About Those Good Intentions


The following, the final in our series of extracts, comes from my chapter, “Imperial Abduction Lore and Humanitarian Seduction,” which serves as the introduction to Good Intentions: Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism (Montreal: Alert Press, 2014), pp. 1-34.

This section was primarily addressed to students as readers, and any constructive feedback would be appreciated.


There are many valid and unimpeachable reasons why students might be considering humanitarian work and/or working for a NGO. There is no gainsaying that many students have genuine, sincere, and heartfelt reasons for coming to the aid of others: those who come from privileged backgrounds might feel the need to “give back”; those who come from backgrounds of struggle might be determined to lessen the burden of disadvantage on others like them. Having read chapters such as the ones in this volume, or several others, and having been asked to question their beliefs in the value of humanitarian aid or even foreign intervention to prevent atrocities, they might be left wondering whether all forms of altruism are to be forsaken. I would say: not so fast. The real challenge now is to question our assumptions and envision or acknowledge existing alternatives that further solidarity, collaboration, and reciprocity without the paternalism and Eurocentrism of the “white man’s burden”.

One way to proceed is by questioning why helping others should lead to work abroad. Do you really have any special skills to offer other than the ability to articulate good intentions? Has your assistance been requested by those who would presumably benefit from it? How well do you understand a different society that you can permit yourself to undertake potentially transformative action? What are your motives, and do you think the organization(s) you support, or for which you work, share the same motives? If it is a question of solidarity, is the solidarity spontaneous and one-sided, or the product of actual dialogue and mutual understanding? Why would you not choose to work at home, where presumably you are not a stranger, nor an intruder? Indeed, this last question is one that gains salience particularly with anthropology students. Frustrated with what they perceive as their inability to change the politics of their own nation, some feel that they might make more of an impact in a different nation (Mathers, 2010, p. 169). Yet this assumes that other societies are less complex, easier to change and even receptive to outsiders bringing about change for them. If one feels that Africa is oppressed, then why assume that is to Africa that one must go, rather than work at home to change the policies of one’s country, for example, supporting debt forgiveness, challenging unjust trade and aid policies, reining in your corporations, or pushing for the demilitarization of the foreign relations of one’s own country? It is important not to assume that others are simply waiting for a stranger to come and lead them, like a Hollywood tale of the usual white messiah who is always the hero of other people’s stories. Ifi Amadiume—an African feminist who noted that, increasingly, Black women had begun to expose the racism in the women’s movement and accused western feminists of “a new imperialism” (1987, p. 4)—relates to us a story of a young anthropologist in a seminar in which she participated:

“I asked a young White woman why she was studying social anthropology. She replied that she was hoping to go to Zimbabwe, and felt that she could help women there by advising them how to organize. The Black women in the audience gasped in astonishment. Here was someone scarcely past girlhood, who had just started university and had never fought a war in her life. She was planning to go to Africa to teach female veterans of a liberation struggle how to organize! This is the kind of arrogant, if not absurd attitude we encounter repeatedly. It makes one think: Better the distant armchair anthropologists than these ‘sisters’”. (Amadiume, 1987, p. 7)

A second set of questions has to do with whether charity is the best expression for one’s altruism. This raises other questions especially when we turn to charity at home. Why is it that in a society such as Canada’s where virtually every activity, positive or negative, is taxed, we are called upon more and more to give to charity? Rather than mobilize to “raise awareness” about the homeless (as if we were unaware of them), why do we not instead mobilize the same numbers of those giving to charity to combat austerity? Why should taxes not go to feeding our hungry fellow citizens, instead of into funds to provide “incentives” for corporate investors or into military expenditures so we can bomb Libya? Indeed, by taking up the social welfare slack, are we not facilitating the state in increasing the power of the wealthy, in further militarizing our international relations, and in increasing inequality at home? Sure enough, without presenting heaps of documentary evidence and considering all of the implications, these questions may appear simple, or too ingenuous. Nonetheless, is it acceptable that we do not at least ask such questions to begin with?

A third bundle of questions has to do with supporting intervention in another country to supposedly prevent or stop mass violence. Assuming that one is in possession of accurate information, that the information does not come filtered through or created by vested interests, and that one possesses the ability to fairly interpret such information in the historical and cultural context of a given political conflict—something that daunts most “experts”—then which instrument is best suited to end such violence? Whose army, navy and air force are you calling on to carry out your good intentions? Do militaries ever act in the absence of other political and economic agendas or are they answerable only to your personal concerns? What other agendas are facilitated by military intervention, such that the “cure” can end up being worse than the “illness”? How is war consistent with the defense of human rights? How do you avoid the risk of prolonging, widening and further militarizing a local political conflict by intervening militarily? Are you prepared for the aftermath of intervention, and what degree of responsibility and accountability are you prepared to shoulder? Should you feel comfortable in calling for the sacrifice of the lives of your own soldiers, and inevitably of civilians in another country, while you remain physically detached from the conflict? Are you prepared to intervene in all situations of conflict where human rights are endangered, or is it just some, and if so why just some? Which is the “lesser evil” that you are prepared to live with and to justify: is it the survival of a local regime that you consider to be a “dictatorship,” or the survival and reinforcement of a global imperial dictatorship that seeks any justification to renew and assert its military dominance? These are just some of the first questions we need to ask. We should, if we are being honest with ourselves, also consider other norms and practices, such as Cuba’s socialist internationalism. In the latter case, no permanent military bases resulted from Cuba coming to the aid of Angola; Cuban assistance was requested and mutually understood as an act of solidarity; there was no lucrative, extractive gain as a result of Cuba mobilizing to send troops and doctors to Angola; and, Angola’s sovereignty was not undermined, rather it was defended by Cuba. Therefore, a consideration of the stakes, aims, methods, and the whole politics of intervention need to be clearly thought out and articulated. What there should not be is any more of the reflex “cries”: “something must be done,” “we cannot stand idly by,” and so forth—complex situations require maturity and political acumen, not trivial passion.

A final set of questions concerns the prospect of a graduating student working for a NGO. As I tell seminar participants, no one will benefit from their starving and being homeless; no argument will be “won,” or should be won, at the cost of their own suffering. Life in a capitalist society is always full of compromises, such that an extra-systemic stance of total purity is unattainable. As a professor, I should know all about complicity: working in an institution essential to the training of new capitalist cadres, with multiple ties to all sorts of corporate interests, under neoliberal management, and even tied to the military and military industries. The point then is not to automatically forego the chance of earning an income in what is possibly one of the few major growth industries left in the west—that of the NGO complex—but to perhaps treat such employment strategically, as a stepping stone perhaps, where one acts as a critical insider, not allowing oneself to be digested by the system, and always being ready to expose hypocrisies and injustices as they arise. One should also be sober about envisioning change purely by individual means. “What am I to do” and “what can I change” are always flawed questions because they first assume the centrality of individual action, when transformation can only ever be achieved collectively.

Inevitably (because it always happens) students and others will doubt the value of studies in this area, feeling that such work is not practical or applicable, and that it lacks a “real world” extension—we need to “do”. It is true that in sociology and anthropology we lack courses on fundraising, writing brochures, community canvassing, or installing electrical wiring and performing dental work—and that is not a problem. We do not need to try to do everything, and students with such interests and motivations need not see sociology and anthropology as terminal points of qualification. Courses in carpentry and financial management are always available to those who are interested. Yet, this is still not a satisfactory way of addressing the disquiet. The disquiet is itself rooted in a limited understanding and appreciation of what we really do, by first of all divorcing thought from action, and secondly not realizing that it is often thinking itself that is a woefully absent or minimized action in our society. Certain norms of action in our society are taken for granted, and held as unquestionable, in part because few are those who challenge, criticize, unthink and rethink what is done (military intervention, capitalist development, individualistic consumerism, etc.), and why it is done. It’s the generalized absence of such real questioning that precludes the possibility of real debate and consideration of alternatives. Changing what is considered to be unthinkable and unspeakable is itself a form of practical action, arguably of the most essential kind.

The intention here was not to provide some easy blueprint, or a map of safe or recommended options. The aim was also not to have students abandon their own good intentions. The method is instead one that asks students: what are your good intentions, what makes them good, and how do you put your intentions into practice? Whose roads are paved by your good intentions, and where do those roads lead?

References

Amadiume, I. (1987). Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society. London, UK: Zed Books.

Mathers, K. (2010). Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.


GOOD INTENTIONSGOOD INTENTIONS

Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism

Edited by Maximilian C. Forte

Montreal, QC: Alert Press, 2014

Hard Cover ISBN 978-0-9868021-5-7
Paperback ISBN 978-0-9868021-4-0


5 thoughts on “About Those Good Intentions

  1. Given that times change, often for the worse,it is no doubt true that my own experience from fifty years back could be considered irrelevant . Briefly, young people of the Peace Corps first generation were motivated, I believe, by a mingling of motives, of which pure altruism was one; add- a sense of adventure, a taste for exoticism, a feeling that one’s comrades were prompted by similar motives ( so that, for some, the possibility of meeting a future partner in the field was maybe an attraction) and , often, a real talent to offer. In my case, several years of teaching school (languages) with appropriate professional training ( I also knew at least one pharmacist ) – so we did have something to offer in a country where skilled professionals were, at the time, lacking. My guess is that a call, say, from the Palestinian ministry for education for English teachers would be a valid cause for a young person to volunteer ;or if the Ministry of Health asked your NGO to send trainer midwives etc. It can always be argued that the dominant classes in the host country are being aided more than the ordinary people by such interventions. That, however, is counsel of despair.
    No doubt , the energies of the altruists could be well spent on the home front (e.g., Canada) and your advice about collective action is indisputable. Still, the almost total lack of leadership
    must dissuade youngsters from entering into radical NGO’s – where do you find an established group which, for example, militates for socialism ? Single issue campaigns almost never maintain their momentum , the dying out of the old leadership sometimes bringing the undertaking to an abrupt hiatus (an example :CND in the UK) The key generation to provide
    an enduring organisational backbone to a radical NGO, as for organisations generally, in my opinion, is the 40-50 year-olds. Without such a management team to help them, many home front volunteers will campaign briefly, then most likely be lost to activism for decades , or for good.To sum up : recent graduates ought to ponder why they wish to go overseas when so much needs doing at home. In all cases, getting some professional experience is highly desirable. A “white man’s burden” attitude is as unacceptable as a patronising approach to those at home whom one tries to help ,and, ideally ,political activists need to be co-operators or facilitators not “directors”; finally, in human, non-quantifiable terms, one generally gets more out of volunteer experiences than one gives. Give it a go !

  2. Reblogged this on mysophobia 潔癖 and commented:
    Frustrated with what they perceive as their inability to change the politics of their own nation, some feel that they might make more of an impact in a different nation (Mathers, 2010, p. 169). Yet this assumes that other societies are less complex, easier to change and even receptive to outsiders bringing about change for them. If one feels that Africa is oppressed, then why assume that is to Africa that one must go, rather than work at home to change the policies of one’s country, for example, supporting debt forgiveness, challenging unjust trade and aid policies, reining in your corporations, or pushing for the demilitarization of the foreign relations of one’s own country? It is important not to assume that others are simply waiting for a stranger to come and lead them, like a Hollywood tale of the usual white messiah who is always the hero of other people’s stories.
    What other agendas are facilitated by military intervention, such that the “cure” can end up being worse than the “illness”? How is war consistent with the defense of human rights? How do you avoid the risk of prolonging, widening and further militarizing a local political conflict by intervening militarily?

  3. This has been a great series of articles, and this book deserves to do really well. It has really brought home to me the utter and absolute collapse of the Western Left, and its co-option into the most vile Mitlaufer role in the service of imperialism. Of course, we saw that clearly when most of the Western Left cheered on the destruction of Libya and Syria, and, as you say above, in the acceptance of the Western Left of a complete regression from the ideal of the welfare state to the promotion of private charity.

  4. Thanks for the comments, and apologies for the fact that every single comment was sent off to the spam queue (including from a ZA contributor, which makes no sense at all).

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