The Need to Help: The Domestic Arts of International Humanitarianism, by Liisa H. Malkki

Acknowledging aid workers’ motives does not diminish their extraordinary efforts, says Monika Krause

September 3, 2015
Review: The Need to Help, by Liisa H. Malkki

Discussions about humanitarianism often get stuck in a set of well-worn dichotomies: the West versus the rest, us versus them, the donor and the recipient, active and passive, international and local, at home and abroad. The very notion of humanitarianism has come to depend on an opposition between international responses to disasters and atrocities on the one hand, and local and national responses on the other.

Anthropologists – and aid workers – have questioned some of the problematic aspects of this discourse. They have, for example, challenged depictions of the people affected by disaster and war as passive victims with accounts that highlight the ways in which they exercise agency and power.

Liisa Malkki opens up the discussion about humanitarianism in a different and more unusual way. She does not write about the agency of victims, but rather about the neediness of (Western) helpers. Based on interviews with staff of the Finnish Red Cross who have served abroad with the International Committee of the Red Cross, she describes the needs that aid workers bring to their work. The professional humanitarians Malkki interviewed are trained doctors, nurses or engineers; they feel drained by the routines of their working lives in their home country, and they also feel constrained by its social norms. International work provides them with an opportunity for a richer experience and for personal and professional development.

The Need to Help situates aid work firmly in the social realities of the sending countries, rather than in the context of the abstract cosmopolitan values that academic accounts usually emphasise. For many of the Finnish workers Malkki studies, aid work is also linked to different notions about what is good and what is bad about Finland and about being Finnish. Complementing her focus on professionals who work in crisis settings across the world, Malkki looks at the needs that are associated with some of the more mundane ways in which people connect to the humanitarian enterprise, such as the knitting of bunnies and teddies for imagined children-in-need far away.

Importantly, for Malkki, acknowledging the needs of aid workers does not diminish them or the work that they do. Nowhere does she suggest that they serve their own needs rather than the needs of others. By pointing out that aid work also serves the needs of aid workers, her study can be the basis for an analysis of the relationship between aid workers and the people affected by war and disaster that acknowledges the different kinds of needs and resources of each party. Along with research on, for example, South-South relations, or richer accounts of middle-class lives in African countries, this book can serve to reorient our thinking about global relations beyond the parochial patterns we have inherited.

Malkki’s study is perhaps most valuable as a reminder of the great variety of motivations that humans bring to their work and their lives. She challenges idealised descriptions of heroic aid workers and describes them as driven by both ordinary and extraordinary professionalism, by boredom, and by their need for personal and professional development. Precisely because of their neediness, the aid workers she portrays explode the opposition between values and interests, between ideals and money, that structures theoretical debates about action in the social sciences, and that also shapes the ways that we discuss career choices in everyday life.

Precisely because they are not self-sacrificing heroes, but are people who wish to do good and look beyond money and status, the aid workers she portrays are all the more credible and a profound challenge to the assumptions of bland, uniform rationality on which most of the UK’s current domestic policies are based.

Monika Krause is senior lecturer in sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London, and author of The Good Project: Humanitarian Relief NGOs and the Fragmentation of Reason (2014).


The Need to Help: The Domestic Arts of International Humanitarianism
By Liisa H. Malkki
Duke University Press, 296pp, £62.00 and £16.99
ISBN 9780822359128 and 9326
Published 11 September 2015

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