Part I: Running Saviors
Humanitarianism is a troubling idea. If we are to believe Adorno, it exists primarily on the idea that the object of humanitarian intervention is outside of rationality (enlightenment), and must be brought under the realm of the sensible through the humanitarian gaze: to look at the other and firmly believe that they "deserve to be treated as are humans." At some point, humanitarian logic has been neatly entwined with the liberal logic: in that acts of humanitarianism are always associated with some kind of consumptive gestures. From Project [RED] T-shirts, Livestrong bands (quite another story, there), and Starbucks lattes that alleviate part of one's late capitalist guilt with each sip through the donation of x percent of the proceeds to "farmers in Africa", the relationship between consumption and humanitarian logic holds fast. Ending TB epidemics in Sub-Saharan Africa, providing AIDS drugs to sex workers in Cambodia, and helping eradicate polio in India, there's nothing that a thoughtful purchase can't set right. If choosing a brand of coffee can eradicate hunger, why pass up the chance to play master puppeteer?
The corporate discourse of "making a difference" through minute, individualized acts of consumption and/or initiative (the stuff of neoliberal wet dreams, no doubt) has almost completely permeated the language of non-profit organizations and charities that work on social change projects in the Third World. I came across a rather ironic instance of this a few weeks back on campus at the University of Cincinnati, where I work and teach.
Aruna is a non-profit institute that has a presence across several Midwestern University towns, (their website mentions Cincinnati, Bowling Green in Ohio, DeKalb in Illinois, and Ann Arbor in Michigan). The website also informs the reader that the word "Aruna" is a Hindi word for "bright morning sun" and explains that their mission is to "end commercial sexual exploitation by bringing freedom and restoration to many women and children sold into the trade." In order to achieve their positively utopian goals of filling lives with the light of freedom, Aruna hosts a 5k run on campuses across the Midwest, the proceeds of which are used to free women and children in India from sexual trafficking.
If the reader has sensed the heavy sarcasm of my tone with regards to Aruna, let me pause to clarify my (glaringly obvious) stance against human trafficking; it is, of course, the very debasement of our humanity; the dregs of the human imagination. Several of my white colleagues and friends are only too quick to point out to me how blind I am to the injustices committed in my country, a blindness borne of the privilege I embody; gendered, classed, caste-d, etc., and I think I am reflexive enough to not try to reject my privileged interpellation. However, there are other inconvenient facts as well: the fact that sex trafficking is symptomatic of a very fundamental structural deficit: of a society that is being quartered by the chasms between its rich and its poor; by corrupt bureaucratic infrastructure and the dominance of patriarchal institutions, both formal and informal. The fact that structural violence is central to understanding the horrors of trafficking is often looked over, ignored, or brushed aside.
Aruna exhorts us to "run for their freedoms", envisaging a world where a Friday evening workout can be the panacea to child trafficking. The atomized action of running 5k is discursively connected to the act of saving an Indian woman from trafficking. In Aruna's world, these two individual actions are given symbolic connection, at the cost of ignoring the larger structures of violence that permeate BOTH these actions.
The violence around human trafficking (structural poverty, lack of juridicial infrastructure, illiteracy) allude to what Paul Farmer calls "structural violence": violence related to the political and economic organization of societies. But what is really troubling about initiatives like the Aruna 5k run is its blindness to the structural violence around it. In Cincinnati, the 5k is run around campus, in the Clifton area. Those familiar to Cincinnati will realize that the campus is adjacent to several inner-city neighborhoods; ghettoized islands in a city that still has not laid the specters of segregation to rest. The Aruna 5k run, that divides the world into these neat binaries of "those who run for others' freedoms" and those who benefit from these runs, is staged around what a pretty significant example of inequality, oppression, and exploitation.
Why is it so much easier to ask folks to "give"to women in India? Is it because the template for "saving the world" already exists in our neo-colonial fantasies? Is it because solving the problems of trafficked women in India wouldn't force you to question the very foundations of your own privilege, in the way that questioning an inner-city ghetto would? Is it because it will question the hegemony of the discourse of Whiteness that refuses to acknowledge the many "Third Worlds" that live in the First World?
A closer look at Aruna might provide some answers. In Part II of this blog, I will talk about Aruna's mother organization, Oasis, that seeks to spread the word and message of Jesus Christ across the world.