Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Connections and Complicities: Reflections on Epistemology, Violence, and Humanitarian Aid

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Connections and Complicities: Reflections on Epistemology, Violence, and Humanitarian Aid

Article excerpt


This paper explores the relationship between power/knowledge and violence. It attempts to connect epistemological constructions and discursive practices to conflict and humanitarian aid operations by deconstructing the narrative of 'Development'. The paper also attempts to tease out the way seemingly transparent and humanitarian actions, even within the academy, are complicit in reiterating hegemonic representations that reproduce systems of inequality and injustice. The paper draws on feminist methodologies that are primarily deconstructive in nature in order to highlight these connections and complicities, making clear that the way certain knowledges become centralized, while others are subjugated, reflects the functioning of the global political economy and imperialism. Thus, the paper argues that a transformative humanitarian aid practice must affirm what is 'excluded' from the discourse--the 'incommensurable'. Lastly, the paper examines the potential of the 'rights-based' approach to sustain the affirmation of incommensurability. The paper hopes to make clear the importance of critical feminist theory for politics and practices.

Keywords: humanitarian aid, power/knowledge, violence, feminist methodologies, deconstruction

Introduction: Disjunctions and Conversations

This project came about from my own experience struggling with a disjunct between two crucial conversations within the academy. Initially, I dedicatedly partook in these conversations because I assumed their shared commitment to global justice to create a seamless dialogue. Yet, I learned that in these discussions one voice was heard and the other silenced. The disjunct was personified most clearly, although not exclusively, between my two departments: Gender and Development. Although this experience was personal, it has seemed to reflect broader contentions concerning the (re)production of power/ knowledge within the academy, the development paradigm (2), and the global political economy.

In traveling, both theoretically between the literatures and physically between the classrooms, I found that the construction of my 'Development curriculums'--the contributions included and excluded from the reading lists and lectures--worked to silence particular discussions, deafening the seminar exchanges to voices of resistance, recycling mimetic analyses and thus closing any thresholds for transformation. The experience made clear that even within the spaces of such a prestigious academy, hegemony worked to determine what there was to know. My particular interest, and subsequent research, in complex emergencies and humanitarian aid (3) made this pedagogical functioning alarmingly violent, bringing me to think quite critically about the type of intellectual economy that was circulating and its relationship to conflict.

Humanitarian Aid has been, and continues to be, extensively critiqued. Such work has been unquestioningly valuable, initiating both a vital interrogation of the premises, assumptions and ethics of humanitarian aid, and humanitarianism in general, as well as a comprehensive gutting of institutional policies, practices, and outcomes. However, epistemological analyses, central in contemporary gender theory, that deconstruct the production and impact of knowledge in relation to the global economy, development, and violence rarely appear in conversation. More specifically, recent feminist scholarship has drawn on conversations in postcolonial, legal, deconstructive and psychoanalytic theories to highlight how particular knowledges get legitimized and naturalized while o/Other knowledges get subjugated, dismissed and appropriated. The ways in which this appropriation informs the formulation of the Self and Other is thus connected to social injustice and conflict. Despite the relevance of these insights to development theory and practice, the analyses are either made absent from the debate, charged as impractical, impenetrable and elitist, or subsumed under another weekly topic, often 'Gender and Household Economics'. …

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