Recently my research has focused on everyday humanitarianism, ethical consumption and on the emergence of new actors, networks and alliances within global humanitarianism. I'm currently the PI of two research projects 'Commodifying Compassion' (2016-2021) and 'Everyday Humanitarianism in Tanzania (2019-2025). Find out more about the projects below.
Everyday Humanitarianism in Tanzania
The Everyday Humanitarianism in Tanzania (EveryHumanTZ) project is a joint research project between Denmark and Tanzania, that examines how ordinary people in everyday life engage in humanitarian crisis in Tanzania.
Humanitarian responses to disaster, poverty or pandemics have been around since antiquity, but humanitarianism as a field has a more recent history linked to international aid, non-governmental organizations and ‘humanitarian’ actors. Since an upsurge of unrest in Burundi in 2015, more than 258,000 refugees have crossed into Tanzania, making it the largest recipient of Burundian refugees in the East African region. Humanitarian aid and professional disaster response receive attention, yet what is missing here is the action taken in response to both protracted and acute humanitarian crises by Tanzanians who are not humanitarian professionals. Everyday humanitarianism (EH) refers to an expanded series of practices in the everyday lives of citizens that are engaging in humanitarianism, outside of the formal structures of humanitarian actions (Richey 2017). This do-gooding response to crisis can be proximate for one’s neighbours or distant for suffering Others. Humanitarianism is often explored in a North-South perspective, assuming that organisations funded and dominated by the Global North carry out humanitarian acts of ‘rescue’ in the Global South. Furthermore, humanitarianism is mostly assumed to be carried out by (international) organizations and focused on recipients. EHTZ challenges these assumptions in three ways. First, it explores the everyday humanitarian actions of ordinary citizens. Second, the project explores these responses in a Southern context, not through the typical Northern perspective. Third, we focus explicitly on the givers as well as the receivers.
Everyday humanitarianism (EH) may involve, for example, housing refugees along their journey to processing centres, paying school fees for additional children in areas affected by floods, or donating online or to local churches in earthquake prone regions of the country. Tanzanians of all social classes are involved in EH, from rich philanthropists to farmer neighbours, yet these actions remain unacknowledged and unaccounted for. Unfortunately, the reason that Tanzania is an excellent case for understanding EH results from its increasing humanitarian need, uneven government attempts to manage disasters, and complex linkages between humanitarian and development needs and the partners who engage them. EHTZ will measure and explain the everyday humanitarian practices of communities engaged most directly with protracted crisis (refugees) and others experiencing acute crises (earthquake, floods). EHTZ’s Overall Objective is to understand how people interacting in everyday situations respond to crisis situations outside of the formal structures of humanitarian assistance.
Currently I lead the research project ‘Commodifying Compassion: Implications of Turning People into Marketable Things' (a four year FSE fully-funded program until 2022) with impact as part of the project design. I lead the project together with 3 Co-I's.
Today’s marketplace is inundated with products supporting humanitarian causes that promise to give aid to beneficiaries, provide ‘good feelings’ to consumers and promote the brands of corporations and humanitarian NGOs. The commodification of humanitarianism (turning people and causes into marketable things) is thus linked to the privatization of help (replacing public donors with private philanthropy) with significant and as of yet poorly understood consequences.
The objective of Commodifying Compassion is to understand how ‘helping’ has become a marketable commodity and how this impacts humanitarianism both symbolically and materially. This work links ethical consumption with everyday humanitarianism and will use vertically integrated, systematic ethnographies of corporations, NGOs and recipients of aid in Africa to explore dynamics of the commodification of compassion in three different contexts where humanitarianism has been dominated by the state (Denmark), church (Italy) and market (US).
The research will produce a better understanding by humanitarian organizations and businesses leading to more ethical fundraising, donors weighing consumption-based models as part of more effective aid, and consumers making more informed choices about ‘helping’ by buying brand aid products.