The first quarter of the twenty-first century fast approaches its end, and all is not well in human welfare. According to the UN secretary-general, some 360 million people worldwide are in need of humanitarian assistance. Beset by challenges of its own making (corruption, abuse, influence-peddling), as well as developments, like climate change, beyond its control, the humanitarian industry faces down an era of permanent crisis.
Whither humanitarianism? Straight to hell, according to Joshua Craze, in his history of “the angel’s creed” professed by the European bureaucrats who preside over never-ending famine and war. The humanitarian, he continues in his contribution to the issue’s titular symposium, might soon be held in as much contempt as the colonial missionary is today. Michael Barnett, Miriam Ticktin, Alex de Waal, Musab Younis, and Hong (Stella) Zhang offer their agreements, rejoinders, and addenda to the debate.
Elsewhere, the actions of global leaders past and present offer little confidence on the matter. Tim Schwab writes on the Big Philanthropy of Bill Gates, who has attempted to trick the public into viewing his self-interest as charitable largesse, while Laura Robson details how the United Nations remade refugees as precarious, unprotected labor during and after the Cold War.
The issue also features contributors considering the legacy of specific twenty-first-century humanitarian efforts. Pooja Bhatia describes how the UN tried to deny responsibility for bringing cholera to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, refusing to this day to make adequate reparations for the deaths caused by their workers. Helen Epstein chronicles the failure of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (better known as PEPFAR) to end, per its Bush-administration architects’ ambition, the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa once and for all.
Domestically, Sam Russek considers “humonetarianism,” or conservative social reform which is derived from grievances over taxes rather than concern for human dignity, as applied to criminal justice in Texas. Elsewhere in the state, Caroline Tracey profiles the forensic anthropologists of Operation Identification, who attempt to identify and repatriate the remains of migrants too often carelessly buried in the borderlands. Tanvi Misra highlights the United States’ shoddy, patchwork, and often abusive system for dealing with unaccompanied migrant youth who survive that treacherous crossing.
What can be done, in the face of all this failure? There aren’t easy solutions precipitating from these pages, though there is at least one rough consensus: no more dollar-a-day campaigns that use the supposedly pitiful as props and ultimately line humanitarians’ pockets. Consider the work of Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise, or CATPC, a cooperative of Congolese artists purchasing back ancestral lands from Unilever with funds derived from the exhibition and sale of their work in a contemporary art world whose institutions have been financed by the very exploitation of said lands. On slash-and-burned palm oil plantations with depleted soil, CATPC plants forests and plans for self-sufficiency. Slow work, to be sure, but their own: tangible, direct, and with nary an angel in sight.