SONGSOPTOK: Let us forget for a moment the UN definition of ‘humanitarianism’. What is your personal definition? In what context would you apply the word?

RINITA: For me “Humanism” has both a positive and a negative definition/concept. On the positive side, it is a philosophy/political theory that arose in the 16th/17th century in Europe by destroying the myth of the Monarch as the representative of the Divine, the feudal structures, and turning to human development and how human beings can live a more fulfilling and better life without oppression, constraints, freedom of expression, and other individual rights that we almost take for granted now, like the right to vote. The negative side springs from this positive concept. As the birth of philosophical humanism is Europe at a certain period of time, “humanism” inherited some of the colonial, racial biases of the European society of the time. So, the notion of “rights” was, at least at the beginning restricted to the rights of European males, which is why many European “humanists”, like Rousseau, saw no contradiction between his “humanism” and his argument to bar women from the right to vote, or in other cases, the right to colonize non Europeans. I take “Humanism” in both senses, it does have a positive side, it highlights the human being as the center of the universe and talks about basic rights, on the other hand, it also has certain local biases, like imposing the views of one place and time to the entire world. In the latter sense, “humanism” is some sort of globalization, which is where I have some issue with this philosophy.

SONGSOPTOK: What, according to you, are the specific types of events that call for humanitarian actions?

RINITA: In our times some of the most glaring things that call for “humanitarian” actions globally are world illiteracy, scarcity of the basic, like food, shelter, health care, and the ability of people to express themselves freely without facing severe consequences.

SONGSOPTOK:  Why, in your opinion, do countries and societies even need humanitarian actions, often initiated and coordinated by the so called first world economies?

RINITA: This is what I said in answer to the first question. “Humanitarian actions” like “Humanism” has a positive side, it puts the needs and rights of the human being at the center, and also a negative side, the tendency to “globalize”. Each society, State, market, evolves in its own way, there cannot be a universal blue print to solve ALL the problems with one panacea. So, while I support broad based human rights, specially the above issue, like the right to education and other basics, I think these have to be localized. For example, how can one implement the right to have good and hygienic sanitation, which ought to be a universal right, but depending on the local economic conditions, the way it has to be implemented has to be localized.

SONGSOPTOK: Can individuals play a significant role in initiating or participating in humanitarian actions? In what way?

RINITA: Individuals can certainly participate and initiate many processes that are conducive to the empowerment of societies. Nonetheless, for mass action to take place, I believe, collective actions of individuals have to be performed. Before that some sort of consciousness raising has to happen. So, while individuals can make changes, collective awareness, collective actions have to take place.

SONGSOPTOK:  What should be the role of the world community, especially organizations like the UN, to encourage humanitarian actions in different countries, especially those suffering from internal war or external aggression? Do you think that their efforts are sufficient? If not, what else should be done to help the countries / societies / populations in need?

RINITA: The UN certainly has a role to play, as it is a globally recognized organization. The best way the UN can help is to become a facilitator, and not actually do something in case of internal war or external aggression, as these are very complex issue. Probably the best role of the UN is to send people who are community educators and facilitate the process of negotiations, specially where there are extreme deadlocks. I do not think the work of UN is sufficient at all. Again UN is a global organization where not all “nations” or “communities” are equally represented or have voices. Further, in case of troubled areas, usually there is a complex history and extreme diversity. Representatives of the UN have to be more inclusive and also employ local people to know the diversities and the complex problems. Ultimately, it is about mass consciousness raising and mass education that will lead to peace and development. I strongly believe that education is a very important component, apart from poverty and basic “capabilities” being fulfilled. People have to take their destinies into their own lives. A slow democracy is evolving in many places, unfortunately, due to the vested interest of both local and global leadership, these are not flourishing properly. For things to move, more concerted effort, mass movements, mass awareness, and education are needed. There has to be more people to people communication.

SONGSOPTOK: What should ideally be the role of the governments in humanitarian actions – both in afflicted countries and in the other countries of the world? Are government activities sufficient in this context?

RINITA: In the world today most States have adopted a policy of representative democracies. In some the system works, where the population is less diverse, more affluent, more educated, and has a history of stability. In these place, the State can be more pro active in the lives of people. In places where there is a de facto democracy, nonetheless, the population is too diverse, illiterate, lives in extreme scarcity, the State tends to be more dictatorial and cater to the interest of a few. In the latter case, there tends to be more corruption, in these cases, the role of the State is dubitable. Nonetheless, the State can be helpful if people become more aware. Overall, the State is never solely sufficient to solve all the problems of society. People have to be aware, educated, and self sufficient in order to build strong communities.

SONGSOPTOK In your opinion, do religious institutions play an important role in humanitarian actions? In your own experience, what kind of actions have you witnessed that have been pioneered by religious institutions?

RINITA: Institutions playing roles in Humanitarian actions. Nonetheless, many have done good jobs, for example, the Catholic Church during the “Dirty War” in Argentina, or the Catholic Church helping destitute migrant women in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I myself am opposed to religious organizations because we have to remember the history of “humanism” in Europe; it arose against the most powerful Catholic establishment of the time. Nonetheless, over time the power of the Church has diminished. Yet, any religious institution, in the last analysis, will have anti humanitarian elements. For example, during the War of Liberation in Bangladesh (the East Pakisthan) in 1972, when  a large number of Bangladeshi women got raped by the Pakisthani soldiers and got refuge and sought abortion from the only organization that could provide that service, the organization provided some relief to the women, but would not provide abortion. The reason is they were all funded by the Catholic Church. The trauma of the woman never diminished with time, and recurred every time they saw their unwanted children. So, in the last analysis, there is a contradiction between “humanism” and “religious institutions”. In many religion free food is provided to the destitute, this also is not empowering at all, it is temporary relief. I prefer secular and not religious institutions to be part of people’s lives.

SONGSOPTOK:  Non Governmental Organizations (NGO) are often in the forefront of humanitarian actions and yet there have been widespread criticism about the efficacy and utility of NGOs in different countries, especially in Asia & Africa. What is your own experience? Should NGOs be given more power and independence where humanitarian actions are concerned?

RINITA: I would have to go case by case; some do provide relief and empower people at the grassroot level, others do not. Further, NGOs do not aim at structural changes and address the problem of inequality and unequal distribution of basics; nonetheless, I am not totally opposed to NGOS providing some humanitarian services, specially where the State fails to do so.

SONGSOPTOK:  What should be the aim of humanitarian actions in afflicted countries – short term relief or long term actions that would help societies build up their own strengths and resources? Please share your knowledge or experience about long term actions undertaken anywhere in the world.

RINITA: The ideal of all humanitarian action would be to provide long term structural changes. Nonetheless, where there are immediate necessities, one has to address the immediate need. For example, when a woman is violated, the immediate need is to get medical help and legal counsel and of course, trauma counseling. The far reaching aim is to stop violence against women. I do not see a contradiction, both can be done side by side, keeping the focus for long term goal.

SONGSOPTOK: It is often seen that the strongest help and support comes from within the communities affected by conflicts or natural disasters. How, in your opinion, can communities be empowered to successfully face such situations? What, in this context, could be the role of formal or informal grassroots organizations?

RINITA: Yes, I do agree that in case of “calamities” the strongest support can come from within the communities. Here, the aim should be continuous effort. This reminds me of something that Antinioni Gramsci said; the most challenging revolution is during the times of peace not war, this is called “passive revolution”. For example, instead of doing something when there is scarcity of food, there has to be continuous effort for redistribution, proper nutrition, and community education about what to do during times of flood or extreme draught.

SONGSOPTOK: Women and children are most vulnerable in situations of conflicts or disasters. What, according to you, are the specific actions that need to be taken to ensure the safety and security of women and children?

RINITA: The answer lies in the above; one time disasters have to be taken in the context of the whole. How prepared is a community to deal with one time disaster, how empowered and knowledgeable are people about their environment and their surroundings? This reminds me of Amartya Sen’s theory of “entitlement mapping”. According to this theory, it is not enough to have entitlements, one has to know how  to convert them into assets. For example, often in developing nations, women and other illiterate groups are deprived of their properties because they do not know how to do “entitlement mapping”, that is, convert their assets to actual capital. That is why management of resources, empowerment is a continuous effort.

SONGSOPTOK: How do you, as an individual, practice humanitarianism? Is it an important part of your value system & mental make-up? Please share your thoughts and experiences with us.

RINITA: I am not sure I “practice” humanism, for me the most important thing is consciousness raising, that I do by writing. I try to raise awareness in small groups, by encouraging people to speak about their situations and trying to find ways to solve their own problems.

For example, in Sutia, I am trying to organize a play, which is actually a reflection of some of the lives of women; many women backed out, and I am asking them to write about why they “backed out”, this itself is consciousness raising, it is the first step to reflect on one’s lives and question one’s surroundings.

RINITA MAZUMDAR is a Full time Instructor of Philosophy and Culture Studies in Central New Mexico Community College and an Affiliate Prof of Women Studies at the University of New Mexico. She got her Ph.D from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in Philosophy, and her M.A in Philosophy from Brock University, Canada and Calcutta University. Her published books include A Short Introduction to Feminist Theory, A Feminist Manifesto, Feminist Economics, Understanding Gender, Feminine Sexuality and a book of poems, Presently she lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, U.S.A.]
We sincerely thank you for your time and hope we shall have your continued support.
Aparajita Sen

(Editor: Songsoptok)


No comments:

Blogger Widgets
Powered by Blogger.