A short history of helping far-off peoples

Humanitarian images have obscured the causes and political complexities of disasters, and undermined the agency of their victims—both symbolically and practically.

Bob Geldof in Ethiopia during the first Live Aid (Image owned by Rex Features).

In the past two centuries, as technologies of mass media have advanced, so too has our knowledge of the suffering of distant others. It is through this knowledge that the new ways of generating empathy underpinning the modern humanitarian movement came into being. But the desire to help others is difficult to disconnect from representations of their need.

Humanitarianism is a modern phenomenon, generally traced to the late-eighteenth century, when new forms of print media publicized the plight of far-off peoples. At heart it was about helping a distant stranger, rather than a friend or neighbor.

The abolition of slavery is usually credited as the first humanitarian campaign. During the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries western activists sought to create sympathy for enslaved peoples in the Caribbean through images and narratives that focused on both bodily and emotional pain. New ways of generating empathy for the suffering of distant strangers were created though lurid descriptions of torture and suffering. These were widely circulated due to the expansion of technologies such as the printing press, and reached new audiences due to expanded literacy. By focusing on the physical and emotional pain of slaves, humanitarian appeals highlighted the shared humanity of slaves. In doing so, these appeals created and extended empathy for distant strangers. Thus, humanitarianism has always been inseparable from its literary and visual representations.

However, anti-slavery appeals did not portray slaves as equal to western audiences. The images of the anti-slavery campaign instead showed slaves as helpless, supplicant and grateful to their Western liberators. In the quintessential anti-slavery image, an enslaved man asks the viewer, ‘am I not a man and a brother?’ He does so kneeling with clasped pleading hands. While attempting to overcome the most profound inequality created by early imperialism—the slave trade—anti-slavery campaigns also entrenched colonial hierarchies, portraying African people as helpless and white Westerners as their natural ‘saviors’.

Following the anti-slavery campaign, humanitarian appeals proliferated. From the mid-19th century onwards, a host of newly created humanitarian organizations vied with one and other to win the support of potential supporters and donors. To do so, they sought to show that the subjects of their appeals were the most worthy of humanitarian aid. While a few organizations—such as the newly established International Committee of the Red Cross—did this by highlighting the heroism and bravery of those in need of help (soldiers, in the case of the ICRC), for the most part, appeals echoed anti-slavery rhetoric, emphasizing the helplessness and humanity of victims of war, famine and poverty across the world. In addition to helplessness, mid-nineteenth century appeals emphasized new a criterion for sympathy: innocence.

Increasingly, humanitarian appeals focused on women and children, considered to be blameless, helpless and, unlike adult men, removed from the complexity of politics. Appeals for causes ranging from the Irish Famine in the 1840s to the South African War (highlighting the plight of the Boers) in 1899-1902 were almost identical: they emphasized the suffering of mothers and the starvation and sickness of children. The recurrent motifs of the modern humanitarian movement had begun to emerge. Over the course of the twentieth-century, through the rise of mass media and mass marketing, these persistent humanitarian tropes would be increasingly refined and standardized, and images of ‘innocent’ ‘helpless’ women—and, even more often, children—came to represent all moments of humanitarian crisis and forms of need.

The persistent use of mothers and children in humanitarian appeals has had two important effects. First, by depicting ‘starving children’ in humanitarian appeals, humanitarian organizations gave donors a sense of superiority over the people that they ‘saved’. They invited the white West to be ‘parents’ to people in need and, by extension, portrayed people and nations in need of assistance as “childlike”—reinforcing colonial hierarchies and stereotypes.

Second, by depicting children, humanitarian organizations obscured the often-controversial politics of aid. Both now and in the past, humanitarian emergencies often emerge in the context of military conflict or political corruption. By presenting images of children—isolated from adult community members—humanitarian organizations distance the need for aid from the conditions that produce it. Donors feel as if they are giving to ‘innocent children’ rather than politically suspect adults. This approach has not only led to scenarios in which aid exacerbates conflict or props up bad leadership. It also—just as problematically—creates an ideal of ‘non-political’ humanitarianism and the recipients of aid as devoid of political ideals and agency. Three instances of extreme humanitarian crises from the twentieth century—the Russian famine of 1921, the Biafra-Nigeria War or 1967-70, and the Ethiopian famine during 1983-85—illustrate some of the problematic effects of humanitarian appeals.

In 1921, a mass famine swept Soviet Russia, endangering the lives of 10 million people. Western aid agencies, such as the newly founded Save the Children Fund, realized that if they were to raise money for Russian citizens that they would have to overcome significant anti-Communist hostility from potential European and American donors. Just a few years prior, the Communist government had seized power in Russia and created an international outcry. As they withdrew from the allied effort in the First World War, Russia issued anti-capitalist propaganda, and amongst other atrocities, executed the popular Russian royal family.

Humanitarian organizers in the West knew that if they were going to create sympathy for Russian famine victims, they would need to obscure the political context of a famine taking place under Soviet rule. To do so, humanitarian appeals depicted only children. Drawing on religious and romantic discourses of children’s innate value and innocence, appeals claimed that the young “could not be Bolsheviks” or “had no politics.”

In 1921, cameras were rare. Few relief workers carried them into the field. The Save the Children Fund thus relied on journalists for images of starving children, and promised large payments for “ideal” fundraising images. They drew up guidelines of what ideal images should look like: they should portray children—usually girls—under the age of 10 wearing few clothes in order to show their hunger, and should not contain adults. Mothers, it was later agreed, were perhaps acceptable, but certainly not men (who would be thought of as soldiers and Bolsheviks).

These images were an extraordinarily successful fundraising device, enabling a famine relief effort that fed three million children. But, the famine relief scheme also had unanticipated consequences. The Russian famine was not a natural phenomenon. It was caused by years of civil war, and the ineffective agricultural policies of the new Soviet government. By feeding Russian citizens, the West would enhance the legitimacy of the communist regime; a regime that would, ten years later, use famine as a weapon against its opponents in the Ukraine, and deny relief workers entry to assist in their relief. Even when aid was portrayed as non-political it could, of course, have far-reaching political consequences.

In 1967, the eastern area region of Nigeria attempted to secede—briefly becoming the independent state of Biafra, leading to a brutal and bloody civil war. Starvation was used as a weapon against the Biafran people, as Nigerian Federal troops blocked supply lines to the self-proclaimed independent state.

In a bid to secure international recognition for the secession, Biafran leaders attempted to highlight the political legitimacy of their cause. The Biafran people, they argued, had been systematically discriminated against in Nigeria, and the Nigerian state had itself only been created though the piecemeal amalgamation of culturally and ethnically distinct areas under British colonial rule in 1914. Yet these attempts to gain political legitimacy were widely unsuccessful: Western public opinion was initially unconcerned, while the British and American governments continued to support Nigerian federal forces with shipments of arms.

It was not until mid-1968, when the news reports of British journalist Fredrick Forsyth beamed images of starving Biafran children onto the television screens of millions of viewers that the Biafran cause captured the international imagination. As Forsyth himself explained, “people who couldn’t fathom the political complexities of the war could easily grasp the wrong in a picture of a child dying of starvation.” In an era when many homes were newly equipped with televisions, Western audiences were forced to confront the suffering of “Biafran babies” in their own living rooms. These images of staving children worked both to simplify and “humanize” the conflict for a Western audience, and aid organizations such as the Oxfam drew unprecedented donations to deliver humanitarian supplies behind the Nigerian blockade.

Undoubtedly, humanitarian intervention spurred by images of starving Biafra children saved lives. Yet, it has also been argued that humanitarian intervention served to prolong the Biafra-Nigeria war ultimately leading to further loss of life. The Biafran famine appeal also had long-term cultural implications. In the late-1960s, an era in which may African states had become newly independent, Biafran famine appeals reduced the complexities of post-colonial politics to the image of a helpless, starving child, whose future rested not upon political self-determination, but Western aid.

Fast forward to the 1983-1985 Ethiopian famine. Then familiar humanitarian tropes were deployed once again to create sympathy for victims. A host of NGOs (and pop stars) publicized the plight of Ethiopian children, who, like the Russian and Biafran famine victims who had come before them, were the subjects of graphic photographs and lingering camera shots focusing on the pain and physical deformities that chronic hunger produced. In a series of near-identical humanitarian appeals and news reports cameras panned from helpless, hungry mothers and children to wide-lens shots which emphasized the scale of the crises (among them the song and video for Band Aid—the first of a now familiar genre of charity music appeals satirized by Norwegian student organization, Africa for Norway). In these appeals, victims of hunger were reduced to a “mass of humanity” as viewers were told repeatedly that the famine was on a “biblical” scale. As in Russia and Biafra, the causes and context of the famine were obscured in order to create a compelling humanitarian narrative: Ethiopians were hungry, and Europeans could “save” them by making a simple donation.

Humanitarian appeals that obscure the complex political causes of disasters do not only undermine the agency and individuality of their victims. As Alex de Waal argues in his book Famine Crimes these humanitarian appeals—by presenting famines as unavoidable emergencies that can only be resolved through Western aid—diminish the responsibility of governments to meet the needs of their citizens. In the case of Ethiopia, de Waal argues, humanitarian appeals and humanitarian aid ultimately absolved the government of responsibility for the famine, thereby strengthening the authoritarian Mengistu regime and disempowering Ethiopian famine victims.

The nature of humanitarian appeals has had profound effects. In the short term images of suffering children have captured the imagination of the western public and allowed for interventions that have saved lives in moments of crisis. Yet, in the longer term, humanitarian images have obscured the causes and political complexities of disasters, and undermined the agency of their victims—both symbolically and practically. They have perpetuated hierarchical relationships between the Global South and the West.  By masking the political causes of humanitarian crises, instead offering a simplified narrative in which victims of hunger as ‘saved’ by one off interventions by Western aid agencies—sustainable, long term solutions to hunger and poverty remain out of reach. It remains to be seen if we can strive towards a system that asks tough questions as opposed to presenting simplified rescue solutions, but we should not be content with reproduction of the images and inequalities of the past.

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