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(2016-7) Immediate humanitarian concerns and long-term ethnographies

By Chloe Kippax-Chui, Melanie Olivia Ivy Rimmer-Tagoe, Lucy Voak, Iona Francesca Walker

Didier Fassin argues that ‘other avenues’ need to be explored to more fully account for the complexities of humanitarianism projects. We argue that anthropology combined with ethnographic studies can provide the analytical frameworks to do this. Organizations such as MSF take as their objective ‘the saving of individuals’ (2007: 501) who are in crisis. MSF workers and anthropologists such as Redfield argue that the medical gaze ‘discriminates in the name of bodily egalitarianism’ (Redfield, 2013:169) suggesting that ‘vulnerable people’ are the ones who are suffering the most. Therefore, their immediate biological needs (such as food, water, shelter and medical attention) supersede their biographical existence—that is, their historical, social and political existence. To anthropologists this is known as ‘bare life’. This can cause problems and has the potential to create tensions between aid workers and the recipients who can feel depoliticized.

Although it may seem polemic to debate the work of aid workers who are attempting to save lives in crisis situations, and may not have adequate time or resources to relieve specific situations, anthropology can fill in the gaps. Anthropological analysis in conjunction with ethnography, despite its often contradictory and partial outcomes, is a useful tool for the advancement of humanitarian efforts because it can reveal the nuanced power dynamics in the field. Hilhorst and Bonkoff (2004) note that when considering the question of vulnerability, there is the immediate concern of people’s physical well-being but, as situations evolve, the diversity of risks in both local and global processes intensifies the nature of vulnerability in various ways. Long-term ethnographic studies can turn our attention to the significance of individual and local anxieties and aspirations that underlie people’s vulnerability, which often become invisible in the unpredictability of crisis situations and the power dynamics that highlight some things and not others.

We argue that in taking into account ethnographic or anthropological analysis there is a greater chance that long-term aid projects will succeed because it examines processes beyond the moment of ‘saving individuals’. For example, Agier studied refugee camps as ‘city-camps’, highlighting the many ways that displaced individuals can form a sense of community as they might in an urban settlement, and thus be able to reclaim their identities. Agier argues that viewing refugee camps in this way results in improved means and methods of helping refugees, while acknowledging that refugees are also still rendered ‘nameless’ as types of victims who only need the ‘physical maintenance’ (Agier, 2011: 322) of their bodies. As previously discussed, humanitarian aid projects in crisis situations take the suffering of individuals as their cause, but in doing so, they tend to turn recipients of aid into victims. In some ways, however, this is perhaps necessary so that humanitarian aid workers can focus on saving lives. By re-imagining the refugee camps as a kind of city through anthropological analysis, it is possible to incorporate the concerns of aid workers who want to help refugee stay alive with a focus on their physical maintenance with the identities of inhabitants.