The anthropology of humanitarianism: rethinking the role of the apolitical and private in humanitarian space

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


This essay briefly revisits the current critique of humanitarianism and discusses alternative approaches to public humanitarian space, to anthropologists-humanitarians, to political in humanitarianism, and to the anthropology of the suffering. I use the recuperation of the Chernobyl children from Belarus in their Italian host families as an example(1).

From Public to Private Humanitarian Space

A humanitarian space is usually understood as a refugee camp or a detention center. Its inhabitants are refugees and immigrants (suffering subjects) and international and local organizations (rescuing subjects). This understanding has been criticized in practice for creating unintended negative consequences of humanitarianism which ‘produce the misery of meaningless lives’ (Ticktin, 2014: 278). Can a family home, a private rather than public humanitarian space, become a more humane solution to humanitarian problems?

A family home consists of a host family (rescuing subjects) and invited guests (suffering subjects). The invited guests can stay for a limited period of time, on a repeated basis. While refugees in refugee camps are isolated from the local population, the invited children in family homes are welcomed by the society. In the case of Chernobyl, children travelled to Italy every year for one-two months until they turned 18 years old. Host families provided children with non-radioactive food, clothes, school stationary, medicine, and cash.

Being welcomed into a society impacts the consequences of humanitarianism. For some Chernobyl children, staying in a family home resulted in migration to Italy in later life, for education, work, or marriage. Some chose professions connected to Italy (i.e., interpreters) or were baptized as Catholics and still keep coming to Italy as grown-ups. A family home represents a space that starts with a short-term objective to alleviate suffering, but might later develop into a long-term project of sustaining human relations and impacting life choices.

Beyond the Anthropologist-Humanitarian

Ticktin asks: ‘[W]hat moral position does one occupy to critique a morally driven movement’? (2014: 277). While Ticktin supports the position of the anthropologist-pragmatic who uncovers ‘unintended or unexpected consequences of humanitarian interventions’ (2014: 278). This standpoint does not rescue anthropologists from their privilege of being academics from the Western institutions travelling to less privileged places and studying less privileged people.

There are still subject positions that are underrepresented in anthropology, such as an anthropologist-survivor, an anthropologist-auto-ethnographer, and an anthropologist-subaltern. In my own work, the anthropologist-survivor of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster has emerged from my personal experience of being recuperated in Italy in childhood. Not every survivor from a developing world can become an anthropologist though. How can we cultivate possibilities to become anthropologists for people who lived through a catastrophe, especially for those with a less privileged background?

Another kind of the anthropologist-survivor – the anthropologist-auto-ethnographer – has emerged in Shahram Khosravi’s (2000) work. Khosravi writes about his experience of illegal border crossing from Iran all the way to Sweden during his youth. Compared to the anthropologist-survivor who does not include their own traumatic experiences when writing research, the anthropologist-auto-ethnographer combines their personal experiences with experiences of other survivors in research writing.

The Apolitical in Humanitarianism

The denial of politics in humanitarianism has been shaped by the principles of neutrality and impartiality. Yet, humanitarianism has been criticized for its links with capitalism, militarism, and the self-serving interests of neoliberal governance. Recent research has pointed out that, rather than totally rejecting humanitarianism, one can rescue it. The question becomes not about what structure humanitarianism can reproduce (e.g., capitalism, militarism), but how it can challenge this structure.

Recuperation of the Chernobyl children from Belarus in Italy has been an apolitical enterprise. It was crucial to continue this project despite political turmoil linked to the post-communist transition, where both Russia and the Western powers tried to influence the country’s direction. Belarus chose to keep close ties with Russia. This resulted in a geopolitical conflict with the West from the mid-1990s. While state-to-state cooperation has frozen at the EU level, people-to-people ties have been flourishing between Belarus and Italy. Delinking from big politics allowed Italian (and other Western) charities to run people-to-people interactions for years.

The Italian language has become the third widely studied foreign language in Belarus, after English and German. In the contaminated areas, young people speak better Italian than English. This helped to develop Belarus-Italy cooperation at the state-to-state level, particularly in economic and cultural spheres. The question remains whether these initiatives can help solving the geopolitical conflict between Belarus and the EU and whether the relations established in the economic and cultural spheres can transform relations in political sphere (i.e., participatory citizenship).

Towards the Anthropology of the Good

The anthropology of humanitarianism has been read through the lenses of the anthropology of suffering (Robbins, 2013). Ticktin (2014) argues that humanitarianism can be “moved” to the anthropology of the good and become a new kind of moral anthropology. While Ticktin focuses primarily on morality and well-being, Robbins (2013) also looks at empathy, care, hope, and change. How can issues raised in this essay – a family home, underrepresented subject positions of anthropologists, and the apolitical – be understood through the anthropology of the good?

Empathy and care are related to ‘how people work to create the good in social relationships’ (Robbins, 2013: 457). A family home is a private humanitarian space where social relations are created, maintained, and transformed. Theories from the anthropology of humanitarianism such as biopower (Foucault, 1978) and “bare life” (Agamben, 1998) become less relevant to understand the dynamics of a family home. Other theories are needed to study this phenomenon.

The anthropology of the good also gives attention to ‘time, change, and hope’ (Robbins, 2013: 458). Placing the anthropology of humanitarianism into the anthropology of the good implies that the unintended consequences of humanitarianism are not always bad, and hence, the task of the anthropologist is to research the constitution of the good and bad in humanitarian projects rather than their contradiction. Acknowledging the human vulnerability and interdependency of all participants of humanitarianism may transform politics (geopolitics and participatory citizenship) in the long-run.


(1) The Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred in 1986 in the Soviet Union. The most affected country was Belarus (35 per cent of its population). 500,000 children were among the Chernobyl survivors in Belarus. Italy recuperated more than 460,000 Belarusian children during 1990-2015.


Agamben, G. (1998) Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Foucault, M. (1978) The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. New York: Vintage.

Khosravi, S. (2000) ‘The “Illegal” Traveller: An Auto‐Ethnography of Borders’, Social Anthropology 15(3): 321–334.

Robbins, J. (2013) ‘Beyond the Suffering Subject: Toward an Anthropology of the Good’, Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute 19: 447–462.

Ticktin, M. (2014) ‘Transnational Humanitarianism’, Annual Review of Anthropology 43: 273–289.

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