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n the book Humanitarian Borders: Unequal Mobility and Saving lives, Polly Pallister-Wilkins offers a critical reading of the racist politics of humanitarianism along and within Europe’s borders. While the theoretical provocation offered by this book is no doubt impressive, I would argue that one of its greatest merits is its accessibility to broader audiences. Pallister-Wilkins achieves this not only through being a skilled as well as funny writer (the sarcasm that lurks between the lines is unmissable and much appreciated!) but also through combining a conversation with previous scholarship that goes beyond the usual (white-dead-French-dude) suspects with an impressive number of stories, anecdotes, and observations from her many years of studying humanitarian border work. This book is therefore not only refreshingly thought-provoking but also a very pleasant, inspiring, and humorous read.
Now, having opened this review with such celebratory remarks, I feel the need to also disagree with the author. Not on the fundamental thesis that she convincingly pursues throughout the two hundred something pages, but regarding her characterization of what this book actually achieves. In the final pages, Pallister-Wilkins states that it is neither her place nor desire ‘to build worlds or futures’ (202). Well, I think this book helps us do precisely that. I think it offers us, in perhaps somewhat unexpected ways, the possibility to ‘think otherwise’. Not through using ‘the master’s tools’ (Lorde, 2017) or through hybridizing ‘decolonial thought with Western critical traditions’ (Tuck and Yang, 2012: 16) but rather through consistently highlighting the inherent absurdity and obscenity of what Pallister-Wilkins terms the ‘humanitarianesque carnival.’ A carnival that comes into being through the intersecting logics of racism, disaster capitalism, the audit economy of aid work and white savior complexes.
In the opening chapter, Pallister-Wilkins describes the surreal scenes of waiting to board the short flight from Athens to Lesvos surrounded not only by humanitarian professionals and volunteers in branded vests but also journalists and news crews that seemed to be equipped to enter a war zone: ‘their digital SLR cameras, shiny MacBooks, unlimited data roaming, and Twitter accounts at the ready’ (13). In later chapters, she paints a picture of bizarre scenes that unfolded as these two groups struggle alongside (and sometimes against) each other on the northern beaches of Lesvos while journalists (sometimes hordes of them) tried to snap the best and most deliciously horrifying photo of local and international humanitarians pulling exhausted and petrified people out of rubber dinghies and to safety ashore. She also introduces us to the many celebrities and volunteers that arrived at these same shorelines to offer their solidarity and care and to snap selfies of themselves in the midst of the ‘action’ as they build their own personal brands as humanitarian heroes or attempt to crowd-fund their activities.
Now, the performativity of spectacle is certainly not foreign to critical border scholarship. In fact, Pallister-Wilkins builds her case by drawing extensively on the work of scholars that have captured how contemporary border enforcement relies on spectacular, theatrical, and laughable governing technologies to enforce the global ‘colour line’ (Du Bois, 1920; Lake and Reynolds, 2008). Such scholarship has provided vital insights into how spectacular displays of technological know-how and superiority (the drones, the infrared cameras, the razor wire fences, the high-security detention facilities, the sophisticated ‘information systems’) are used to conceal not only the violence of contemporary borders but also their spectacular failure in terms of actually hindering people from seeking life and dignity across the colour line. However, through her explicit and detailed attention to the many everyday situations that the humanitarianesque carnival gives rise to in places like Lesvos, Pallister-Wilkins is here able to further expose how this carnival is, in the words of Achille Mbembe, ‘a hallow pretense, a regime of unreality’ (Mbembe, 2001: 108).
While the book contains a plethora of examples that can be used to illustrate this point, some of which have already been mentioned, it is hard to move past the story of the branded and recycled wheelie bins that were visible across Lesvos Island during 2015-2016. These wheelie bins stand as a reminder that in the humanitarianesque carnival everything is branded, even the most ordinary of items; and these items, once branded, become part of the humanitarian political economy. While humanitarians spread their logotypes across all material items that they build, deliver or hand out for a range of reasons (eg. to audit their funds and to prevent theft), Pallister-Wilkins depiction of the positionality of these branded wheelie bins vis-à-vis life seekers provides both a painful and apt illustration of the bizarre and paternalistic practices of humanitarian border work. First of all, unlike the life seekers ‘warehoused’ on Lesvos Island, these wheelie bins had no problem travelling from Rochdale in the UK to Mytiline, Greece. Second, while waste disposal can certainly present a challenge during a humanitarian emergency, there was really no reason to send wheelie bins from the Greater Manchester area to the Aegean islands when Lesvos has a fully functioning system and infrastructure to collect waste (156).
By spending so much time highlighting the incongruity of these ordinary (rather than spectacular) practices, Pallister-Wilkins helps us to both expose and reevaluate humanitarian border work. The perspective of the carnival here helps us de-crown or undress the emperor: turning the world upside down and inside out (Bakhtin, 1987). This is also precisely where the promise of this book lays. Not only do these unreasonable and unsound moments that Pallister-Wilkins so richly details speak directly to the ‘nature of reality,’ but they also hold the key to challenging previously held assumptions. In fact, if we are to believe Albert Camus, it is when faced with the absurd that we often come to reevaluate what we know to be true: our beliefs, our morals or even our existence may become questionable (Camus, 1955/1991). In other words, and contrary to Pallister-Wilkins own assessment, I think that the focus of this book does allow us to build new worlds and futures. Read it. And you will see.
Bakhtin M (1984) Rabelais and his world. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Camus A (1955/1991) The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (translated by Justin O'Brien). New York: Vintage Books.
Du Bois WEB (1920) Darkwater, Voices from within the Veil. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe.
Lorde A (2018) The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Milton Keynes: Penguin Random House UK.
Mbembe A (2001) On the Postcolony. Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Lake, M, Reynolds, H (2008) Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Tuck E, Yang KW (2012) Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1(1): 1–40.
Anja Franck is senior lecturer and associate professor in peace and development studies at the University of Gothenburg with a research interest in migration, borders and humor.