A Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies?

This is our first blog posting at the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies. The Centre is the brainchild of a multidisciplinary group of researchers from CMI, NUPI and PRIO, while the blog will host a mixture of reports from the field; thoughts on new issues such as emerging donors, urban violence and humanitarian technology; discussions on (in the first place Norwegian) humanitarian policy and critical reflections on the emergent field of humanitarian studies. We welcome your comments and inputs.

Change is upon international humanitarianism.

Whether caused by violent conflicts or natural disasters, humanitarian interventions (armed and unarmed) raise fundamental questions about ethics, sovereignty, and political power. The global humanitarian system has gone through significant, and often poorly understood, changes over the last two decades. What are the implications for the protection of civilians? Humanitarian work has expanded to cover more long-term development activities at the same time as emergencies have become more frequent. Meanwhile the division between man-made and “natural” disasters is getting increasingly blurred. Humanitarian reform initiatives, with their focus on accountability, transparency and financing, have become institutionalized. But they are raising further questions in their wake.

New actors are rapidly transforming the humanitarian landscape: heavyweights like China, Brazil and Turkey engage in cross-border humanitarian action in ways that differ from the “classic” humanitarianism of Northern donors.  Global philanthropy and the rise of “for profit” NGOs reshape the political economy of humanitarian aid. Social media and so-called “humanitarian technologies” continue to transform understandings of what disasters are, and how civilians can be aided and protected.

In the midst of this, most humanitarian assistance remains a local affair: Human rights groups, social movements and a multiplicity of faith-based organizations bring their specific rationalities to the table in their efforts to address the needs of community members and displaced individuals fleeing from crisis. And of course, for all that humanitarianism is constantly in the news, most of the time the international community is not present, or it arrives too late.

The Norwegian government and Norwegian NGOs have long been (and remain) important actors on the humanitarian stage.

Humanitarian principles are central to overall Norwegian foreign policy, and humanitarian donorship is central to the Norwegian national identity.  In 2011, funding for humanitarian issues totaled 3, 3 billion Norwegian Kroner. This constituted 12% of the Norwegian aid budget, and according to OECD/DAC, the Norwegian contribution represented around 3 % of all humanitarian aid given.  Norway is home to myriad organizations that self-define as “humanitarian”, ranging from mom-and-pop shops to the big internationally known organizations like the Norwegian Red Cross, the Norwegian Refugee Council, CARE International, Save the Children Norway, the Norwegian Peoples Aid and the Norwegian Church Aid.

These organizations work in conflict zones across the globe. While Norway’s roles in peace negotiations and in development aid have been contentious issues for some time, the channeling of these funds to the world’s emergency zones has so far been relatively uncontroversial at home.  For all Norway’s imprint around the globe there is surprisingly little public debate about humanitarian issues in Norway itself.

Based on our work in a range of conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Colombia, the Horn of Africa and the two Sudans; in post-conflict settings like Liberia and Uganda; and in the air-conditioned meeting rooms of the “humanitarian international” in New York and Geneva, our aim is to change that.