This essay explores the vexing question of humanitarian purpose. It specifically considers the challenge of defining and pursuing this purpose in the context of long-term humanitarian interventions, when the clarity of saving lives from immediate danger recedes from its central place in humanitarian practice. Drawing from ethnographic research with a Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders mental health project in the Burj al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in the southern suburbs of Beirut, it argues that in conditions of chronic need, and in circumstances where it is nearly impossible to have much evident effect on the conditions of people’s lives, humanitarianism often turns to endurance as a purpose: helping people better cope with circumstances they cannot change. At the limits of the humanitarian imaginary, endurance projects seek to enable people to find different ways of imagining their existence: not changing their conditions, but living differently with them. These projects make the claim that there is value to these lives even if they can never be improved. The challenge of how to value lives that can be neither saved nor improved is one of the central dilemmas of the precarious present.
Looking for Humanitarian Purpose: Endurance and the Value of Lives in a Palestinian Refugee Camp
Ilana Feldman is associate professor of anthropology, history, and international affairs at George Washington University. She is the author of Governing Gaza: Bureaucracy, Authority, and the Work of Rule, 1917–1967 (2008) and Police Encounters: Security and Surveillance in Gaza under Egyptian Rule (2015) and coeditor, with Miriam Ticktin, of In the Name of Humanity: The Government of Threat and Care (2010).
Ilana Feldman; Looking for Humanitarian Purpose: Endurance and the Value of Lives in a Palestinian Refugee Camp. Public Culture 1 September 2015; 27 (3 (77)): 427–447. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/08992363-2896171
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