The Wits anthropology department puts to test the ideas around benevolent aid from developed to developing countries. 

Professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam, Polly Pallister-Wilkins has criticized how rich countries have used humanitarian aid to infantilise third world countries.  

Dr Pallister-Wilkins was a guest for the Wits Anthropology department’s event titled, Humanitarian Futures, named after a chapter she co-wrote in the book, The routledge international handbook of critical philanthropy and humanitarianism. The discussion was the second in a series of “collaborative, multidisciplinary” seminars held by the anthropology museum, with a mix of local and international visitors. The even took place on Wednesday, April 26.  

The paper argues that aid from the global north to countries like South Africa in the global south help keep a power hierarchy in play. This is because aid from the western world comes with financial conditions that economically cripple the countries that receive it.  

To avoid perpetuating this power dynamic, Dr Pallister-Wilkins explained that the goal is to have a “mutual aid system, a grass roots approach”, which means that countries help themselves and their neighbours through local organisations, without relying on first-world countries.  

She said this can be built by empowering crisis affected communities to lead aid programmes. These efforts, according to the professor, could be supported financially by historically colonizing countries in “reparative justice” as a way of paying back countries that were damaged by colonization. 

Attendees in the audience questioned her about the validity of her suggestions. Questions around how one makes aid local without building a new power struggle inside countries based on who receives the reparative justice money and who does not were asked.  

In response to these concerns, Dr Pallister-Wilkins said that although she believes in her ideas, however, truthfully, she does not know how to practically get around some concerns which were raised.  

Attendee Bohlale Lamola, an anthropology honours student at Wits said that she came to the seminar to think about her own research “on how the corporate world is moving to take a humanitarian stance” and if this stance is superficial or real.

Lamola said she got confirmation from the seminar that “there is still a lot of work to be done” in making humanitarian ideas that can actually be used practically for positive change. 

FEATURED IMAGE: Amsterdam professor Polly Pallister-Wilkins sits between Wits anthropology professors Kholeka Shange (left) and Kudukwashe Vanyoro (right) in a seminar at the Wits anthropology museum. Photo: Kimberley Kersten.