Doomed to Rewrite?

“Doomed to Rewrite? Aid autobiography as history and practice,” unpublished paper (2011)

This [unfinished – eds.] article looks at the genre of aid workers’ autobiographies from an historical perspective. It makes the case that (a) these types of memoirs constitute an identifiable genre with a respective lineage that can be traced from Dunant’s diaries on Solferino (Rieff, 2002) to de Waal’s blog on Darfur; (b) that these texts are a precious and under-examined resource for development and humanitarian studies.  They document the embodied experiences of the Western tradition of humanitarian intervention and in doing so provide valuable insight into patterns of possibility and constraint and to identify the significance of affect, perspective, and position in constructing our conceptual categories of aid, intervention, and humanitarian assistance.  Finally, (c) the article asks what do recent trends in technologies of publication and dissemination tell us about the role of the individual vs. the collective in contemporary humanitarianism.

1: Life writing, memoir and where it fits in.  Similarities and Difference.

Memoire, life writing, auto-biography


Autobiography, life-writing, life-narrative, personal memoire are just a sampling of the terms that are used – often inter-changeably – to refer to the textural representation of one’s personal experience. They differ from in objective from diaries in that they are intended to be read, circulated and discussed by others.  In form, they vary widely – from little more than a descriptive chronology of events – to polished and possibly embellished stories of events and encounters.  According to Epstein, “memoir is a  hybrid form that may draw on the lyric voice of poetry, the narrative drive of the novel, the urgency of eyewitness testimonial, the desultory description of travel writing, the factual comprehensiveness of serious reportage and historiography, and the introspection of the personal essay” {Epstein, 2006}. Arguably as long as there has been writing, there has been memoir: early examples of the genre might include Augustine’s Confessions (357 AD), the writings of Hildegard of Bingen, Saint Teresa of Avila and Jean-Jacques Rousseau {Hampl, 1999; Epstein}.  But interest in the individuals’ first person of particular experiences has, in recent years, appeared to increase as reflected by such indicators as presence and position on books sales charts [need cite]. Schaffer and Smith go so far as to refer to a global “memoire boom” in the last decades of the twentieth century {Schaffer, 2004@1} and if blogs and associated textual self-representations of everyday activities such as ‘tweets’ are included, it can be claimed that as a textual form – memoirs are at an all time high.

As an object of  academic study, ‘autobiographical studies’ emerged in the United States in the 1970s {Marcus, 1995} with the ‘biographical turn’ {Roberts, 2010@1} and came into their own as a “critical literary genre” in the 1980s {Moss} when feminist writing in particular became interested in what these unofficial and personal texts revealed about the ‘hidden’ history of women and other sub-altern groups {Jelinek, 1980; Jelinek, 1986; Olney 1980; Olney; Olney; Olney; Jouve}.[1] Represented within the form are an almost limitless array of “memoirists” and types of memoirs: travellers, soldiers, doctors, teachers, call-girls and… humanitarians.  And while some of these forms have received sustained academic attention, becoming considered as sub-genres in their own right, the humanitarian memoir has yet to reach this status.

This article is the first attempt to identify the genre of the ‘humanitarian memoir’ with a respective lineage that can be traced from Dunant’s diaries on Solferino (Rieff, 2002) to de Waal’s blog on Darfur.  As a precious and under-examined resource for development and humanitarian studies, these texts document the embodied experiences of the Western tradition of humanitarian intervention. Doing so both reveals the significance of personal, affective experience in the trajectory of modern day humanitarianism and provides insight into trends and tendencies which are often obscured through more traditional approaches to investigating the topic such as policy reports and official accounts of particular events.  Countering claims that humanitarianism as a project has become more collectivist in its approach {xxx; Keck & Sikkink}, this article also highlights the importance that individual humanitarian agents or subjects have played in the narration and construction of Western understandings of humanitarianism. This is particularly striking when one considers the distinction between the “I” of Western humanitarian donors and agents in contrast with the unidentifiable “they” of the recipient masses.

Literature Review

To date, there has been little to no attention paid to humanitarian memoir as a specific sub-genre. Throughout the twentieth century those select lodestars such as Dunant’s Memoir of Solferino were analysed for the histories they described, rather than as textual artefacts offering insight into the conditions of their production and authorship.  While many other diaries, newspaper serials or pamphlets were produced and even formally published and distributed during nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they have quietly faded into obscurity over the years. More recently, despite the wide-spread awareness of texts such as “Emergency Sex” by academics, they have yet to be scrutinized in their own right rather than used to provide colourful examples for other arguments {cite}. This is particularly surprising given the prominence that the form of the memoir has played in establishing and perpetuating the humanitarian project {Dunant; Barnett; Fox}. Their lack of presence in the academic literature, may be explained by a variety of potential factors.  For example, disciplinary norms which bracket those texts which are considered worthy of scrutiny often exclude texts which are considered to be insufficiently rigorous, empirical or objective [cite from alan o’leary].  But it may also be that until recently, humanitarian memoirs had not achieved the critical mass necessary to be considered as a textual genre in their own right.  This is changing.  The exponential growth of humanitarianism as a field over the last two decades {cite DFID} have seen both the supply and demand of these accounts increase.  As I’ll discuss below, advances in social media have increased the velocity and reach of accounts by humanitarians of their experiences which the demand for such accounts has been fuelled by the overall increase in individuals who [to paraphrase Helen Epstein] want to satisfy their curiosity about how other humanitarians live, contextualize their own experiences and normalize or measure how it was different from the norm {Epstein}.

From an academic perspective, it is possible to identify a range of texts that exhibit similarities to the memoirs in question. It is worth investigating these briefly both to demonstrate how humanitarian memoirs have been hitherto miscast or misidentified, and secondly to identify those themes which are necessarily part of the humanitarian memoir:  authorship, humanitarianism as topic, processual narrative, and setting.  Each of these can be identified in other types of literatures, but it is their co-presence that identified the humanitarian memoir as a distinct and identifiable genre.

First, there are those texts that are authored by individuals who are working in the sphere of humanitarianism, broadly speaking, but where the intent of the text is not about humanitarianism, per se, but about issues of similar concern such as violence, under-development.  Of these, the relationship between life narrative and the concept, instruments and organizations of human rights has received particular attention. Work by Schaffer {2004} and Schaffer and Smith has looked at the role of life narratives and ‘personal witnessing’ in “the formulation of new rights protections”{@4};  in fuelling and sustaining human rights campaigns; and in creating the discursive space for local movements to speak on a global stage {Whitlock [in S&S]; S&S@6}. They consider the degree to which the production of human rights life narratives have contributed to how suffering in understood and institutionalized within the human rights community. In particular, personal narratives of individuals who have experienced a deep trauma or injustice have historically been crucial in alerting ‘the global community’ to both the acts themselves and the impact that these acts have upon their victims.[2] Associated with this are those auto-biographies of individuals who, having worked on particular cases or in specific institutions, decided, at the end of their tenure, to reflect upon their achievements.  Examples here include writings by John Humphrey, the First Director of the UN Division of Human Rights about his role in xxx {see Humphrey; Curle} and the ICTY chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte’s book about her suspicions of organ trafficking during the Kosovo war. As a vital part of the humanitarian memoir is the experience of going to and returning from the so-called field {Smirl, 2011}, such texts more closely resemble the elite memoir as a literary genre.


1: Life writing, memoir and where it fits in.  Similarities and Difference.

Memoire, life writing, auto-biography

Similar work:

a) Colonial Officers

b) Travelogues, picturesque travel writing,

c) Human Rights Memoire

d) the Development novel (Lewes)

e) The elite auto-biography (Dallaire; Rose)

f) the autobiographical narrative in war (Woodward)

Why is the humanitarian novel different?  Does it deserve its own sub-genre.

– Yes, because of number

– Yes, because of the object of its attention? Because of its purpose?

– Yes on normative grounds because of what the establishment of such a typology tells us about humanitarianism and brings to the fore the important role that memoire – and with it, personal, embodied, deeply normative element that is humanitarianism

2:  Evolution of the Genre


1 – The Witness (Barnett’s de-ontological humanitarians)

Who: – Dunant, Nightingale; MSF (Doctors)



For who?:


2 – The Diarist

– Tells it like it is (Norris)

– Roberts, Jebb?

3 – The Whistle-blower

– Disgruntled employee exposee (Hancock)

– The Tell-all (Emergency Sex)

– aims to shock

4 – The Fly on the Wall

– Ironic (Dangerous Passions, Things ex-pat aid workers like)

– Moralizer (Shotgun Shack; Texas in Africa; View from the Cave)

– “Modest Witness”? – Haraway

– Diarist – p. 7 Redfield

– Political Economy

3. What this tells us about humanitarianism

– particularly important when current trends in humanitarianism are seeking to establish scientific approaches to the management and implementation of aid

– important to recognize how important personal experience in shaping perceptions

– and there is a move (back) towards the individual – also perhaps the anonymous or hidden individual – in shaping (contra Redfield)

– how the books may have an impact in influencing the humanitarian community at large

– tells us a lot about how aid work has changed.

– “Humanitarianism is a creature of the world it aspires to civilize” {Barnett, 2011@9}.

Reveals a series of tensions:

– the balance between fiction/non-fiction

– between remembering/forgetting (the constant reinvention of itself – Easterly)

– between public/private (using information/suffering for the collective gain

– between the individual/collective

[1] Also of interest, was the relationship between autobiography and identity.

[2] See S&S@15 for a full list of different types of subaltern testimonies of suffering.  

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