08 June 2020

Humanitarians’ Motivations

Humanitarianism as a historical subject is relatively new. In a contribution to The Red Cross Movement: Myths, Practices and Turning Points (Manchester University Press), Davide Rodogno, Professor of International History at the Graduate Institute, reflects on the motivations of western humanitarians. Certainty, ingrained arrogance and compassion were the pillars upon which their motivations were erected, apparently leaving no place for doubt in their thinking. Interview.

At the beginning of your chapter you draw a line between western humanitarianism beginnings in the eighteenth century and the present. In your view, what is the point of origin of western humanitarianism? 

Some historians are obsessed with origins and the idea of seeking for the origins of a given phenomenon or an international practice. I have been struggling with this idea of the origins of western humanitarianism or so-called “modern” humanitarianism. What do we mean by modern? Whose modernity? How many modernities are there? The dichotomic ways in which some of us divide the modern from the traditional did not suit me at all. I wanted to look in more detail into continuities, changes, and ruptures. The late eighteenth century and Enlightenment are a relevant starting point to look at changes and continuities that still seem to matter today. Ditto with the early twentieth century, the time period I focus on in my research, a time period some historians view as a clear-cut caesura with the past and the birth of “modern western humanitarianism”. 

To follow on that, can you elaborate on the continuities?

When examining early twentieth century Western international humanitarianism, I thought it is important to encompass domestic and colonial contexts. The idea of an international humanitarianism being completely disconnected from the domestic or the colonial seemed to make no sense. I have been looking at practices that took place at the domestic or colonial level by a number of different actors, charities, volunteers, philanthropic foundations and missionaries for instance. Then I examined these practices when implemented by some actors, sometimes the same actors, internationally. And I found out that striking similarities exist between late-nineteenth century practices and those implemented during and in the wake of the First World War. 

Can you say a few words on your approach to the sources you examined in humanitarian organisations? 

Humanitarian institutions’ sources are biased and powerful. They force the historian to see the (their) story through the eyes of the institution itself. It was very important for me to take a critical distance from these sources but I had to gather the most information possible to understand the motivations of individuals or institutions, and why they were doing what they were doing. Very often, whether in their official publications, pamphlets, newsletters, flyers or reports, they talk about their successes and conceal their failures.

You work on the supply side of humanitarianism. Isn’t there a risk of writing an unbalanced story? 

I wanted to be honest and modest with respect to what I can do with my research. I felt way more comfortable writing on the supply side of humanitarianism, i.e. the story told from the perspective of western humanitarians and western humanitarian institutions. I am perfectly aware that there are so many different stories that can be written taking into account the demand side, i.e. the recipients of aid and their experiences. But I either had no access to these sources or could not read some languages, like Arabic. For instance, I’ve been working on orphanages and Armenian orphans specifically, but I don’t speak the several languages that Ottoman Armenians spoke. And even if I spoke their languages, it would have been quite difficult to retrieve or find more about the voices of these very young children, who were most often wandering in the streets in the Caucasus, Lebanon, or Aleppo and were saved either by local Armenian charities or international institutions operating in the area during this time. 

That is a great snapshot of the difficulty of capturing the history, but returning to the humanitarians and their motivations, can you elaborate on your idea of certainty and compassion leading to “ingrained arrogance”? 

We have to contextualise the humanitarians I deal with in my research and, by the way, the term “humanitarian” at that time meant very different things to different people. I talk about an ingrained arrogance, a term I use in its etymological Latin meaning (arrogare), which bears the idea of protection or trusteeship. Western humanitarians thought of their civilization as being the most advanced; these people, men and women, were white, educated elites who had very clear views on racial hierarchies existing around the world and had a very high opinion of their own religion. This in turn should tell us something about their posture with respect to the recipients of aid. Their arrogance was fed by certainty. I refer to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work On Certainty to qualify my own. Such certainty went far beyond self-confidence and existed alongside compassion, which allowed humanitarians to connect (and empathise) with the recipients of aid. Certainty, ingrained arrogance and compassion trigger humanitarian actions, they can be seen as the pillars upon which humanitarians’ motivations were erected. It was and still is more difficult for me to know about humanitarians’ doubts. Was doubt ever present in their thinking? If so, when did they doubt? And how did they doubt?

Your answer leads me to the next question. Can you discuss your reference from Apocalypse Now in a book on humanitarianism? Specifically, your quote of Colonel Kurtz in a text that deals with humanitarian compassion looks odd? 

I use the monologue by Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, which is more than just a reference to Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, because I wanted to draw a parallel about two moral universes that theoretically speaking could not be more distant from one another, that is, Kurtz’s moral universe and the moral universe of humanitarians. Surprisingly, there are points of contact that have to do with the ways in which Kurtz thinks and reflects on certainty and compassion, on what people are ready to do and why people are ready to do a number of things. In the monologue he says something, the gist of which is, “If I had so many soldiers ready to do the kind of things I have seen these people doing, we would have won this war long ago.” By the way, I really loved the film and Marlon Brando’s performance, which I think is one of the most amazing cinematographic performances I have ever seen on screen. 

Are there other fiction references you suggest for exploring your thread of history?

I have been using the early 1990s film Night on Earth by Jim Jarmusch as a narrative framework of my book. And this will also be the title of my upcoming monograph. Jarmusch’s movie is structured around episodes, my book too. The movie is, in my view, a powerful metaphor and a tale of miscommunication between taxi drivers and their clients, which applies to my own narrative. A story where the taxi drivers are likened to humanitarian institutions, and the clients sitting in the back which are of course the recipients of aid. In the movie and in my story, very often, the client knows where he or she wants to go but of course the taxi driver knows better. The client says, “I want to go to fifth avenue, you should take this route” but of course the taxi driver refuses because he is in charge, he or she knows better, that is the point. The fact of knowing and certainty is part of the deal. This is why I have been using (or abusing) Jim Jarmusch. The title Night on Earth for a book dealing with the aftermath of the First World War seemed to me very evocative and appropriate. It is an homage to one of the film directors that I love. The movie’s score is by Tom Waits, one of my favourite singers (and a story-telling master).

Let’s get back to the context of your current chapter. It is rather critical of humanitarians and given that it is located in a book on the Red Cross Movement, can you explain how it fits into the book?

This project with Neville Wylie, Melanie Oppenheimer and James Crossland has been going on for a number of years and examines the history of the Red Cross Movement. It is an attempt to go beyond hagiographical narratives and institutional history. A number of colleagues from all over the world contributed. In my chapter I state, against my interest perhaps, that I do not believe in becoming a historian of humanitarianism, and I don’t want to be remembered as a historian of humanitarianism. To write a good history of humanitarianism one has to mobilise other historiographical fields, from cultural to military to diplomatic to gender history, and other disciplines, such as geography, international law and anthropology.

You argue that “civilization” was a manifestation of the arrogance of western humanitarians. Is there hope that other sources of humanitarianism might be different? 

I hope new generations of historians and scholars will study other manifestations of humanitarianism. And this is why I care about adding the “western” adjective. Because there are many other ways we can think, study, reflect on humanitarianism that go beyond the (paradigmatic) West. This brings me back to the first part of your question. Since the late eighteenth century and throughout the entire nineteenth century, the heydays of western colonialism and imperialism, down to decolonisation and even beyond decolonisation, “civilization” has been one of these key terms extremely loaded and frequently used by humanitarians. It is intimately related to visions and imaginaries of race and propounded a humanitarianism that went beyond relief, encompassing proto-development dimensions. This is something we tend to forget, especially in Geneva because the ideas of humanitarianism we are exposed to are those of the ICRC and MSF. For decades the idea of humanitarian aid encompassed more than the idea of fixing bodies to include improving, uplifting, and betterment. This is why I frame western humanitarianism in the context of western civilization. I think the complex of superiority ingrained in it is the key to study humanitarianism, historicise its purpose and find out more about its specific weight.

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Full citation of Professor Rodogno’s book’s chapter:
Rodogno, Davide. “Certainty, Compassion and the Ingrained Arrogance of Humanitarians.” In The Red Cross Movement: Myths, Practices and Turning Points, edited by Neville Wylie, Melanie Oppenheimer and James Crossland. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020.

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Interview by Joshua Thew, PhD candidate in International History.

Image: excerpt from: NYPL, John Finley Papers, Box 165, Armenian refugees from far-away provinces in Asia-Minor found shelter in Jerusalem and were fed and clothed by the Syrian and Palestine Relief Fund, Assisted by the American Red Cross (original caption of the photograph).