Who gets to decolonise humanitarianism?

Author: Tammam Aloudat
Date: 28. June 2021

This post is an argument on what constitutes a “legitimate voice” in calling for the changes needed as humanitarianism examines its own history and position as well as the challenges appearing in the horizon.

Humanitarianism and its many faces have always mirrored the political thought and social sensibilities of their time and place from their early entanglement in European colonialism to the tiers-mondisme of its later adherents. The current political and social landscape, from the #BlackLivesMatter to the climate crisis, continue to affect the humanitarian discourse and direction (Davey, 2015).

However, the interpretation of those trends and how they are internalised by different strata within the humanitarian aid regime can widely diverge. This can be understood more readily when regarding the heterogeneity and tensions within humanitarianism despite its attempt to present a uniform face.

Those tensions –international vs. local, headquarters vs. field, expat vs. national (Redfield, 2012), biomedical vs. traditional, etc—are only partially examined or else denied or ignored. They, however, reveal contradictions between the pronounced impartiality towards people humanitarianism serves and the hierarchies of power in it. Humanitarianism is still structurally racialised and gendered and, even when best intentions are assumed, is a mirror image of the powers in the “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (hooks, 2014).

Decolonising humanitarianism

Ascribing coloniality to humanitarianism can be fraught with risks. It can be seen as counterproductive metaphorizing that ignores the end goal of decolonisation which is the repatriation of land and people (Tuck & Yang, 2012) while at the same time implying that there is no way forward other than the full Fanonian “departure” of the colonial humanitarian system.

However, the immediate and unqualified dismantling of the humanitarian system is not, I believe, desirable because it ignores the life-saving action that, while imperfect, takes place on daily basis while providing no alternatives.

Hence, when I talk about decolonising here, I mean the imagining and construction of a humanitarianism that replaces the Eurocentric ethos of the current regime, that does not reproduce the oppression of the current hegemonic politics, and that moves away from being the “the left hand of empire.” (Agier, 2010)

Such emergence is not absolute and momentary, in my opinion, but one that follows a “non-reformist reform” model described by André Gorz (Sharpe et al., 1968) which aims at changing the outcome without regards to protecting the structures.

In the debate on humanitarian reform and revolution, and while I am reminded of Audre Lorde telling us that “the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house” (Lorde, 1984), I am also persuaded that “what you want to do is press the institutions as far as possible to yield to just popular demands and if the population comes to recognise […] it can’t be done anymore, okay then you can talk about a revolution.” (Noam Chomsky, 2012)

Who gets to decolonise?

Rather than deciphering how the humanitarian system gets there, this text argues a different matter: whose voice is legitimate in this discourse? To start with, I consciously exclude the extremes. In my own engagement in the topic, I have come across the “old-school”, long expired but never retired, and fully entitled veteran whose argument is that he, and it is always a he, has been an anti-racist and anti-colonialist from before the rest of us were born and that we need to stop being too impressionable and go on with the “business of saving lives”. On the other side stand the one that has reached the dark depths of disillusionment with a system he, and it is almost always a he, worked for and failed to influence and sees no alternative to the immediate and complete destruction of the system with no compromises. The first promises that nothing bad is happening now as we follow his way, and the latter promises that nothing bad will happen if we follow his. They both are skilled at “ghosting” anyone who is less of a believer in either the system or its destruction.

Between the two stand everyone else, the other humanitarians that do their jobs: treat patients, make convoys move, write budgets, clean and cook, negotiate access, and write log-frames. They either feel accused or oppressed, are often put aside in the debate about the grand “strategic” directions and have little space to be part of a debate that will define the future of their discipline.

Not my place, not your place!

Engaging in the debate, one of the archetypal people I come across is a white, often young, person who almost always starts a conversation with: “I know it is not my place to say this, but…”. Not her place, and it is almost always a she, because the discourse so casts her as a privileged white person who is a part of the problem rather than of the solution. She can be silently complicit or a silent ally but nothing else.

Another scenario in the discussion is that of a person of colour, hence a “legitimate voice” at least in principle, speaking out about the issues of discrimination, coloniality, or structural racism and being countered by an argument that her very ability to speak out as a person working for an INGO for example reflects a privilege (of position, class, geography, salary, etc) that disqualifies her from speaking. If we are talking about decolonising then we should only hear from the truly oppressed, “the watchman in Juba” as I was told.

The effect of this is obvious, the only voices that can be heard are the two extremes, all the others are silent or silenced. The white person and the person of colour are both told, in different ways, that it is not their place to speak out against the defects of humanitarianism. The one “watchman in Juba”, on the other hand, is accepted as a legitimate voice but has no platform or possibility of speaking. Even when the watchman speaks, what he rightly says is neither heard nor considered relevant by the same system that is only capable of understanding its own rhetorical devices and lexicon.

The result is silencing the topic and allowing that the extremes, when expressed, are not directed at a solution but at an appearance of an organisation open to debate. This formula sustains the status quo and prevents any real change beyond semantics.

Hence, one of the main foundations of decolonisation of humanitarianism is the creation of a framework of “legitimacy” that is inclusive and capable of including a multiplicity of voices and opinions while remaining on the path towards theorising and constructing a decolonised humanitarianism.

Fearless speech

Here, I propose a rudimentary framework for finding the “legitimate voice”. This, to be clear, is not for scoring and approving the person speaking by others but one that allows self-reflection and self-critique by the speaker herself. This allows a person engaged or engaging in the debate about the future of humanitarianism to self-examine their position rather than wait for the “approval or rejection”.

The framework is based on the description of Parrhesia by Michel Foucault (Foucault & Pearson, 2001). Foucault argues that Parrhesia, as he interprets it from the Greek and Greco-Roman usage, is “free speech” or “speaking the truth”. This framework is characterised by a few ‘conditions’ that guide the Parrhesiastes (that who practices parrhesia): Frankness that is saying everything one has in mind without resorting to rhetorical devices in the “most direct words and forms of expression he can find”; Truth where the Parrhesiastes speaks the truth, not what she thinks is truth, but what she knows to be true. In this sense, truth is a departure from the Cartesian “eternal knowledge beyond time and space” (Grosfoguel, 2017)  and in a closer relationship to “speaking one’s own truth” in a way that accepts and embraces subjectivities and differences rather than a (Western-centric) universalism.

More characteristics include what Foucault calls danger where it is only considered if telling the truth carries a risk to the speaker. This need not be a risk to life, but can be a risk of losing position, acceptance, a career path, or privilege. Parrhesia also is speaking critically, truth and danger only come when it is a criticism as a foundational function. The last one of the characteristics is Duty where the speaker “is free to keep silent, [] but feels that it is his duty” to speak up.

Humanitarian parrhesia

Using Foucault’s framework allows us to expand the “legitimate voice” in the humanitarian debate about decolonising. We can then, individually and collectively, start not only rejecting the racialised structures of power but also our own subjugation to what Etienne Balibar (2011) describes as neo-racism, or racism without race, which discriminates according to culture and other social markers. We can then transcend the boxes we are told we fit in and speak out regardless to any racial, background, culture, gender, or any other marker that might limit us. In this sense, examining oneself with a parrhesiastic lens, allows critical reflection and adjustment of one’s own argument.

This, in practice, does not come with a formula of what to say and what to say it. The responsibility to speak up is commensurate to the position and privilege. From my own experiences, I see Parrhesia when a senior manager signs a staff letter against their perceived duty to “stick together” with management, when an indispensable technical advisor speaks about discrimination outside their technical role, or an expat hands over agency and management to their staff and take on supporting roles. This is not a legitimacy built on one’s decontextualised position: a person from an excluded group who perpetuates the oppression isn’t legitimate, a person with any privilege who risks it to right what they see wrong is.

It is important that this is done internally and reflexively rather than as a “system” of scoring the legitimacy of voice. Each characteristic is subjective to the person speaking: their truth, the risk they take, the angle they criticise from, the words that describes their position, and the source and shape of their sense of duty. Hence, parrhesia here is a tool that can, hopefully, enable each person in the humanitarian sector to speak out and to find their “legitimate voice” regardless to the external judgement, censorship, and pressure.

What can be achieved here is a debate about future humanitarianism that has to stand up for rather than perpetuate the catastrophic effects of neoliberalism, national populism, and neo-colonialism as well as their physical manifestations of conflict and climate change. This debate, if it is to be successful needs to be inclusive, critical, and brave and that can only be achieved by everyone getting involved. It is everyone’s place to speak out, it is everyone’s duty to do so.

Tammam Aloudat is the managing director of the Global Health Centre in the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. He is a Syrian physician and humanitarian worker with 20 years of experience working with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) working in conflicts, natural disasters, forced displacement, and disease outbreaks both in projects and in the headquarters. He has worked on issues ranging from medical standards and quality of care, humanitarian ethics, palliative care, to access to medicines. He has engaged in the debate on decolonising aid and global health and co-founded Action to Decolonise Global Health (ActDGH) http://decolonise.health