Humanitarian Colonialism

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 21 seconds

I’ve been in several different situations recently where I’ve seen people talk about what I’ve also recently learned can be called “humanitarian colonialism” or “colonialist humanitarianism”. It’s also a bit of a white savior complex behavior.

The first example I’ve seen of this was someone who talked proudly of the work they were doing to help Afghans get visas to the US. This is a very good example of starting a story with “secondly” (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie cites the Palestinian Mourid Barghouti for sharing how secondly erases history and tells a story from the middle – such as focusing on violence of Native Americans rather than the settler colonialism of the incoming Europeans; or focusing on Palestinians throwing stones rather than the violence of Israeli occupation, etc.). The Afghanistan story is not just secondly, it is maybe fourthly! Because not only is the US the one that invaded Afghanistan all these years ago and recruited these Afghans to help them (thus making them traitors to their own people who could not survive once the US left), they then LEFT Afghanistan in a way that was not safe. But not only that, the *reason* the US entered Afghanistan to capture Bin Laden, ignores the fact that the US *trained* Bin Laden originally to help Afghanistan fight against the Soviet Union way back when (Cold War I assume? There is an article here).

I was also recently at an event (that was mostly really wonderful and had great discussions) where many people kept focusing on the economic argument and economic injustice in Higher Education. The thread that kept coming up in the session drove me crazy, and as a panelist, I brought up the importance of also tackling cultural and political injustices in higher education (a la Nancy Fraser), because I kind of feel like the economic argument is a neocolonial type of argument: Trying to enhance economic access to a socially unjust system to postcolonial people who have internalized the superiority of white/Western knowledge, rather than changing the systems, then calling it a “scholarship” (read: charity; i.e. colonialist humanitarianism). For example, the UK makes international students pay double local students; they *could* just really make students from emerging economies pay less to begin with, and make it easier to enter with *dignity* rather than charity. They *could* hire more international academics as professors and change the academic cultural hegemony of white Western ways of knowing, rather than allowing international students in and trying to mold them into international bodies but white Western brains. They could make PhD programs more supportive and constructive by design, rather than depend on the whim of supervisors who can really destroy a person’s psyche and bring on impostor syndrome (my psyche was not destroyed; impostor syndrome is alive and well). Instead of using PhD programs to train people into writing and researching “like canon”, there might be space to do more of building one’s confidence as a researcher in ways that aren’t harmful along the way. Of encouraging people to discover or find their own way, rather than align to norms. I’m sure some wonderful PhD supervisors and programs do that. I know from speaking to everyone I know that many are not like this. And granting economic access to people who otherwise would not have been able to do the PhD, but keeping the PhD as it is, will only reproduce the internalized oppression of these people – make them feel like they have to change themselves in order to survive and become worthy of the PhD. And that’s not OK.

That’s my two cents. Or pence. Or piasters.

A quick note about the featured image. I searched for “humanitarianism” on Pixabay and found several similar photos – notice the small white hand covering the two brown hands? There were 3 photos similar to that. The white hand on TOP is what humanitarianism often is – and every time the white hand is on top, it is also colonialist. Image by Ralphs_Fotos from Pixabay

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