Who is the "Human" in Humanitarian Aid?: Latin American Liberation Theology, Decolonial Thought, and the Formation of a Moral Agent
Lutz, Alison Waddell
This dissertation explores how Latin American liberation theology could disrupt the coloniality of humanitarian power by creating new humanitarian identities. In the humanitarian sphere, the power to act and be human—the ability to know, to plan, to diagnose, to make decisions—accrues to humanitarians from or trained in Western centers of power. People and communities who receive humanitarian assistance function as sites for Western intervention. Drawing on the decolonial thought of Sylvia Wynter, this dissertation posits that humanitarian agency circulates according to a conception of “the human” forged when the early modern philosophical revolution of humanism was pressed into service to legitimate Western Europe and white North America’s brutal project of conquest and colonization. Western technical expertise has become the primary mode of knowing that shapes the current coloniality of being; it keeps humanitarian power and resources circulating through a Western or Westernized grip. This dissertation considers how to generate and channel humanitarian agency that transforms the current iniquitous order. It takes as a case study the global health organization Partners In Health (PIH), which draws its mission to provide “a preferential option for the poor in health care” explicitly from Latin American liberation theology. For PIH this frame contains an epistemological claim, which prompted PIH to include the knowledge and action of its most impoverished patients as central to its efforts. PIH’s novel humanitarian praxis radically changed health outcomes for dispossessed communities around the world. This dissertation engages Sylvia Wynter’s concept of the gaze from below to suggest that PIH’s embrace of Latin American liberation theology changed the status quo in global health because the PIH staff members and the people they serve transgressed the roles set for them by the coloniality of humanitarian knowledge and identity.