Paper Title:

Worthy Victims: A critique of neoliberalism within humanitarian communications

Working Paper 010

Author:

Simron Gill

This article discusses neoliberalism in the context of humanitarian communication with a particular emphasis placed towards the self. The neoliberal self combines features of entrepreneurship and consumerism with the contemporary discourse of ‘doing our part’.

At its simplest, humanitarian communication frequently calls upon Western audiences to care for, and act in solidarity with, distant others. Given that humanitarianism is seen as one of the most important of all ethical acts, communication within this field is a tool that is rightly under continuous scrutiny.

From the early emergence of ‘poverty porn’ and shock-effect campaigns to the use of positive imagery that overlooked the agency of the sufferer, it seems as if no form of communication within this field will ever do justice to the suffering other.

Post-humanitarian communication is no different. The market logic used in this communication assumes that emotions belong within a moral economy of scarcity, whereby instrumentalising the self is now a profitable means of increasing donations. The focus of post-humanitarian communication is primarily on the neoliberal subject, who is constructed as a form of social capital advancing social change. This paper critiques this use of neoliberalism.

This article outlines how post-humanitarian appeals construct an ideal victim to convince Western publics to support their cause. It examines how the tendency to view people in terms of one dominant identity (i.e. women and children from the Global South as poor, backward and illiterate) represents a gross misappropriation of the power dynamics between the Global North and Global South.

A myriad of power dynamics underscore our global issues. Unless we appreciate that human beings need to be located against their cultural and historical backgrounds – with their actions interpreted through systems of meaning accredited to their environments – we not only misunderstand our benevolence but also do humanitarianism a grave injustice.

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