Care and Suspicion: Corruption as Definition in Humanitarian Relations

Feldman, I.
Publication language
Date published
01 Apr 2018
Current Anthropology 59, no. S18
Conflict, violence & peace, Governance, Principles & ethics
Syria, Occupied Palestinian Territory

Despite the ubiquity of humanitarian language, action, and sentiment in our current world, there has been no consensus on the precise definition of humanitarianism. Humanitarian obligations, jurisdiction, limits, and even actors remain unsettled and often hotly contested. Suspicions about motives and probity, often articulated through the language of corruption, play a key role in these contests. Through a consideration of humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees, this essay advances several related arguments about how corruption operates in humanitarianism. Most broadly, suspicions and accusations of corruption play an important role in the on-the-ground work of defining what humanitarianism is for providers and recipients. They do so, in part, through

  1. establishing and elaborating the refugee as a category of humanitarian governance and personhood and
  2. articulating and consolidating an array of obligations and responsibilities across the humanitarian field. Viewed through the lens of concerns about corruption, refugees appear as ethically comprised subjects not because of their inherent qualities but due to their circumstances.

Humanitarian governance responds in various ways to this perceived incapacity. Refugees not only are the targets of corruption management but also make their own accusations.