Anthropology of humanitarianism: between new vocabulary and critique

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


Emergent humanitarian forms of life

Sixteen-year old Marija was a money-keeper during one humanitarian action organized in her high school in a small town in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In many former Yugoslav countries, the words “humanitarian action” (humanitarna akcija) refer to a specific local practice of raising aid and saving lives. In this case, humanitarian action meant that high school pupils gave a few Euros to Marija to raise money for medical treatment abroad. Marija did not make a list of givers and she did not make note of how much each student gave, because, as she said, “everyone gave as much as they could, and making a list would create unequals”. Marija and her classmates raised one hundred and fifty Euros, which the school officials transferred to the personal bank account of the father for whose son the humanitarian action was organized. It was only then that Marija found out the money was raised for a five-year old boy whose mother was a teacher in another high school. Before that, Marija thought that the sick child was a teenager, a fellow pupil. This could have happened because Marija misunderstood what her school director said when she asked Marija to collect money for a sick child.

Humanitarian actions first appeared after the fall of the socialist state as welfare systems in former Yugoslav countries underwent a profound transformation. In addition to raising small amounts from pupils in schools, humanitarian actions often include concerts, sport games, art auctions, humanitarian telephone donation lines – usually organized by friends and family of the person in need. They also often include a direct (and substantial) financial humanitarian donation from the municipal government and/or another state institution.

How can we understand this practice of raising money from hundreds of people and institutions to help a sick person access medical treatment abroad? Was this an instance of charity? Philanthropy? Humanitarianism? If we want to analyze it anthropologically, should we approach it as a practice that speaks about citizenship and welfare? Activism and engagement? New sort of public and moral communities?

There is no single answer to this question because there is simply no clear conceptual box in which post-Yugoslav “humanitarian actions” fit. This practice of giving aid and saving lives of people close to you perhaps presents an “emergent form of life”, here understood as an ethnographic fact “that life is outrunning the pedagogies in which we have been trained” (Fischer 2003: 456). Humanitarian actions are a post-Yugoslav experiment that blurs the boundaries between humanitarianism and welfare.

Similar small-scale experiments with humanitarian-cum-welfare support mushroomed throughout Europe in the last years as a response to the so-called long summer of migration. However, they have been taking shape longer – at least since “the collapse of the Mediterranean border regime in the wake of the Arab Spring 2011 and the ensuing controversies around issues such as the perceived partiality of the refugee distribution mechanism of the Dublin system…” (Hess and Kasparek 2017: 47). These experiments in giving and helping are very diverse, organized through the federal and regional state agencies, municipalities, or private companies, humanitarian organizations, as well as through self-managed neighborhood-based citizens’ associations and grassroots networks of volunteers. Some of these practices include helping refugees with administration, paperwork, and general orientation in the host society; professional and volunteer-provided language classes; kitchen projects where volunteers and refugees cook together; projects of living communally in shared residential spaces; and so forth (e.g. Hamman and Karakayali 2016). Are these emergent forms of life a topic for an anthropology of humanitarianism?

Large-scale international humanitarianism and anthropological critique

Anthropology of humanitarianism is mostly focused on the practice of transnational organizations of giving aid from the West to the “Rest” and saving lives across the globe. When anthropologists speak and write about humanitarianism, we usually have in mind global actors who strive to practice neutrality and impartiality when they help in the name of universal humanity – e.g. we study organizations such as MSF, Red Cross, UNICEF, Oxfam, Care, World Vision, and so on. This focus has generated a large and thriving body of critical analysis. Ethnographic research has demonstrated that, in practice, humanitarian organizations often fail to follow the foundational assumption of humanitarianism – that all lives are equal and that people should be helped regardless of their gender, age, nationality, race, or class (Fassin 2007). Critical anthropological approaches demonstrate that humanitarianism presents a new form of governmentality that operates on a global scale (De Lauri 2016). It explains why displaced people seem to be continually ungrateful to those who help them and why they describe substantial humanitarian aid as “nothing” (Dunn 2018). And so forth.

Important social critique that anthropology has articulated about humanitarianism has been made possible by the fact that most people know what it is that we talk about when we talk about humanitarianism. Large-scale international humanitarianism is a “migrant sovereignty” – a body of institutions, knowledge, and practice that move from crisis to crisis, changing very little as they move across the world (Pandolfi 2003: 369). Due to its global reach and importance, this form of humanitarianism is well-known. The large-scale international humanitarianism has been in the focus of anthropological research perhaps partly because it offers a new ground for articulating one of the most powerful anthropological arguments – the criticism of Us and our (humanitarian) practices as those who fail to understand Them, to hear Their voices, and to respect Their needs (Fassin 2010). (Please note that “Us” here more or less refers to “the English-speaking West”).

However, we should remember that this is just one possible form of humanitarianism – and that there are many other local, grassroots and vernacular forms of giving aid and saving lives in the name of common humanity. Post-Yugoslav humanitarian actions are one such vernacular form of humanitarianism. These other forms of humanitarianism ask for different kinds of anthropological engagement and argumentation.

Experiments with humanitarian aid and a need for new vocabularies

It makes no sense to write about the post-Yugoslav humanitarian actions from the same critical direction that the large-scale humanitarianism provokes. Here, the whole humanitarian practice depended on whether the organizer would listen to the voices, expectations, and opinions of other people and establish social relations in many different directions. To work out how to frame it, I first had to explore what was going on and how this form of giving aid and saving lives actually worked. I also had to make decisions on whether to relate my ethnographic experiences to literature on humanitarianism, charity, citizenship, or something else – and to explain and defend my decision in front of peer reviewers who had their own ideas about what to do (for more details, see Brkovic 2014; 2016). My ex-Yugoslav interlocutors called this practice a “humanitarian action” – yet it helped fellow-citizens, not strangers a world over. It looked like “charity”, in that aid was primarily financial – but it was donated by the impoverished as well as the well-off people. It evoked state welfare, since municipal governments and other state institutions gave substantial amounts of money – but usually as a humanitarian donation to a personal bank account of the family in need, not as a standardized program blind to the social positions and individual needs of the citizens. Emerging during simultaneous post-war and post-socialist transformation of former Yugoslav countries, “humanitarian action” was a grassroots social experiment that blurred boundaries between domains characteristic of a welfare state – this is how it opened a space to think about the need for a new vocabulary of giving and saving in humanitarianism.

I could start articulating a critique of inequalities created by this “emergent form of life” only once I decided what to call it and with which bodies of literature to link it. Importantly, although it was grassroots and local, it was not fairer than the large-scale international humanitarianism – it was unjust, but in a different way. As a specific instance of “adhocracy”, or a “form of power that creates chaos and vulnerability as much as it creates order” (Dunn 2012: 2), humanitarian actions increased people´s vulnerabilities. They deepened precarity of those who needed help, making their survival and wellbeing dependent on the helpers´ mood and goodwill.

Similar interweaving of humanitarianism, charity, and welfare takes place in many contemporary experiments with helping people in need throughout the world. As anthropologists, we sometimes need to invent new words to describe what’s going on in such experiments (for an account of what some of the new vocabulary on giving aid and saving lives could be like, see Drotbohm’s contribution to this blog series). Perhaps ethnographic accounts could offer new vocabulary to describe the emergent humanitarian forms of life, without losing social critique from sight.



Brković, Čarna. “Surviving in a Moveopticon. Humanitarian Actions in Bosnia and Herzegovina”. Contemporary Southeastern Europe 1, Nr. 2 (2014): 42–60.

Brković, Čarna. “Scaling Humanitarianism: Humanitarian Actions in a Bosnian Town”. Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology 81, Nr. 1 (2016): 99–124.

De Lauri, Antonio, ed. 2016. The Politics of Humanitarianism. Power, Ideology and Aid. London: I.B.Tauris.

Drotbohm, Heike. 2018. Navigating the blurred boundaries of aid. On the Pitfalls of Post-Humanitarian Encounters. Public Anthropologist 25 September 2018. Available at:

Dunn, Elizabeth, C. 2012. “The Chaos of Humanitarian Aid: Adhocracy in the Republic of Georgia”. Humanity (3)1: 1–23.

Dunn, Elizabeth, C. 2018. No Path Home. Cornell University Press.

Fassin, Didier. “Another Politics of Life is Possible”. Theory, Culture and Society 26, Nr. 5 (2009): 44–60.

Fassin, Didier. “Ethics of Survival: A Democratic Approach to the Politics of Life”. Humanity 1, Nr. 1 (2010): 81–95.

Fassin, Didier. 2012. Humanitarian Reason: Moral History of the Present. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

Fischer, Michael M J. 1999. “Emergent Forms of Life: Anthropologies of Late or Postmodernities”. Annual Review of Anthropology 28: 455–478.

Hamann, Ulrike, and Serhat Karakayali. 2016. “Practicing Willkommenskultur: Migration and Solidarity in Germany.” Intersections. East European Journal of Society and Politics 2 (4): 69–86.

Hess, Sabine, and Bernd Kasparek. 2017. “De- and Restabilising Schengen. The European Border Regime after the Summer of Migration.” Cuadernos Europeos de Deusto 56: 47–77.

Pandolfi, Mariella. 2003. “Contract of Mutual (In)Difference: Government and the Humanitarian Apparatus in Contemporary Albania and Kosovo”. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 10(1): 369–381.


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