top of page

The Paternalistic Nature of Humanitarianism

By Hala Abu-Maizer



In the time we re-emerge from pandemic, we should reconsider how we operate in the world, including how we talk about and view humanitarian aid in all its forms and its inherent top down approach. This is necessary for us to acknowledge and come to terms with in order to come to terms with change. Paternalism is an inherent feature in all of our relationships and dynamics within our societies as human beings. We start to see it in many traditional family structures, where the mother and father instruct the children using their capacities as parents and self-assumed roles as caretakers in the form of conditionality and persuasion (Baker, 2015); children then do it to each other using their age as a point of reference to instruct the youngest down the chain. In many cultures, we see the bigger family structures instruct those who they perceive as inexperienced, like single members, child free couple, or inexperienced new parents. In communities, we see paternalism play out within softer and more acceptable parameters, through helping the ones we perceive as helpless, or unable to help themselves like homeless people, or drug addicts. Humanitarianism is similar to the idea of adopting coping mechanisms. On the onset of prolonged or short-lived crisis of any magnitude, people adopt coping mechanisms to ensure their survival and capacity to operate within it. When the immediate stress is alleviated, it often leaves behind the coping mechanism adopted by the person or collective. This is the key point in which human beings can be active agents in their own demise. Faced with a choice people either keep reliving the trauma or become more resilient because of it. Humanitarianism in all its shapes and forms walks this fine line of either enabling dependency or resilience.

 


PATERNALISM

One definition of paternalism states the “Notion that the actions or preferences of certain persons require interference from others, on the basis that such persons cannot be trusted to do right by themselves or others if left to their own devices” (Baker, 2015, p.95: VanDeVeer, 1986). The notion of “care” under which the act is done suggest good intentions through a generous act of kindness. Where the act of “interference” in the definition suggests the assumption of control by the subject, either against the will of the object or without consent (VanDeVeer, 1986).The way in which paternalism manifests itself will often vary depending on the subject’s perception of the object. Individuals can harbor different preferences and prejudices to individuals or communities depending on whether they categorise them as in-group or out-group (Baker, 2015). An out-group is one that the individual, community or society is unable to relate to either religiously, racially, culturally or geographically – the “other” or the “foreigner”. Baker (2015) describes racial paternalism as an individual’s belief in aiding those who are of a certain race, which are perceived to be unable to act because of negligence to their moral restraint, hence in need of one’s inherently wiser in-group. These out-groups can vary depending on someone’s sense of belonging and affiliation to a group. They may live in one’s own community and belong to different racial or religious backgrounds, or they may live in a foreign country. Paternalistic stereotypes sit comfortably between perceiving the out-group as non-threatening (lack of mal-intention), and feeling pity towards them due to perceived helplessness (Baker, 2015). Any person from any community and racial or ethnic background can hold paternalistic stereotypes; such biases often flow from a judgment of other people’s agency and autonomy, rather than disdain due to out-group status (Baker, 2015). Holding these stereotypes can extend to associating positive traits exclusively to the in-group, rather than the out-group and stripping the out-group of its essential humanity (Leyens et al., 2000). Where this trait can only apply to an in-group and deny it from others, therefore de-humanising them in the process (Baker, 2015; Leyens et al 2000). Viewing groups through patronising lenses will imply that the out-group is inferior in every sense of the word and do not have the capacity to plan correctly, act legitimately or appropriately, and do not carry distinct human traits and emotions (Leyens et al 2000). Exacerbated by the narrative mass media pushes to the public (Baker, 2015), in grouping the demonic portrayal of minorities, migrants, and even foreign regimes and less developed countries as dangerous, disease ridden, malnourished, and senseless killers in some instances. In addition to the urgency to “save” and “act” upon these largely unquestioned assumptions and alternative facts. This is the epitome of paternalism, overlayed with ethnocentrism; the belief that only “we” can aid those who are suffering with our better developed economic, political, religious or even emotional knowledge.


“Paternalistic stereotypes sit comfortably between perceiving the out-group as non-threatening (lack of mal-intention), and feeling pity towards them due toperceived helplessness”

 


The sensitivity to paternalism is also very important. Upon looking closely, we can see the ways in which paternalism plays out internally in our own societies as well as externally in the way in which it is projected onto others. Depending on the case we are observing, we can believe that all humans are autonomous and are competent enough to make decisions, yet sometimes this is suspended. Internally, when we observe individuals engaging in self-injuring behaviour we assume they are incapable of knowing their best self-interest, therefore we create regulations and laws around it to bar certain activities like the selling of organs or underage drinking (Barnett, 2016).

 





“Viewing groups through patronising lenses will imply that the out-group is inferior in every sense of the word and do not have the capacity to plan correctly, act legitimately or appropriately, and do not carry distinct human traits and emotions”

 





HUMANITARIANISM IN THE FORM OF FOREIGN INTERVENTION

This type of humanitarian intervention involves military intervention in the name of protecting people from human rights abuses. More specifically, “An armed intervention is humanitarian when its aim is to protect innocent people who are not nationals of the intervening state from violence perpetrated or permitted by the government of the targeted state” (Nardin, 2006, p.1). The intervention can also be against insurgents who are committing crimes against civilians and control territory in the case of a failed state like Rwanda or Somalia in the 1990s. This is the most obvious demonstration of a failed state sovereignty, where the state is inhibited from enforcing public order and protect its civilians (Weiss, 2012). These two cases of jeopardised security will evoke an impulse to intervene by foreign states that will undermine the “territorial integrity and political sovereignty of an independent state […] for humanitarian reasons” (Tan, 2006, p.89). What makes these interventions permissible is the severity of atrocities committed, like the enslavement of people, and large massacres of genocidal and non-genocidal nature. In addition to the intent behind the intervention – to put an end to serious human rights violations (Tan, 2006). Another important point of differentiation, military action in this contexts is seen to be the last resort after non-military alternative have been exhausted without triumph, therefore weighted as to be more likely to succeed (Tan, 2006; Newman, 2009). The overarching theme is protecting human rights, and therefore if an intervention is perceived as just and essential, then the state that commits such heinous crimes waives its right to be viewed and treated as a legitimate sovereign state (Newman, 2009). This is different from peacekeeping, where it is “based on principles of consent, neutrality, and non use of force except in self-defense” (Weiss, 2012, p.9) which is vastly different from the deployment of a government’s military to intervene in the affairs of another.



“The overarching theme is protecting human rights, and therefore if an intervention is perceived as just and essential, then the state that commits such heinous crimes waives its right to be viewed and treated as a legitimate sovereign state”


The term “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) was coined in the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS)’s report in December 2001, which essentially argued that sovereignty carried responsibilities towards its people and grave violations will become a matter of international concern and intervention (Hehir, 2012). This came into existence from the lessons learned from cases like Kosovo and Rwanda where questions around when, how, and to what extent to intervene arose. The timing of the report being so close to the events of 9/11 catapulted the pro-intervention school of thought and highly integrated it as a policy option (Weiss, 2012). Yet the form in which this exists now and the course it is taking will not be able to change the serious discrepancies that have represented the humanitarian foreign state intervention (Hehir, 2012). Despite controversial forcible intervention existing prior to this report, they persisted after with deeply rooted paternalistic and even imperial rhetoric.


Non-western countries have deeply questioned those motives and have considered these intervening states as self-professed keepers of global order. Further, the repeated use of defending human rights have consistently undermined state sovereignty (Davidson, 2012), and lead to meddling with local political affairs by the intervening states. The growing wave of forced interventions carried from the 1990s onward have been perceived to be a rising trend in expanding the western liberal agenda and establishing geo-political control over what they perceive as illiberal governments (Davidson, 2012). Moreover, the selective and apparent strategic interest of intervening governments in some contexts and not others where human rights abuses has gone unchecked supports the perception of them being more imperialist than humanitarian, like the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq (Jamison, 2011). In the case of the US invasion of Iraq specifically, the motives were to protect or advance the interests of the United States, and not the people suffering under Hussein’s rule (Nardin, 2005). Had it been motivated by humanitarian causes then we would not have seen the systematic disregard and disrespect to human life and dignity. Additionally, the aim was to replace the existing system of governance to one that is centrally managed by the U.S (Nardin, 2005).


“Non-western countries have deeply questioned those motives and have considered these intervening states as self-professed keepers of global order”

 


This is where the perception of these interventions become muddy and display the detriment of acting based on often ill-informed good intentions. Through the illusion that doing something is better than doing nothing is very destructive and can deepen other’s suffering instead of alleviate it in hindsight, especially when the motives are not purely altruistic and humanitarian. Western governments often intervene in other countries in order to further their own geopolitical interests, and they often invoke humanitarian concerns to justify their actions to their own citizens and to the rest of the world. This is exactly what the R2P had set out to prevent, where a permissible intervention must be multilateral (Tan, 2006). The power vacuum created because of these types of intervention leads non-state actors to enforce their control over territories, causing mass displacements.

 

HUMANITARIANISM IN THE FORM OF FOREIGN EMERGENCY AID AND ASSISTANCE

The first type of humanitarianism operates within the same space as this second type, where it could even induce the need and initiation of the second, they are also likely to overlap, as well as. The nature of humanitarian disasters caused by the onset of violent civil conflict challenge the parameters in which it operates. Parameters like consent, impartiality and neutrality (Weiss, 2012). It is important to recognise that humanitarian aid is system attributes to alleviating suffering and saving thousands of lives annually through delivering urgent goods and services across many sectors in a timely manner. Humanitarian aid also operates within many challenging circumstances and workers as well as organisations are forced to compromise their principles in order to priorities reaching people in desperate need. Yet the relationship is often afflicted by an unreliable blend of compassion and desire to help, and an unequal power dynamic that could extent to dominance and control (Barnett, 2016). The challenges faced by this type of humanitarianism allows us to start to have a glimpse into the different undercurrents that dominate.


Despite humanitarian assistance being driven by strong and genuine elements of urgency, compassion, generosity and goodwill, the actions and processes can often rob and intrude on other’s agency, autonomy and liberty (Barnett, 2016), portraying strong paternalistic features either intentionally or unintentionally. In the field, paternalistic features are more subtle in seeing people in powerful senior decision-making positions dominated by Europeans and North Americans. We can also see strong elements of paternalism when aid deliveries are bound to certain policies and terms of execution.  Donors typically impose these parameters – which does not erode the case for paternalism, but definitely illuminates the origin of it. These things are legitimately needed, yet at the same time seeing the need to operate within a refugee camp and implementing a project that teaches people how to wash their hands, for example, would seem to cross the line from well meaning to paternalistic. Humanitarians operate within very strong bureaucratic frameworks that can be counterintuitive to empowering recipient of aid. It would suffice to say that all types of aid, be it multilateral, bilateral or through INGOs, comes with specific instruction on how to be channeled and utilised (Baker, 2015). This is especially evident with cash transfers. We often see restrictions on what the recipient is able to spend money on and where. Barnett (2016) stresses that the conviction of the superordinate actor in directly interfering in the affairs of others with a sense of obligation and authority is what separates paternalism from other hierarchal relationships. Baker (2015) is reaching with this argument about North Americans’ generosity towards Africans in general, but has sound logic. Where this is a very strong demonstration of white paternalism towards African blacks extending their pity and generosity, only when there is a degree of control over what the funds can get the recipient. According to him, this is because they underestimate the agency of recipient and capacity to priorities and competence to make decisions.


“Despite humanitarian assistance being driven by strong and genuine elements of urgency, compassion, generosity and goodwill, the actions and processes can often rob and intrude on other’s agency, autonomy and liberty”




The way in which aid agencies have often chosen to market appeals, especially but not limited child sponsorship campaigns is another feature of humanitarian aid that can demonstrate very strong paternalistic features. By deliberately featuring distraught often black or brown children with bloated bellies, or teenage girls sleeping on the streets reels in tremendous amounts of money, it does the very same people they’re trying to help a great disservice (Nathanson, 2013). Despite this being done with the intention to tug at the heartstrings of donors, the distorted, powerless and outright offensive portrayal of people in this manner needs revision. It is furthered by the message that only your donation can help save their life. This strongly undermines the complexities associated with the roots of poverty and poverty alleviation as well as complex emergencies and contexts (Nathanson, 2013).


Only when the relationship between humanitarians and recipients of aid change, then the uneven power dynamic can change (Barnett, 2016). This emphasises the need for humanitarianism to be done with recipients, instead of for them. This pattern of behavior is also prevalent in higher ranks. When senior officials and other elites operate within the parameters of compassion and the sentiment of pity for the greater good of the people, they start to become self-appointed spokespersons for those they are advocating for. This therefore, strongly challenges the notion of consent and inclusivity of those who are facing real hardships (Barnett, 2016). Hence, in order to move from the notion of pity and misfortune to solidarity and empowerment, the “other” needs to be granted power and a voice, and this is exactly the point where the advocates can become insensitive to the very people they are trying to help (Barnett, 2016).


The model for western civilisation is falling apart and is rapidly changing, and therefore is in an urgent need for reconsideration. Instructive forms of paternalism that have been addressed leads me to the conclusion that basing our assessment of a person on our assumptions about their capability is similar to the cases made by sexism (assuming women are more emotional than men are), and racism (assuming “other” races are less intelligent or capable). Such adjectives as “developed” and “developing,” “advanced” and “traditional,” “well governed” and “failed” implies the latter is inferior and therefore intrinsically less than (Barnett, 2016). Moving forward, our heightened sensitivity to other’s suffering should go beyond our pursuit of glory in concurring the challenges faced by others. The mere expression of kindness and sympathy is not to be conflated with actually helping. Helping is also not the same as making things better or fixing an existing problem. As professional social and international development practitioners, as well as citizens of an increasingly sensitive, woke and complex global culture we must move beyond superficial kindness as a means to absolve ourselves of responsibility and guilt. Wanting to do good is commendable, but it is not enough if we are not mindful of the population’s welfare in contrast to their welfare from not intervening (Barnett, 2016). Paternalism is an inherent feature of any type of humanitarianism, be it implemented on the micro or macro scale, from our interpersonal relationships to those seemingly a world away.

 

 “The model for western civilisation is falling apart and is rapidly changing, and therefore is in an urgent need for reconsideration” 



 

References:

  • Baker, A. (2015). Race, Paternalism, and Foreign Aid: Evidence from U.S. Public Opinion. American Political Science Review. 109 (1), pp.93-109.

  • Barnett, M. (2017). The humanitarian act: how humanitarian?. International Social Science Journal. 65 (215)., pp.13-24.

  • Davidson, J. (2012). Humanitarian Intervention as Liberal Imperialism: A Force for Good? POLIS Journal. 7, pp.128-164.

  • Hehir, A. (2012). Introduction: Rhetoric and Reality. In: The Responsibility to Protect: Rhetoric, Reality and the Future of Humanitarian Intervention. London: Palgrave Mcmillan,pp.1-20.

  • Jamison, M. (2011). Humanitarian intervention since 1990 and ‘liberal interventionism’. In: Simms, B and Trim, D Humanitarian Intervention: A History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,pp.365-380.

  • Leyens, J.P, Paladino, P, Torres, R.R, Vaes, J, Demoulin, S, Perez, A, and Gaunt, R. (2000). The Emotional Side of Prejudice: The Attribution of Secondary Emotions to Ingroups and Outgroups”. Personality and Social Psychology Review. 4 (2), pp.186-197.

  • Nardin, T (2006). Introduction. In: Nardin, T and Williams, M. Humanitarian Intervention. New : New York University. pp.1.

  • Nardin, T. (2005). Response to “Ending Tyranny in Iraq” Humanitarian Imperialism. Ethics & International Affairs.19 (2). pp.21-26.

  • Nathanson, J. (2013). The Pornography of Poverty: Reframing the Discourse of International Aid’s Representations of Starving Children. Canadian Journal of Communication. 38 (1). pp. 103-120.

  • Newman, M. (2009). Post-Cold War Transformations. Humanitarian Intervention: Confronting Contradictions. London: C. Hurst & Co. pp. 38-77.

  • Tan, K.C. (2006). The Duty to Protect. In: Nardin, T and Williams, M Humanitarian Intervention. New  York : New York University. pp. 84 - 89.

  • VanDeVeer, D. (1986). The Nature and Scope of Paternalism. In: Cohen, M. Paternalistic Intervention The Moral Bounds on Benevolence. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. pp.10-44.

  • Weiss, T. (2012). New Wars and New Humanitarianisms. In: Humanitarian Intervention: Ideas in Action. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Polity Press.pp. 9-99

コメント


bottom of page