Big Ideas panel explores the risks of humanitarianism

In the final New Century for the Humanities Big Ideas panel April 25, Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò and Elizabeth Anker explored “Humanitarianism and its Discontents” in Klarman Hall’s Groos Family Atrium.

While honoring the good intent of humanitarianism, the panelists emphasized that it is also fraught with risks.

Anker, associate professor of English in the College of Arts and Sciences and associate member of the Cornell Law School faculty, illustrated her point with a series of examples from film, literature and popular culture. These examples, she argued, highlight how some global failures of human rights today are structural and systemic – damaging byproducts of phenomena like capitalism and free trade, neoliberalism, and regimes of global governance.

Human rights, Anker said, have come to be associated with qualities like enlightenment, truth, reason – and civilization’s progress. Regions of the world afflicted by human rights abuses are therefore imagined to be trapped in something like a moral “dark ages” and their peoples seen as less fully human. Humanitarian discourse tends to reinforce the belief the Westernized way of life is superior, more advanced and educated. Humanitarianism ironically can affirm larger ideas about Western exceptionalism even though the West has often played a negative role in producing socioeconomic and political conditions that lead to failures to observe human rights.

One example is development aid (as opposed to emergency aid) in Africa, which disempowers, immobilizes and disables its recipients and acts as a dehumanizing force, said Táíwò, professor of Africana studies. Rather than enhancing the capacity of recipients to exercise autonomy in their own affairs, development aid in Africa keep recipients dependent.

“Stripped of all its finery, what I call the aid model is built on the assumption that Africans will always need aid and the rest of the world will always have to provide it,” said Táíwò. “The tragedy is that, at the present time, many African leaders and intellectuals are content to remain permanently at the receiving bottom end of the aid dyad. ”

For Táíwò, humanitarianism crosses the line when emergency aid becomes institutionalized and there is no commitment to an end date or to working toward enabling autonomy for aid recipients.

Anker identified another concern with humanitarianism: the way it can serve to quell or palliate Western guilt.

“Our challenge is to feel sympathy without feeling superior, or without buying into deceptive fantasies about how our ways of life and values are somehow ‘better’ than the rest of the world,” she said.

To spur us into action, Anker said, human rights activism routinely vilifies certain actors and often entire cultures, while characterizing others, like women and children, as victims.

“But those depictions deprive those populations of a certain agency and self-determination,” she said.

Táíwò pointed out that aid programs and projects are chosen at the behest of donors, often with little or no mind paid to what recipients want or need. Táíwò urged an end to the African aid industry so that “Africans can assume agency, again, with all its dangers and uncertainties.”

In her conclusion, Anker emphasized why the humanities are necessary to address the challenges of humanitarianism: “The humanities train us to critique and ask hard questions about exactly the disturbing biases I’ve been addressing,” she said.

By deconstructing those misconceptions, said Anker, “we can avoid invoking them in our own reasoning and thinking …. And we can begin to craft a new language, a new social imaginary for talking about human rights – ideally in a language that might leave us feeling a little less self-congratulatory and a little more implicated.”

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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		 Olufemi Taiwo