Prof. Craig Calhoun breaks down the concept of emergency as used by humanitarians.
Catching the last flight out of New York before volcanic ash forced the closure of European skies and taking four trains from Munich to get to Geneva, Craig Calhoun, Professor of Social Sciences at New York University, made it to the Institute and delivered a critical, and at times humorous, lecture on the misrepresentation of the concept of emergency used by humanitarian organisations and media in well known international catastrophes. Providing numerous examples and using many images, Professor Calhoun’s lecture led to his questions: “Is humanitarian relief an alternative to development?” and further “Is humanitarianism the new imperialism?”
Professor Calhoun set the stage for his concept of “Cosmopolitanism and the Emergency Imaginary” by pointing out that we live in world where media report natural disasters and armed conflict in real time. Because of the way the media and aid organisations portray and react to modern tragedy and conflict, the public has a perception of these situations that is often not in touch with their reality, he explained. Events and situations like conflict, widespread disease and famine are made to seem as short-term, immediate, urgent and unpredictable and the idea is conveyed that conditions can be remedied quickly if enough funds are received to provide the right amount of aid. Emergency oriented treatment of world catastrophic situations, which often have deep rooted and long term causes, may be ultimately taking attention and funding away from longer term efforts that are more difficult to implement and harder to raise money to support but possibly deliver greater benefits. This may be eventually leading to a shift in the perception of humanitarianism and a fading in its prominence, Professor Calhoun concluded.
Tragic situations and events are often treated as emergencies that are happening in an immediate way when in fact many of the world’s problems brew over long periods of time and “unfold in slow motion” as Professor Calhoun put it. He used the conflict in Darfur as an example and highlighted that the situation is the result of factors built up over many years. While this situation, known throughout the world, has been portrayed as a conflict over religion and race, it is far more complex than most people think, he stated.
Far from the Hollywood portrayals of individuals going to Africa and saving the local populations single-handedly using guns and violence, Professor Calhoun reminded the audience that humanitarian aid is carried out by massive groups of people and is really about the logistics of delivering material where transportation has been disrupted. “Humanitarian action is largely about moving bulky stuff”, he said. It is also generally funded by governments and not individuals, he added. In addition, he emphasised relief work is by and large carried out by local residents and international aid represents a small amount of the overall work in disaster situations.
One of the themes in Professor Calhoun’s speech was the concept of people having empathy for humans in an egalitarian way despite separation by continents and lack of personal connections. He pointed out that this is a new way of viewing humanity and fuels the feeling of obligation to give money in crisis situations by a privileged “cosmopolitan class”. Other factors which shape contemporary perception of tragic situations and events are that modern transportation allows us to deliver aid over great distances and that news media and aid agencies often portray disasters in a geographically interchangeable style. Photos are shown with women and children in large groups receiving aid and men are depicted as the bad guys with weapons. These are often misrepresentations of what is really happening, he said. All of these factors shape the way the world views these events and often shape the events themselves, he explained.
Professor Calhoun alluded to the fact that humanitarian disaster relief may be getting in the way of development work which, in the long run, may ultimately put populations in a better position. He stated that it is much easier to fundraise for “emergencies” than for development work and that some organisations may be following the money to shift their endeavours in this direction. Other organisations and individuals transition to emergency aid because “they would like to do good without getting tangled up in politics”, he said. It would be more appropriate to focus on changes in a wider context, he said, including working towards better governance to improve situations in certain places in the world.
One of the final concepts Professor Calhoun touched upon was the notion that by going through aid organisations and NGOs, assistance somehow bypasses nation-states which are often perceived as bad. He concluded by explaining that the popularity of the ideal of humanitarianism, which peaked in the 1990s, may be fading. A shift is taking place and we are now in an era where in some cases aid is delivered by military and aid workers are being abducted. He pointed out that the solutions to the world’s major problems including war and illicit trade should be part of the state process. In closing, he said that while states often show narrow-minded nationalistic approaches to the world’s problems, they are increasingly forced to heed the will of their citizens.
Craig Calhoun is also President of the Social Science Research Council and received his doctorate from Oxford University. He has also been a professor at the University of North Carolina and Columbia University as well as a visiting professor in Asmara, Beijing, Khartoum, Oslo and Paris. He has authored several important works including Nations Matter: Culture, History, and the Cosmopolitan Dream (Routledge 2007).