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Humanitarianism as a Politics of Life

Didier Fassin

Finally, this idea of man’s sacredness gives grounds for reflection that what is here pronounced sacred was, according to ancient mythical thought, the marked bearer of guilt: life itself.

— Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence”

On March 28, 2003, as on the last Friday of every month, the board of administrators of Médecins sans frontières (MSF; Doctors without Borders) met between five and eleven o’clock in the organization’s head office on the first floor of a building in the eleventh arrondissement of Paris. On that particular evening a peculiar atmosphere of expectation and excitement reigned. There was of course the customary rapid overview of the situation in a number of “missions” in various parts of the world where the organization intervenes, followed by a more in-depth examination, with discussion of various specific topics concerning the running of the association and its humanitarian activities. The construction of the “international movement” was also raised: it referred to the network of sections in twenty countries, of which six are actually in a position to conduct operations, and which strives to ensure a coherence of identity and policy in the work of each national body beyond the details of local history and culture. The DNDi (Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative) program was another issue addressed: this is an original project that the organization had instigated two years earlier in order to establish, in international collaboration with private charitable foundations and public partners, a program of research and development similar to that of the pharmaceutical industry but dedicated to treatments deemed unprofitable because of the poverty of the Third World patients who need them.

The meeting of the board of administrators is open to the public. All members of the association have the right to participate, as do the employees who carry out the organization’s bureaucratic and technical functions. In general, attendance gradually thins out as the evening wears on. But that evening many stayed, waiting for the last item on the agenda. The subject was the state of operations in Iraq. Eight days earlier, American and British troops had begun their bombardment of the country, ending the long run-up to a war that had been declared in a climate of growing international tension and division. MSF has a complex history with the Iraqi state, having refused to intervene during the period of the embargo so as not to succumb to what it considered to be the manipulation of international humanitarian sentiment by the criminal Baathist regime: bringing aid to the Iraqi population would have meant comforting Saddam Hussein’s power. Nevertheless, the organization had recently changed its position and had started negotiating its presence with the Iraqi Ministry of Health, as the prospect of war was getting more and more obvious: a medical team of six was therefore present in Baghdad and, after long and difficult discussions in its executive committee, MSF had decided to stay.

The debate was now taking place publicly within the board of administrators. Should the medical team remain in Baghdad, given the danger it would face both from the cornered military of the Iraqi regime and from the predictable rain of American bombs, on the one hand, and given the likely limited efficacy of its presence, since the team was so small compared with the extensive health-care facilities and professionals available in Baghdad, on the other hand? Should the lives of aid workers be risked to save other lives among local populations? The discussion that arose around the presence of these members in Iraq was by all accounts the most intense debate the association has seen in the past few years. However, it avoided the most painful truth — the radical inequality that underlies this transaction in human lives.

I take this scene as a starting point for raising the question of humanitarian action as it constitutes one of the paradigmatic forms of a politics of life, by introducing this dialectic between lives to be saved and lives to be risked. What I call “politics of life” here are politics that give specific value and meaning to human life. They differ analytically from Foucauldian biopolitics, defined as “the regulation of population,” in that they relate not to the technologies of power and the way populations are governed but to the evaluation of human beings and the meaning of their existence.1 Humanitarian intervention is a biopolitics insofar as it sets up and manages refugee camps, establishes protected corridors in order to gain access to war casualties, develops statistical tools to measure malnutrition, and makes use of communication media to bear witness to injustice in the world. But humanitarian intervention is also a politics of life, as I suggest to phrase it, in that it takes as its object the saving of individuals, which presupposes not only risking others but also making a selection of which existences it is possible or legitimate to save (e.g., by selecting AIDS patients to be given antiretroviral drugs for lack of resources, or deciding whether to provide assistance to people who have participated in massacres). And humanitarian intervention is also a politics of life in that it takes as its object the defense of causes, which presupposes not only leaving other causes aside but also producing public representations of the human beings to be defended (e.g., by showing them as victims rather than combatants and by displaying their condition in terms of suffering rather than the geopolitical situation). What sort of life is implicitly or explicitly taken into account in the political work of humanitarian intervention? This is the question that interests me.

In the first part, I differentiate lives to be saved and lives to be risked as a fundamental distinction between the mere physical and the fundamentally political dimensions of life, that based on the possibility of the subject to decide about it. This is what underlies the debate in MSF on whether or not to stay in Baghdad. In the second part, I discuss saving and risking the lives of others as a basic opposition between humanitarian and military politics of intervention in a supposedly clear separation of victims and enemies. This is what is meant by MSF team members who expose their own lives and the soldiers who expose the civil populations’ lives. In the third part, I blur these lines by introducing a series of concrete situations unveiling more complex realities of the politics of life, revealing the aporia of risk taking, discriminating expatriates and nationals, and displacing lines from biological to biographical existences. This is what is implied by the final failure of MSF’s mission in Baghdad with the abduction of its members and the departure from Iraq. The three configurations have a common moral background in which the sacred, as Walter Benjamin puts it, resides no longer in man as master of his existence but in “life itself.”2 However, the series of distinctions implied by the differentiation of lives on the battlefield indicates radical inequalities in the human condition.

To display these humanitarian politics of life I have thus chosen a classical dramaturgy with its unity of place, time, and action, because the social drama of the decision to stay seemed to me so emblematic of the tensions and contradictions within these politics. But there is another reason for me to concentrate on this episode:

my personal implication in it, as I further discuss. In fact, I do not intend to present a detached examination, “to unveil and denounce truths and violations,”3 but rather aim to enter, as it were, into the heart of humanitarian activity, to analyze the consequences of choices made and practices implemented — in short, to follow humanitarianism to its logical conclusion. I do it here on the basis of my experience and research primarily with MSF: experience as a member of the board of administrators for four years and research through a series of interviews with its personnel in Paris. The choice of studying this sole organization and moreover this specific event may seem to limit the scope, whereas humanitarianism increasingly appears as a language for states and international agencies as well. But although MSF is a unique organization, to which the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 nevertheless offered a certain exemplary value, I believe that the lessons from this case study can be applied much more widely, throwing light beyond the work of this particular organization onto the profound meaning and aporia of humanitarian politics of life.

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Translated by Rachel Gomme

  1. On the distinction between politics of life and biopolitics, see Didier Fassin, “La biopolitique n’est pas une politique de la vie” (“Biopolitics Is Not a Politics of Life”), Sociologies et sociétés 38 (2006): 35 – 48. For Michel Foucault, biopolitics correspond to the technologies defining, studying, counting, controlling, and, more generally, “normalizing” populations. See Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (New York: Vintage Books, 1990).
  2. See Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” in Selected Writings, vol. 1, 1913 – 1926 (1921; repr., Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Belknap, 1996).
  3. As formulated by Peter Redfield, “Doctors, Borders, and Life in Crisis,” Current Anthropology 20 (2005): 328 – 61. Redfield’s aim is rather to consider humanitarianism as “an array of particular embodied, situated practices emanating from the humanitarian desire to alleviate suffering of others” (330). I, however, think that critical thinking can and must emerge from within the analysis of these practices and this desire.


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