Nordic welfare humanitarianism at Nordic Branding Kick-Off Conference (June 12-13 2017)

Søren Sigfusson/

As part of the kick-off event for the Nordic Branding research project hosted by the University of Oslo on 12-13 June, Nordic researchers gathered for a round-table to explore how we, as a critical scholarly community, can make sense of the rise of Nordic welfare humanitarianism as a branding exercise, as a politics of status-seeking, and as norm entrepreneurship. Presentations aimed to unpack the attributes of humanitarianism in the Nordic political context and to trace how the ‘dark sides’ of Nordic welfare ideology have been an integral element in development.

This round-table built on the Nordic Model of welfare humanitarianism cluster at the Global Challenges – Nordic Experiences conference (UiO Nordic 2017). This cluster focused on the multiple ways in which the humanitarian frame shaped the politics of citizenship, with respect to inclusion/selection, exclusion, and ‘normalcy’, how ideas about cost and benefit equations have shifted over time, and how principles of cost-effectiveness and efficiency have been incorporated into notions of the Nordic ‘humanitarian good’, a sensibility both above and steeped in national politics.

In her keynote ‘Branding Nordic Development Cooperation’, Sunniva Engh (Associate Professor, IAKH, University of Oslo) focused on the state of historical research on the aid sector, identifying four distinct periods: 1950s, first projects; 1960s, institutionalization; 1970s, professionalization; and the 1990s, securitization. She noted several common trends and features of Nordic aid models including the increase in aid volume, the common prioritization of issues, and similarities in motivations when aid is interwoven with foreign policy initiatives. Engh identified that substantial historical research already exists in Norway as compared to Sweden and Denmark, observing that existing work was often funded by aid practitioners. Engh observed that academic work on Norway’s history coincided with political and popular ideas of the country as a ‘peace nation’ or ‘humanitarian superpower’, but pointed out that going forward there will be challenges to new research on development, as a vast amount of archival material is still classified. The actors to be studied have a self-interest in sustaining their preferred visions of the past: their willingness to place materials in national, public archives and to give interviews is often limited. Additionally, she noted, research on a broader Nordic level is challenged by the desire of each Nordic country to be construed as an individual and unique harbinger of the Nordic brand. She concluded by noting that, with development aid having a multitude of audiences, it is hard to pin down what branding’s role in aid is – and aid’s role in branding.

In his presentation ‘The Nordics and Empire’, Kristian Bjørkdahl (Post Doc Researcher, SUM, University of Oslo) considered how, even after colonialism, remnants of the relationship between the governed and the empirical power persist. Bjørkdahl’s project is to make sense of the role and relevance of the ‘colonial gaze’ in the Nordic branding of ‘peaceful nations’ and ‘peacemaker’: his point of departure is the need for interrogating the postcolonial ‘situation’ for countries who self-identify as never being colonial powers, actively branding themselves as ‘non’-colonial. Bjørkdahl’s presentation complicated their use of colonial innocence as a tool (‘exceptionalism’) in development and humanitarian aid, reflecting on what the idea of non-complicity does for identity.

Next, in her presentation ‘Nordicity and Peace’, Cecilia Bailliet (Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Oslo) took Johan Galtung’s concept of ‘positive peace’ as the starting point for reflecting on how Nordic states excelled as purveyors of peace, while in reality could be facing crisis in rule of law and basic human rights guarantees. While the locus of this concept is the enjoyment of social justice, non-discrimination and equality, Bailliet noted that much of academic attention has focused on efforts to produce negative peace, ceasefire and mediations. This has led to a lack of attention to the ‘dilemmas of positive peace’. Further, she argued that in the protection of the global human good we should not expect the poorest to shoulder the burden, and criticized the Norwegian government for amending laws in order to deny protection, for the containment of asylum seekers at detention centers, and for the bureaucratic investment in speedy deportations which is subsequently mirrored by a decrease in appeals.

Following Bailliet’s intervention and focusing on ‘Development and Gender’, Anne Hellum (Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Oslo) explored whether branding theory can help us understand any of cases where, analytically, Nordic countries have been seen in a more critical light with regards to global morals. Hellum reflected on how Nordic countries see themselves as contributors to equality and how that can be studied through multi-sited fieldwork. Thematically, Hellum’s presentation focused specifically on the political and social processes leading to the nomination of male candidates to the CEDAW committee as a coordinated effort. Based on this empirical starting point, Hellum posed a set of broader methodological questions: if there is a brand, how do we pin it down empirically? Do we see the rise of a new equality branding paradigm focusing on masculinities? What kind of exceptionalism is at play here?

Moving from gender to global health, in his presentation ‘The Ebola Crisis and Norwegian branding’, Antoine de Bengy Puyvallée (Research Assistant, SUM, University of Oslo) explored the framing of the Norwegian Ebola response, focusing on the repatriation of a Norwegian nurse working for MSF infected with Ebola as an event with a key symbolic importance. Exploring the framing of altruism and securitization, Puyvallée suggested that this event was also illustrative of linkages between the Norwegian self-image as a small, secure state and its humanitarian projects, as illustrated by the Norwegian role and visibility in field hospitals and the vaccine project. Puyvallée noted the strategic prominence of ‘branding smallness’ through the idea that Norway is ‘harmless’ and has ‘little self-interest’.

Finally, in her presentation ‘Branding Nordic Humanitarianism’,  Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (Research Professor in Humanitarian Studies, PRIO and Professor Sociology of Law, University of Oslo) focused on the dearth of critical attention given to the role and relevance of Nordic players in the global emergency sphere, in particular with respect to the rise of Nordic ‘mega’ humanitarian NGOs, such as the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Danish Refugee Council.   Sandvik focused specifically on the slippage between critical concepts and how to gauge their appropriate meaning in the Nordic context. Looking at shifting aid fads, and more specifically the turn from rights-based approaches to humanitarian innovation, ‘trade not aid’ and financialization language, Sandvik reflected on what the labels ‘neoliberal’ and ‘empire’ do in humanitarian studies of the Nordics.  Discussing the significance of the shift from paternalist talk about ‘victims’ to a focus on the need to ‘empower the customer’ (illustrated by the turn to cash), she questioned how the literature on buzzwords might be linked to branding theories in a more productive way. Drawing on Cornwall and Brock (2005), Sandvik noted that buzzwords offer the legitimacy development actors need to justify their interventions, and are used to create problem statements that inherently call for certain kinds of solutions (Cornwall and Brock 2005).

The presentations, when taken together, appear to set the stage for future methodological debates on how critique of humanitarianism is performed in the Nordic context and offer concrete examples of where the use of national and regional branding as an analytic tool can be utilized.