Paper: The Messy Practice of Decolonizing a Concept: Everyday Humanitarianism in Tanzania

Paper details

Paper authors Lisa Ann Richey
In panel on Taking ideology out of humanitarianism? The everyday, corporate interests and the politics of global solidarity
Paper presenter(s) will be presenting In-Person / Online


Humanitarianism is a highly contested concept that for some critics exemplifies ‘white saviorism’ in the realm of formal institutions, while others argue that it is an ethical response by people who have lost faith in economic development and political struggle. In the literature on humanitarianism, there is a chasm between the anthropologists who focus on the experience of individual recipients (‘refugees’, ‘victims’ or ‘the poor’) and the political scientists who focus on the humanitarian apparatus (legal, logistical or political) and the geographers who focus on humanitarian space. None of these gives much attention to the agency of Southern givers as humanitarians themselves. If calls for global social theory made by scholars such as Gurminder Bhambra and others are to be implemented in International Studies scholarship, we need to get busy with the messy practice of decolonizing the concepts we use to build our theories explaining relationships of ‘helping.’ On the case of humanitarianism in Tanzania, and the ways that communities responded to crisis-induced changes in their lives has been varied and potentially challenging to the concept of humanitarianism. To move beyond the existing literature, we need research focusing on the sub-national level and particularly on how both individuals and groups maneuver in the exceptional space of disaster and how this might change when acute crises become protracted. This article will explore the messy practice of decolonizing a concept through collaborative work between scholars researching together the meaning of everyday humanitarianism in Tanzania. We will trace the conceptual trajectory ofhumanitarianism’s evolution in relation to Tanzanians who help in times of crisis. Reflecting on the interplay between emic and etic perspectives of humanitarianism will provide a counterbalance to the state-centric, formalized, Northern-driven focus that has characterized understandings of humanitarianism thus far. This paper will argue for grounding decolonization in the actual practices of research collaboration aimed at theory building as an iterative back-and-forth exchange, rather than a transplant of Northern theory on the South, or its opposite. Understanding both the challenges and the possibilities of decolonizing ’humanitarianism’ will provide an opportunity to document and thus legitimate the messiness that is inherent in decolonizing a discipline.