Off the radar: World Humanitarian Day

Posted on: August 17, 2017 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: General posts on the humanitarian aid industry

Our bandwidth is flooded
As I write this World Humanitarian Day -19 August- is just three days away, but in the minds of most in the US it might as well be, distressingly, never.

The events of the past weekend and reactions thereto in #Charlottesville, Virginia are dominating all social and network media.  And for good reason.  We have a president (lower case appropriate in this case) who, though quite capable of calling out and condemning countless targets, many trivial, has provided at the very least tacit support for neo-Nazis and all manner of white supremacists.

Though the memes have been entertaining, I find all of these events profoundly disturbing and I admit getting caught up in the emotions and feel a need to do something.

As a faculty member at a mid-sized liberal arts university privileged to teach sociology I commit myself to educating young minds about the power of analytical thought using empirical evidence -facts- as a basis from which to understand the world in general and events like #Charlottesville specifically.

I will do so, though, making sure they appreciate the connections between their world and the larger global ‘community.’  The massive, pervasive and utterly cancerous phenomena of ‘othering‘ must be addressed in detail and with historical context, and we will examine and attempt to understand all of the relevant social forces -economic, historical, political, technological and so on- that move our collective lives forward.

Connecting the local to the global
The end goal in my classes always has been to have my students make connections for themselves. At the top of my syllabi are these words:

“In contrast to those who suggest that we act as soon as the whistle blows, I suggest that, even before the whistle blows, we ceaselessly try to know the world in which we live — and act. Even if we must act on imperfect knowledge, we must never act as if knowing is no longer relevant.”
– Mahmood Mamdani, Saviors and Survivors (p. 6)

So, yes, for most in the US World Humanitarian Day will be a non-event, but at least for my students there will be discussions putting our current local US events into a broader context.

Here’s specifically how
By coincidence I start travel to Amman, Jordan 19 August -World Humanitarian Day- to further my research on local aid worker voices, this time in Jordan.  I will use this experience to open the eyes of my students by telling small stories and having them read, research, and then write about the humanitarian crisis in Syria and Iraq and press themselves to make analytical and critical connects between the ‘othering’  there and that in the US.

My action here is a small and perhaps purely academic act, to be sure, but it allows me to believe that I am doing something.  I will press them as I press myself to do more, but always keeping in mind Mandami’s words.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022. A revised edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' will be out later in 2023.

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