Author Archives: Robert Sjursen

When humanitarian action becomes politics

Humanitarian action is used and abused in super power politics, by governments, the media and NGO’s themselves. The way a crisis is defined, frames the response of the international society. –Afghanistan was the first major attempt by the international community to reframe a conflict to suit the needs of Western powers. Humanitarian action was integrated in a political mission. But the idea that you can incorporate humanitarian action into political agendas usually backfires, says Antonio Donini from the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University.

Read the full interview here.

 

The Unspoken in Kabul: What does the future hold for humanitarian actors?

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On the day that the UN announced the number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan has fallen for the first time in six years, NCHS hosted a lively and interesting panel debate on the contemporary and future state of humanitarianism in the country (19th February). Based on a recently published report from the Feinstein Center, Afghanistan: Humanitarianism in Uncertain Times, the event took stock of the current humanitarian challenges in Afghanistan as well as how humanitarian actors can prepare for the forthcoming 2014 withdrawal of ISAF forces.  Panelists included Antonio Donini from the Feinstein Center and co-author of the report, academics from SOAS and CMI, and senior representatives from the Norwegian MFA, the Norwegian Red Cross and the Norwegian Refugee Council.

In a packed room at PRIO composed of Afghans, practitioners and policy-makers, Antonio Donini outlined the legacy of decades of international involvement in Afghanistan. Remarking on the similarities with the Soviet withdrawal from the country in 1989, Donini asked, what has been achieved? He noted that the human development indicators make somber reading after a decade of international engagement since the fall of the Taliban and millions of dollars of aid.  He observed that a unique feature of the Afghan situation is that all major donors are also belligerents, including Norway.

Having been invited to discuss possible scenarios for Afghanistan come 2014 and the need to engage in serious contingency planning, there was general agreement among panelists concerning a set of key issues: the re-categorization of the Afghan situation from “post-conflict” to “humanitarian crisis” around 2008 was very belated and had important implications for humanitarian strategies and policy.  The (marginalized) role of UN agencies and accessibility to various parts of the country remains a challenge. The withdrawal of ISAF forces is seen for some humanitarian actors as a positive development but perceived by panelists with varying degrees of apprehension. There was widespread agreement that there is also an acute need to address Afghanistan’s youth bulge.

Despite some agreement across the six panelists, there were strikingly different perspectives on what has and hasn’t been achieved in Afghanistan and what will come next for both ordinary Afghans and humanitarian organizations.  Some panelists suggested that it was not all doom and gloom, while others were more cautious.

Donini reflected on the fact that humanitarian response had not been overly successful in Afghanistan. The Norwegian Refugee Council described humanitarians as having achieved “remarkably little progress”. However, pointing to the successful work of local organizations in the more stable regions of the country, CMI argued that there were distinctly positive aspects to build on for the country’s future.

The lack of open discussions about contingency planning at the UN level was described by one participant as “the unspoken in Kabul, the elephant in the room”. There is a continuing bunkerization mentality within Kabul and agencies were reluctant to admit that their access is limited. On the positive side, 2014 will offer opportunities for looking more carefully at what negotiated access will mean and broader acceptance of the Taliban as a partner around the table. There is also the possibility that the ISAF withdrawal will undermine the Taliban’s main message of fighting a foreign force. Increasingly, the group will have to ask themselves what they now offer the population beyond attacking foreign troops. Humanitarians will also have to ask themselves difficult questions. As pointed out by a member of the audience, there cannot be an assumption that humanitarian actors (especially international) are actually welcome across the country. For many Afghans, they have already overstayed their welcome and humanitarians need to think carefully about what their future contribution to Afghan society can be.

As other countries scale down their funding, the Norwegian MFA repeated its commitment to maintain its funding for humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.  The MFA emphasized that it saw humanitarian aid as distinct from the Norwegian participation in ISAF. The focus of the Norwegian efforts would be on generating resilience through local capacity building.

In a comment, the SOAS participant, who is also an Afghan national, questioned why pour funding into capacity building now?   He also wondered why none of the other speakers had mentioned the role of the Afghan state which strongly asserts – at least rhetorically – its sovereignty and desire to actively participate in relieving poverty and suffering across the country.  He also described the humanitarian debate about a lack of access as slightly naïve: Afghani politics is about deal making and leveraging resources; humanitarian, drug related or otherwise.

He expressed concern at the militarization of rural Afghanistan as villages and communities are being armed as part of the ISAF withdrawal strategy.  Yet, he suggested that doom and gloom humanitarians also need to question their own contribution to the military Armageddon narrative: “As soon as we pull out, everything will go to hell. But while we were there, things held together”.

Somewhat surprisingly, there was no generally shared apprehension about insecurity.  The Norwegian Red Cross expressed concern about a decreased capacity to deliver as security deteriorates and international contributions to Afghanistan are reduced.  According to CMI, local Afghan NGOs will probably continue to work quite effectively with local populations. It was suggested that only certain kinds of humanitarians – those with foreign funding, dual citizenship or who financially benefit from disseminating a ‘worst-case scenario’ narrative – engaged in doomsday scenarios.  Local staff, particularly in the northern part of the country, focused on getting their job done with quality and politeness as keywords. While there had been a radical under-investment in peaceful areas with the bulk of funding going to Afghanistan’s conflict zones, there was eagerness in Afghan society to move forward.

A final point of discussion brought up by panelists and by young Afghans in the audience was the potential role of the emergent generation of young Afghans.  Afghani society has irrevocably changed and social media has become an integrated part of everyday life. What kind of space for leveraging social changed can be carved out between the traditional political elite, the warlords and the “NGOized” groups of privileged civil society actors?

A Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies?

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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.

Sudan: Beyond Repair? The Role of Foreign Involvement in the Shaping and Implementation of the Sudan Comprehensive Peace Agreement

Rolandsen ØH (2013) Sudan: Beyond Repair? The Role of Foreign Involvement in the Shaping and Implementation of the Sudan Comprehensive Peace Agreement. In: Eriksson M and Kostic R (eds) Mediation and Liberal Peacebuilding: Peace from the Ashes of War? Routledge.

Descriptions

This book offers a state-of-the-art examination of peacemaking, looking at its theoretical assumptions, empirical applications and its consequences.

Despite the wealth of research on external interventions and practices of Western peacebuilding, many scholars tend to rely on findings in the so-called ‘post-agreement’ phase of interventions. As a result, most mainstream peacebuilding literature pays limited or no attention to the linkages that exist between mediation practices in the negotiation phase and processes in the post-peace agreement phase of intervention.

By linking the motives and practices of interveners during negotiation and implementation phases into a more integrated theoretical framework, this book makes a unique contribution to the on-going debate on the so-called Western ‘liberal’ models of peacebuilding. Drawing upon in-depth case-studies from various different regions of the world including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Sudan, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Sierra Leone, this innovative volume examines a variety of political motives behind third party interventions, thus challenging the very founding concept of mediation literature.

This book will of much interest to students of peacebuilding, statebuilding, peacemaking, war and conflict studies, security studies and IR in general.

The book is available here.

The knowledge battlefield of protection

Sande Lie, J. H. ( 2012) “The Knowledge Battlefield of Protection” in African Security, Vol. 5, Issue 3-4.

Abstract

Drawing on fieldwork from different operational levels of UNMIS, this article moves beyond the formal renderings of the protection of civilians. It explores protection as a discursive battlefield of knowledge in which different actors vie over its meaning and moral affiliation. There exists no unambiguous definition of what protection means and entails in practice. Rather, the protection discourse is interpreted contextually drawing on involved actors’ mandate and institutional culture. This protection battlefield transcends its humanitarian legacy and reflects a discourse relinquishing its erstwhile regulatory hold over conceptual and practical borders, once separating the various segments of the international community.

Complete article available here.

Worlds of Human Rights. The Ambiguities of Rights Claiming in Africa

Bill Derman, Anne Hellum and Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (Eds.) (Forthcoming 2013) Afrika-Studiecentrum Series, BRILL

This book engages with contemporary African human rights struggles including land, property, gender equality and legal identity. Through ethnographic field studies it situates claims-making by groups and individuals that have been subject to injustices and abuses, often due to different forms of displacement, in specific geographical, historical and political contexts. Exploring local communities’ complexities and divided interests it addresses the ambiguities and tensions surrounding the processes whereby human rights have been incorporated into legislation, social and economic programs, legal advocacy, land reform, and humanitarian assistance. It shows how existing relations of inequality, domination and control are affected by the opportunities offered by emerging law and governance structures as a plurality of non-state actors enter what previously was considered the sole regulatory domain of the nation state.

The politics and Possibilities of Victim Making in International Law

Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora (2012) Revista Da Faculdade De Direito Do Sul De Minas 27(2),

The need to deal with the human consequences of conflict and violence remains a key challenge in global governance. As a result human experiences of suffering have become core concerns for international law in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Imageries of human suffering have also become central to the idea of universalized justice which finds its particular expression in the areas of human rights, humanitarianism and international criminal law. Since the early 1990s, a proliferating number of international and national tribunals, commissions and administrative entities have been created to deal with the need for legal protection for displaced individuals, transitional justice, and restoration and allocation of criminal responsibility in the aftermath of internal and international conflict.

Through a conceptual inquiry of how victim statuses are produced and allocated in international law, this paper aims to contribute to a richer socio‑legal understanding of the role of law in victim‑making in global governance.

Keywords: Global legal liberalism; Victims; Transitional justice; Human rights; International humanitarian law; International criminal law; Narratives of suffering; Testimony.

Negotiating the Humanitarian Past: History, Memory, and Unstable Cityscapes in Kampala, Uganda

Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora (2012) Refugee Survey Quarterly 31(1): 108–122.

This article provides an ethnographic account of how urban refugees and legal protection officers from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Kampala, Uganda compete to define the present by way of a struggle to manage the past. Taking the bonds between the visible and invisible cityscapes of Kampala as a focal point for the inquiry, the article juxtaposes the practices involved in recording official history with the scattered memories circulating in Kampala’s urban refugee community.

The article shows how urban refugee governance is produced through bureaucratic records of the past, regulatory practices, and the politics of exclusion. It reconstructs refugees’ experiences of rejection and mistreatment as physical mappings of Kampala, in which the creation and closure of urban spaces give meaning to the idea of “protection space” and urban refugeehood. The ambition is to begin to develop a critique of urban refugee management by outlining a “shadowgraphy” of Kampala from the perspective of the urban displaced.