Humanitarian humanities: a combat sport?

Sylvain PénicaudSylvain Pénicaud is a student at the Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies and a humanitarian worker. He is currently a project coordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières – France in Tripoli, Libya.
Petit manuel d’autodéfense à l’usage des volontaires. Les humanités humanitaires [A concise self-defence manual for volunteers. Humanitarian humanities], Joël Glasman, Éditions Les Belles Lettres, 2023 (published in French)

This book was inspired by an observation. The process of professionalisation which began in the humanitarian sector in the late 1990s has been characterised by the development of standardised technical knowledge deemed necessary for the purposes of operational effectiveness. However, at the same time, the critical knowledge generated by growing academic interest in the world of aid has not been widely disseminated within the profession. For Joël Glasman, historian and professor at the University of Bayreuth in Germany, the epistemological compartmentalisation that has occurred seems all the more illogical given that this body of work offers keys to understanding aid interventions that are just as essential as the profusion of technical standards once seemed to be. Thinking about the reality of other people and about uncertainty is therefore an operational necessity which, in terms of quality, requires listening and time but also historical, political and sociological benchmarks that the author presents for the purpose of decompartmentalisation. Behind the use of the almost outdated term “humanities”, Joël Glasman, who makes no encyclopaedic pretensions but draws on a wide range of bibliographical sources, invites us to consider a unitary approach to the social sciences. His ideas are arranged thematically so that the busy reader can access the following themes individually: power, neoliberalism, corruption, violence, health, racism, gender and statistics.

The book is aimed at the humanitarian community in the broadest sense, that of volunteers, another interesting terminological choice in that it is intended to mark the link between the space of professionalised humanitarian workers and the relatively small space of practitioners who have not received vocational training. Adopting a deconstructionist approach, the author offers an excellent overview of the classic debates that underpin the humanitarian sector. He begins by lending valuable historical depth to the well-known founding myths, such as the events in Solferino and Biafra. The account of how the principles of the Red Cross were disseminated also provides a useful perspective from which to break away from an overly naturalistic and ahistorical view of these principles. Moving on to more contemporary issues, the ascendancy of neoliberalism is addressed from the – already well-explored – angle of the porosity between the world of aid and the business sector. Similarly, and even more caustically, Foucault-inspired studies analyse the institutional and bureaucratic aspects of humanitarian aid as a neoliberal technique of government and State redeployment. An inevitable consequence of the recent debates it has generated, the relationship with colonialism is approached in a nuanced manner. Even though there is still some continuity with the colonial period, this issue must be examined from the viewpoint of commitment in a sector which is gradually becoming de-westernised. Recent studies show, for example, the tensions that volunteers from Global South countries may experience on the ground in terms of how humanitarian work is divvied up. More than just slogans, the calls to decolonise the world of aid are meaningful given the pressing need for a fairer distribution of power. Not forgetting that the colonial enterprise was largely characterised by indifference to the suffering of others, however, should encourage us to distance ourselves from any tricky historical amalgams.

Nonetheless, it would be wrong to reduce this manual to a handbook on general humanitarian culture aimed at newcomers, given that the development of certain theoretical aspects is sure to offer valuable food for thought to more experienced practitioners. Understood in its sociological aspects, the way in which the relationship to violence is approached reveals alternatives to the vacuity of contextual readings that can sometimes be excessively culturalist, based for example on predatory tribal opposition that lacks historical foundation. On the contrary, “bottom up” approaches, which are conducive to field analysis, encourage us to free ourselves from false geopolitical evidence. Paying attention to local dynamics (for example ownership of land or the path taken by armed men between legality and illegality) can prove decisive during negotiations. Similarly, the issue of fraud is shown in a new light. A complex aspect to manage in certain missions, fraud is most often dealt with institutionally as a matter of personal deviance. A fuller understanding of it could be gained, however, by looking more closely at where it sits in complex networks of individual interdependency or, more generally, by considering it as an extroversion strategy by states which are structurally dependent on aid income. Lastly, the enthusiasm for quantification practices is particularly well explained by Joël Glasman who, incidentally, has written a monograph on the subject. Even though it has its own history and rationality, the measurement of needs nonetheless remains a necessity whose statistical reasoning, sometimes misleading in its accuracy, does not necessarily help us understand its social aspects and therefore its operational implications.

Beyond these examples, which demonstrate its practical nature, Joël Glasman’s work fills a real gap in the literature. Albeit dense, the content is remarkably easy to read, not least its descriptions of certain complex theoretical developments, all of which are characterised by a clear Africanist slant. As Joël Glasman suggests, however, the criticism applied to humanitarian aid is, in the end, not characterised by an accumulation of popular references, but is more a series of tools of understanding which aim to serve resolutely field-oriented reflection. In keeping with what Bourdieu once said about sociology, humanitarian humanities are a protective combat sport which cultivates the art of evasion when faced with reality. It is therefore through an investigative approach, in dialogue with recipients, colleagues or academics, that they will be able to defend us from false certainties and help us reflect more clearly in a state of uncertainty.

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