Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

Prof. Olúfémi Táíwò, Africana studies, discusses how Western aid to African countries frequently dehumanizes its recipients at a lecture in Klarman Atrium Monday.

April 25, 2016

Cornell Professors Expose Problems Posed by Humanitarianism

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Prof. Elizabeth Anker, english, and Prof. Olúfémi Táíwò, africana studies, argued that humanitarian efforts must balance solidarity with inequality in Monday’s final lecture in the “Big Ideas in the Humanities” series.

Both professors focused on the role of the Western world in providing humanitarian services and how this aid can be problematic due to underlying notions of privilege.

Anker called human rights “exclusionary and limited,” saying that they are often mentioned when speaking about foreign countries, but ignored when referencing problems in the Western world such as police brutality.

She stressed that human rights are not a universal commodity, even in a nation like the United States.

“If you don’t have citizenship in a human rights-respecting nation, your human rights are going to be pretty much rendered nonexistent,” she said.

The Western world portrays itself as a beacon of reason and truth that brings “light” in the form of civilization to “dark” countries, according to Anker. She said this imagery implies that countries and societies that lack human rights principles also lack values and ideals.

Anker urged attendees to be aware of their “obligation to be cognizant of the dark side of human rights” and the privilege that often underlies Westerners’ actions in regards to humanitarian work.

Táíwò’s talk focused on how Western countries’ relationships with Africa — which often center around giving aid to African countries — can often be twisted and one sided.

“Humanitarianism is not always intrinsically good — it all depends,” he said.

Aid from the Western world often “disempowers, immobilizes and disables” its recipients in Africa, according to Táíwò.

As evidence, he discussed how Western media typically uses Western reporters for African news, a phenomenon that he said underlies the belief that sufferers can not adequately articulate themselves.

“[It] dehumanizes the recipients [and] empowers the giver,” who often sees the action of humanitarian work as charity, Táíwò said.