Lecture Series Explores Benefits, Unintended Consequences of Humanitarianism

By its very nature, humanitarianism is intended to accomplish good, but there also can be unintended consequences in efforts to help others.

Several noted scholars will explore the sometimes unexpected outcomes of altruism as part of a semester-long lecture series at Franklin & Marshall College this spring. Sponsored by several academic departments at the College, "Perspectives on Humanitarianism" will examine philanthropic initiatives in Palestine, Iraq, Colombia, and India and their effects on the communities in each country.

"Each of the speakers covers a different area of the world," said Bridget Guarasci, a visiting assistant professor of anthropology who co-organized the series with Department of International Studies Chair Lisa Gasbarrone. "We will be exploring the commonalities and differences between these humanitarian efforts, their contributions and flaws, and turning our critical lens to how projects affect the communities they set out to help."

Guarasci will incorporate the lecture series into her course, "Humanitarianism," and each speaker will visit the class to participate in discussions facilitated by teams of students.

Franklin & Marshall is an ideal setting for the lecture series, said Guarasci, whose research focuses on the complex issues associated with rehabilitative efforts in Iraq. She noted that The Human Rights Initiative, a student-run organization dedicated to raising awareness of human rights issues locally and globally, collaborates with a number of Lancaster-area organizations on issues pertaining to social justice and immigration involving many in the community in advocacy efforts.

"We are hoping we can create a dialogue that reaches not only the students, but the greater community, which has a lot of experience with issues of political asylum, migration, and the challenges of resettlement that new immigrants are facing here," she said. "We want to encourage students and others who are looking for experiential education to think about what it means to invest ourselves in a project that seems to be good on the outside."

Gasbarrone approached Guarasci about organizing the lecture series, as she encounters many students with a strong interest in humanitarian efforts.

"A lot of students have an overpowering motivation to do good and want to do good globally," Gasbarrone said. "There is an emerging conversation in anthropology about the unintended consequences of humanitarian intervention. Aid workers themselves have begun to question their own efforts, asking, 'Does aid on occasion do more harm than good?'

"My interest in bringing people to campus to talk about this is so that students can get a more comprehensive perspective on what it is they might wish to do. This series is fantastic in that it includes people who have done fieldwork and have been practitioners of this work."

The series will include the following five lectures, all to be held in the Lisa Bonchek Adams Auditorium in Kaufman Hall:

  • Ilana Feldman, author and associate professor of anthropology and international affairs at George Washington University, will give a talk called "Looking for Humanitarian Purpose: Endurance and Its Limits in a Palestinian Refugee Camp," 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 28. Feldman will consider "the challenge of defining and pursuing purpose" through long-term humanitarian interventions. She is the author of "Governing Gaza: Bureaucracy, Authority, and the Work of Rule, 1917-67" (2008) and "In the Name of Humanity: The Government of Threat and Care" (2010).
  • Kirk W. Johnson, founder of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, will discuss efforts by Iraqis and Afghans to assist U.S. soldiers during wars and their fate afterward, 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 18. In a talk titled "To Be a Friend is Fatal: The Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind," based on his latest book of the same title, Johnson will explore the struggles of locals who acted as interpreters, engineers and advisers to diplomats and aid workers in the post-war era.
  • Didier Fassin, a professor of anthropology at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and former vice president of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), will speak about "The Politics of Humanitarianism" and how moral concerns have shaped policy, at 4:45 p.m. Tuesday, March 4. Fassin will examine how moral questions have influenced immigration, asylum, disease, poverty, disaster and war in France, South Africa, and Venezuela and. He is the author of "Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present."
  • Winifred Tate, assistant professor of anthropology at Colby College, will discuss "Death Squad Politics: Human Rights Advocacy and the Making of a Military Aid Package," 7 p.m. March 26. Tate will discuss a controversial U.S. government decision in 2000 to provide aid to Colombia to reduce drug trafficking and build democracy. She is the author of "Counting the Dead: The Culture and Politics of Human Rights Advocacy" and the forthcoming "Plan Colombia: U.S. Policy and Proxy Wars."
  • Erica Bornstein, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, will give a talk titled "Law as a Language of Activism: Regulating Global Philanthropy in India," 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 9. The lecture will delve into how philanthropy and humanitarian work are regulated in India,. Bornstein is the author of "Disquieting Gifts: Humanitarianism in New Delhi," and "The Spirit of Development: Protestant NGOs, Morality and Economics in Zimbabwe."

The series is sponsored by the International Studies Program, the Center for Liberal Arts & Society, the Laura & Ralph Mueller Endowment for Islamic Studies Lecture Fund, Academic Innovation Fund, and the Departments of Anthropology and Earth and Environment.

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