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Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy

Humanitarianism from Below: Alter-Politics and Struggles for the Universal

Timeline: 2023

Funding organisation: Swiss National Science Foundation, Scientific Exchange

Keywords: Humanitarianism, politics, Ukraine, Muslims, solidarity


Various practices of welfare, care and solidarity are omnipresent in day-to-day life around the world and delivered by a myriad of people and institutions. The Russian war against Ukraine has brought forth wide-spread and often spontaneous acts of humanitarianism, both in Ukraine and towards Ukrainian refugees abroad; Chinese volunteers once again venture out overseas after Covid restrictions have been lifted; the climate emergency has given rise to mass-expressions of care for the (non)human; and, child gangs look after children in the slums of Bangkok. Yet to what extent are such practices linked, how are they comparable, and how do they relate to international humanitarianism?In this collaborative project, we explore such practices using the theoretical frame of what we call humanitarianism from below - an emerging field of humanitarian engagement that is outside but not disconnected from the established spectrum of international humanitarianism. Specifically, we aim to establish an analytical optic onto such humanitarian engagements as forms of “alter-politics”, i.e., political encounters that involve alternative economies, social relations and ideas of otherness.

The project tackles this objective in a two-fold way. First, in the context of a collaborative case-study on the Crimean Tatars’ humanitarian response to war and displacement in Ukraine. Crimean Tatars - the descendants of Crimea’s precolonial Turkic-Muslim population - have over time experienced different forms of persecution and displacement. Over the past eight years, this has happened under Russian occupation and resulted in hundreds of arrests of Tatar activists. Through these multiple processes of displacement Crimean Tatars have established diasporic connections spanning far beyond the post-Soviet space. In our case-study, we analyse humanitarian practices of Crimean Tatars through the example of Hizb ut-Tahrir - a transnational pan-Islamic organization that provides material, psychological and legal assistance to victims of Russian persecution and their families. This case study - based on ethnography and document analysis - will, second, also feed into in a co-edited volume titled 'Humanitarianism from Below: Alter-Politics and Struggles for the Universal'. Approaching humanitarianism from below in comparative perspective, as co-editors, we will assemble chapters written by experts in the field who focus on case-studies from Brazil to Uganda to China.This collaboration aims to contribute substantially to the field of the anthropology of humanitarianism. While providing in-depth knowledge on the thus far neglected role that minorities from Ukraine play in the larger humanitarian response, the project also establishes a new comparative perspective on alternative humanitarian actors and the ways in which they transform the landscapes of humanitarianism on a global scale.