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What’s There to Mourn? Decolonial Reflections on (the End of) Liberal Humanitarianism

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Abstract

This paper questions the extent to which the (arguable) end of the liberal humanitarian order is something to be mourned. Suggesting that current laments for the decline of humanitarianism reflect a Eurocentric worldview, it calls for a fundamental revision of the assumptions informing humanitarian scholarship. Decoloniality and anti-colonialism should be taken seriously so as to not reproduce the same by a different name after the end of the liberal order.
Op-ed
Whats There to Mourn? Decolonial
Reflections on (the End of) Liberal
Humanitarianism
Olivia Umurerwa Rutazibwa
Senior Lecturer in European and International (Development) Studies, University of Portsmouth; olivia.rutazibwa@port.ac.uk
Abstract
This paper questions the extent to which the (arguable) end of the liberal humanitarian order is something to be
mourned. Suggesting that current laments for the decline of humanitarianism reflect a Eurocentric worldview,
it calls for a fundamental revision of the assumptions informing humanitarian scholarship. Decoloniality and anti-
colonialism should be taken seriously so as to not reproduce the same by a different name after the end of the
liberal order.
Keywords: aid, (de)coloniality, development, epistemology, Eurocentrism, liberal humanitarianism
All over the globe, fascism, racism and xenophobic
nationalism are resurfacing in what we once thought
of as respectabledemocracies. Following a particularly
bleak weekend at the end of October 2018 (the election
of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, reports of worsening famine
in Yemen, Israeli bombardment of Gaza and the murder
of eleven worshippers at a refugee-harbouring synagogue
in Pittsburgh), my colleague Dr Sara Salem of the London
School of Economics tweeted: Its difficult watching
political scientists scrambling to understand whats
happening around the world today as if there havent
been peopletheorising racism, nationalism, empire
and gender for a century and warning of exactly what
we see now.
Moulded by Eurocentric knowledge systems, most of
us react to such developments with utter shock. We an
imagined citizenry of respectable democracies are
horrified and appalled at how far we have been dragged
from our liberal, more-or-less progressive self-image.
And we are invited to consider whether we might be
witnessing the end of the liberal humanitarian order.
Eurocentrism has taught us to see the potential end
of an era in every relative change in Western power.
Thinking about the role of humanitarianism today
requires that we dont reproduce or unwittingly cel-
ebrate Western-led order by mourning the end of a
history thatnever actually existed. Given past and present
non-Western experiences of liberal order, we might ask:
whats there to mourn?
My personal experiences of research and knowledge
production regarding humanitarianism have reinforced
in me an anti-colonial ethos an intellectual opposition
to coloniality, even in the most benignof research and
policy areas, like international aid and humanitarianism.
Coloniality can be understood as the perpetuation of
colonial systems and technologies of domination into
the present. As discussed by scholars such as Quijano,
Grosfoguel, Dussel and Ndlovu-Gatsheni, the concept of
decoloniality encourages systemic and historical analysis
of the organised (re)production of injustice and mass
human suffering.
Formal colonialism (which arguably existed from 1492
to the 1960s) and transatlantic enslavement are but two
means through which Europeans made themselves the
protagonists of global history. Europeans then rewrote
their history, erasing the mass human suffering they
had caused, promoting instead tales of white European
innocence (Wekker, 2016), superiority and exceptionalism.
In its destruction of life, coloniality might be considered
anti-humanitarian, and yet it is characteristic of the liberal
humanitarianism whose end we now (prematurely) are
invited to mourn.
For over two decades, I have been struggling to
make sense of humanitarian interventions. The topic
was thrust upon me by events in Rwanda in 1994.
As a teenage, second-generation Rwandan immigrant
in Belgium, I was more personally affected than fellow
classmates by the hypocrisy of the international
Journal of Humanitarian Affairs Volume 1, No. 1 (2019), 6567 © 2019 The authors
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community: the preaching of respect for human rights,
followed by their omission during one hundred days of
mass murder before the eyes of the world. It felt like
there was more to the story than good intentions versus
regrettable outcomes.
Ever since, I have worried about the content and
purpose of (Western) humanitarian research agendas. I
became cognisant of the limited efforts to understand
how good intentions coexist with a system of inter-
national aid and intervention that seems harmful not
for the few but for the many. The silence of too many
researchers simultaneously masks and normalises the
harmful consequences of the aid system.
The scholarship and advice I was exposed to as my
early academic career developed prompted me to explore
the contradictory logic of international aid empirically:
I set out to make a database of the EUsethical
behaviour (sanctions, funding, declarations and military
and humanitarian interventions, in relation to human
rights and democracy) between 1999 and 2007 towards
the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. I did not find any
patterns that could fully explain the EUs action or
inaction: not a countrys size, nor its former colonial
masters, its natural resources, the Member State presid-
ing over the EU, nor even the African target countrys
human rights or humanitarian situation. After a stint at
the European Commissions Directorate General of
External Affairs, I also came to reject simplistic accounts
about the absence of good intentions of the people
devising and implementing aid policies.
IrealisedthatIand mainstream IR with me had
operated on an assumption that external involvement in
the affairs of the developing world, if well intentioned
and effective, was desirable, indispensable even. Letting go
of this assumption opens up a world of possibilities for the
study of intervention. Doing so, I reconsidered the
conventional narrative that attributes the genocide against
the Tutsi in Rwanda to non-intervention, and came to see
that the (post)colonial run-up to genocide was a story of
too much intervention, even in the name of democracy.
During my doctoral research, I rediscovered the case
of Somaliland. A self-declared independent republic
in the north-western corner of Somalia, Somaliland
had declined US and UN interventions at the beginning
of the 1990s, apart from specific assistance (the clean-up
of landmines, for example). Instead, it took care of its
peace-building process internally and with its diaspora.
Over the years, even thoughthe international community
had found its way to the capital, Hargeisa, Somaliland had
arguably become the most stable democracy in the
region, even as it awaited international recognition of
its independence. It seemed to me, therefore, that the
most salient question was not how intervention could be
more effective and efficient, but whether it was necessary
in the first place. Was Western presence itself constitutive
of the problems facing hostcountries?
In her recent book Decolonising Intervention: Inter-
national Statebuilding in Mozambique (2017), Meera
Sabaratnam offers a compelling feminist decolonial
analysis of international statebuilding in the postcolony.
She foregrounds in-country critiques of foreign presence
via the concept of protagonismo; and she reflects on
disposability (of the beneficiaries), dependency (on the
interveners) and entitlement (of the interveners) as
constitutive of interventions and not just technical
glitches. If only I had had access to this work when I
began my inquiry into humanitarianism.
I now include Sabaratnams book as a core text for
final-year undergraduate students reading International
Development Studies and International Relations at
the University of Portsmouth. My module on Rethink-
ing Aid and Developmentexplores the implications
of decolonial engagement with ideas and practices of
international solidarity. Students have said: We should
be assigned readings like this from year one.So I ask the
question here: What if we were to start our humani-
tarian conversation with Sabaratnam?
Of course, other works have questioned the value
of international intervention. But it is necessary to
reflect on the consequence of their marginality in the
canon. Privileged research agendas shape academic
career paths; and, increasingly, careers in the real world
shape academic disciplines. In this context, the margin-
alisation of critical decolonial perspectives in research
and in practice becomes mutually reinforcing.
A decolonial approach to humanitarianism challenges
Eurocentric analyses, foregrounding the experiences and
knowledges of the intended targets of humanitarian aid.
It poses questions not so much about the political will,
operational implementation and technical capabilities of
humanitarians as about the perpetuation of colonial
power relations in seemingly benevolent activities.
Decoloniality asks: where do we start the story? Who
has the microphone and who usually doesnt? What do
we consider expertise? What are the implications of
Eurocentric bias in knowledge production? Do our
practices and knowledge systems contribute to the
struggle against colonial power relations?
As we reflect on the potential end of liberal order,
decoloniality questions what we mourn. With humani-
tarianism itself being redefined, decolonial perspectives
can contribute to an understanding of the relevance of
the good intentions of humanitarians to the aspirations
of their intended beneficiaries. They can provide an
antidote to the colonial amnesiaof liberal humanitar-
ians and, therefore, provide a basis for the critical
interrogation of, and contribution to, humanitarian
endeavours in the service of life and dignity and not
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merely of survival. They can challenge not only the
ideological character of a given order but also the power
relations essential to it something that the local turnin
humanitarian thinking has not done, despite discussion
of shifting power.
Without these perspectives informing research and
policy agendas, whatever comes next is unlikely to be
very different for those previously robbed of power and
voice. Mourning the end of an order responsible for mass
human suffering, while that suffering continues, then
becomes an indulgent act of self-delusion.
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Grosfoguel, R. and Cervantes-Rodriguez, A. M. (2002), Introduction:
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Introduction: Unthinking Twentieth-century Eurocentric Mythologies: Universal Knowledge, Decolonization, and Developmentalism
  • R Grosfoguel
  • A M Cervantes-Rodriguez
Grosfoguel, R. and Cervantes-Rodriguez, A. M. (2002), 'Introduction: Unthinking Twentieth-century Eurocentric Mythologies: Universal Knowledge, Decolonization, and Developmentalism', in Grosfoguel, R. and Cervantes-Rodriguez, A. M. (eds), The Modern/Colonial/ Capitalist World-System in the Twentieth Century: Global Processes, Antisystemic Movements, and the Geopolitics of Knowledge (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers), pp. xi-xxix.
Coloniality of Power in Development Studies and the Impact of Global Imperial Designs on Africa
  • S J Ndlovu-Gatsheni
Ndlovu-Gatsheni, S. J. (2012), 'Coloniality of Power in Development Studies and the Impact of Global Imperial Designs on Africa', Australasian Review of African Studies, 33:2, 48-73.
Racism and Blackism on a World Scale
  • S J Ndlovu-Gatsheni
Ndlovu-Gatsheni, S. J. (2018), 'Racism and Blackism on a World Scale', in Rutazibwa, O. U. and Shilliam, R. (eds), Routledge Handbook of Postcolonial Politics (London: Routledge), pp. 72-86.
On Babies and Bathwater: Decolonizing International Development Studies
  • O U Rutazibwa
Rutazibwa, O. U. (2018), 'On Babies and Bathwater: Decolonizing International Development Studies', in de Jong, S., Icaza, R. and Rutazibwa, O. U. (eds), Decolonization and Feminisms in Global Teaching and Learning (London: Routledge), pp. 192-214.