Combat charities and the mediatization of extreme humanitarian volunteering

I recently shared an article by Milli Lake and Sarah E. Parkinson on political scientists ‘out-dangering’ one another in their field research in fragile states. The ‘exotic’ site of the past has turned into a ‘volatile’ one where presumably a lot of publishable and communicable ‘action’ will happen. The authors warn us academics to take the practical and ethical components of (fieldwork) planning and implementation more seriously’.

Only this week did I learn about ‘combat charities’ thanks to a short CNN video that apparently shows the Free Burma Army fighting in Mosul and an article in the Washington Post on the family behind one of its leaders who had moved to Mosul
It was just an average day for the Eubanks, who describe their work as a calling from God). 

In some ways, the two stories are connected and I wonder whether some radical humanitarians
out-danger one another and the international development and humanitarian community paying the price for more blurred boundaries.Pavol Kosnáč’ recent Brookings working paper, Combat charities, or when humanitarians go to war, provided some interesting background reading:
Some could regard the term “combat charity” as a perversion of the very essence of a humanitarian mission’, Kosnáč points out, but for the purpose of my post I agree that the term captures the actual self-perception of these groups’.

While much of the critique of combat charities rightly focuses on policy, governance and (the lack of) regulatory frameworks I strongly believe that there is an important media and communication aspect that also deserves our attention.

Kosnáč mentions that
‘beyond this narrow component of public relations, broader media training is an important part of the services offered by HDA, Humanitarian Defense Abroad, one of the two organizations he analyzes in his paper, and an important reminder that visual engagement and representation are deeply embedded in todays battlefields.

As a kick-starter for more discussions, my post will focus on three aspects: the (American) hero narrative, the responsibility of media organizations to engage with content from such combat organizations and implications for volunteering/voluntourism and the humanitarian project.

The North American humanitarian hero narrative
I do not think it is a coincidence that the Eubank family in Mosul is American. North American, especially U.S., culture, media and society love a good hero narrative whenever one person’s heroic struggle can become an excuse for not looking too closely at systemic inequalities. As we already know from missionary endeavors, missions
guided by God’ are often convenient excuses for unprofessional or unethical approaches (oh hello, dancing missionaries of Uganda!). Depoliticized charity sells. I wrote about the ‘CNN Hero of Year’ event in 2015 and Oprah’s treatment of Kony 2012’s Jason Russell in 2012, for example.

Combat charities bring out the worst of such efforts, a missionary zeal combined with an outdated ‘friend-foe’ dichotomy and volunteering for the military-industrial complex with the aim to
save people. America’s love for heroes’ and clean-cut military action as a solution for political problems meets the web 2.0.

Mediatzation between YouTube video, computer game aesthetics and micro celebrity
One of the many challenges with these organizations is that despite their size, actual impact and relevance for humanitarian debates they are ticking all the right boxes for viral media attention. It is no surprise that global mainstream media such as CNN or Washington Post feature their content as it breaks the conflict and war reporting routines and presumable generates clicks. Whether these clicks are generated by critical academics or ‘patriotic’ Americans these articles polarize and that is always good for business. Combat actions, captured on video by the organization itself do not ‘speak for themselves’ and just because it may fit the usual media narrative that something is new, ‘growing’ or ‘the latest trend’, it means that mainstream journalists need to carefully evaluate motives and actions. Any organization on a ‘radical fringe’ first receives mainstream media attention and then book deals, speaking tours and movies often follow.
Is there a good way of how not to feed the value chain of ‘controversial’ figures and their organizations?

Zealous volunteers with guns only blur ethical boundaries further
It starts with the term ‘combat charity’ and it ends with a man in army fatigues rescuing a child: the current wars and conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq really become a testing ground for how we define humanitarianism in the 21st century. From MSF hospital bombings to the debate around the White Helmets and now a new form of private-military engagement, the limits of humanitarian action are tested at the moment.
Engaging with, closely monitoring, and eventually establishing legal and policy guidelines for the operations of combat charities promises a better way to manage combat charities, Kosnáč recommends in his paper. I very much doubt that this will be enough to stop more unaccountable volunteering heroes with questionable, but ultimately very selfish motivations, to show up on the door step of war and conflict.
I am also aware that these endeavors fuel the global media machinery with engaging content-ideally free of charge for the media brands, so careful strategies, including less space in mainstream outlets, should be discussed.

All I can do is stress the importance of evaluating local contexts, engaging with complicated narratives and trying to generate political will.
No matter how many times they try or who bankrolls their efforts, an American guy shooting at people in a far-away land will not be the solution to end war and conflict…


  1. Thanks Tobias. It struck me that one can see similar trends in conservation work/discourses. I wondered if some of the criticisms of 'fortress conservation' might be relevant to you. Here's a brief thing I wrote which contains some links:

  2. Thanks for articulating so clearly the concerns I have about organisations like FBR. Funnily enough, I met Dave & family while conducting my PhD fieldwork in a conflict-affected area and would sit on the verandah of my house observing them training local volunteers in combat. This was in stark contrast to the work the INGO I'm researching was doing in the same place to bolster localised health system development. Unfortunately the hero narrative sells well to a US audience that is the main donor base for these types of operations. Do you think "rescue" organisations that conduct raids on brothels fit into this typology as well?


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