Western Humanitarianism Or Neo-Slavery?
Ordinary people in the Chadian town of Abeche and the country at large were outraged that their children were being smuggled out of the country under false pretenses. During massive protest demonstrations they made abundantly clear their feeling and perception of what had happened, by shouting the refrain: â€œNo to the slave trade! No trafficking in children!â€?
[Issues Of Principle]
Humanitarianism is generally taken for granted as driven by benevolent concerns. Has this always been the case? What is the comparative record of Western humanitarianism in Africa, from a historical perspective? What lessons can be drawn from such an understanding?
The recent scandal in Chad involving European nationals allegedly in a scheme to abduct young African children under the pretext of medical emergency and to take them to Europe ostensibly to save them from the scourge of civil wars in Darfur and Chad so that the children would have a better life, has certainly put a searchlight on humanitarianism and on how Western non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operate in Africa.
The scandal raises in particular three inter-related questions of historical significance. The first relates to the very nature, principles and definition of humanitarianism. Second, in whose interests do humanitarian organizations operate in Africa? And third, what is the significance of the scandal?
To avoid confusion and in order to contextualize the issues, it is necessary to first define what is regarded as humanitarianism in the West; then provide what are the known facts about the scandal, before the other questions are addressed, with particular reference to Africa.
In the literature and policy rhetoric, humanitarianism often implies the practice of saving lives and alleviating suffering, whether brought about by natural or human-made disasters. Humanitarian action is supposed to be driven by the twin principles of humane treatment of the suffering or victimized person regardless of background; and the independence (and neutrality) of action of humanitarian organizations from governments. In the contemporary era, humanitarian activities have often been conducted by what have become known as Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs).
What are the known facts about the Chad scandal? Sixteen Europeans, nine of whom are French citizens, belonging to a charity known as Zoe’s Ark, were arrested at the end of October in the Chadian town of Abeche, which is near Chad's border with Darfur, while trying to fly out of Chad to France more than 100 children they claimed were orphans from Sudan's Darfur region. Of the arrested “charity workers” who often adorned in identifying T-shirts with the logo "Children Rescue," six were charged by authorities in Chad with kidnapping of children. It is understood that each French family contracted for the scheme paid about $3,000.
According to the charity group, the operation to fly the children out of Chad was embarked upon for the purpose of rescuing orphans from Darfur, so that they would be given a better life in Europe. However, investigation by a number of United Nations agencies, including UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and UN Children Fund (UNICEF), has revealed that most if not all of the children were not orphans. The French newspaper, Le Monde, reported that the French military had on several occasions given staff from Children Rescue seats on their planes which traveled between Ndjamena and Abeche. The newspaper doubted that the French military, which has a permanent presence in eastern Chad, could not have known about the plan.
For its part, the French government revealed that it had known about the operation and had done all it could to stop the charity, Zoe's Ark, from going ahead with it. A prime concern of the French government was to minimize the repercussions of the scandal so as not to jeopardize the planned deployment of a 3,000-strong European Union force in Chad. Although the deployment of the troops has been marketed as an action to protect Darfur refugees and people displaced in the conflict that has spilled over the border from Sudan, it is apparent that the real reason for the deployment is less to protect Africans than to superintend European and specifically French geo-strategic interests in the region.
Ordinary people in the Chadian town of Abeche and the country at large were outraged that their children were being smuggled out of the country under false pretenses. On learning about the scandal people mobilized to ask for justice to be done. During massive protest demonstrations against the alleged child-kidnapping attempt, they made abundantly clear their feeling and perception of what had happened, by shouting the refrain: “No to the slave trade! No trafficking in children!”
The Chadian government for its part, instead of taking the occasion to review the conduct of various NGOs in the country, apparently in order not to alienate its Western allies, said that other aid agencies will be allowed to continue their humanitarian work for Darfur refugees despite the scandal.
What are we then to make of the scandal? It is obvious that if all humanitarian activities are carried out according to the principles and policy rhetoric, it would indeed reaffirm the faith in a common humanity and reinforce human solidarity on a global scale and make the world a far better place. Two examples can be cited of humanitarian organizations or initiatives whose activities ennobled the principles of humanitarianism and solidarity. Oxfam, the U.K. based NGO, has established a distinguished record of impressive humanitarian, or rather, developmental work in Africa. Similarly, the various initiatives led by Bob Geldof have demonstrated genuine sense of human solidarity with African people.
However, a critical question is whether NGOs translate the principles and policy rhetoric into practical reality on the ground in Africa or simply use the principles and policy rhetoric for public relations.
Our understanding of the phenomenon of Western humanitarianism should be enhanced by cross-reference and examination of the attitude and activities of the more enlightened and better regarded “humanitarian” organizations or personalities in the history of Africa. Arguably the most well-known Western intervention in Africa for so-called humanitarian reason occurred in the nineteenth century when European Christian missionaries and their cohorts went to Africa ostensibly to help Africans recover from the ravages of European trade in Africans, what is otherwise known as the slave trade.
Historical record shows that the Christian missionaries often advocated the European invasion and conquest of Africa on the grounds that it would facilitate their humanitarian work. What is of particular significance is that Christian missionaries viewed Africans at best as ignorant and degraded heathens and worst as less than human beings, who could be saved only through European colonial imperialism and its various agents.
In the folklore of Africans and in Western literature, two individuals stand out as heroic champions of African rights. These are David Livingstone and Sir Samuel Baker, both of whom are reputed to have done much to fight against the slave trade. What were their attitudes towards Africans that might have informed their “humanitarian” work?
David Livingstone, regarded as by far the most enlightened explorer-missionary of his generation, wrote in the early 1870s the following about his work among Africans: “We come among them as members of a superior race, and servants of a Government that desires to elevate the more degraded portions of the human family. We are adherents of a benign holy religion, and may, by consistent conduct and wise patient efforts, become the harbingers of peace to a hitherto distracted and downtrodden race”.
Livingstone’s contemporary, Sir Samuel Baker, in addressing the London Ethnographical Society in 1865 said that the Dinka people, as representative of Africans along the uppermost reaches of the Nile, were inferior to animals. The nature of the Dinka, according to Baker, was “not even to be compared with the noble character of the dog”. It must be remembered that Baker was not an ordinary commoner but a British explorer who was a close friend of Queen Victoria and Consort Albert and British agent charged with the task to ensure the elimination of Arab slave trade in Africans along the Nile Basin.
Both Livingstone and Baker were, of course, the social products of their period and their racist views were more than simply the individual convictions of each; rather, they were a reflection of the social ideology that gained currency with the growth of European trade in Africans. Nonetheless, despite their views and attitudes towards Africans, both Livingstone and Baker have been presented in folklore and literature as heroic Europeans who sacrificed much for the salvation of Africans.
Baker’s and Livingstone’s European successors as missionaries, merchants, and colonial officers, have been presented in the literature as heroes in the cause of Africans, regardless of their record or attitude towards Africans. King Leopold of Belgium, who after the 1884/5 Berlin Conference on Africa acquired the Congo, is portrayed in the literature as an outstanding European philanthropist who was engaged in a mission of civilization of Africans. In the portrayal, it is scarcely mentioned that he presided over the genocide of about 10 million African in the 1890s.
A dimension of humanitarianism which has scarcely received attention is a dialectical one. By this I mean the relationship between the crises garnering attention and the possible causes of the crises. In the case of Africa, whether it was the slave trade or colonial imperialism and their impact, rarely have humanitarian workers addressed the fact that often the dominant sources of the various crises in Africa are external. In fact, it seems as though those who bring about the crises in the first place and their inheritors are the ones who go back to Africa as humanitarians. A logical conclusion might be that humanitarian crises are sometimes engineered to bring Africans to their knees so that from the source of the crises humanitarians can then intervene to dress up the suffering inflicted.
On balance, a review of the attitudes and operations of Western humanitarian organizations in Africa indicates that little has changed since the mid nineteenth century. It is doubtful that Western humanitarian work in Africa can have enduring positive impact unless Euro-Americans discard paternalistic racist attitude towards Africans. Unless humanitarianism is informed by a sense of respect of and identity with the rights and aspirations of Africans and conducted on the basis of reciprocal consultation and transparency, it will be simply a placebo.
The recent scandal in the Chad should serve as a wake up call to people who are genuinely concerned about African welfare to put in place mechanisms to monitor the activities of NGOs that operate in the continent under the general umbrella of humanitarianism. Otherwise, as in Uganda, where a plethora of NGOs operate in the knowledge that the government has abdicated its social duties to citizens except as provider of security for NGOS and other international agencies, so called humanitarian organizations might simply be Trojan horses for all sorts of forces and ulterior motives. There is certainly an imperative for more vigilance about the activities of so-called humanitarian organization in the continent.
Above all, for humanitarianism to live up to its principles and great possibilities, it must be based on respect for the rights of, empathy with not pity of, and on overarching human solidarity with those who are vulnerable.
Black Star News columnist Professor Amii Omara-Otunnu is UNESCO Chair in Human Rights, Executive-Director of the UConn-ANC Partnership and Professor of History at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. His column appears bi-weekly online and in the newspaper.
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