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Let's Talk Human Rights

The Rise of Caring Capitalism in the Humanitarian Space

By Alexandra C. Budabin

As part of the International Studies Association Annual Convention 2019, I helped organize two panels on behalf of the Commodifying Compassion:Implications of turning people and humanitarian causes into marketable things (led by PI Lisa Ann Richey of Copenhagen Business School with funding from the Danish Council for Independent Research). These panels considered the deepening links between ethical consumption and everyday humanitarianism. For the panel chaired by Dr. Natalie Hudson, we invited scholars to offer gendered perspectives linking consumers as “helpers” and their beneficiaries. As the humanitarian space expands, it is important to examine how international agencies, non-governmental organizations, corporations, consumers, celebrities and well-meaning white women are all acting under the claims of popular feminism for gendered humanitarianism. Feminist theoretical perspectives engage with critical materialism, constructivism, ideological critique and pragmatism to critique the gendered and neoliberal politics of contemporary humanitarianism and transnational advocacy. Kaylan Schwarz of the University of Guelph explored how handmade objects reveal material cultures of aid; Kathryn Mathers of Duke University argued that the white savior industrial complex should be considered both penetrative and extractive - a masculine domination of both transactions and the discourses that shape relationships between benefactors and beneficiaries; and Richey shared work on a case of everyday humanitarianism: luxury made in prison products that promote the brand value of imprisoned women. Here I offer a closer look at two of the presentations.

Conceptions of refugee women were the focus of work by Annika Bergman Rosamond and Catia Gregoratti of Lund University in a presentation entitled “From Victims to Self-reliant Artisans: Neoliberal Feminist Turns in Global Humanitarian Governance.” By focusing on the diffusion of the neoliberal idea of “women as enterprising subjects, ” Bergman Rosamond and Gregoratti compared two actors working with the UNHCR: IKEA Foundation’s partnership with the Jordan River Foundation and Angelina Jolie’s involvement with RefuSHE project. Locating the analysis in postcolonial feminist approaches, Bergman Rosamond and Gregoratti found that both project “the monolithic image of the “refugee woman” who appears as one in need of saving through the market.” In the end, by promoting piece-rate artisanal handcraft work made by female entrepreneurs, “what is celebrated as empowerment is little more than the intensification of gendered and deeply precarious forms of labour.” In stressing the stakes, Bergman Rosamond and Gregoratti argue that not only do these modes of representation “hark back on neoliberal rationalities”, but they also share “(dangerous) affinities with right-wing populist ideas of helping refugees ‘at home’.”

Drawing from our project on transnational advocacy around gender-based sexual violence (SGBV) in conflict, Dr. Hudson and I presented on “Saving the Women of Congo: The Intersection of Neoliberal Helping and Gendered Security.” We explored how advocacy for SGBV survivors has found new strategies in the marketplace that narrate gendered ideas about benefactors, beneficiaries, and solutions. We applied a gender security lens to analyze the Northern and Southern contexts imagined in new modes of helping: walk/run-a-thons, coffee, and the purchase of lingerie.  These case studies on Run for Congo Women, Pour les Femmes, and Equal Exchange coffee showed that, for the most part, modes of “helping” women in Congo reinforce gender stereotypes, dehistorize violence in both North and South contexts, and valorize individualized and private solutions to conflict. However, some modes did move beyond superficial engagement, challenging our assumptions around the depolitizing effect of such cause-related marketing.  In coalescing a market for saving the women of Congo, we find that female consumers in Northern contexts are empowered as “everyday heroes” to take on matters of international security, making a difference in the life of a female survivor of conflict-related violence, and sometimes this initial and rather superficial intervention can transform into something more long-term and meaningful. Still, this “helping” draws heavily on tropes related to presumed feminine philanthropic impulses—enabling them to sponsor “sisters”, buy sleepwear, and connect to coffee farmers through their caffeine consumption.

Following the five presentations, our discussant Roxani Krystalli of Tufts University offered sharp reflections on the state of the field. She encouraged all of the presenters to consider why gendered narratives of helping persist, despite widespread recognition of their unsettling tropes. She urged us to be careful not to homogenize conceptions of the North, South, Africa, and international community; in doing so, we risk erasing salient audiences and the “fractured multivocality” that exists. A provocative question raised by Krystalli was “where are the men”? How does the absence of men in the narratives of caring capitalism tell a gendered story? Finally, we were encouraged to build intersectional analysis into our work to consider whose bodies are privileged (for saving, empowerment, political participation) in the humanitarian space. Overall, the panel provided provocative examples that confirmed the gendered nature of caring capitalism that revealed disturbing trends linking ethical consumption to the humanitarian space while also underscoring the need for careful study of the ethics of advocacy, resilience, and implications of neoliberal modes of helping.  Such research is critical to understanding the protection and promotion of women’s rights when the spheres of economic development and post-conflict reconstruction intersect in contemporary politics.


Dr. Alexandra C. Budabin is a Senior Researcher at the University of Dayton Human Rights CenterShe is conducting research on transnational advocacy around gender-based sexual violence with Dr. Natalie F. Hudson. She is a Co-I on the research project "Commodifying Compassion: Implications of Turning People and Humanitarian Causes into Marketable Things", funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research 2017-2020. 

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