Call for papers: Humanitarianism challenged

Photo: WFP/Debbi Morello

Four year after the Agenda for Humanity : humanitarianism challenged
Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, 25 March 2019
Call for papers


On May 23-24th 2016, close to 9000 representatives from humanitarian agencies, governments, academics and leaders of crisis-affected communities uniquely gathered in Istanbul to address the crisis of legitimacy and capacity of the so-called humanitarian system. This even – prompted by the unprecedented refugee flows in the Middle-East and Europe – followed a series of regional consultations supposed to overcome the Western-centric nature of humanitarian assistance. Although the event did not lead to the adoption of a clear plan for institutional reform and avoid discussing contentious issues, it led to the adoption of the Agenda for Humanity, a five-point programme aiming to “outline the changes that are needed to alleviate suffering, reduce risk and lessen vulnerability on a global scale”.

The strategic areas identified build on the framing of the Sustainable Development Goals and focus on ambitious targets such as ending conflicts, upholding norms to safeguard humanity, leaving no-one behind, ending needs and investing in humanity. Four years after its adoption, this rhetorical commitment to change has made its way into the discourses and practices of humanitarian organizations. Strategies to achieve “aid localisation”, the “triple nexus” – referring to the interlinkages between humanitarian, development and peace actors – or “vulnerable people empowerment and resilience” abound, reflecting the fractures of the humanitarian system.

Yet, as humanitarian agencies focus on technical ways of implementing changes, structural challenges to global solidarity are left out from the analysis. Since 2016, attacks on humanitarian values have never seemed so acute. The rise of nationalistic and far right parties and their coming to power in Brazil, Italy or Hungary daily challenge the capacity to maintain humanitarian commitments, in particular towards migrant populations. Humanitarian law and norms are under siege in contemporary patterns of violence. The goal of “leaving no one behind” has evacuated debates on the use of the concept of vulnerabilities as a political tool to build hierarchies within crisis-affected populations. Lastly, the localisation agenda has seen crisis-affected governments exercise a stronger grip on humanitarian activities, aligning aid with their priorities and closing civil society independent space.

In this context, the objective of this conference jointly organized by Globalisation Studies Groningen, the Network on Humanitarian Action (NOHA) and the Norwegian Network on Humanitarian Studies is to unpack the political nature of the humanitarian enterprise, using the core responsibilities of the Agenda for Humanity as a starting point for the analysis. The even brings together scholars and practitioners to address the following questions:

  • How do changes in international and domestic politics alter humanitarian commitments?
  • How is the Agenda for Humanity’s narrative used to further political agenda?
  • What are the implications of the Agenda’s core responsibilities on the power dynamics shaping the humanitarian field ?

We welcome paper proposals addressing these questions and fitting with four overarching key themes:

  1. Humanitarian aid and/ in conflicts and urban violence: normative framing, political uses and impacts
  2. Humanitarianism under siege: nationalism, illiberal humanitarianism and humanitarian commitments
  3. Leaving no one behind and the political construction needs and vulnerability
  4. Unpacking the localization move: actors, dynamics and impacts

Interested participants are welcome to submit a 500 word abstract proposal addressing one of the above-mentioned themes. Abstracts should address the theme of the conference through a theoretical or empirical approach. Participants are encouraged to be explicit about a) the research question or problem structuring their contribution b) the theoretical framework of their analysis and c) their methodology. Abstracts should be submitted by email to humanitarian-conference@rug.nl.

The deadline for submitting paper is on January 6th. Decisions on acceptance will be made by January 10th. Draft papers are expected by March 15th.

After the conference the best papers / presentations will be selected by the organizing team for publication in a special issue of the Journal of International Humanitarian Action.