some thoughts on human rights workers as a colonizing force with a smile

April 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

so i thought i would present a few arguments/critiques of human rights work.  through williams’s writing on bikya masr.

he starts with a tongue-in-cheek explanation as to why he is not going to focus his critque on a specific region or ngo…

One of the first things I want to make clear in this series is that I’m specifically not applying my critique of such human rights work to a specific context. First of all, the universal nature of human rights means that they necessarily apply to all contexts in all places. As a result, focusing on human rights in, say, the Middle East is unnecessary for the purposes of this essay. Furthermore, I argue that the aid workers themselves view things through the prism of universality. To them they are providing the basic rights of food and shelter to third world children who are themselves as interchangeable as the contexts within which to place these rights. As a result, it is far from uncommon for aid workers to move from region to region or from NGO to IGO to NGO working in essentially the same broad field of “human rights,” but without ever bothering to try to learn the nuances that shape the differences between each context. Language, which would appear to be the most basic of qualification for aid work (insofar as it is a first step towards understanding a location, communicating with people and understanding what they perceive as their needs), is wholly absent from any of the directives or qualifications for human rights aid work. As a result this series will not deal with a specific case study on the way human rights is handled in a specific region or a specific country because the workers themselves don’t view human rights work through that prism. Countries and regions are interchangeable and differing contexts irrelevant. I aim to analyze the problems with this framework, and thus I will be discussing how workers view human rights in the abstract sense rather than focusing on specific contexts that they themselves see as irrelevant.

so so true.  human rights work is seen as a field of knowledge that with small tweaks can be applied to anywhere in the world.  that specific context, culture, language, history are secondary to the larger issue of ‘human rights’. i have noticed this even more that i have been around human rights grad students.

I’m arguing that culture is actively replaced or eroded by the way human rights is both conceived and the way it’s practiced. Aid is framed in English, where English (and occasionally French or Spanish) is presented as the language of higher learning, of higher attainment, and of higher understanding.Moreover, English is not just the language of the greater power who is “generous” enough to provide aid but it is actually the language within which what people need is framed. Talal Asad notes that this power allows English speaking countries and particularly the US to “take control of vocabulary, concepts and meaning in many fields. We have to formulate the problems it invents in the words it offers.” Asad is referring more broadly than to just human rights, but his criticism applies perfectly to human rights as well. A community determined to be without basic human rights is placed immediately in the context of “being without” that is in American terminology and from an American perspective of “the other.”

As such it’s hardly surprising that the vast majority of countries in need of human rights aid exist in countries outside of the West. Human rights workers are selling this language and these concepts in return for providing aid rather than following their own notion of “simple charity work.”

in which he shows that there is a crucial exchange that happens betw. human rights workers and their clients.  in that hr workers give the language and concepts of the empire, of the ngo, of the bodies that have money in exchange for ‘providing aid’.  it is a softer sell than missionaries who give bread to converts.  but not by much.  human rights workers act as a form of cultural colonization.

As already mentioned, rights workers are coming from a context totally outside of the sphere within which they work. The presumption is that a foreign (likely Western) worker with no knowledge of the language, culture, history, sewage, draining, practices, bureaucracy, economy, and/or law is necessary to teach the (even MORE ignorant) local how to grow crops or find ways to feed their family. Or failing that on how to get an education, or address health needs or the myriad things that qualify as necessary human rights.As in the cultural example, it’s not enough that the worker coming in is wholly ignorant of local traditions. Instead they foist their own notions of how these rights (which already are framed in the English language and specifically American) need to be addressed, necessarily with reference to what they and their organization know rather than what the (unknown) local context is. In this way human rights ceases to be about “human abuse of human beings” and instead about “undermining styles of life.

It is people who are pushed, seduced, coerced, or persuaded into trying to change themselves into something else.” Asad’s argument here mirrors exactly the language of Save the Children, or of Amnesty or HRW or the vast majority of human rights organizations. A foreign organization dictating the terms of how a community must protect its own “human rights” necessarily means that they are dictating the changes the community must make. When combined with the fact that those changes aren’t based on knowledge on the ground this is highly problematic.

oh i saw and participated in this dynamic so. many. times. we would go to a community and offer them accompaniment if they agreed to our nonviolent tactics.  or we would offer aid, money, jobs, resources if they followed the programs that we -westerners- had envisioned, designed, and gotten grant money for with little to no consultation with the community.  and even if consultation with the community occurred it was more of a asking a few folks in the cmmty who we think will agree to our scheme. dissenting opinions within the community were consistently dismissed as ‘complaining’.

i have sat in so many ngo meetings where we decided what programs to create based more on what could we get western funding for than based on the communities’ leadership.  and how can the communities really argue aganst the hegemoney of power that the org’s create?  the unequal relationship?  any critique that you give is usually silenced by the western ngo worker telling you that–we can’t get funding for that.  the local community members often dont have the skills to navigate the labyrinthine grant writing process or creating a community-led ngo.

supposedly one of the ‘hot button’ human rights item is ‘financial literacy’.  there is a lot of grant money flowing toward first worlders going to third world women and teaching the women how to spend and save money.  yes.  this is the pre-micro loan stage.  then you get the women into co-ops and collectives, producing handmade goods or something else that can be shipped to galleries and thousand villages and ta! da! financial literacy.   how does this undermine the community’s way of dealing with resource-allocation?  why are these women poor in the first place?  how can we stop the economic and environmental exploitation that has eroded their way of living?  do women need to learn ‘financial literacy’ (and what a fucking condescending term it is…god…gag…) or do they need for n. westerners to stop stealing their communities’ resources?  hmmm….

Any rights worker working within the borders of another nation state is necessarily working with that state’s say-so, assuming the organization they work for is large and well-funded as the ones in my series are detailing. Any state allowing this is, as a result, using human rights discourse for its own ends in ways similar to (or potentially different from) the ways outlined in Abdelrahman’s piece on Egypt. Thus , our worker who works in Egypt or within the borders of any state is simultaneously working for the interests of foreign states and foreign organizations and the interests of the host state. In Abdelrahman’s example such a worker would have been used in one case as an example of foreign imperialism and then later as model of why the Egyptian government is great for its people. In neither case are the ends of “helping people,” in theory the worker’s ultimate goal, being realized.

and as for working for the state…god…yeah.  one of the reasons i had to walk away from doing human rights work was because nearly every hr ngo i met with in cairo limits its work because of the state.  again and again i have seen human rights work with a conservative to non-existent media program, even when the communities are pushing to do more media outreach, because of the ngo’s fear of state reprisal.  publishing online that you find some of egypt’s policies racist (like shooting unarmed black refugees in the middle of the desert) can get you in jail and tortured or if you are lucky, just kicked out of the country.

and these are risks that most ngo workers are not willing to take.  they really do think they have a right -not just a privilege- to live better, more secure, with health benefits than the people they are just there ‘to help’.  which inevitable means that when their comfort is in conflict with the goals, desires, wills of the local communities…well, the same hr workers dont want to jeopardize all the ‘good work’ that they have been doing.

calling out the egyptian government? unlikely to happen to a certain point.  not with egyptian security visiting you on a regular basis.

yes, some folks need aid.   need food. clothes. schooling. an income. resources

and those things are so much easier to achieve, when we have stopped the theft, structural adjustment, neo capitalism, empire building, destruction of the land and the beings of the land.

and if we arent looking at ways to stop the colonization, to support those who oppose empire, and to take a real look at where we stand in relation to the people who we claim to ‘help’ — then our claim to ‘help’ is nothing more than rhetoric and smiles and pie-in-the-sky fairytales.


you know i was in this convo a few months ago with a human rights grad student.  just shrugging my shoulders cause i am so over the universal claims of human rights work.  and she seemed to be arguing that human rights was just semantics, just a framework, just a structure so that we all were speaking the same language.  and that inherently it was neither good nor bad.  human rights is just the way things are.  so, we have to learn how to work in the system.

sigh.  srsly sigh.  cause, it was cute.  like, i just hadnt considered the reformist/change from the inside argument before.

and then there is was the: well, maybe what you say is true, but im just going to have to find out for myself.

double sigh for the rugged individualist.

for now, my policy, is to not correct people no matter how inaccurate they are.  im not trying to convert people.  im not trying to wake people up.

if someone believes in progress, and reformism, and external validation, and striving to be middle class, and meritocracy, and ‘good attitudes’ make for success!  and whatever else…let them be.

because i know there are also folks in this world who look for nothing more than the truth.  to be awake.  to be present.  to be here.

to know if we are the colonizer with the smile and the carrot.

to know where the sticks are.

to be ready to love and fight.


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