Humanitarian Archives
14 May 2019

The Lapses of Humanitarian Archives

A recent volume in French, coedited by Isabelle Schulte-Tenckhoff, Honorary Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at the Graduate Institute, and Vincent Négri, Researcher at CNRS, is devoted to “normalising forgetting” – “Normer l’oubli” (IRJS Éditions). It considers forgetting to be a social and legal norm, and that the normalisation of forgetting does not go without forms of denial. Its aim is to trace the scars and “eraser marks” left by this process. Among those stand the various absences and under-acknowledged functions of forgetting that can be found in the archives of international humanitarian organisations. Davide Rodogno, Professor of International History at the Graduate Institute, has contributed a chapter on “the drowned and the saved, the statues and the ghosts” in these archives and how researchers should approach them.

Can you tell us more about the “asymmetry” of memory in humanitarian archives and information systems?

This asymmetry is not a judgement but an observation. There are two broad identifiable genres of documentation in many of these archives where asymmetries of memory become visible. The first represents the class of “works that need to be done”, which are important for fashioning the narratives of the institutions in the eyes of donors and funders. The second genre represents “work that has been done”, where the objective is to account for the “success” of these institutions. This is a skewed perspective because it narrates success stories through those who have been “saved”. The lives and agency of the “saved” get visibly tied to the humanitarians while in reality their course is usually different from those stories. The category of the “saved” is created through the concepts of “saviours” and of their essential “goodness”, while many persons are forgotten and concealed, deliberately or not, including the whole category of people who have not been saved. So, these archives do not actually give us the best picture of a conflict that we are interested in studying. This is not to blame humanitarian institutions, but it is important to recognise how these mechanisms are structurally embedded and, as researchers, we should not pretend to find things that are invisible in these archives.

You use metaphors such as “statues”, “ghosts” or “the drowned and the saved”. What do they express?

The category of the “saved” can be reflected upon aptly through the image of a statue. Once “saved”, the person is petrified like a sculpture that is immobile on its own, but can be moved around and placed anywhere the “saviour” wishes in order to embellish its garden. The “statue”, by virtue of being immobile, is deprived of its own agency, and its story becomes that of humanitarians. Similarly, “ghosts” refer to the sporadic appearances and disappearances of the victims, who often remain lurking in the shadows. The virtual holograms, for instance, in the ICRC Museum are an appropriate digital metaphor for the fleeting persona of the victims of humanitarian crises. Often, the real lives of victims are hidden behind abstracted numbers and statistics. Those “ghostly” figures are important because they show readers, sponsors and stakeholders that the institution is doing “good” and they thus upheld its legitimacy or raison d’être.

This is not about historians making normative judgements about how “good” or “bad” humanitarian institutions have been, but about thinking how archives and information work. We should also be grateful to humanitarian organisations for allowing us to access their archives and engage in a conversation about the kind of issues discussed here. 

The reference to the “drowned and the saved” is based on the title of the last novel of Primo Levi, which makes interesting observations about the duty and responsibility of the survivors of the Shoah to speak for those who did not survive, the “drowned”, even if their memories are not reliable. This duty is similar to the task of historians who, knowing of the selective nature and bias of archives, have the responsibility to approach the latter with awareness of the many who were “drowned” and forgotten, and of the fact that no narrative is singular nor complete. In some sense, the “forgotten” are much worse off than the drowned whose bodies may still wash up on the shore, while the forgotten may never appear. Methodologically, it is important for researcher to cross-reference their sources and be open and honest about what had to be left aside. 

The chapter challenges the notion of “science” in the archives and cautions us about big data technologies. How so?

The digitisation of humanitarian archives like those of the League of Nations will make big data work possible; this will change the ways we search and navigate the archives and allow us to ask questions that previously could not be answered. But we have to handle this with extreme care. Epistemological reflection on big data is important as the presence of archival data is not immanent nor an article of faith. Archival data are created by humans and as such come with processes of inclusion, exclusion and occlusion that we should reflect on seriously before using them. There is no “science” in the archives, only craftsmanship that comes with trial and error. The history of failure of humanitarian institutions has to be recognised, even if embracing and acknowledging failure is very difficult, especially in the documentation, and must be done in places far away from institutional archives. 

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Full citation of the chapter:
Rodogno, Davide. “Naufragés et rescapés, fantômes et statues, oubliés et oublis dans les archives des institutions humanitaires.” In Normer l’oubli, edited by Vincent Négri and Isabelle Schulte-Tenckhoff, 241–52. Paris: IRJS Éditions, 2018.

Also in the same volume:

  • “Les hétérochronies de la mémoire” by Jean-François Bayart
  • “Le droit (international), vestale au Temple de l’oubli?” by Éric Wyler
  • “Le pouvoir d’oublier” by Pierre-Marie Dupuy
  • “Contre l’oubli? Cinéma et disparitions forcées au Liban (1990–2015)” by Riccardo Bocco

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Interview by Aditya Kiran Kakati, doctoral candidate in International History and Anthropology and Sociology. Editing by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner image by Marc Galvin.