The ongoing crisis in Serbia, the devastating effects of flooding on countless homes, buildings, people, and animals over a very large part of the country, seems to have brought the humanitarians out in droves. More than 3,000 able-bodied men and women marched on Sabac to shore up the floodwalls. Humanitarian aid to the victims of the floods poured in from around the country and from abroad. People have donated their time, their money, their clothes, their food, and their Facebook pages to the humanitarian effort.
But I struggle with the nature of humanitarianism. Why do we need it? Why do we do it? And, more importantly, is it our obligation as humans or our choice?
In the first instance, we are all humans. As a species, we are social and thus ill-adapted to surviving without any assistance from one another. We belong to communities and social groups, and when the safety of our social group is threatened, we act to defend it. In this instance, the safety of a huge part of Serbia has been threatened and the community has risen to its aid.
This is something I would think is at least partially instinctual. The instinct to self-preservation extends naturally to the preservation of our collectives – no matter how large or small they may be – because out collectives sustain us as much as air and water. In that way, the deeper underlying motive for many people in humanitarian actions is one of self-preservation.
The problem is that we are humans, not animals, and we have the capacity to override our instincts whenever we want. Therefore humanitarian actions must derive from free will, from choice. We maybe instinctually drawn to do something, but we are perfectly capable of acting differently. We justify. We rationalize. We protect ourselves.
That means that we need a different kind of motivation to spring into action. I know people who volunteer their time each week to some kind of humanitarian action – assisting the elderly, reading to orphans, working at soup kitchens. Invariably they will say that it makes them feel good to give something back. They do it because there are so many people less fortunate than they, and they feel it is a duty. Other people practice humanitarianism on a smaller scale by helping their elderly neighbor with her groceries or doing pro bono work for a good cause.
Still more (and probably most) people do not feel compelled to act until the need is sitting on their doorstep.
Does one type of motivation qualify someone as a “better humanitarian” than the other? I would say no. I would say that one is a more “willing humanitarian” than the others. But that does not necessarily make him better. In my view, a humanitarian is defined by a person’s unfailing ability to choose to help when confronted with the choice.
On the other hand, there is a troublingly large amount of people who are humanitarian for the sake of appearances. They want people to see them as big-hearted and caring. They profess their empathy and grief. They may even undertake great deeds, but the motivation is venal and self-serving. The political caste cannot avoid this label. I cannot distinguish between the humanitarian feeling and the political expediency of Aleksandar Vucic during this crisis. He might really be a good humanitarian, but I cannot help but remember that they better he seems to the people, the more votes he will get.
And where is President Toma in all of this?
My dilemma hinges on the motivation for humanitarian action. I myself have not packed sandbags or manned emergency shelters. I have felt the urge to write and disseminate information, because it is in the nature of what I am, but does that make me a poor humanitarian compared to the sandbaggers? What bothers me is that if I feel any pressure to do more, it is societal pressure more than instinctual drive.
I think, if I may answer my own question, we must somehow be obliged to give aid to our fellow humans when we can and as much as we can. Refusing to give aid would disqualify us from the human race. But the amount and the quality is not measured on a comparative scale with others.
It is measured by our own capacities and abilities.