The Need to Help

The Domestic Arts of International Humanitarianism

The Need to Help

Book Pages: 296 Illustrations: 6 illustrations Published: September 2015

Author: Liisa H. Malkki

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology

In The Need to Help Liisa H. Malkki shifts the focus of the study of humanitarian intervention from aid recipients to aid workers themselves. The anthropological commitment to understand the motivations and desires of these professionals and how they imagine themselves in the world "out there," led Malkki to spend more than a decade interviewing members of the international Finnish Red Cross, as well as observing Finns who volunteered from their homes through gifts of handwork. The need to help, she shows, can come from a profound neediness—the need for aid workers and volunteers to be part of the lively world and something greater than themselves, and, in the case of the elderly who knit "trauma teddies" and "aid bunnies" for "needy children," the need to fight loneliness and loss of personhood. In seriously examining aspects of humanitarian aid often dismissed as sentimental, or trivial, Malkki complicates notions of what constitutes real political work. She traces how the international is always entangled in the domestic, whether in the shape of the need to leave home or handmade gifts that are an aid to sociality and to the imagination of the world.


"The Need to Help situates aid work firmly in the social realities of the sending countries, rather than in the context of the abstract cosmopolitan values that academic accounts usually emphasise. For many of the Finnish workers Malkki studies, aid work is also linked to different notions about what is good and what is bad about Finland and about being Finnish. Complementing her focus on professionals who work in crisis settings across the world, Malkki looks at the needs that are associated with some of the more mundane ways in which people connect to the humanitarian enterprise, such as the knitting of bunnies and teddies for imagined children-in-need far away." — Monika Krause, Times Higher Education

"This book would be a valuable text in undergraduate and graduate courses on development and humanitarianism. Malkki’s skilled ability to link together so many different intellectual inspirations makes this book very useful to examine as a model for theoretical conceptualization and for her methodology." — Jeremy Rich, African Studies Quarterly

"...its extensive exploration of and emphasis on the ambiguity between politics—as the context for humanitarian institutions and aid workers—and neutrality—as the underlying principle for humanitarian affect, work, and motivation—will be of interest to the general anthropology audience and those invested in the specialized debate on humanitarian ethics. These discussions open up a wider re-evaluation of affect theory in anthropology as well as invigorating the discussion of humanitarian affect as politics in and of itself." — Tina Shrestha, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

"[A]n original and highly significant analysis of 'Aidland,' essential reading for anyone interested in the growing literature on the people who work in the development industry and humanitarian organizations." — R. L. Stirrat, Journal of Anthropological Research

"...this book provides finely textured material with which to debate the salience of the various rationales that people give for helping others." — Erica Caple James, American Ethnologist

"This beautifully written book artfully navigates the purchase of domestic arts on international humanitarianism. . . . It is a book crafted with finesse, weaving in subtle threads of Western political thought on humanism, animism, cosmopolitanism with the empathetic understanding of an ethnographer engaged in painful and complex fieldwork." — Ritu Mathur, Society & Space

"Perhaps one of the more captivating and accessible texts on humanitarianism. The text would be a useful tool for students seeking a deeper knowledge about the drivers of humanitarianism, as well as connections between the ‘local’ and ‘global.’ Yet, it has sufficient theoretical depth for researchers to find value when reflecting on broader questions about the power of humanitarianism." — Simon Dickinson, Progress in Development Studies

"Many have noted that heroic humanitarianism, if often inadvertently, tends to presume a passive, suffering other. In this work, Liisa H. Malkki shatters that one-way mirror. With uncommon imagination and insight, she turns her gaze back on the neediness of the benefactor: on the ways in which distant care-giving might offer an escape–a sense of passion and purpose–to those alienated in prison-houses of relative affluence." — Jean Comaroff, coeditor of Millennial Capitalism and the Culture of Neoliberalism

"With The Need to Help Liisa H. Malkki changes the agenda of the study of humanitarianism. This is much more than a study of Finnish humanitarians, as Malkki provides an extended meditation on a range of neglected topics in the study of humanitarianism, picking up and addressing fresh conceptual and moral questions. A vital contribution."
— Harri Englund, author of Human Rights and African Airwaves: Mediating Equality on the Chichewa Radio


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Liisa H. Malkki is Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University. She is the author of Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory, and National Cosmology among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania, and the coauthor of Improvising Theory: Process and Temporality in Ethnographic Fieldwork.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  vii

Introduction. Need, Imagination, and the Care of the Self  1

1. Professionals Abroad: Occupational Solidarity and International Desire as Humanitarian Motives  23

2. Impossible Situations: Affective Impasses and Their Afterlives in Humanitarian and Ethnographic Fieldwork  53

3. Figurations of the Human: Children, Humanity, and the Infantilization of Peace  77

4. Bear Humanity: Children, Animals, and Other Power Objects of the Humanitarian Imagination  105

5. Homemade Humanitarianism: Knitting and Loneliness  133

6. A Zealous Humanism and Its Limits: Sacrifice and the Hazards of Neutrality  165

Conclusion. The Power of the Mere: Humanitarianism as Domestic Art and Imaginative Politics  199

Notes  209

References  235

Index  267
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Honorable Mention, 2016 Victor Turner Book Prize in Ethnographic Writing (Society for Humanistic Anthropology)

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5932-6 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5912-8
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