This article shows the ways child soldier narratives, a predominantly African genre of literary writing, invite readers to reimagine the relationship between Western humanitarianism and its intended recipients. It begins by defining two basic types of humanitarian groups. Operational organizations respond to crises with material relief, while advocacy organizations attempt to raise awareness about these crises to mobilize support for relief efforts. Operational organizations are depicted throughout the genre as mostly incapable of providing meaningful help to communities affected by war. Relief aid is routinely stolen or misallocated, while aid workers are overwhelmed in spite of their best intentions. Yet many child soldier narratives portray humanitarian advocacy favorably, and in particular the memoirs are a vehicle for advocacy against child soldiering. The narratives’ authors are often viewed with suspicion in communities recovering from war, but in the West their unique social identities as ex–child soldiers are privileged, and many become advocates themselves. There are consequences to publicly embracing this identity insofar as it is difficult to transcend, as Ishmael Beah’s experiences show. More broadly, the genre provides a nuanced view of the relationship between Western humanitarian organizations and their beneficiaries in communities affected by warfare.

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