By Dimitrios Theodossopoulos, University of Kent
This is a ‘graphic commentary’ originally created to support a project facebook page . The text below is past of an article entitled ‘Philanthropy or solidarity? Ethical dilemmas about humanitarianism in crisis afflicted Greece’ authored by Dimitrios Theodossopoulos (University of Kent). The article is under review with Social Analysis. The graphic commentary contributes to the article as a reflexive mirror or a tool for negotiating reflexivity. Its use its not merely illustrative, but also methodological.
I had always associated philanthropy with the pastime pursuits of the wealthiest members of a society. And I have been prejudiced, I admit, towards many types of charitable action. In regard to my original prejudice, my fieldwork experience among a number of solidarity initiatives in Greece was transformational. I began to realise that the socioeconomic profile of many citizens who worked to provide aid to crisis-afflicted families was not dissimilar to many recently impoverished citizens who receive aid.
These initial realisations provided me with a reality check against my previous prejudice against the philanthropic nature of humanitarian activity. Far from representing a privileged elite, many Greek citizens who participate in crisis solidarity movements are, for the most part, members of an impoverished urban middle class. Many are guided by socialist principles and a strong awareness of political involvement, which encourages an ideological identification with the politically nuanced concept of solidarity, and an aversion to the middle-class associations of the term philanthropy. Although a few come from moderately privileged backgrounds, many—in fact, the majority—had already been stripped of privilege after five years of austerity policies, increased taxation and salary cuts. This overwhelmingly impoverishing experience has inspired a wider concern about the predicament of the most vulnerable fellow-citizens.
The enthusiasm emanating from those participating in the distribution of material aid—e.g. food, clothes, medicine—put to shame my initial reservations regarding the political implications of humanitarianism. Through participation in several food distribution initiatives, I was forced to abandon, at least temporarily, my armchair perspective and re-examine the value of humanitarian aid beyond the semantics of terminological connotations—for example, independently of the articulation of humanitarianism as either ‘philanthropy’ or ‘solidarity’. As I soon realised, offering food, hand-to-hand, induced an emotional, altruistic effect, which I experienced, and shared with other volunteers and aid professionals. Was I becoming a better person? Or I merely deluded myself in believing so? Is this, after all, the secret fascination of bourgeois philanthropy? That is, to mislead the benefactor into feeling unique and important? To exonerate one’s guilt for tolerating inequality? The graphic commentary below, makes visible some of my original dilemmas.