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Challenging scales and making relations

Accounts of development and humanitarianism, including its critiques, have long been preoccupied with its institutional forms, driven by governments and international organisations. Such emphasis often attributes significance to the large-scale. The book argues that engaging with the informal and local manifestations of aid disrupts this assumption. It draws on ethnographic research with practitioners in Cambodia, who run their privately funded aid projects. They include Cambodians and foreigners, from Asia and the Global North, who undertake these projects of their own initiative. The book demonstrates how they make their own scales, offering radically different understandings of what actions are significant, and who counts. Such a perspective queries core humanitarian beliefs, and theories of social change more generally. It suggests that everyday practitioners operate with multiple, interlinking scales of their own making. Rather than being dismissed as ‘small scale’, they demonstrate how they render people and causes meaningful, regardless of numbers or size. They question the role of distance for aid, and reveal a nuanced interplay of proximity and distance to those in need. Such unsettling of the valorisation of the large-scale extends to social relations. The ‘distant stranger’ as the archetypal object of humanitarianism is replaced by a desire to get to know others through the act of assistance, often through idioms of kinship. Critically nuancing the trope of the ‘white saviour’, everyday aid is characterised by multiple affinity ties between actors from the Global North and South, which direct and motivate development and humanitarian action.

Anne-Meike Fechter

Chapter 6 argues while geographical distance is not central for driving humanitarianism, neither is the strange distant other. Rather, a vast amount of financial assistance flows along kinship networks. Remittances from migrant workers to their families are well documented. In contrast, overseas aid given through taxpayers or private donors, is not meant to be bound by kinship ties. This would run counter to the aspiration of impartiality that underpins institutionalised humanitarianism. In practice, everyday humanitarians do precisely this: crafting kin relations with the people they support. Indeed, such partial relations are central to their way of operating. This is because kinship, other that friendship, does not demand, or imply equality. For professional aid workers who feel alienated by aid bureaucracy, ‘adopting’ a young person allows them to be embedded locally in a way difficult to achieve otherwise. For everyday humanitarians, both Cambodians and foreigners, making others into kin creates social relations which entail responsibilities. They allow for inequality to be accommodated, while calling for the provision of assistance. This can take the form of sponsoring an adopted son or daughter through school; supporting a Cambodian family that they have become part of; or conceiving a group of children at an after-school club as one’s family. Such humanitarian kinship runs counter to the principle of impartiality. What motivates humanitarian support is the creation of partiality through kinship ties. Being partial provides a rationale for whom to support, solving the problem of resource allocation posed by the limited-ness of their efforts.

in Everyday humanitarianism in Cambodia
Anne-Meike Fechter

Chapter 4 addresses the notion of humanitarianism as predicated on distance, that is, geographical scale. This is prominently embodied in the figure of the distant stranger, a trope ubiquitous and simplistic in equal measure. In this context, what role does distance play for people’s desire to intervene in the lives of others? What compels people to support those nearby, regional neighbours, or across nation states and continents? The chapter illustrates how people create and respond to distance, and how this shapes their personal and professional trajectories, and interventions in the lives of others. This matters not least because the notion of distance, physical and social, looms large in how philosophers and ordinary people construct responsibilities towards others. Unravelling these tropes, everyday humanitarian practice shows how distance is not fixed, but dynamic and flexible. Those who intervene outside of their own country are attracted to help in faraway places not least by a desire for travel and adventure. When faced with street children or begging veterans on a daily basis, some find they need to keep poverty at bay. They move between immersing themselves, and withdrawing when it becomes overwhelming. Embedding themselves in local communities of need, or retreating, sometimes for good, to more comfortable surroundings, requires constant negotiation and raises moral quandaries. As practitioners are using sliding scales, humanitarian distance emerges not as fixed, but segmented into mobile, interlocking and dynamic scales, which they adopt as it suits their situation.

in Everyday humanitarianism in Cambodia
Abstract only
Anne-Meike Fechter

The first part of the introduction provides an overview of the problems that this book is addressing, offering an ethnographic account of everyday moralities, rather than normative ethics. It outlines the research agenda, and its origins in a study of international aid workers as mobile professionals. The second part of the introduction explains how Cambodia matters as a research location, and what makes it a particularly appropriate site for everyday humanitarianism to flourish. These include its recent violent past, a subsequent influx of overseas aid, as well as being a popular tourist destination.

in Everyday humanitarianism in Cambodia
Anne-Meike Fechter

Chapter 7 argues that in addition to kinship, a key driver of humanitarian efforts are affinity ties (Ho 2017). These are commonalities between those offering support and those whom it is aimed at. Recognising such affinities challenges the trope of the ‘white saviour’ (Cole 2012), which reiterates the importance of interventions by those from the Global North, making others invisible. This chapter nuances the ‘white saviour’ narrative and makes visible the wealth of aid relations that derive from affinity ties, based on similarity and shared biographies. Such commonalities can be shared experiences of deprivation while growing up; experiences of abandonment, displacement or bereavement. It surfaces in notions of a pan-‘Asian-ness’, shared by everyday humanitarians from other Asian countries. Even as supporters from the Global North are foregrounded on websites of their aid projects, this often serves the purposes of fundraising, and networking with potential donors. This feeds into a ‘white saviour’ narrative, but obscures the often fundamentally cooperative nature of such initiatives. Everyday humanitarian ventures often rely on close collaborations between Cambodians and foreigners from other parts of Asia, Australia, Europe and North America, and are by no means the prerogative of those from the Global North. The chapter argues that the figure of the ‘white saviour’ needs to not only be critiqued, but the mechanisms through which it is continuously reinvigorated, to be made visible. This recognises the complexity of interactions at stake, and understand who is offering support to whom, how, and with what consequences.

in Everyday humanitarianism in Cambodia
Anne-Meike Fechter

Chapter 2 tackles the ‘problem of the singular’ (Ticktin 2015) with which humanitarianism has been diagnosed. While aimed at the entirety of suffering humanity, its efforts, whether carried out by large organisations or lone individuals, can only ever have a partial reach. The situation of everyday humanitarians in Cambodia is no exception. This chapter traces their often acute awareness of the bigger picture, such as the socio-political landscape of Cambodia, and how they feel positioned and act within this. Some arrive at what they are doing after having become disenchanted during careers in large aid organisations. Others have had less linear trajectories, but are ambitious for the future of their projects, such as bringing their activities to a larger group of beneficiaries. For either process, the making of scales is crucial: their insistence that ‘small is beautiful’ provides an ongoing source of inspiration and assurance for some, and their actions become meaningful within this particular scale. For others, their attention remains fixed not on a whole nation but on members of a particular community, such as training a group of single mothers, to help improve their livelihoods. A key practice to sustaining everyday humanitarianism is the adoption of temporal, spatial or numerical scales which express their priorities, manifest in the popular mantra, ‘changing the world, one village at a time’. This does not imply ignorance or neglect of other forces that shape the lives of their beneficiaries, and often affect them adversely, but means articulating their position within this context.

in Everyday humanitarianism in Cambodia
Abstract only
Anne-Meike Fechter

Chapter 3 echoes a slogan which was displayed in a cafe run by a small NGO, dedicated to people with disabilities. Such emphatic commitment to the value of the single person is not unique to this constituency. The belief that ‘every person counts’ drives the initiatives at the heart of this book. This insistent focus on the individual, improving the lives of small groups of beneficiaries often shape their activities. What makes the work meaningful to them is creating a visible difference in the life of a particular person, while accommodating their limited efficacy in the context of widespread poverty. This matters not least because a focus on the small-scale runs counter to much development policy that favours ‘scaling up’, relying on large-scale approaches rather than localised interventions. Everyday humanitarians accommodate the partial-ness of their endeavours by deploying the scale of the individual. The practices carried out under this logic contain singular acts of care, and lives being transformed. This consists of distributing hot meals to those marginalised; helping a handful of students through their high school exams, or setting up a cafe to provide training for young people used to living on the street. Importantly, other scales are brought into play, such as someone ‘paying it forward’ by supporting others in turn, and effecting change in wider society. Rather than leaping from a scale of ‘the one’ to ‘the many’, humanitarian practitioners continuously interlink these. What appears as a limited act, offers pathways into the future.

in Everyday humanitarianism in Cambodia
Abstract only
Anne-Meike Fechter

Chapter 5 revolves around the purpose of humanitarian aid defined by the desire to help and argues that it leaves a key motivation out of sight: how aid is animated by its twin desire to connect. This can include first-hand contact with those they support, such as bringing supplies to schools. It can mean direct experience of aid activities, and their tangible efficacy. Establishing personal relationships across national, ethnic and cultural differences, while potentially challenging, is a key motivation for those involved. These connections are often sought with people in need, separated by geographical distance, and who may be considered ‘Other’ in some ways from everyday humanitarians themselves. The ‘impulse of philanthropy’ (Bornstein 2009), is here conjoined with a parallel, anthropological impulse to know and connect with an Other. The importance of relationships for institutionalised aid has, at least partly, been recognised. More than social relations being instrumental to successful aid practice, the chapter suggests that providing assistance to others can facilitate the making of these desired relations. Rather than assisting distant strangers, forging these connections means making relationships personal. This can lead to long-term connections between people, regular visits and contact with overseas supporters. The desire to connect unsettles notions of the ‘distant stranger’ as the archetypical humanitarian object, highlighting the familiarity and closeness just as important for motivating assistance to others.

in Everyday humanitarianism in Cambodia
Abstract only
Anne-Meike Fechter

The conclusion highlights the significance of everyday humanitarianism in a broader context. People who seek to instigate social change are inevitably challenged to consider their own, limited actions with what they consider as the wider context or causes. I suggest that beyond a reflexive understanding, a scalar approach can provide a blueprint for action. Making and operating within a set of interlinking scales, consciously or not, can offset doubts about lacking significance. It provides a sense of how one’s own actions matter in a wider world, and those of others. Challenging scales and the values associated with them, has wider applicability. People seeking social change consider how their own, limited actions link with wider issues including social injustice, environmentalism, or the climate crisis.

in Everyday humanitarianism in Cambodia
Anne-Meike Fechter

This chapter outlines the book’s innovative rendering of grassroots development and humanitarianism through a scalar approach (Carr and Lempert 2016). This addresses the problems of partial reach of all forms of humanitarianism, and documents how everyday practitioners devise a range of size-related and geographical scales that allow them to situate their efforts. It extends this scalar approach to social relations, and demonstrate what kind of relations are made, to what purpose, and how they upend conventional narratives of humanitarian objects. Taken together, they furnish an understanding of how its limited reach, and its partiality constitute not an obstacle, but a condition for humanitarian action.

in Everyday humanitarianism in Cambodia