Humanitarianism, Crisis & Charity: Michael Mascarenhas

This week we talk with Framing Fellow Michael Mascarenhas about his recently completed book project on humanitarianism, crises and charity. While the initial manuscript is complete, it is currently undergoing review from IU Press.

Michael Mascarenhas is an associate professor in the University of California – Berkeley‘s Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management. His research interests lie in the realms of Post-colonial and Development Studies, Environmental Justice and Racism, as well as Science and Technology Studies.

In this Q&A Mascarenhas explains issues of poverty, inequality, humanitarianism and governmentality, all of which are central in Good Intentions: New Humanitarianism and the Crisis Tendencies of 21st Century Charity.

Zach Vaughn: You’ve been busily working on your book project to be published by IU Press, and it is now undergoing review. As a preview for our readers, what sort of issue(s) do you explore in Good Intentions?

Michael Mascarenhas: This book tries to understand the contemporary appeal of humanitarian moral sentiments in the face of growing dispossession and inequality. At a glance this relationship may seem obvious: the latter causes the former. But that hypothesis doesn’t seem to explain why a lack of efficacy and legitimacy—I would be remiss not to also mention increasing scandals –continues to engulf this now global humanitarian government and governmentality.

Today, corporations donate millions of dollars to their charitable causes and humanitarian crises, as private aid continues to outstrip official development aid. Within six months of the South Asian Tsunami, official aid and private donations raised over $13 billion for the victims of this natural disaster. These and other moments of dispossession have prompted a humanitarian response of epic proportions. Data assembled by the Union of International Associations (UIA) shows that three-quarters of all estimated 27,472 international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) active in 2005 were added since 1975. Non-profit employment in the United States grew every year between 2000 and 2010 despite two recessions.

ZV: Is it the case that charity has largely taken the place of private and governmental spending for humanitarian causes?

MM: Indeed. According to a recent Urban Institute report the number of non-profits in the United States increased 25 percent, meaning that their growth rate exceeded that of both the business and government sectors during that decade. The annual Giving USA report on philanthropy reported that charitable giving rose 3.5 percent in 2012 to $316.23 billion, an all-time record that surpassed the high-water mark of $311 billion in 2007 before the financial crisis. In 2010, public charities in the United States alone, the largest component of the nonprofit sector in the US, reported $1.51 trillion in revenue, $1.45 trillion in expenses, and $2.71 trillion in assets.

The 21st Century NGO report submitted that the not-for-profit sector “could now rank as the world’s eighth-largest economy.” This now thriving sector employs more than 19 million paid employees and is rapidly becoming the career of choice for many college graduates from engineering and the social sciences to lawyers and MBAs. In addition to rising donations and employment opportunities, more than one quarter (27 percent) of adults in the United States alone volunteered with an organization according to the 2012 Urban Institute report. Today, we in the Global North walk, run, bike, swim, dance, eat, pray and invest for those in need in the Global South, as countless appeals remind us that we have a moral imperative to do more for those who have less.


A young girl in Sudan holding a baby near a USAID tent in the Al Salam internally displaced persons camp (Flickr)

ZV: It sounds like with all the money poured into charity coffers that INGOs are making strides in addressing inequality, but that’s not the case is it?

MM: One would be tempted to think that, yet in spite of our humanitarian moral sentiments we continue to fail. For example, the United Nations declared that it will need nearly $13 billion US in aid in 2014 to reach at least 52 million people in 17 countries. Valerie Amos, the U.N.’s Under-Secretary-General has said that, “This is the largest amount we’ve ever had to request at the start of the year.” She further added that, “The complexity and scale of what we are doing is rising all the time.” This formidable humanitarian request comes on the heels of more dire warnings from the United Nations Human Settlements Programme about the future of humanity where urban poverty and slums in the world could reach 45 to 50 per cent of the total population living in cities by 2020.

ZV: So if growing dispossession and inequality doesn’t necessarily lead to the expansion of humanitarian moral sentiments, what do you propose as an alternative explanation?

MM: The hypothesis advanced in Good Intentions is that the contemporary appeal of humanitarian government and governmentality is, in part, a necessary condition—ideologically, professionally, and as a social movement—of growing global dispossession and inequality. Poverty, according to Hegel, is the price society pays for wealth in another. Marx, building on Hegel’s observation, faults the “antagonistic character of capitalist accumulation” that “makes an accumulation of misery a necessary condition, corresponding to the accumulation of wealth.”

Accumulation of wealth at one pole is strategically and cautiously balanced with an accumulation of humanitarian moral sentiments at another. Part of what makes this current humanitarian conjuncture so extraordinary, I suggest, is the way in which the convergence of finance capital, corporate philanthropy, social entrepreneurialism, and business management principles have converged and been reconfigured to solve the most pressing problem of modern society.

Without this understanding of contemporary humanitarian moral sentiments the argument for global citizenship is left to rest on notions of compassion, charity and a ‘common humanity,’ which fails to recognize the new relations and disposition of power that are emerging as a result of this new humanitarian government and governmentality.

ZV: It sounds like you’re trying to tease apart the relationship between a variety of stakeholders and actors on a global stage in order to better address the roots of rampant inequalities. Is this correct?

MM: Yes. The question I explore in this book is: as the shared interests which make humanitarianism possible have grown and the networks between them strengthened, how is this assemblage of global actors transforming the politics (decisions over who gets aid, when, and under what conditions) and power-knowledge dynamics (notions of expertise, data, and measurement) of humanitarian policy and practice?

Another concern I have is how are we to make sense of the complex formal and informal partnerships that seem to be forming between states, businesses, and civil society organizations as they join efforts—and change roles—in a concerted effort to alleviate the crisis conditions of the world’s poor and dispossessed? How can this new humanitarian network be analysed and understood? And how has the production of crises and understanding of need served to organize this particular humanitarian conjuncture?

With these questions in mind, my task in this book is to situate the present humanitarian conjuncture within a series of contradictory relations embedded in this new global strategy in the war on poverty.

ZV: Are there cases in which the international community falters and hyperlocal organizations step in to fill the void?

MM: There was a time after the South Asian Tsunami when NGOs and governments were competing for media attention to showcase their humanitarian efforts along the coast.  Other places that were equally destroyed but did not have access to media were left to their own devices to rebuild their communities and their lives.  So these communities, I would hazard to guess, only feature into the global assemblage if they can enroll Western networks of support and media.  The success of the Zapatistas is another example of local crises that have been foisted onto the global stage with the help of media and Internet.

ZV: Earlier you mentioned “contradictory relations,” and I was wondering how you see these as important for global scholars?

MM: These embedded contradictions, in employment, education, finance, and technology to name four, may, in fact, represent a release value to the last forty years of neoliberal capitalism—what amounts to a private civil society version of the welfare state. This perspective suggests a fresh way to examine the extent to which this new form of humanitarianism offers a modern day coping mechanism that ensures, on the one hand, that new markets are “opened up and kept open,” to quote Polanyi, and, on the other hand, that demands for social protection are persistently generated. In locating the multi-layered transnational networks that have produced this particular form of modern humanitarianism we can offer a historically specific explanation of how these contradictions and tensions are first manufactured and then worked out in everyday practice.

ZV: Sounds fascinating, and I can’t wait to read the book.

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