Do you speak humanitarian?

By Simon Reid-Henry, Associate Professor in the School of Geography at Queen Mary, University of London & PRIO affiliate

I’m delighted to be invited to the launch of round two of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies today in Oslo, with the establishment of a new network on humanitarian efforts.

There are now over half a million humanitarian professionals and between 2,500 and 4,500 organisations. This according to the event plenary – “Unravelling Humanitarian Concepts” –  delivered by Doris Schopper, the director of CERAH in Geneva. Over the past few years, Schopper has been leading an initiative to develop an online “humanitarian encyclopaedia” to try and bring some coherence to this congeries of actors (you can read more about their work here). But does the humanitarian sector actually need more ‘coordinating’ and more uniformity, as we are often told? Well, yes and no. As Schopper points out, there is today more than ever before an almost unmanageable diversity of cultural, disciplinary and organisational backgrounds within the humanitarian sector (just compare the leviathan like ICRC with the niche ‘pop up’ outfits that have arisen in response to the refugee crisis). Her point is that humanitarianism lacks a common “language” by which means these actors might more usefully “communicate”. 

But diversity is key too. In a way that is what the humanitarian sector best does: it fills in the cracks. And to ensure that this effort to find a common humanitarian language doesn’t ultimately descend into the usual tropes of global ‘governance’ I think also this felt need for unification and professionalisation needs resisting to some degree. For example, Schopper points out that there are 63 different definitions of resilience. This is a problem, she suggests. Arguably the greater problem here, however, is that resilience, as a meta concept, is so broad and influential that it can sustain 63 overlapping definitions (John Rawls and Martha Nussbaum be warned). 

For my money, one of the more interesting things to come from Schopper’s talk was the way to which (a) disciplinary and institutional backgrounds shape the extent to which people agree on basic concepts (anyone who has done interdisciplinary research will confirm that!); and (b) that the sources of people’s conceptual knowledge are worryingly – and conversely – very similar. Over 35 per cent of respondents in the surveys that Schopper and her colleagues undertook in the process of building their encyclopedia, for example, took their understanding of the word “humanity” from Wikipedia (Humanity Journal’s editorial collective also be warned). That’s another away goal for Wikipedia contra the academy. 

Surely the more salient point here is that this conceptual confusion – a “lack of coherence” and “blurred messages” as Schopper puts it, or “boundary work” as those schooled in Science Studies would more likely say – is precisely what the humanitarian sector does want. It allows them to get on with their own work as they see fit, not as others see fit: least of all those they seek to assist. Interestingly, in a section on ‘salient concepts’ used by humanitarian actors there was no mention at all of concepts like ‘care’ or ‘assistance’ in the category of most frequently used concepts. Rather, everything was about organisational good practice and ‘accountability’. No surprises there, perhaps – but this is revealing all the same.

As one of the audience members observed at this point, this is also a powerful reminder of the power of institutions to shape the way that knowledge is used – a point my earlier work on institutions and innovation has emphasised. And it raises, in turn, the problem of intellectual language. An example of this, and it also cropped up in the discussion, is the following: is what we are after in humanitarianism more “convergence” or more “understanding”? The former is corporate prattle mostly; the latter is more socially-enframed – and stronger for it. In other words, the question is less ‘who speaks humanitarian?’ but ‘what they are speaking when they do so?’: what is the humanitarian agenda in other words? This was apparent from another question, which raised the point that the emergence and contestation of concepts is not always an intellectual but frequently an ideological process. Both practical issues (one’s institutional standing, the political associations of certain terms) and political matters (e.g. neoliberal demands for ‘efficiency’ or even geo-strategy) play a role. As the audience member added, you can define “civil society” however you want, but a Russian state interlocutor will still likely frown on the term from the get-go. 

Nonetheless these are some important findings here and I think this work is going to be a touchstone reference for debates over humanitarianism going forward (it certainly adds to recent scholarly discussions like those in Past & Present on the matter of humanitarian historiography). If you want to find out more you can do so here. The work is based on content analysis of an impressive 478 Strategy and general document publications between 2005 and 2017. One of the things they hope to come out of it is a Humanitarian Encyclopaedia. I can see how that sort of intellectual “field guide” could be extremely useful. Then again, the politics of conceptual knowledge goes somewhat beyond this. The fuller work is available here: at HumanitarianEncyclopedia.org and you can follow updates at @HumanEncyclo.

This blogpost was first posted on the authors’ own blog:
https://www.simonreidhenry.com/blog/