Solidarity, not charity

Credit: Alejandro Ospina

Solidarity, in everyday interactions, is often confounded with charity and other forms of voluntary humanitarian action. This was clearly visible, for example, during the so-called 2015 European migrant crisis, when more than one million refugees arrived in Germany, and, especially in the beginning, ordinary German citizens offered their help in various ways. Despite their well-intendedness, most of these acts did not manage to overcome existing power imbalances. Rather, they reinforced rigid binaries between victims and saviors, the self and the other. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, these binaries no longer seemed to hold. The world was threatened by a virus that did not care about the borders of nation-states or a supposedly established world order; if anything, people in the Global North were expected to be affected more frequently due to their high levels of mobility

Among many other things, COVID-19 thus challenged Europeans’ perceptions of crises, and it led to a rupture with the belief that misery and suffering only occur outside their own borders. At the same time, this rupture generated opportunities to reconfigure these general perceptions and beliefs. It was against this background that the pro-migrant initiative #LeaveNoOneBehind formed and advocated a praxis of solidarity that takes the “global” in “global crises” seriously. 

#LeaveNoOneBehind is a project of the association Civilfleet-Support e.V., based in Berlin, Germany. It originated when, in March 2020, several civil society actors, supported by pro-migrant initiatives such as the international movement Seebrücke, decided to join forces and create a broad solidarity movement. As the hashtag suggests, its goal was “to leave no one behind” in the COVID-19 crisis, especially not those who had been living under difficult circumstances already: migrants and refugees. 

The European Union has been long criticized for the human rights violations and the inhumane conditions at its external borders, especially in refugee camps; yet, mass infections and a humanitarian disaster were ever-more imminent at this point in time. Accordingly, #LeaveNoOneBehind demanded that overcrowded refugee camps be evacuated immediately. The hashtag was thus an urgent call to action for a more humane asylum policy directed toward political decision makers. 

At the same time, and with the same sense of urgency, #LeaveNoOneBehind was also a call for solidarity to people across Europe. It implored Europeans to not forget about the “other” in times of social distancing or in light of states that had apparently distanced themselves already. Europeans were thus prompted to participate in online and offline protests, and, in doing so, demonstrate solidarity from below

This solidarity, however, differed substantially from the rather problematic forms of humanitarian action mentioned above. That is because #LeaveNoOneBehind, unlike previous campaigns, framed the crisis as internal, not external. The hashtag, and in particular its plea “to leave no one behind,” left no doubt about the fact that we were all in crisis, albeit to very different extents, and that, according to our possibilities, we were all trying to be safe. 

The initiative thus pointed to the fact that, as humans, COVID-19 related us to one another, despite our differences, and, in doing so, it perpetuated the idea of what Hannah Arendt calls an “interest,” namely a common concern with the world. Like a table around which individuals gather, interest thus designates that which is between people, which binds them together, while also upholding their separateness. 

When, during the pandemic, #LeaveNoOneBehind framed COVID-19, as well as the fight and protection against it, as an interest, it publicly proclaimed that the situation of migrants and refugees must not be seen as a problem belonging to the “other.” Instead, their plight marked a common concern in what Arendt describes as a common world and, as such, it required a particular response. 

This response could no longer be either charity or any other voluntary humanitarian action. Instead, and in line with Arendt’s words in her book On Revolution, “it is through solidarity that people establish deliberately and, as it were, dispassionately a community of interest with the oppressed and exploited.” #LeaveNoOneBehind made a significant case for what this might look like in practice. It highlighted that, despite all the differences, the impending humanitarian crisis at Europe’s borders was a crisis between humans, and that humans needed to act upon it collectively. 

The Arendtian idea of interest and its implied community-building were thus at the heart of its call for solidarity. At the same time, the initiative promoted a form of solidarity that appeared “cold and abstract.” It did not focus on the “miserable other” on the one hand and compassion and pity on the other. Rather, #LeaveNoOneBehind reminded Europeans of their political responsibility. In doing so, the initiative constituted not only an important intervention in current perceptions of community, crises, interests, and solidarity but also a reconfiguration that, to a large extent, managed to avoid previous pitfalls such as the victim–savior binary. 

#LeaveNoOneBehind was born in the early days of the pandemic and surely benefited from both the rupture and the momentum for collective action it constituted. Yet, this type of solidarity does not have to be limited to this time and setting. In fact, #LeaveNoOneBehind has expanded its mission already by calling for solidarity with Afghans and, most recently, Ukrainians. As this brief analysis has shown, it is a form of solidarity that holds the potential to disrupt the power imbalances inherent to charity and other forms of voluntary humanitarian action, and that all of us need to practice as we face current and future crises in the common world.