Blurred lines: development, human rights, humanitarianism

Last week, we read Bornstein and Redfield’s introductory chapter to Forces of Compassion. In it, the authors outline a distinction among development, human rights, and humanitarianism. The temporal orientation, disciplinary foci, and the professions associated with each of these forms of social action seem to distinguish them from each other. The authors state, for example, that development is associated with economics, livelihoods and poverty, and are progressive/future-oriented, while human rights organizations are concerned with law, and correcting past wrongs. Humanitarianism is medical and preoccupied with the present, the ‘right now.’ They draw this distinction, I think, because there’s a group of anthropologists who have lumped the work of improving and ‘saving’ lives under ‘humanitarianism’ — the suggestion here being that humanitarianism’s particularity is rooted in a particular conception of ‘humanity’ and ‘life’ and an ethos or structure of feeling, rather than professional and bureaucratic categories. The authors note that their three-pronged schematic is crude, but I think it is telling that they need to provide this schematic at all. Again, I think it lies in humanitarian and development professionals’ clarity about what distinguishes them from each other, and the kind of ethics and professional practice these different kinds of intervention entail. Yet the institutions engaged in these forms of social action not only perform many of these functions at once, but also find themselves using multiple frames simultaneously to justify and continue their work.

As a kind of thought exercise, I went to several international non-governmental organization (iNGO) websites and looked at the short program publicity reports to see how well Bornstein and Redfield’s categories hold up in ‘practice’ — or at least in the routine NGO practice of describing projects for a general audience. I cut and paste these excerpts into a quiz and asked students to identify whether they described humanitarianism, development or human rights programs, as defined by Bornstein and Redfield. Although I was sure to pull excerpts that generally fit the descriptions provided by the authors, students still had some trouble placing the quotes into categories: could the participatory health program that held health facility managers accountable be considered a human rights  (on the issues of participation and rights-oriented language) and a humanitarian (for its medical orientation) program? Of course, the crude association of categories of intervention with professions and disciplines was perhaps less useful than the more analytical move of highlighting the temporal and ideological orientations that we associate with these approaches.

To drive the point home that these distinctions are quite blurred in practice — and manifest in different framing of social problems and, therefore, programs — I asked students to look at the websites of five different organizations (two human rights iNGOs, two development/relief iNGOs and a UN agency) and see how each organization addresses water issues. Of course, many of the largest iNGOs, like CARE or Oxfam, which are firmly situated in all three traditions, describe the problem in multiple ways; they have ‘cornered the market,’ so to speak. On CARE’s water website, for example, they use the language of emergency and crisis; that of long-term investment; and of public health and rights.


A search for ‘water’ on two human rights websites, Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights, framed the issue much differently. In addition to suggesting that access to water was a human right, most of their reports concerned water access issues in terms of violations: police crackdowns on water access protesters; shaming mining companies that polluted water sources or displaced people from clean water; disease outbreaks due to poor prison conditions, etc.

On bureaucracy

Last week in my anthropology and global social problems class, students learned about bureaucracy and how anthropologists engage with the concept. We read the introduction to Hummel’s famous book on The Bureaucratic Experience, which is a pretty good primer on how bureaucracy transforms social action, human relations, and bureaucrats themselves.

We started class with this clip:

A brief description: With ominous music playing in the background, a young woman stands in the doorway of what appears to be a government office. Her eyes follow something — someone? — off-camera. Within moments, we see that she has been watching a dark-haired man who soon stops in the doorway, eyes wide and frightened. She responds with a sideways glance of her own. The woman is buzzed over to a desk where a bureaucrat, dressed in a black sweater adorned with leather, lazily chews on a toothpick and shuffles papers. She takes a seat at his desk. The bureaucrat interrupts her as she begins to speak and gestures for her to wait as he pours his coffee.  After the coffee is poured, the woman tells him that she would like to register as a freelance worker. The bureaucrat rapidly fires off a series of requests, procedures and esoteric form names. With each request, the woman slaps down a form with defiance. The final administrative task that the bureaucrat requires, stapling documents together, is presented to the audience with great suspense. The two stare at each other and then at a distant desk, where a lone stapler sits. The two dive for the stapler; the bureaucrat reaches it first. But the woman has one more trick up her sleeve. Reminiscent of the final gunfight in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, a close-up of the woman’s hand reveals a stapler neatly tucked into her shirt sleeve. The bureaucrat drops his stapler, the woman staples her documents. The bureaucrat, foiled in his attempt to set up requisite roadblocks and ‘red tape’, crumples to his desk, defeated.

What can we infer from this short film about bureaucracy? Some students recognized this as evidence of the psychological and cognitive effects of bureaucracy: one’s professional identity is lost once he has no administrative work to do! Others saw the depersonalization of bureaucracy in this clip. And of course, there’s the hierarchy and rules, procedures and paperwork that characterize bureaucracy.

The hierarchical organization of ‘the office’ and the numerous administrative procedures central to bureaucracy also come through in this familiar clip from Office Space (1999) about TPS reports:

Because bureaucracy is a common feature of university life — and everyday life, more generally — students were quickly able to recognize its features in this clip. The ‘iron cage’ of the increased bureaucratization of social life and human action was easy to see here.

Yet, when I asked them about Arendt’s claims about the links between violence and bureaucracy, they were challenged to think about how bureaucracies, as ‘tyranny without tyrants’ might inspire ‘real’ violence:

the greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant. The crucial feature in the students’ rebellions around the world is that they are directed everywhere against the ruling bureaucracy. This explains, what at first glance seems so disturbing, that the rebellions in the East demand precisely those freedoms of speech and thought that the young rebels in the West say they despise as irrelevant. Huge party machines have succeeded everywhere to overrule the voice of the citizens, even in countries where freedom of speech and association is still intact.

Or how it might, in fact, be backed up by the threat of violence, as in this clip from Brazil:

or in David Graeber’s provocative 2006 Malinowski Lecture, in which he writes:

We are not used to thinking of nursing homes or banks or even HMOs as violent institutions—except perhaps in the most abstract and metaphorical sense. But the violence I’m referring to here is not epistemic. It’s quite concrete. All of these are institutions involved in the allocation of resources within a system of property rights regulated and guaranteed by governments in a system that ultimately rests on the threat of force. “Force,” in turn, is just a euphemistic way to refer to violence. All of this is obvious enough. What’s of ethnographic interest, perhaps, is how rarely citizens in industrial democracies actually think about this fact, or how instinctively we try to discount its importance. This is what makes it possible, for example, for graduate students to be able to spend days in the stacks of university libraries poring over theoretical tracts about the declining importance of coercion as a factor in modern life, without ever reflecting on that fact that, had they insisted on their right to enter the stacks without showing a properly stamped and validated ID, armed men would indeed be summoned to physically remove them, using whatever force might be required. It’s almost as if the more we allow aspects of our everyday existence to fall under the purview of bureaucratic regulations, the more everyone concerned colludes to downplay the fact (perfectly obvious to those actually running the system) that all of it ultimately depends on the threat of physical harm.

This all dovetails into a guest lecture by Kirk Johnson, who spoke about his work with the List Project. During that lecture, Kirk talked about his work with USAID during reconstruction efforts in Iraq. In his book, he notes how his work was less about development and more about managing contracts and contractors. He also described his work with The List Project and the various administrative tactics used by the US government to prevent Iraqis who worked alongside US agencies and military (and are now in danger because of that involvement) to receive visas to come to the US.

Right now, we’re still grappling with the relationships between war and bureaucracy, why it matters, and what anthropologists have to say about this relationship. But I do think that we’re off to a good start.

Using short-form writing and audio to build critical skills

This semester, I’ve been testing out several new kinds of assignments. Reading themes, podcasts, blogs. All are to get the students thinking about how to be observant, critical thinkers and how to communicate their analyses. Each of the exercises builds into one big final project: a This American Life style podcast. (Yes, I know. High expectations). For this reason, our discussions and mini-assignments are largely focused on building skills that allow them to read difficult material and listen carefully, recall and recount what they read and listened to, and to find links among stories, events and processes that are not always obvious upon first glance. Ultimately, they should be able to carefully observe their social worlds and analyze what they see in new and exciting ways. Here’s an overview of two of the assignments:

Reading themes. Each week, the student submits a word or phrase that illuminates one of the following:

    • A keyword in a conceptual or theoretical framework used by the author. For example, we read Tim Burke’s Lifebuoy Men, which grapples with the utility of Marxist theory for historiography (use-value, exchange-value, false needs, commodity fetishism) and the ‘social life of things.’ Students would then post some of these keywords and be expected to discuss and define them in class.
    • A theme that reveals the kinds of ‘conversations’ the author is in. For example, in this same book, it was clear that Burke was also dealing with a social science literature that sought to follow a commodity and the cultural meanings associated with it: in short, the social biography of a commodity.
    • A keyword or phrase about which the authors are not explicit, but which raises new questions for you and the reading. This is that sophisticated layer of analysis that takes a bit more time, and often a larger reading repertoire, but something I hope will happen by the end of the course.

The reading themes are then put in a word cloud. Frequency of terms reflects the issues that students tackled as they read the text. These word clouds guide the lecture and discussion. As you can imagine, there are also lots of words that never make it into the cloud. It’s my job to figure out what got omitted and why, and to address these in the discussion. 

Week-in-review podcasts. I got the idea for this assignment from a communications and rhetoric professor. Each week, a group of students pair up to create a five-minute audio summary of what we discussed in class. It serves two purposes:

    • Students learn how to take a relatively large amount of information and condense it, making it digestible for an audience of their peers. In theory, they are also learning to make decisions about what is important and how to organize various insights into themes. (This has been the most difficult part so far, but I am working on shifting that a bit). 
    • Students have a lower stakes opportunity to experiment with developing audio content from writing to recording to editing.

So far, I am thinking about how to better integrate students’ week-in-review podcasts into the teaching and to ensure that the word clouds become more than just a pretty depiction of word frequency for the students. I hope to post more information as we get deeper into the semester.