The Limits and Possibilities For Humanitarian Narratives

In advocacy work, often the attention is focused on those on behalf of whom we advocate for.  Part of my work here at Believers in Advocacy is to draw the gaze back to us, the advocates.  I bring our role under scrutiny not merely for scrutiny’s sake, but in the hopes of introducing a kind of self-awareness into our work, one that will inform our work with purpose.

Iconography of Famine, via David Campbell

As an undergraduate in the liberal arts, I am obliged to read many scholarly articles (whether I do is something I’d rather not acknowledge in this very public space of a blog).  Once in a while, an article will find its way into the mundane happenings of my everyday life.  And recently it has been Alan Lester’s “Geographies of Colonial Humanitarianism”.  Lester’s argument noted how the “human imperative” for intervention was made familiar through new narrative forms such as the novel, medical report, and autopsy that emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.  According to Lester, these narratives rely on bodies not only as a locus of pain, but also as a common bond between those who suffer and those who provide help.  I pick up my copy of They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan, and find that Lester’s words have found their way on them.  It is interesting to see how much of the narrative is old, in the sense of how it functions in broader humanitarian discourse; and how much of the book is new, in terms of its place as a commodity, meant to be consumed and circulated in the market.  Of course, in doing so I am not invalidating the experience of the authors; diminishing the scale of violence suffered; or conflating the contexts in which conflict is waged across the world.

Hartman once asked, “Why is pain the conduit of identification?”  It may also be fitting to ask, “Why does pain continue to be the conduit of identification?”, or even “Why does pain seem to be the only conduit of identification?”

It is worthwhile to look at how we identify with those who suffer from realities far removed from our own.  Likely, it will be the outcome of certain discourses. Humanitarian and advocacy groups will inevitably privilege certain narratives, thereby having the power to influence how we make that identification.  How do we talk about our advocacy work?  Does it preclude other possibilities for connecting to others?

The possibilities? Granny Football Fever, via A24 Media

(Read more about Granny Football Fever here.)

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