Edward Kissi, Ph.D., USF, Dept. of Africana Studies


Every "victim" of a natural and man-made disaster, in the First World or Third World, deserve the noblest of human passions: sympathy and empathy. Yet beneath every disaster are issues and questions that those who seek to prevent the misfortunes of disasters should analyze or ask. What has happened on the Gulf Coast of the world's most developed country has exposed a range of deficiencies; vulnerabilities and flaws that lurked beneath the calm surface of development, contentment and preparedness. What has struck me is the ongoing search, seemingly desperate, for the most decent and respectable words to describe those that Hurricane Katrina has made vulnerable.

When similar disasters occur beyond America's borders, in Africa and elsewhere, American politicians, American citizens and American social scientists do not pause to use the word "refugee" to describe those displaced from their homes. But today, there appears to be a realization that the word "refugee," gleefully and uncritically slapped on Africans and other Third World people in disaster situation, is a value-laden and pejorative word not fit for the "civilized." So there is an intense search for something "politically correct" or "linguistically noble."
Regardless of how one wishes to sanitize the word or terminology, a "refugee" is NOT a person without a country. In all cases, "refugees" come from somewhere. They have original abodes. Contrary to what others would have us believe, a refugee is not necessarily someone being persecuted on the basis of race. A refugee is someone displaced from his or her original abode by natural or man-made disasters, including persecution, and seeking refuge in another place. That would make many of Katrina's victims transported out of their original places of stay, regugees.
What Katrina has exposed is that some words and terminologies conjure discomforting images and feelings. The words that we slap on others are often not the words that we prefer for ourselves even when we face the same situations. In America today, the word "refugee" has come to connote "less than human" and, therefore, "less than American." But those who are rethinking its use in reference to Katrina's victims, perhaps, never thought through the word, as they are doing now, when they used it to refer to non-Americans in other situations beyond America's borders. Sadly, in the minds of those Americans seeking new words to describe a familiar disaster situation, "refugee" has come to symbolize "Africa" and "Third-Worldism." The struggle over its use has one underlying feeling: We are not like Africans and Third World people (seen as less than us) so do not use the same word for us.

Why would the same process (natural disaster) producing the same conditions (death and displacement) in East Africa and the Gulf Coast of America trigger different charaterizations----"refugee" for some and "displaced citizens" for others. Beneath this is a thought process. "Refugee" dehumanizes. "Displaced citizens" humanize. Words matter.
Therefore, if one of Katrina's long-term lessons becomes the removal of the word "refugee" from our lexicon or description of people, anywhere on earth, affected by natural disasters, we would be one step closer to the humanization of humanity.

In disaster-relief camps in Africa and other parts beyond America's borders, American journalists looked for the most dehumanizing of pictures: lactating mothers; weak and emaciated people; babies covered with flies as if to draw a contrast between civilized and fortunate Americans and primitive and unfortunate Others. But disasters should make people, including journalists, empathetic.

If Katrina's long-term lessons lead to a change in how the American press cover disasters in Africa, that would be a step closer to the humanization of humanity.

In the 1980s when the Horn of Africa was struck by drought producing death and displacement, some international relief agencies wanted to violate all the laws that govern entry and exit in the Horn countries to do "humanitarian work." Donor countries wanted to set up refugee camps and publicize their relief work. These agencies and American social scientists who wrote books about them and their relief work in the Horn could not understand why some of the countries in the region resented their intrusive humanitarianism. They could also not understand why the Ethiopian government in particular was slow in asking for international help or accepting such aid. Some went to the extent of concluding that the Ethiopian government intended, by its slow acceptance of aid, to use starvation as a tool of genocide against its people. Stephen Varnis wrote a famous book: Reluctant Aid Or Aiding the Reluctant. Other social scientists developed new theories claiming that in disaster situations when human life is at risk, nations in distress can no longer claim sovereignty. Humanitarian intervention should trump the sovereignty of nations and nations eager to provide aid should violate the sovereignty of that nation and get in. That was the beginning of notions of militant-humanitarianism. Imagine Cuba or Nigeria arriving at the doorsteps of America with tons of aid protected by armed troops eager to create "safe havens" and "humanitarian access" on America's soil to save lives.
Hurricane Katrina has demonstrated that governments behave like governments everywhere. It is an embarrassment to accept aid. It feels good to give than to receive. And proud nations, America, Ethiopia and Somalia included, are always slow and sometimes reluctant to accept aid, especially when it comes from their ideological adversaries. It would be odd to suggest that America's non-response to aid offers from Cuba and some quarters of the world betrays a malicious intent on the part of the Bush administration to commit genocide by denying Katrina's victims the succour they so much need. That would be a cavalier and frivolous use of the concept of genocide. But that argument might also raise legitimate questions about advertent omission and purposeful neglect.

If Katrina's long-term lessons cause us to look at governments in the Third World and governments in the First World as similar in the way they think, plan and respond to disasters and aid offers, that would improve our study of human societies.

Very soon someone would call for another nobler and saner word to replace the value-laden term--- "victims." When that happens, remember this piece and reflect on its content.