latest from the magazine
latest journal issue
Humanitarian Borders by Polly Pallister-Wilkins does many things, all of them beautifully. For me, it tells the story of an island, a looping “crisis”, and a carnival. The island is Lesvos, in Greece, a country whose external borders play a central role in the book (and indeed in the author’s broader research), as they partially but fatefully coincide with those of the European Union. The crisis is the border crisis of 2015-2016. The carnival – a “humanitarianesque carnival” as Pallister-Wilkins defines it in the introduction – is a space where the historically entrenched, tragic violence of Europe’s racist borders finds a farcical, but deadly, afterlife.
The text is a lucid, cogent, rich yet concise account of humanitarianism as an always paradoxical and often violent response to the injustices of unequal mobility. The first three chapters after the introduction draw on the author’s research on humanitarianism and racism, care and control, and medical humanitarianism. These chapters mobilize concepts including humanitarian borderwork (first introduced by Pallister-Wilkins in 2015), colonial amelioration, and viscosity. The conceptual range of Pallister-Wilkins’ book spans critical whiteness, critical security studies and more-than-human feminisms, and is so lively that scholars of different backgrounds and orientations will find it enriching. Through this complexity, the writing remains clear and engaged – the writing of a scholar who found herself many times in the uncomfortable positions of the activist-researcher and humanitarian-researcher. In its entirety, the book is a superb achievement. Yet it is the last two chapters (Chapter 5, “Grassroots Humanitarianism” and Chapter 6, “Decolonizing mobility and humanitarianism?”) that to me offer the most imaginative and uncanny accounts of the relation between humanitarianism and unequal mobility. In this review I focus on these two chapters, addressing the question of a humanitarianism turned into a “humanitarianesque carnival”, and what this may entail for attempts at emancipating humanitarian practice from its colonial, racist and masculinist history, or even, as the book proposes, decolonize it.
In chapter 5 of Humanitarian Borders, we are introduced to a 2015 Lesvos sprawling with unlikely do-gooders. Among them, we find grassroots humanitarians – non-professionals, many from Northern Europe, mobilizing spontaneously to help the migrants arriving to the island via the Aegean Sea – but also Hollywood celebrities, aspiring digital entrepreneurs, multinational consultancy firms like Accenture, and new evangelist missionaries. The island is almost reduced to a fair “of testosterone-fueled adventure-seeking and a desire to be where the action was, coupled with an expectant media reporting on such antics to a global public keen to consume such exciting ‘feel good’ stories” (139-140). White saviourism mixes with a frantic search for social media likes and cheesy narratives of self-improvement. The scene is so grotesque that it pushes one of the volunteers met by the author to leave earlier than planned.
Scholars of borders and humanitarianism alike are no strangers to such spectacles, and indeed Kevin Rozario’s (2003) image of “delicious horrors”, originally used to highlight the unexpected similarities between the promotional material of the US Red Cross and pulp visual culture, recurs in the book. Explorers, profit-seekers and entrepreneurialists too are a constant in modern humanitarianism’s history, just like in that of European colonialism. However, Humanitarian Borders offers glimpses into a remarkable late liberal white dystopia. In some passages, it seems to gesture to the delight found in spectacles of suffering as the mark of a newly deranged white neoliberal subject. This subject moves across the stage of a carnival in which the subsumption of human experience by racial capitalism has reached a disturbingly fragmented yet pervasive stage. How can we – namely those of us racialized as white and enjoying the privileges of Western liberal citizenship regimes – find emancipation from the racist intricacies of this subject, when they have reached so deeply into our digital intimacies, livelihoods, and desires?
In Chapter 6, the book takes up this question with a sort of resolute yet grounded intellectual unruliness. Anticolonial, Pacific Indigenous, and more-than-human ontologies and ethics are summoned imaginatively, and Sylvia Wynter’s (1996) call for antiracist struggles as a way of “bringing a truly universal human subject into being” (199) is evoked. In doing so, and following the important work by Heather L. Johnson(2018), the book also engages in a critique of scholarly-militant approaches that fetishize mobility – most notably the autonomy of migration and the masculinist, ableist legacy of European Marxist post-workerism it carries. Some may counter-argue that it is unfair to attribute to autonomist writers a straightforward identification of mobility with resistance, as the book does. Yet the critique remains convincing, and I hope that critical migration scholars will take it up. As antidotes to such problematic “free-movement fetishism”, Humanitarian Borders proposes grounded struggles for dwelling and mobility justice. Through them, it suggests, we may start working towards antiracist and feminist futures in which relations of care are freed from the entrenched violence of historical humanitarian apparatuses.
Yet how can we preserve such futures from the encroachment and cooptation of the groveling, intimate, white supremacist capitalism that animates the “humanitarianesque carnival” the book so powerfully describes? The question is not addressed explicitly, but the book does contain hints to an answer that may be more painful than the one put forward in its final pages. Among other important references, we find one to Olivia Umurerwa Rutazibwa’s (2019) powerful reminder that attempts at “saving” or “redeeming” humanitarianism can conceal nostalgia for a Western liberal order funded on violence and historical lies. Without concrete actions to “take a step back” by Western liberal powers and subjects, the risk of a merely metaphorical decolonization of humanitarianism is real (see Tuck and Yang, 2012, also cited in the book). As we read the sobering pages describing the “humanitarianesque carnival” at the EU borders, we are reminded of Franz Fanon’s (1965: 312) words about the end of the “European game” (also evoked in the book), and Europe living, “at a mad, reckless pace … running headlong into the abyss”. A planetary future of mobility justice and emancipatory care may indeed require the end of Europe as we know it, and a hard reckoning for the white subjects produced through its history, including – especially – those of us who “want to help”.
Fanon F  (1965, 1991) The Wretched of the Earth. Translated from the French by Constance Farrington. New York, NY: Grove Weidenfeld.
Johnson, HL (2018) Stillness: Thinking through Critical Migration Studies and Challenging Citizenship. Paper presented at the conference of the International Studies Association, San Francisco, April 4th-7th.
Pallister-Wilkins P (2015) The politics of illegality in the humanitarian borderwork of Médecins Sans Frontières. Border Criminologies 4 November. Available here (Accessed 08.05.2023).
Rozario K (2003) “Delicious Horrors”: Mass Culture, the Red Cross, and the Appeal of Modern American Humanitarianism. American Quarterly 55(3): 417-455.
Rutazibwa OU (2019) What’s There to Mourn? Decolonial Reflections on (the End of) Liberal Humanitarianism. Journal of Humanitarian Affairs 1(1): 65-67.
Tuck E and Yang KW (2012) Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society 1(1): 1-40.
Wynter, S. (1996) 1492: A new world view. In: V. Lawrence Hyatt & R.M. Nettleford (Eds.) Race, discourse, and the origin of the Americas: A new world view. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press: 5– 57.
Elisa Pascucci is a senior researcher at Tampere University, Finland. Her research focuses on the role of infrastructures, logistics and labour in humanitarian aid.