the recrutamento, job interviews with Brazilian companies that were coordinated by the mission. While I talked to Rosemonde, she proudly presented her carteira de trabalho, her work permit, which she had received due to her regularized stay. “I am not a refugee. We [Haitians] are immigrants. We are allowed to stay here and work. I just have to find something today,” she said with a smile. Although she had already failed several times at the recrutamento, Rosemonde was still optimistic, because Susana, one of the Brazilian volunteers who accompany the job recruitment at the mission, had told her that she would have a good chance because she was Haitian. Susana had explained to me on a different occasion: “Since the earthquake, many Brazilian families want to employ a Haitian girl in their houses as a baba [housekeeper]. They have seen this terrible news on the television; they want to help. Haitians are known to be, let’s say, gentle and reliable.”

On the day we met, the job of an empregada domestica, a housekeeper, was offered in Itaim Bibi, a very luxurious and well-securitized neighborhood in west São Paulo. While carrying out the interviews, Marta, a blond and very well dressed relatively young Brazilian employer, was absolutely fixed on recruiting a woman from Haiti. In an interview with her after the recruitment procedure, she told me:

“I definitely want a girl [menina] from Haiti. I know several Haitians who work in our neighborhood; these are very good people. I perceive this as a good occasion for offering some help after this horrible earthquake. There is not much we can do, but provide a job, this is something, yes? They often support big families at home. Haiti is a country that has always captured my interest. Fascinating! And these people [povo], they are so proud. I am sure, they don’t steal, they are not troublemakers. They don’t party once you have left the house … [laughs]. You can rely on them. They are very good workers, simple people, you see? Everybody says so. And they can talk French to our kids.” [Interview carried out in Portuguese]

Marta obviously pictured a cultural particularity attached to a stereotypical imagination of Rosemonde’s country of origin. During my fieldwork in Brazil, I often witnessed representations of Haiti, and Haitian migrants, that were apparently linked to a clichéd perception of the contemporary Haitian condition as being shaped by extreme poverty and vulnerability. Haitians are often portrayed as “simple” and “honest” peasants, who incorporate a culturally engrained “modest integrity.” At the same time, many Brazilians sympathize with Haiti’s legacy as a post-slavery nation. According to this understanding, Brazil, an “emerging donor,” should demonstrate its humanitarian attitude especially towards Haiti, the first free Black nation in the world. And Marta, the potential employer, rides this wave of caring power.

When I accompanied Rosemonde during her job interview with Marta, however, I realized that she probably did not fulfill the employer’s expectations. Dressed in a tight black skirt and a shiny red blouse, she answered the employer’s questions in a rather strict manner, without hesitation, in a clearly articulated Portuguese and she also raised her own expectations regarding her working conditions. In the end, a younger Congolese woman got the job. Later, when Rosemonde stood together with me and some other women who shared their disappointment, Susana, the Brazilian volunteer joined us and tried to comfort them. “Maybe you are too self-confident [auto-confiante],” she said to Rosemonde with a wink. “My friend [amiga]! Try not to say too much the next time. Play the victim, not the rebel!” Although the women laughed, I had the impression that they clearly felt the paradoxes of a Haitian labelling that served both the image of the deserving victim and the independent and somehow scary stranger.

A week later, when Rosemonde and I met again in front of the Mission, she talked at length about her growing financial problems, her debts to her friends and her frustration. In these days, she thought constantly about returning to Haiti and how to purchase the flight ticket.

“I have saved $ 100, but it’s not enough. […] It’s so strange here in Brazil, everybody wants to help, they are kind, they approach you, they tell you this and that. But then, sometimes they say I am not a refugiado verdadeiro [true refugee]. That’s what they say. They prefer helping people like Burundians, Congolese or people from Afghanistan. Somehow, Haitians don’t correspond. I’m fed up with this confusion.”

Conclusion: what comes after humanitarian interventionism?

On a structural level, Rosemonde’s encounters did not take place in settings of humanitarian assistance. The different individuals and institutions she got in touch with addressed her on different grounds, and the encounters were removed in time and place from the original humanitarian crisis, the earthquake that happened five years previously. However, even after all these years, Rosemonde was continuously classified along moral categories which divide the landscape of potential aid beneficiaries into powerful binaries, such as refugee-immigrant, victim-rebel, and true and false. Susana, the volunteer, and Marta, the potential employer, are only two actors belonging to the large field of post-humanitarian aid that shapes the perception of mobile populations, who live in the city with different needs and expectations.

The notion of post-humanitarianism, I argue, captures not only the a posteriori of a given ‘emergency’ in spatial or institutional settings that follow a given crisis situation. Rather, multiple individuals, initiatives and even organizations intend to move beyond or out of the ‘aid box,’ while they simultaneously orient their actions towards a moral grammar that has previously been produced in humanitarian settings. In the case illuminated here, categories and hierarchies of need are filled with national, racialized and gendered stereotypes and the ‘deserving’ recipient of aid is distinguished from other others who are classified as potentially uncomfortable or dangerous.


Besteman, Catherine (2016) Making Refuge. Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewinston, Maine. Durham, London: Duke UP.

Brkovic, Carna (2017) Introduction: Vernacular #Humanitarianisms. Thematic thread at Allegra.lab, online since September 25, 2017. http://allegralaboratory.net/vernacular-humanitarianisms/

Rozakou, Katerina (2017): Solidarity #humanitarianism: The blurred boundaries of humanitarianism in Greece, online since September 27, 2017. http://allegralaboratory.net/solidarity-humanitarianism/

Carolina Moulin & Diana Thomaz (2016) The tactical politics of ‘humanitarian’ immigration: negotiating stasis, enacting mobility. Citizenship Studies, 20 (5): 595-609.


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