Saiba Varma is an assistant professor of anthropology at UCSD. Her book manuscript, Encountering Care: Medicine in a Zone of Occupation is under review at Duke University Press. Her work has appeared in American Ethnologist, Medical Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology and Economic and Political Weekly. She teaches courses on global health; violence and militarism; humanitarianism; and affects and emotions.
Her talk draws on long-term ethnographic fieldwork with mental health-based humanitarian NGOs in Indian-occupied Kashmir. It shows how while international NGOs try to enact humane, nonpathologizing and non-pharmaceutical forms of care in Kashmir, these efforts are compromised by pressures from donors to demonstrate the efficacy and impact of their work. A critical component of demonstrating impact is the greater involvement of aid recipients and their perspectives in evaluative processes. The talk centers on a psychosocial humanitarian encounter in which an aid recipient refuses to, or is unable to, recognize the care she has received as care, thereby undermining the organization’s entire project and ethos. The talk reveals how clinical or humanitarian encounters become sites of intense contestation, misunderstanding, and negotiation between aid recipients and aid givers. Despite the good intentions of aid organizations to counteract militarism and violence, we see how or why these efforts might be limited, and how or why certain recipients are left out of processes of care. Care thus appears as an ambivalent relational technology that has the potential to both be therapeutic but also harmful.