(Pol08)
The humanitarian imagination: socialities and materialities of voluntarism
Location Examination Schools Room 15
Date and Start Time 19 Sep, 2018 at 09:00
Sessions 3

Convenors

  • Tess Altman (University College London) email
  • Katerina Rozakou (University of Amsterdam) email

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Discussant Mary Mostafanezhad and Roger Norum

Short abstract

Volunteers imagine and engage with "others" through activities that involve relational processes and acts of self-making. The papers in this session will explore the role of the humanitarian imagination in animating and informing socialities and materialities of voluntarism.

Long abstract

Volunteers are increasingly engaged in practices of gifting, service provision, material aid, and activism in relation to various "others": refugees; immigrants; poor; homeless, but also with animals, and in the non-human and environmental realms. The session explores the ways in which humanitarian imaginations animate and inform forms of sociality and materiality. How do volunteers imagine themselves and others in humanitarian encounters? What political, moral, affective and ethical imaginaries accompany their motivations and experiences? In what ways do these imaginaries impact upon the material and social dimensions of voluntarism? What is the material form that aid acquires, and what are the relationships formed? Such questions can be directed at relationships between volunteers, between volunteers and those they seek to support and with material aid itself.

We are interested in the collective subjects that emerge through humanitarian imaginations. Historical studies underline how humanitarianism is interrelated to the emergence of humanity as a collective subject and a shared identity. What other collective subjects emerge in forms of sociality pertaining to humanitarianism today?

Through exploring the role of the humanitarian imagination in shaping volunteer encounters and experiences, we also seek to open up a space to consider the power of imaginative practice as a form of "imaginative politics" (Malkki 2015) that produces certain effects. We are hence particularly interested in papers that focus on the power dynamics of the humanitarian encounter, and that consider the potential of this encounter for social and political change.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

'Helping refugees': Norwegian volunteers in Greece and humanitarian imaginations of solidarity, hospitality and dugnad

Author: Synnøve Bendixsen (University of Bergen) email
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Short abstract

Drawing on fieldwork with people volunteering for "A drop in the ocean", a humanitarian non-profit organization working with refugees in Greece, I will discuss the humanitarian imaginations that inform the motivation of people to volunteer and what happens in the encounters with refugees.

Long abstract

In 2015, European states were overwhelmed by the call to make room for refugees seeking a better and secure life. The main response of the European Union and its member states was to enforce borders to prevent refugees from reaching its shores. Simultaneously, however, new practices of hospitality and solidarity through which different ways of engaging with refugees have been initiated and developed by citizens, religious organizations, NGOs and privately organized initiators.

Drawing on fieldwork and interviews with participants in "A drop in the ocean", a humanitarian non-profit organization working with refugees stranded in Greece, I will discuss the humanitarian imaginations that inform the motivation of people to volunteer in this particular organization. While Greece has commonly been a vacation destination among Norwegians, groups of people are now paying to spend time volunteering to help refugees. The organization seeks to "help people help migrants" and facilitates people in Norway to volunteer in specific refugee centers in Greece where they should assist in the everyday life of refugees, including receiving people who come to the Greek shores, food and clothes distribution, and playing with children. What forms of imaginations of solidarity and humanitarian encounters do the voluntaries bring with them? What happens in the meeting between the volunteers and those they are intending to help? How, if at all, does this particular form of practice affect the voluntaries' imaginations of hospitality, solidarity and dugnad when returning to Norway?

Taking the host hostage: grassroots NGOs' hospitality practices and humanitarian violence against Syrian refugees in Jordan

Author: Ann-Christin Wagner (University of Edinburgh) email
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Short abstract

In Jordan, grassroots NGOs reframe aid delivery to Syrian refugees as customary "visits" and handing over goods as "presents". Meant to attenuate power inequalities between aid providers and recipients, humanitarian house visits reify them in spectacular ways and push refugees to perform "suffering"

Long abstract

In a border town in northern Jordan, "humanitarian house visits" to Syrian refugees occur within a cultural context where hospitality is highly valued and performances of hosting are a competitive and gendered way of cementing social status. Therefore, rephrasing the humanitarian encounter within the hospitality paradigm is meant to attenuate the power inequality between aid providers and recipients - foreign volunteers in grassroots NGOs purposely reverse the hierarchical host/guest dichotomy by framing aid delivery as a customary "visit" and handing over goods as "presents". This leads to a paradoxical situation where Syrians, presumably "guests" in Jordan, find themselves in the position of welcoming volunteers into their homes.

Nonetheless, I argue that NGOs' hospitality practices subject refugees to new forms of immobility and forced mobility in exile. Speaking against a romanticized understanding of hospitality, I draw on philosophical and anthropological literatures to show that concurrent processes of inclusion and exclusion are inherent to the host-guest relationship. In a multi-layered humanitarian landscape where aid actors of various sizes compete over Syrian refugees, conducting humanitarian house visits allows NGOs to assert control over beneficiaries through small acts of spatial and temporal violence.

Ultimately, the spectacular form of the encounter reifies hierarchies between volunteers and refugees, and Syrians are pushed to engage in performances of "suffering". In return, decontextualized and compassion-inducing representations of the displaced feed into NGOs' marketing strategies, fuelling new streams of private donations and foreign volunteers into Syrian households - volunteering tourism thus becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.

Making the stranger familiar through the "domestic arts": gendered voluntarism for people seeking asylum in Australia

Author: Tess Altman (University College London) email
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Short abstract

This paper explores gendered voluntarism in humanitarian aid. Using examples from a predominantly female volunteer group supporting people seeking asylum in Melbourne, it considers the potential of "domestic arts" as a form of "imaginative politics" against the Australian state's deterrence policy.

Long abstract

This paper considers gendered socialities and materialities of voluntarism in humanitarian aid provision. Examples are drawn from 16 months' doctoral fieldwork with a predominantly female volunteer organisation supporting people seeking asylum in Melbourne. Gendered material practices invoking the "domestic arts" and the home or "private sphere" include delivering furniture, sewing blankets and curtains, providing linen and children's clothes, cultivating plants for gardens, and fundraising activities such as bake sales and garage sales that draw on tropes of domestic harmony. Such practices of domestic arts involve material processes of re-enchantment to rid secondhand objects of the shame and stigma with which people seeking asylum associate them; and new forms of sociality among a caring community of women. The paper makes two main points: that the invisible labour such volunteering entails inadvertently reproduces the unacknowledged quality of traditionally feminised care work in the private sphere of the home; and that gendered domestic arts have the effect of "domesticating" people seeking asylum into the national space, making the stranger familiar. This is undertaken in a hostile national climate where people seeking asylum are positioned by the state as a foreign threat. I ask whether gendered dimensions of volunteering could here be a means to counter a masculinised, militarised state response. In doing so I engage with Liisa Malkki's (2015) argument that the domestic arts are not merely trivial and ineffectual, but can do powerful symbolic work as a form of "imaginative politics" that may effect social and political change.

Development and the desire to connect in citizen aid [co-authors: Meike Fechter and Anke Schwittay]

Author: Anne-Meike Fechter (University of Sussex) email
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Short abstract

Efforts in international aid have been understood as, at least partly, driven by the 'desire to help'. We argue that this has left a potentially key motivation out of sight: the search for a 'personal connection'. These intertwined strands help explain people's engagement in assisting others.

Long abstract

Efforts in international aid and development have often been understood and portrayed as, at least partly, driven by the 'desire to help'. In this paper, we argue that this view has left a potentially key motivation out of sight: the search for a connection by those supporting development efforts. These desired connections are often sought with people separated by geographical distance, who are thus considered 'other' from those providing assistance.

We do not claim that this search for connections is all-encompassing, or the only key to understanding aid. We propose, though, that much of development literature has so far failed to recognise its relevance, and the potential implications it has. There has been a partial recognition of the importance of relationships for how aid works, for the shaping of policy, and its implementation (Eyben 2006). Rather than social relations being merely instrumental to successful aid practice, we suggest that at the same time, providing assistance to others can be a vehicle that facilitates the making of these desired relations. This is illustrated through two case studies in which the 'search for connection' is clearly evident as a driver alongside the 'desire to help'. These are supporters of micro-lending though kiva.org and those who engage in small, private projects which could be described as 'citizen aid'. We argue that it would be judicious to consider the desire to help and the desire to connect as intertwined strands that help explain people's engagement in assisting others.

Self-making through humanitarianism: good citizens vs. good persons?

Author: Eda Sevinin (Central European University) email
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Short abstract

This paper focuses on the self-making aspect of Islamically-oriented humanitarian practices that enable humanitarian workers to constitute themselves both as good persons and as good citizens as embodying the state's "benevolence" towards Syrians within a certain imaginary of the state.

Long abstract

In the Turkish migration regime, Islamically-oriented humanitarian actors have claimed a significant place, especially after the coming of Syrian refugees. In their practices, they have often combined the statist discourses of migration and border regime with Islamic teachings of migration and humanitarianism. In doing so, Islamically-oriented humanitarian actors have engaged in solidaristic relations to the refugees through humanitarian aid while, simultaneously reproducing state-centered approaches to migration. Such a relation allows me to go beyond the dichotomy between state as the figure of sovereignty and the non-state actors engaging in solidaristic practices, in this case through humanitarian practices. Challenging this dichotomy between sovereignty and solidarity enables a framework for a more nuanced and relational understanding of humanitarianism and how the humanitarian actors constitute themselves.

Based on the ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Denizli, Turkey, with Islamically-oriented humanitarian actors, in January-December 2017, this paper seeks to discuss two relational aspects of humanitarianism. The first aspect pertains to how humanitarianism has become a platform of sociality through which new solidaristic relations are established within the boundaries of goodness and morality as understood in Islamic teachings. The second aspect discusses how these solidaristic relations humanitarianism enables have become a language that operates to constitute "good and moral citizens" through embodying and carrying out the morality of the state's "benevolence" towards (Syrian) refugees within a certain imaginary of state. Finally, the paper offers a how these two figures -good (moral) person and good (moral) citizen- interact with each other in a given context.

Moral connections? Roma religious humanitarianism(s) and shared imaginaries of the self

Author: Raluca Roman (University of St Andrews) email
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Short abstract

Looking at the humanitarian work conducted by Western Roma Pentecostals among Roma communities in Eastern Europe, this paper analyses the ways in which both 'givers' and 'receivers' continuously re-shift their understandings of moral duty, 'sameness' and 'otherness' in relation to one another.

Long abstract

Mirroring the portrayal of the 'Global South' as an area of humanitarian intervention, Eastern Europe has recurrently been represented as a 'vulnerable' social-political space of Europe, with some communities (such as Roma/Gypsies) being the central focus of humanitarian attention (cf. Engebrigtsen 2007). Drawing on extensive ethnographic fieldwork among Finnish Roma Pentecostal believers, and looking specifically at their engagement in humanitarian projects in Eastern Europe, this paper analyses the ways in which the social representation of 'otherness' is complicated by a situation in which 'sameness' constitutes the main incentive for the development of humanitarian projects. As volunteers who invest most of their savings into the practice of missionary-cum-developmental work in Eastern Europe, Finnish Roma Pentecostals can be seen as 'socially engaged Evangelicals'(cf. Elisha 2011), making a strong connection between their understanding of faith-in-practice and a sense of moral duty to intervene in the fate of perceived vulnerable populations. Furthermore, connecting their imaginations of a 'shared experience of marginalisation' with those they reach out to (i.e. Roma communities in other countries), these practices lead to the configuration of a seemingly collective subject of Evangelical and humanitarian interventions. As such, focusing on the encounters between Finnish Roma Pentecostals and the Eastern European Roma communities that are the focus of their humanitarian attention, this paper interrogates the ways in which a moral struggle to connect is embedded within the practice of religious humanitarianism itself and how imaginaries of the 'self' are continuously re-shifted within these specific forms of missionary/humanitarian encounters.

Contingent images and shifting imaginaries of staff and student volunteering in Higher Education

Author: Joanna Puckering (Durham University) email
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Short abstract

Shifting images and imaginaries of volunteering illustrate how themes of power, inequality and self-interest, emerging from my doctoral research into volunteering within UK Higher Education, resonate with the concepts of 'philanthropic particularism' and the 'humanitarian imagination'.

Long abstract

This paper draws on my doctoral research which combined reciprocal gift theory with grounded theory to explore policies, experiences and discourses of volunteering within UK Higher Education. It focused on one university in the North East of England and its relationships with communities and voluntary organisations in the region.

Results indicated that it is increasingly accepted that volunteering benefits both giver and receiver, and that self-interest is compatible with compassion and 'doing the right thing'. However, there were also concerns that groups and causes may receive less support if they do not fit the dominant discourses, priorities and needs of volunteers or the University. Emergent themes of unequal power relationships, complex agendas for participating in or supporting volunteering (or not), and different ways of representing those involved in volunteer activities, all resonate with the idea of 'philanthropic particularism' (Salamon 1987; Komter 2005) as well as Watenpaugh' s (2015) concept of the 'humanitarian imagination'.

Despite narratives of partnership and mutuality, the University is described as distant, privileged and separate from the community in which its staff and students live and work. University-community relationships are not necessarily those of mutual or equal partners; nor are those between (primarily) student volunteers and the University, which is often regarded as hostile and 'other'. At a more individual level, diverse and fluid images of volunteers emerge - 'moral', 'clever', 'real', 'contingent' - which are informed by shifting social imaginaries that challenge the traditional dualisms of altruism/self-interest or autonomy/dependence that are associated with both giving and volunteering.

Rescuing strangers: humanitarian imaginations among the volunteers in Southeast China

Author: Jiazhi Fengjiang (LSE) email
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Short abstract

This paper explores how humanitarian imaginations generate grassroots networks and are materialised in various forms in Southeast China where there is a tremendous growth in self-organised rescue and relief volunteerism, predominantly organised and run by middle-aged male volunteers.

Long abstract

In Southeast China, there is a tremendous growth in self-organised rescue and relief volunteerism, predominantly organised and run by middle-aged male volunteers. These volunteers mainly go on trips searching for missing persons in the wilderness in addition to participating in collaborative disaster relief in Typhoon seasons. Drawing upon 18 months' ethnographic fieldwork in a county of Southeast China, this paper explores how humanitarian imaginations generate grassroots networks and are materialised in various forms among the volunteers. By examining the volunteers' interactions among themselves and with needy others, it shows that the image of strangers missing and the image of a soldier serving the people comprise the major sources of imaginations about the needy others and about the masculine self respectively. Such imaginations about the other and the self are also materialised in the volunteer uniforms, flags, car plates, emblems, as well as the office-like space the volunteers gather and wait for incidents to happen and orders to follow. Inspired by Liisa Malkki's notion of "imaginative politics" (2015:105), this paper contends that the volunteer's imaginative practices are powerful in fulfilling their need for social recognition.

Solidarity humanitarianism and the refugee crisis: independent volunteers and alternative visions of society in Greece

Author: Katerina Rozakou (University of Amsterdam) email
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Short abstract

This paper draws upon the presence of independent local and international volunteers during the refugee crisis in Greece to focus on socialities of voluntarism. These socialities are loci for alternative visions of society informed both by local idioms and the anti-globalization movements.

Long abstract

Anthropological studies of humanitarianism have produced stark critiques of humanitarian interventions. Studies bring to the fore the modalities of humanitarian government, the political production of the recipients of aid, the politics of life in humanitarianism and so on. This scholarship largely draws upon political philosophy and the work of Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben, in particular. Despite the fact that they produce meticulous depictions of humanitarian action, such studies are bound to universalizing claims. With a few exceptions, humanitarians remain largely unseen, their motives and trajectories obscure. The humanitarian relationship is also reduced to generalized assumptions. It seems peculiar that anthropologists devoted to ethnography resort so fully to political philosophy and to Eurocentric theoretical frameworks. Yet this also reflects the powerful underlying moralism in a significant part of this work.

Based on research with volunteers assisting refugees in Greece since 2002 and recent fieldwork on responses to the refugee crisis since 2015, this paper studies humanitarianism as an intersubjective realm. I draw upon the impressive presence of independent local and international volunteers during the refugee crisis to focus on socialities of voluntarism and the humanitarian encounter. As I argue, the harsh experience of austerity and neoliberalization in the last years has also transformed Greece into a laboratory of alternative political imaginations against neoliberalism and capitalist globalization. Voluntary work with refugees emerged as a privileged locus for the production of alternative visions of society that is informed both by local idioms of sociality and international anti-globalization movements.

Administering solidarity: voluntary welfare in post-debt crisis Greece

Author: Russell Henshaw (University of Oxford) email
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Short abstract

What practices are made possible by the imaginative spaces of solidarity? What happens when ideals are translated into action? This paper examines the moral subjects elicited by voluntary welfare in terms of the everyday demands of administering it.

Long abstract

Amidst a contentious history of state distributions, traditional forms of welfare have been interrupted in post-debt crisis Greece. In this space, as people struggle to re-negotiate rights and access to welfare, the meaning of citizenship is being rewritten through voluntary action. Drawing upon fieldwork in a grassroots solidarity group in Athens, this paper examines what happens as the state relinquishes welfare provision to volunteers, and the kind of moral subjects formed under solidarity. Specifically, it considers what kind of practices the imaginative spaces of solidarity make possible as ideals are translated into action. Attending to the collection, storage, allocation and distribution of assistance, it explores how the impetus to address poverty was transformed through the process of administering it. More than simple apparatus, administration implicitly delineated value and set boundaries to care, as it determined who was entitled to help and who was not. Framing their work as technical, volunteers glossed over the ethically ambiguous aspects of their work and, more broadly, the power which accrued to them as arbitrators of welfare. Pursuing a radical agenda in which all were equally entitled to solidarity, in fact, produced an apolitical space in which rights were refashioned according to liberal values. In this tension between the 'mere' and the political, the relationship between agency and forms of allocation comes into focus, framing a broader discussion on manners of giving, moral classes of person and power in the contemporary neoliberal moment.

Humanitarianism and mutual aid in the food co-operative imaginary

Author: Celia Plender (University of Exeter) email
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Short abstract

Building on two years of ethnographic fieldwork with grassroots, retail food co-ops in London, this paper argues that they attempt to reconfigure the relationship between volunteers and aid recipients due to the joint ideals of humanitarianism and mutual aid

Long abstract

Since the Rochdale Pioneers came together in the mid-19th century to found one of the first consumer co-operatives in the UK, the concepts of self-help and mutual aid have been at the heart of the movement. Just as the Pioneers were responding to the impacts of political-economic change, so are contemporary food co-ops, many of which are volunteer-led. Building on two years of ethnographic fieldwork with two food co-ops in London - one set up by anarchist squatters in the late 1980s as an autonomous, association of volunteers, the other as a community centre project at a time when New Labour were actively promoting community-based coping strategies - this paper asks what voluntarism and humanitarianism mean within the context of the food co-operative imaginary.

Although the political ideals and motivations for starting a food co-op today can differ, at the core of their activities is the humanitarian ethic of providing 'others' and 'selves' with access to more affordable and healthy food. The provision of mutual-aid and solidarity to fellow volunteers (and sometimes customers) is an equally important aspect of their values. Whether from an anarchist desire to 'build a new political system out of the shell of the old', or the community centre ideal of a more inclusive and caring society, both attempted to foster more co-operative forms of citizenship and sociality. As such, through their values and social practises, grassroots food co-ops attempt to reconfigure the relationship between volunteer and aid recipient, co-operative and neighbourhood, activism and care.

Selling charity: volunteers, value, and values in a thrift store

Authors: Katelyn Lyons (College of the Holy Cross) email
Ann Marie Leshkowich (College of the Holy Cross) email
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Short abstract

This paper analyzes how neoliberal consumerist logics shape the humanitarian imagination of volunteers in a thrift store. Volunteers' evaluative practices enact a symbolic violence that obscures the thrift store's implication in the hierarchies that the non-profit organization seeks to combat.

Long abstract

Charitable acts in neoliberal contexts tend to be praised as moral goods in which freely acting citizens voluntarily choose to help those who have been marginalized. Although this logic positions charity as distinct from, or even in opposition to, market dynamics, this paper investigates how gifting, purchasing, and consuming merge to shape the humanitarian imagination and its material practices in the context of a charitable thrift store. Located in Worcester, Massachusetts, the Abby's House Thrift Store provides donated clothing and household goods to the non-profit organization's clients and, through sales to the general public, generates a significant portion of its budget for a shelter, housing units, and other supportive services for women experiencing homelessness. In their everyday work of sorting clothing and serving customers, the volunteers who staff the store engage in evaluative acts that conflate value in an economic sense and values in a moral sense. We trace how volunteers deploy disciplining dynamics related to race, class, and ethnicity to shape ontologies about "good" or "bad" consumer citizens in ways that also work to enhance volunteers' self-perceptions of their own moral and economic worth. Volunteers' evaluative practices and constructions of charitable selfhoods fuel a dynamic of misrecognition that naturalizes hierarchies between goods and people as essential to a retail, consumer space. These neoliberal market logics enact a symbolic violence that obscures the thrift store's implication in the reproduction of hierarchies that the non-profit organization otherwise seeks to combat.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.