Erica Bornstein

Anthropology of Humanitarianism

Erica Bornstein’s research interests include philanthropy, religious charity, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and humanitarianism. Her current research project, Disquieting Gifts: an Ethnography of Humanitarianism in New Delhi, is an ethnography of sacred and secular practices of giving in India. The monograph is currently under advance contract with Stanford University Press. This work continues an interest in religion and humanitarianism that she began to explore in her book, The Spirit of Development: Protestant NGOs, Morality, and Economics in Zimbabwe (Stanford 2005).

Most scholars of humanitarianism would agree that sponsoring the education of an orphan or giving to beggars on an urban street is not considered to be in the same category as international humanitarian aid. Yet, the two forms are linked through the gift – merging those who are excluded from resources with those who are willing and able to actively engage. Bornstein's research on humanitarian practice in New Delhi, India dissects how social acts often academically considered in separate realms – of economic development, charity, philanthropy, or humanitarianism – are part of a larger universe of giving marked by reciprocal exchange, social obligation with rights and entitlements, and worldly renunciation. A new space of inquiry opens up when these social forms of the gift speak to each other and are brought together in the global economy of humanitarianism.

Charity Box

In the context of India’s transnational identity as a nation aiming to configure itself as a global superpower and a benefactor in the geopolitics of aid, we must grapple with the fact that with increased wealth comes jarring perceptions of increased poverty. As the Indian government attempts to liberalize its economy, issues of inequality and social welfare enter a transitional period. India has close to a million voluntary organizations that are registered as trusts, societies, trade unions, or charitable companies. It also has the largest number of voluntary organizations in Asia. It is in this context that the work of Indians and expatriates alike find themselves compelled to engage with the urgency of social welfare. While some of this engagement is formally registered with the government of India, much of it is spontaneous and undocumented. Bornstein's research aims to address the diverse context of donation (known as dān) in New Delhi by interrogating contemporary forms of charity, philanthropy, and humanitarianism in India’s political capital. While Marcel Mauss' concept of the gift offers a basis for relations of social obligation, Indian ideas of dān are precisely the opposite. While Mauss' concept of a gift requires a return, dān is a gift that does not. Dān is a liberatory mechanism, which releases the giver of social obligation and eventually frees the giver of the constraints of the material world.

In 2004-05, with support from the American Institute of Indian Studies and the National Endowment for the Humanities, Bornstein conducted ethnographic research with an eclectic group of informants, including: Indian philanthropists, employees of transnational foundations, Indian NGO directors and employees, Indian and foreign volunteers who cared for children in orphanages and slums, Indians who built schools for slum-dwellers and the disabled, as well as Hindu temple priests and devotees who donated to Hindu temples and their associated charitable medical clinics.