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What are the material politics of objects that are built to care for distant others?

At the beginning of the 21st Century humanitarianism is no longer the prerogative of states, NGOs or philanthropists but is an increasingly central part of doing business. Across Africa, Asia and the Pacific the commodity form has become the locus for a new genre of humanitarian action. Over the past decade a new generation of material objects has emerged that are designed in explicit response to the failure of states to care for their populations or of markets to deliver public goods. These are things that set out to intervene in worlds in which large-scale infrastructures, like those for the delivery of health and energy, do not reach or have collapsed.

For example, solar powered lanterns that are designed in the US, manufactured in China, and sold in rural India or distributed in post-earthquake Haiti are being celebrated for their role in delivering cheap, clean, energy to the un-electrified poor whilst safeguarding health, reducing carbon emissions, improving educational outcomes and fostering economic productivity. Meanwhile, nutritionally fortified foods developed in the laboratories of multinational companies for sale or distribution in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are championed not only for eradicating child malnutrition but also for by-passing corrupt and inefficient government food programmes, making ‘good’ food attractive to the rural poor and bolstering local economies.

These and other humanitarian goods generate unique problems for contemporary anthropology. Humanitarian goods are things that are designed to do good. But they are also designed to do well. Humanitarian goods are designed for moments of present crisis. They also look forward, towards a future status-quo in which states no longer have the capacity to build, manage or sustain universal infrastructures in territorial grids. Premised on conditions of state fragility, humanitarian goods hold out the promise that they can transform that fragility in productive and often profitable ways. Things like solar lanterns or nutritionally fortified foods are increasingly built to generate economic value for a diverse array of investors, via sales to institutional consumers like humanitarian or aid organisations as well as directly to the poor.

For their champions, the sustainability of the business models that underpin such goods is central to their humanitarian efficacy. As they move through contexts of design and use, and through spaces of poverty and humanitarian emergency, they remind us just how difficult it has become to imagine ways of expressing care and concern without constructing markets.

In the spirit of the anthropological think-in we seek to both take seriously and critically examine the claims made for things that care. We are interested in the ways in which anthropologists might tread a path for engagement between the need for reflection and the need for intervention. The experimental format of the workshop is designed to facilitate the exploration of new anthropological forms and genres that enable us to interrogate and engage with the material politics of objects that are built to care for distant others.

Think-in Format

The workshop brings together scholars whose work provokes a new engagement with the values, infrastructures and relationships materialized by Humanitarian Goods. In the spirit of the think-in, we have designed our programme around collaborative thinking, writing and creating rather than the presentation of finished products. We hope to create a positive and constructive space in which people working at the frontier of emerging humanitarian forms can exchange ideas, thoughts, and interests and begin to forge future projects and engagements. The intention is that, by the end of the workshop, we will have generated a variety of written and visual outputs that can be curated into a visually and textually engaging publication.

This event has no audience, as such, only participants. A week before the workshop we will circulate participant’s 1,000 word extended abstracts. These abstracts should be thought of as think-pieces: provocations for how we might productively engage with humanitarian goods in critical and creative ways. They might take the form of ‘portraits’ of specific humanitarian goods, or outlines of novel conceptual or theoretical frameworks with which social scientists might engage with humanitarian goods.

These think pieces will provide the foundation for a variety of traditional and more experimental workshop activities. Participants will have fifteen minutes to present their think piece. Presentations will be interspersed with group activities or ‘colliders’. Participants will work together to produce visual outputs that might accompany our writing, to generate new conceptual frameworks for anthropological investigation, to probe the limits of anthropological interventions, and to re-think and re-write our original essays. that enable us to interrogate and engage with the material politics of objects that are built to care for distant others.