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A nurse who worked for the Red Cross in the 1994 Rwanda genocide said, 'It’s shocking. You know what’s happening there, but you can’t do anything. In other words, you hear the sounds of killing from behind the hill. And in the morning you go and see if anyone’s alive. […] You end up in these situations.'

The Red Cross medical and other aid workers Malkki interviewed in Finland often faced what one person called 'impossible situations' in their international humanitarian work. Such situations – affectively and ethically impossible, impasses from which there is no obviously good way forward – can also arise in anthropological research and cast long shadows.

Like anthropologists, aid workers are sometimes left feeling ambivalent, inadequate and even impure about the work that they have done, despite their best efforts to fulfil the standards of their profession and personal ethical commitments. These situations are a reminder that the conventional, widely popularised humanitarian position of moral high ground and mastery can actually be a fiction on many levels.

About the speaker

Liisa H. Malkki is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University. Her research interests include: the politics of nationalism, internationalism, cosmopolitanism and human rights discourses as transnational cultural forms; the social production of historical memory and the uses of history; political violence, exile and displacement; the ethics and politics of humanitarian aid; child research; and visual culture.

Her field research in Tanzania explored the ways in which political violence and exile may produce transformations of historical consciousness and national identity among displaced people. This project resulted in Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory, and National Cosmology Among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania (University of Chicago Press, 1995). In another project, Malkki explored how Hutu exiles from Burundi and Rwanda, who found asylum in Montreal, Canada, imagined scenarios of the future for themselves and their countries in the aftermath of genocide in the Great Lakes Region of Africa.

Malkki’s most recent book, Improvising Theory: Process and Temporality in Ethnographic Fieldwork (with Allaine Cerwonka) was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2007. Her forthcoming book, The Need to Help: The Domestic Arts of International Humanitarianism (Duke University Press), examines the changing interrelationships among humanitarian interventions, internationalism, professionalism, affect and neutrality in the work of the Finnish Red Cross in cooperation with the International Committee of the Red Cross.

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