Mirror my beautiful mirror, tell me I am the most beautiful…

Are humanitarian associations affected by a contemporary form of narcissism?


The Narcissus myth.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the debates that enthralled the Boards and General Meetings of humanitarian NGOs concerned the challenges of intervention in a particular country; how to work in Somalia; what challenges to take into account when operating in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Iraq, Syria… The heads of mission (we were not yet talking about country directors) were often present, to testify to the realities and daily difficulties of their field… The question that permeated the assembly was a simple one: “How can we help better, more effectively, and by reaching more people, in such and such a place in the world? “.

Before going any further, I must be clear and honest. This essential concern for the fate of the people being helped, for the effectiveness and efficiency of the aid provided, is still at the heart of the daily work, of the professional and personal commitment of the vast majority of employees and volunteers of humanitarian NGOs. However, for several years now, something has been invading the mental universe of humanitarian workers, taking up and mobilising more and more human or financial “dedicated resources” and time for reflection and work… to the detriment, perhaps, of the essential, founding mission of humanitarian aid, which is to help human beings in distress in the most difficult situations? This mission is sufficiently arduous and complex to require all the time and resources at our disposal… Doesn’t this thing that takes up a little more of our time every day end up looking like a contemporary form of involuntary narcissism? Involuntary because it is induced and produced by the times and the injunctions of the humanitarian system in the broad sense, and of donors in particular.

ECHO partners distribute non-food items to Syrian refugees at a distribution point in Dohuk, northern Iraq. Photo credit: IOM Iraq

One might ask whether the injunctions of donors have not generated and encouraged the emergence of new convictions, thanks to concepts that have become fashionable, such as the “intersectionality of struggles”, which has become, in the humanitarian world, the “intersectionality of issues”? Donors, encouraged by a conquered and consenting system, began by making NGOs understand that “Yes, you do humanitarian work, you help people, that’s good… But it’s not enough… We would like to see you do 100% green, ecological and “sustainable” humanitarian work, and we would also like you to tell us that you are implementing visible, active measures, strategies promoting “inclusiveness”, “diversity”, and also that you are more openly involved in “positive gender politics”, and perhaps if possible the defence of certain minorities oppressed because of their orientation…”.

Of course, all these causes are important and respectable in themselves (I am thinking in particular of climate change, which concerns us all, and to which humanitarians must increasingly respond in terms of the impact on vulnerable populations). Furthermore, no one has of course ‘obeyed’ the injunctions of donors and the humanitarian system, but everyone has begun to consider themselves necessarily concerned by this new intersectionality of issues… Haven’t the injunctions met with convictions that were held at the time and often sincerely embraced by many humanitarian workers? Hasn’t a change taken place, and in a relatively short space of time, from an apolitical humanitarianism to one which is now political in nature and militant for many causes beyond the scope of its essential mission, and which is sometimes tempted by a form of revolutionary ideal, where “saving lives” is an aim which is increasingly competing with that of “changing the world”? Not to mention the fact that, from the outset, humanitarian NGOs, by nature and vocation, have always practised openness to diversity and respect, as well as taking into account all differences and minorities, and for a long time, without feeling the need to show it…

And what about narcissism? Inevitably, the need to distinguish oneself in a world that is quite competitive despite its ideals, massively dependent on institutional funding, and the temptation to consider oneself as authentic militants of progress, and no longer just as ‘simple’ committed humanitarians, has not generated this, in a contemporary form, impregnated with ideological influences and self-concern?

Is there not a risk that this concern for the self will become a driving force in humanitarian work, a concern which will one day be as strong as concern for the other? How can we not feel, at times, that humanitarian NGOs are increasingly concerned with themselves, looking at themselves in the mirror, with this nagging question “Mirror, my beautiful mirror, tell me that I am the most beautiful NGO…”?

The informal nature of the makeshift camps does not ensure adequate sanitation for undocumented Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Photo credit: EU/ECHO/Pierre Prakash

Indeed, a declared ambition to radically go beyond concrete humanitarian action (which no longer helps but ‘serves’ the beneficiaries, a strange semantic shift…) does not seem to be harmful, on the contrary. For some NGOs, is it not now a question of “decolonising” or “de-whitening” humanitarianism? Is there not a growing desire to be more than just concrete actors of human solidarity, but also and above all exemplary activists of a great revolution that must be planetary? Activists whose objective would no longer be simply to help, but to “elevate” the beneficiaries on the ladder of human dignity, of which we humanitarians would be the surveyors by essence?

But if we take a step back, aren’t these concerns essentially a matter for the West, which would apply its ideological obsessions of the moment to the assisted populations? In doing so, wouldn’t the humanitarian “decolonials”, the new crusaders of progress, be caught in the act of… neo-colonialism? What a shame…

Isn’t it time for humanitarians to leave the mirror in which they sometimes – not always on their own initiative – look to find their compass, the compass of their essential mission, concern for the other, solidarity with our human brothers and sisters, our equals in dignity and values, who are perhaps especially in need of concrete help? Speaking of compass, could we not use it by asking ourselves, in every debate on the need to engage this or that new “policy”, the question of whether or not this policy will improve the effectiveness and efficiency of our action on the ground? I am convinced that the sincerity and vigour of the commitment of most humanitarians, which I see every day, would not suffer…

Pierre Brunet

Writer and humanitarian