Humanitarian governance and localization: What kind of world is being imagined and produced?

This text first appeared on the TheGlobal and is re-posted here. The blog post draws on the introduction to a 2019 special issue on humanitarian governance by Dennis Dijkzeul and Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, ‘A world in turmoil: governing risk, establishing order in humanitarian crises’ published by Disasters.

Photo: TheGlobal

Synopsis:
While localization is high on the agenda for humanitarian actors, at present, humanitarian governance does not support the localization agenda. To understand better why, we explore three issues underpinning humanitarian governance: the problem construction, consolidation and growth of the sector, and the sorting of civilians. We conclude that the localization agenda is important, but for it to succeed a fundamental change of the humanitarian system is needed.

Introduction

Humanitarian crises conjure up a specific world of urgency and emergency populated by a set of ‘doers’: international organisations and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), heroic humanitarian workers, the military and the private sector, as well as donors. At the same time, it is well known that affected populations primarily rescue themselves, with the assistance of local civil society and host governments. Reflecting that reality, since the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, ‘localization’ of aid has become a mantra of the sector. Yet, things appear not to be going so well. In this blog we try to provide conceptual pointers for explaining why. In line with Michael Barnett’s insight that humanitarian governance voluntarily or involuntarily produces or contributes to some kind of societal order, we ask in this blog what kind of order is being imagined and produced through humanitarian governance in relation to the localization agenda.

In general, there are two versions of humanitarian governance in circulation: the narrow version is concerned with the provision of immediate relief to human suffering. This traditional humanitarianism does not attempt to politically change the world or take a position on conflicts, but instead uses the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence to gain access to people in need and alleviate their suffering. In this sense, it operates as a stopgap measure: it only addresses needs and does not judge openly the conflict that causes the suffering. The second and more extensive interpretation signifies a broader concern for human welfare and incorporates political change to address the root causes of suffering through human rights, conflict resolution, emancipatory movements, and development cooperation.

In everyday practice and discourse, both interpretations of humanitarian governance are used in parallel, which leads to confusion or disagreement about the goals and roles of humanitarian action. This also means that what we mean by localization is essentially unclear. To illuminate the implications of this discrepancy, we consider three critical issues for the localization agenda, namely: humanitarian problem construction, the consolidation and growth of the sector, and the sorting of civilians.

The paradoxes of top-down humanitarian problem constructions

Once a humanitarian emergency is declared, it then shapes not only who is supposed to act but what is supposed to be done. Humanitarian problem construction involves the conceptualization of social and political needs, crises, and risks as ‘humanitarian problems’; it also entails new and/or expanded conceptualizations of humanitarian suffering that call on humanitarians to be present on the ground with their staff, values, and toolkits; carrying with it the assumption that humanitarians and their toolkits are relevant, useful, and welcome. Underpinning and reinforcing this emphasis on emergency is the invention and promulgation of a technical vocabulary. For example, while we have now become accustomed to the use of ‘L3’ as a way of describing the worst emergencies, it is only from the introduction of ‘L’ levels in the UN humanitarian reform of 2011 that L3 has worked as a global symbol to designate the most serious level of crisis and help humanitarians create a globally stratified map of emergencies.

So far, the localization agenda has not substantially altered the conceptualization of social and political needs, nor of crises and risk. To push the localization agenda forward, humanitarian governance should pay more attention to local definitions of crises, risks and ‘appropriate’ aid, so that humanitarian problems are no longer just defined by professionals, who then control the planning and distribution of resources.

In a similar vein, we are witnessing the persistence of a classic problem of humanitarian action, namely that the humanitarian sector legitimizes its interventions by producing higher numbers of both individuals in need and concomitant funding needs to legitimate humanitarian requests and interventions. This includes, for example, the mortality surveys in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Iraq; contestations over maternal deaths; the 2005 non-famine in Niger; exaggerated population counts in refugee camps and more recently talk about ‘unprecedented numbers of refugees. This has a paradoxical effect on the humanitarian sector.

On the one hand, the very limited funding for local NGOs is also increasingly recognized as a structural impediment to localization. Data released in the 2017 Global Humanitarian Assistance report showed that funding for local NGOs stayed very low, at 0.3 per cent of tracked funding. Even when all local stakeholders are added together, including governments, they still only accounted for two per cent of funding. On the other hand, the identification of unmet needs led to continuous expansion among international NGOs, a kind of ongoing mission creep, which is an inadvertent consequence in line with the expansive nature of risk. These categories and numbers leave the humanitarian sector in the double bind that it is not doing enough while simultaneously being too expansive. In both cases, it is falling short of its own and external normative expectations. The mortality surveys in the DRC, for instance, showed a degree of suffering that was unprecedented, but also led to debates about their validity and impact as a justification for the expansion of humanitarian aid.

Consolidation and growth: where is the local?

In general, multi-mandate organizations follow the broader interpretation of humanitarian governance and thus address a broader array of problems, including the prevention of crises and linking relief and development. The presence of different interpretations of governance has not stopped and has probably facilitated the humanitarian sector’s growth and rapid consolidation over the last three decades. Overall, the humanitarian ‘industry’ handled $27.3 billion in 2016, a six per cent increase on 2015. The largest humanitarian NGOs now have thousands of employees and annual turnover of many millions of dollars. While the consolidation and growth of the humanitarian enterprise can be seen as a success story for the humanitarian industry as such, the gap between available resources and perceived humanitarian needs is portrayed as growing continually wider. Several scholars have pointed out that this endemic and multi-faceted response ‘gap’—with respect to funding, technical capacity, material goods, humanitarian access, or political will—is the product of efforts to construct (and not discover) meaning. For example, it takes analytical labor to define and construct humanitarians as ‘becoming unprepared or ‘unfit for purpose.” Humanitarian actors are apt at describing and presenting ‘gaps’ as fundamental threats to addressing needs and/or constructing a more humane world order. Once again, local perspectives on this issue require more attention.

The sorting of civilians

A final issue which affects the meaning of localization concerns the sorting of civilians, which is currently in large part shaped by considerations of risk and security as emanating from the global war on terror and extremism. In qualitative terms, not only the language used to describe the intended recipients of aid (victims, beneficiaries, communities in crisis, clients, target groups, people in need, survivors, or customers) but also the categories of protected civilians and the calculus of suffering deployed to sort and select protectable civilians are in continuous flux. Generally, the 1990s and 2000s saw a continuous expansion of legal and political victim categories, such as internally displaced person (IDPs), and this expansion continues with a discursive broadening of sexual violence as a key mode of categorizing ‘humanitarian victims’, as it happened in Bosnia and the DRC, for example.

Importantly, a countertrend that is enabled both by the risk politics of humanitarianism and the turn to technology is the parallel turn to resilience thinking and the sorting of ‘protectable’ civilians, which increasingly represents a shrinking of the categories of civilians that receive protection. In particular, resilience thinking puts the onus of responsibility for being prepared for, or able to cope with, crises more on local actors than on international ones, which can lead to a shrinking of the categories of people that receive protection or other forms of aid. Yet, when the capacities of these local actors need to be strengthened, this nevertheless leads to an expansion of capacity-building activities by international organizations involved in humanitarian work.

Conclusion

In sum, the way that humanitarian governance orders the humanitarian field in terms of problem construction, consolidation and expansion, as well as with sorting of civilians, does not yet support the localization agenda. The localization agenda is important but if it is to be taken seriously, it needs to go hand in hand with a far more fundamental change of the humanitarian system than has happened so far.