Close your eyes and picture “a humanitarian”. What do you see?

The imperial past and the humanitarian present

This post first appeared on the CMI webpages, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. Salla Turunen is a Doctoral Researcher at Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI).

Yemen, Hajjah, Abs, Khudaish Camp, 13 June 2019. Photo: WFP/Mohammed Awadh

In the spring of 2017, a shocking piece of news popped on my morning news screen – two UN staff members, Zaida Catalán and Michael Sharp, a Swede and an American, had been killed in the central province of Kasai of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They were kidnapped along with three Congolese drivers and an interpreter, and two weeks later, Catalán’s and Sharp’s bodies were found. Catalán had been decapitated. 

Out of the horrific news I read daily, this one lived on both in the public eye and within my mind. But why this news in particular? Was it because I was preparing to embark on my first field office location as a UN staff member that spring? Or was it because Catalán was a Swede and I am a Finn, hence this event hit close to home? The broader issue here, obviously, is what enabled something to touch me on a personal level, while other manifestations of violence or misery remains ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

Catalán’s and Sharp’s dreadful ends raised waves of media attention.[1] Less is known internationally what happened to their three Congolese drivers and interpreter. Also, few would be able to connect the place and time of Catalán and Sharp’s disappearances with the decapitation of more than 40 Congolese police officers.[2] Further, perhaps even fewer could point out the decades of ongoing atrocious violence and mass graves in the region, tracing back to Rwandan genocide and beyond.

UN Sepical Envoy to the Great Lake Region, Mary Robinson’s convoy make a late trip back to Goma after she met with DRC president, Joseph Kabila in Rutshuru, the 29th of Novembre 2013 © Sylvain Liechti

Attacks against aid workers is increasing alongside the politization of their participation and motives. The most recent Aid Worker Security Report from 2019 states that the reporting year of 2018 was the second worst year on record for aid worker security. In 2018 alone 405 aid workers were affected by major violence: 131 were killed, 144 wounded and 130 kidnapped.[1] Contradictory to the media spotlight, the majority of the victims of these attacks were national staff members of the UN organizations and non-governmental organizations and received little international attention.[2] The Aid Worker Security Report continues:

“National staff, always the majority of victims in absolute numbers, now also experience increased attack rates and fatality rates per capita relative to international staff, reflecting increased localisation of aid in high-risk areas.”[3]

Why is it then fairly easy for me to recall and write about an event affecting international staff members over three years ago in contrast to something more recent with national staff members?

The geographical origins and skin colors of stereotypical humanitarians is one manifestation of its histories. As a researcher in the field of humanitarianism, I see how histories of race, ethnicity, colonialism, imperialism and Global South-Global North relations are ever-present and cross-cutting. These themes are woven into the fabric of what we understand as humanitarianism, wherein humanitarianism does not exist separately from the non-humanitarian world and, rather, is a product of it.

In a traditional understanding,[1] humanitarian principles of humanity, independence, neutrality and impartiality direct towards helping those whose human dignity is being threatened and violated. But, importantly, humanitarian misfortune – and particularly the severity of it – does not emerge from a vacuum. Even in the case of natural disasters, a high-income country is better equipped in rapid and effective response compared to a failing state. It is here where these histories and trajectories play a role, both on the sides of people in humanitarian need and the humanitarians themselves.

In shedding light on the details of ‘how’ these historical roles and trajectories manifest, I turn to Hannah Arendt. As an individual with personal experiences of antisemitism under Nazi Germany and one of the twentieth century’s foremost political philosophers, she is a master in analysis of origins of human cruelty and inequality.[2] Arendt’s ‘Origins of Totalitarianism’ refers to the overlap of racism and imperialism which is elemental in understanding the history of Western humanitarianism and further, the humanitarian world of today.[3]

On the one hand, Arendt considers racism as the totalizing concept and main driver behind systematic and structural inequality and deprivation. It originates from historical developments of race-thinking which captured the fatal conceptualization of race. For Arendt, the European ideology of race signified the worst of Western civilization with the most devastating consequences: “race is, politically speaking, not the beginning of humanity but its end, not the origin of peoples but their decay, not the natural birth of man but his unnatural death”.[4]

On the other hand, imperialism, as understood in an Arendtian sense, was a child of racism and colonialism originating in the ‘Scramble for Africa’ and beginning in the 1880s. Imperialism seeks to expand political powers overseas by interference par excellence in other governance regimes and ways of living. Arendt capsulizes imperialist attempt as dividing “mankind into master races and slave races, into higher and lower breeds, into colored peoples and white men”.[5]

In the on-going era of ‘black lives matter’, a prominent question is why white lives matter already?

The historical trajectory of racism and imperialism provides an understanding to this question, although without making the current situation any more just. One key configuration is that race has married class and its unequal power networks since the beginning. According to Arendt, race-thinking was integrated with the class societies of the nation-state building West of the 18th century. Based on an imperialist political philosophy which incorporated businessmen into politicians[6], the law of the state illustrated not a “question of right or wrong, but only absolute obedience, the blind conformism of bourgeois society”.[7] Whereas race substituted nation as the principle body politic, bureaucracy was the principle for foreign domination,[8] the glue holding overseas expansionism together.

Distribution of famine relief in the Madras Presidency. From the Illustrated London News (May 26,1877) via Wikimedia Commons

Connections can be drawn between the racial and imperial past and the humanitarian present, and also to the events of DRC in 2017 with the dramatic loss of aid workers. Humanitarianism is a product of its surrounding world and its roots lay in the same soil. A known researcher in humanitarianism, Michael Barnett, goes as far as to label the period of 1800–1945 as “the age of imperial humanitarianism”, from which the subsequent ages of humanitarianism followed.[9] The stereotype of a white humanitarian has been around long enough for our minds to associate seamlessly with it:

If you close your eyes and picture “a humanitarian”, what do you see?

These connections continue further. On a conceptual level, imperialism was, and political expansionism is, often paved with alleged humanitarian intent. Further, both humanitarian intervention and imperialism are located in the spectrum of international interventionism. On a practical level, and borrowing Arendt’s words, interventionism is primed with Western riches, not only monetarily, but also “in education, technical know-how, and general competence” (often applicable among humanitarians), which then also “has plagued international relations ever since the beginning of genuine world politics”.[10] An illustrative example is that consequentially to the ‘Scramble for Africa’ and many other related developments, the following humanitarian interventions found geopolitical ground in Africa and many of the biggest humanitarian aid receivers can still be found on the continent today. This dance between the imperial past and the humanitarian present can, of course, be found also in other places.

When racism and imperialism combined, human lives got different price tags based on geographical origins and skin color. While this was also true under colonialism, imperial ideology continues to travel by ideas. Talal Asad captures one of these fatal ideas:

“the death of poor people in the world does not matter as much as the death of people in affluent societies. In saying this and acting on this belief, the patterns of living and dying in the world come to be affected by it.”[11]

Prior their deaths, the patterns of Catalán’s and Sharp’s living varied from that of their Congolese drivers and interpreters. After all, they were the “UN experts” on their mission.[12] Is it, then, only following the unjust logic that difference also marked the pattern of their deaths?

The events of DRC are illustrative in the humanitarian context, particularly of the attention being paid to national and international humanitarian workers. Transcending from imperialism, the idea of human worth becomes a subjective estimate based on racial origins in which Western whiteness is the social norm.[13] This, of course, does not equate to whiteness becoming a safe haven for peace and prosperity. Whiteness can transcend further into specificities, divided by religious differences, nationalities and minority-majority politics. Turning to the example of Nazi Germany, certain categories of whiteness were prioritized over others.

But to conclude where I started, in Congo. In a humanitarian sense, what we pay attention to and what resonates with us on a personal level is a complex myriad of conscious and unconscious ideas of human worth. Were Catalán’s and Sharp’s lives worth more than that of their driver and interpreter companions? If measured in terms of public outcry, the answer seems to be yes. If measured in terms of grief caused by a loss of a family member, my estimate would be to say no. Perhaps it is trivial to even talk about measurements on a such horrific occasion. Rather, and on a personal note, why did I get shaken by the decapitation of one white woman, but miss the news of decapitation of over 40 Congolese police officers, when the context was the same? My best bet is to turn to the racial and imperial history from which our present conceptualizations and understanding of the world stems, and start to unlearn from there.

[1] See, for example, the statement by the United Nations Secretary-General at, the Human Rights Watch at, the New York Times at, Foreign Policy at and the Amnesty International at

[2] See the Guardian at

[3] Humanitarian Outcomes, Aid Worker Security Report 2019, available at

[4] Foreword by Egeland, J. in Weiss, T. G., & Barnett, M. (2013). Humanitarianism contested: Where angels fear to tread. Routledge.

[5] Humanitarian Outcomes, Aid Worker Security Report 2019, p. 2.

[6] With this concept I refer to the mode of humanitarianism represented by its classical actors, such as the IFRC and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), who defend the ethical terms and neutrality of their practice. Comparatively, new forms of humanitarianism can be seen strictly instrumental toward desired outcomes, such as introducing democracy and overthrowing oppressive groups, see for example Mascarenhas, M. (2017). New humanitarianism and the crisis of charity: Good intentions on the road to help: Indiana University Press.

[7] In the field of humanitarian studies, I am not, by any means, the first or the last to affiliate to Arendt. Some contemporary examples include Owens, P. “Hannah Arendt, Violence, and the Inescapable Fact of Humanity”, in Anthony F. Lang Jr and Williams, J. (eds). Hannah Arendt and International Relations: Readings Across the Lines, Palgrave, London, 2005; Young, I. M. “Power, Violence, and Legitimacy: A Reading of Hannah Arendt in an Age of Police Brutality and Humanitarian Intervention”, in Minow, M. (ed.) Breaking the Cycles of Hatred: Memory, Law, and Repair, (2002): 260-287, and Weizman, E. The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza. Verso Books, 2011.

[8] Arendt herself addresses this issue only on rare occasions, rather, numerous similar references to human rights can be found in the publication.

[9] Arendt, H. (2004). The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Schocken, p. 209.

[10] Ibid, p. 202.

[11] Ibid, p. 185.

[12] Ibid, p. 189.

[13] Ibid, p. 242.

[14] Barnett, M. (2011). Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

[15] Arendt, H. (2004). The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Schocken, p. 163.

[16] Asad, T. (2007). On Suicide bombing. New York: Columbia University Press.

[17] See for example Human Rights Watch, available at

[18] I claim that here an intersectional connection to gender can be found; similar to male gender in the spectrum of genders, whiteness in the spectrum of races is “not an identity, not a particularizing quality, because it is everything”. Haywood, C. and Mac an Ghaill, M. 2003. Men and masculinities: Theory, research and social practice. Buckingham: Open University Press, p. 103.