Foth, T. (2020). Humanitarian reason and the movement for overdose prevention sites: The NGOization of the Opioid “Crisis”. Nursing Philosophy, First published: 11 August 2020
In August 2017, a group of activists erected in Ottawa’s downtown a tent as a first overdose prevention site as a response to what the public and the activists perceived as an epidemic—a devastating wave of opioid and fentanyl overdoses in Canada. The Ontario premier was urged to declare an emergency that would provide increased funding for harm reduction and also send a message to survivors and families that the lives of their loved ones mattered. Thus, the discourses around the so‐called opioid crisis used a language of moral sentiments to legitimate political action. This “new humanitarianism” is considered a priori as good, but in this article, I ask what is politically at stake if we base our actions on the logic of humanitarian reason. The new universalism of humanitarian organizations is based on the individualism of human rights and thus on a moral imperative that replaces the political. Initiatives like the OPS movement often fill the gaps in social services in the absence of the state and address social problems as emergencies and public health issues, thereby transforming them into medical problems—performing the medicalization of sociopolitical problems. This is what I call the NGOization of the opioid crisis. This form of humanitarianism is a universalism of the temporal present without any universal promise for a better future or the amelioration of human conditions—it is a humanitarianism of emergency. What characterizes new humanitarianism is that it responds to situations of suffering that are the result of increasing inequality and injustices without addressing the root causes of this suffering. Not addressing these causes means to be complicit in perpetuating the inequalities and to restrict visions of possible alternatives.