Author Archives: Emily Hume

New edited collection of citizen-led humanitarian initiatives at European borders just published

A new edited volume bringing together a collection of contributions and case studies focusing on citizen-led humanitarian initiatives at European borders has just been published.

This exciting volume titled ‘Citizen Humanitarianism at European Borders’ is edited by NCHS Co-Director Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert (Peace Research Institute Oslo) and Elisa Pascucci (University of Helsinki).

“At a time of escalating tensions between states and NGOs engaged in migrant search and rescue operations across the Mediterranean, as well as in places where migrants have been kept in limbo, our book explores the emerging trend of citizen‑led forms of helping others at the borders of Europe”, Maria said.

​This book sets out to interrogate the shifting relationship between humanitarianism, the securitization of border and migration regimes, and citizenship. Critically examining the “do it yourself” character of refugee aid practices performed by non-professionals coming together to help in informal and spontaneous manners, the volume considers the extent to which these new humanitarian practices challenge established conceptualisations of membership, belonging, and active citizenship.

This book is key reading for advanced students and researchers of humanitarian aid, European migration and refugees, and citizen-led activism.

This volume is the result of a Research Council of Norway funded research project, ‘Humanitarianism, Borders and the Governance of Mobility: the EU and the ‘Refugee Crisis’’. You can find out more about this edited volume on the publishers website here.

NCHS set to contribute to world summit on frontline humanitarian negotiation

Humanitarian negotiation practitioners, scholars, policy makers and donors from across the world are set to descend on the village of Caux in Switzerland to take part in the World Summit on Frontline Humanitarian Negotiation from 28 June to 3 July.

Hosted by the Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation (CCHN), participants will gather to discuss the most challenging present-day issues related to humanitarian negotiation. The summit features a panel discussion with humanitarian leaders, peer workshops and live simulations, as well as opportunities to meet and exchange with other participants in interactive rooms and a virtual exhibit hall.

We are very pleased that this year the line-up also includes NCHS Director and Research Professor at the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), Antonio De Lauri, along with CMI Doctoral Researcher and contributor to the NCHS, Salla Turunen who will present their research on Humanitarian Diplomacy.

As part of their contributions, Antonio and Salla will hold three presentations on the topic ‘Between right and wrong: Humanitarian morality and necessary politics of compromise’, in the context of humanitarian diplomacy and negotiation.

As part of the joint NCHS and CMI virtual exhibition booth, Antonio and Salla have recorded an introductory video discussing their research on humanitarian diplomacy and welcoming participants to the different elements of the permanent exhibition. There will also be a range of humanitarian diplomacy related publications on offer, including popular dissemination items, policy-related publications and academic publications.

To round out, Antonio and Salla also present a podcast discussing the topic of humanitarian diplomacy and the ethics of humanitarianism, available on Spotify here.

As well the physical event in Caux, the summit will also be livestreamed on an interactive platform, making participating from anywhere in the world not only possible but also highly engaging.

There is still time to register if you would like to be involved what promises to be a very informative and engaging event. You can download a copy of the program here. For more information and to register, click here. Registrations close 24 June 2021.

Is Russia moving towards a compromise on humanitarian aid to Syria?

The United Nations Security Council is set to make a decision on the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid to Syria by 10 July. The decision comes almost one year on from the compromised extension to Resolution 2533, which approved the delivery of aid into Syria through the Bab al-Hawa crossing for a further year.

Russia is again at the centre of contention and the primary focus of the discord is again the delivery of aid through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing into the rebel-controlled Idlib province. Many stakeholders are worried that Moscow might insist on closing the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the quasi-legalistic grounds of upholding Syria’s sovereignty and thus block a new extension of Resolution 2533.

In this latest blog for the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) Middle East Centre, Research Professor Pavel Baev argues there may be good reason to now believe Russia is maneuvering towards a compromise supporting the extension of Resolution 2533.

Baev argues the context of the issue has changed for Moscow since 2020, and points to a difference in the situation in Syria, the sharp escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in April-May, and the stabilisation of the situation around the rebel-controlled Idlib province as having changed the context of the Syrian issue from Moscow’s point of view.

Read Pavel Baev’s full blog post here.

Kristin Bergtora Sandvik to present at upcoming webinar ‘politics of digital humanitarianism’

New digital technologies offer the potential to resolve many challenges that may impede humanitarian efforts. However, technologies also have a political dimension and can have unintended harmful consequences.

The Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict (IFHV) at Ruhr University Bochum (RUB) is hosting a webinar to explore this important topic and discuss how digital technologies transform humanitarianism.

Among the speakers, is the NCHS’s Professor Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, Research Professor in Humanitarian Studies at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and Professor, Faculty of Law at the University of Oslo. Sandvik will share her insights on the development “Towards an extractive humanitarianism”.

Sandvik will be joined by Dr. Delf Rothe from the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy (IFSH) at the University of Hamburg, who will present his research on “Digital humanitarianism and the governance of refugee camps”.

This webinar will take place on Friday 25 June from 3.00pm to 4.30pm (CEST). Please register here to join what promises to be a very interesting discussion.

When the storm subsides: What happened to grassroots initiatives assisting refugees?

Written by

This blog was originally published on BlISS, the blog of the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) and is re-posted here. Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert is a Senior Researcher and Research Director at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and Co-director of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies.

Image: The International Institute of Social Studies (ISS)

Back in 2015, cardboard placards bearing the words ‘Refugees Welcome’ that were shown in public spaces became an important way for ordinary European citizens to demonstrate solidarity with refugees and other migrants arriving en masse in Europe at the time. Citizen-led initiatives staffed by volunteers mushroomed, providing crucial assistance to refugees when humanitarian organisations were surprised and overwhelmed. But has something changed over the years as the amount of refugees entering Europe became smaller? What happened to these smaller grassroots initiatives as state and professional humanitarian actors gradually took over?

The arrival of migrants to Europe during the summer of 2015 and in the succeeding months saw massive political attention and media coverage at the time due to the sheer scale of the influx. Also remarkable was the widespread mobilisation of volunteers who helped refugees during and after their arduous journeys. Besides those initiatives led by civil society networks, many of the volunteers were ordinary citizens who had never or rarely been involved in volunteer initiatives before. They mobilised across Europe to provide basic assistance to refugees traversing Europe in a number of ways, for example in the form of food, shelter, clothes, access to Wi-Fi, and access to electrical outlets for charging mobile phones.

As the number of people wanting to help grew rapidly, it became necessary to organise volunteers and create structures. And so a flurry of new organisations arose in 2015 in Greece, the north of France around Calais, as well as in Paris – and basically in most of the European countries receiving an increased number of refugees between 2015 and 2016. Yet, as government policies on migration became increasingly strict and as fewer refugees arrived – at least to other European countries than Greece, where those who’ve made it there have mostly been stuck – what has become of these initiatives?

Following two of the main Norwegian volunteer initiatives created in 2015 can give us an insight into different paths some of these organisations have taken. Refugees Welcome Norway (RWN) and A Drop in the Ocean (Dråpen i Havet – DiH ) are two initiatives who took quite different paths, with one assisting refugees arriving in Norway and the other one organising volunteers to go help in Greece. Refugees Welcome Norway became the umbrella organisation for most of the spontaneous volunteer efforts that popped up, first in Oslo, and then across several other cities in Norway. It took its name from other similar organisations that were being formed in Germany and most other European countries at the time.

A Drop in the Ocean was created by a Norwegian woman with personal connections to Greece and who had jumped on the first possible plane to Athens in late August 2015 after having grown increasingly frustrated following radio debates on exactly what number of refugees Norway might take in. She saw many others wanting to follow suit. The initiative quickly started attracting many more volunteers, first from Norway, and then from a range of other countries as well, who wanted to go to Greece and “do something” to help the refugees arriving there. Over the years, it has become a rather well-respected NGO among those organisations doing humanitarian work on the Greek mainland and islands.

Fewer refugees arriving and other actors taking over

The context in which the two initiatives emerged changed over the next year – albeit in different ways. In Norway, fewer refugees arrived from 2016 onwards, primarily due to reinforced border controls, the returning of asylum seekers to Russia (who had crossed over to Norway at its northern border with Russia), and increased restrictions on family reunification. While RWN for a couple of weeks in August and September 2015 was busy providing basic assistance to those waiting in front of the police registration office, itself unprepared for these new arrivals, a new reception and registration office established by the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration by mid-October meant that immediate assistance became the responsibility of the state in collaboration with the Norwegian Red Cross.

In Greece, the situation changed in a different way: fewer refugees and other migrants arrived from March 2016 onwards following the entering into force of the EU-Turkey agreement – yet some boats still arrived in varying numbers in the subsequent years. More importantly, Greece’s border to Europe was sealed off, and those having arrived on the islands were prevented from moving further. For the volunteers in place, the work shifted from reception on the beaches to working in the various ‘camps’ that had been established on the islands. While many more established humanitarian organisations by then had set up their own operations, DiH felt its support was still needed.

Two paths: a preparedness structure in case of a “next refugee crisis” and a professionalising humanitarian organisation

The two organisations developed in different ways over the years, both adapting to changing needs, as well as to varying levels of volunteer ‘supply’, yet both continuing to be characterised by volunteering, either as a political force for change or as individuals contributing to benevolent acts at different levels. As fewer migrants actually reached Norway, the then-leaders of RWN shifted their attention to political lobbying – notably against the government’s forced returns of migrants to Russia. Others involved in RWN in 2015 and 2016 in the meantime launched other local initiatives, which can be read as direct spin-offs from the activities of RWN in the early days: from neighbourhood integration projects (offering the possibility to act as contact points for newly arrived refugees in volunteers’ neighbourhoods) to a second-hand shop handing out clothes to those in need. Several key leaders of RWN also drew on the structure that had been established earlier, with local chapters emerging in multiple cities and common systems made ready to organise, recruit, and deploy volunteers should the number refugees and other migrants rise again.

DiH developed in a different way: it sought to develop itself into a professional humanitarian organisation, all the while not replicating the undesirable sides of the sector. The organisation in many ways sees itself as a reaction to these, i.e. to the formalised structures and bureaucracy plaguing professional humanitarian organisations. When I visited their facilities on the outskirts of Athens a few years ago, they would stress how DiH volunteers were directly interacting with the refugees, getting to know them, as opposed to officials of international organisations who were too busy with paperwork inside their bunker offices. DiH has also become more involved in political lobbying in recent years, in particular towards the Norwegian government and decision-makers, for example by organising awareness campaigns to draw attention to the dire conditions of refugees in the Moria camp and other similar places, or by pressuring Norway to accept more refugees from Greece.

What both organisations have had in common is a strong emphasis on their origins as “popular movements”, based on a multitude of spontaneous desires to “do something” to help out. While formalising their structures, professionalising and adapting to changing needs, they continue to stress that it “should be easy to help”. Both of them have also over these years developed new volunteer recruitment strategies designed precisely to continue to “make it easy”, and to attract new volunteers when these were no longer coming in in large numbers.

Challenging humanitarian practices?

These benevolent acts can be understood both as emerging out of a desire or “need” to help fellow human beings in vulnerable situations (as such identifying primarily as humanitarian acts), as well as acts meant to protest against the non-action or insufficient response by the state and professional humanitarian organisations (as such self-defining as part of a broader social or political movement). Many initiatives started as the former, and evolved into the latter – with many of these volunteers arguing about the impossibility of remaining neutral and apolitical in the face of the injustices lived by the migrants. The intersection between humanitarian needs and protection needs, as well acts of helping out amidst state-led efforts to keep migrants away, makes this an interesting microcosm – also to study what is required for humanitarian aid to be precisely that – a humanitarianism based on humanity and impartiality. While most of the volunteer-based responses to the situation arising in 2015 have evolved into socially and politically engaged initiatives and have defined their actions as “humanitarian” to varying degrees, they nevertheless continue to challenge how humanitarian responses should be understood and practiced in highly politicised contexts.


This blog post is based on an article titled ‘Making It “Easy to Help”: The Evolution of Norwegian Volunteer Initiatives for Refugees’ that was published in International Migration. The article can be accessed freely here.

The datafication of refugee protection in and beyond the Middle East: A case for digital refugee lawyering

Written by

In February and March 2021, I organised a two-part workshop in which academics, activists, lawyers and NGO-workers were invited to (re)think how digital technologies interact with refugee protection, specifically in the Middle East. Refugee protection – the right to be protected from persecution and the right to make claims to these rights in another country – is increasingly data-driven protection. The increased pluralisation and privatisation of migration management interact with widespread experimental deployment of humanitarian technology. In regard to border and migration governance, governments and UN agencies are developing emerging digital technologies in ways that are ‘dangerous and discriminatory’.

Discussions of digital rights of refugees are key, because getting their privacy wrong can have disastrous consequences. Digital technologies also interact with refugee law, for instance by reconstituting what counts as legal knowledge. And the same technologies – biometric information and automated technologies – are also increasingly used for pre-emptive border controls further narrowing the right to seek refuge and future rights of refugees. Here I consider some important concerns and potential directions for doing differently, derived from the workshop, before I make a case for digital refugee lawyering.  

Concerns about data-driven refugee protection

The workshop’s geographical focus relates to the relatively large presence of refugee populations in Middle Eastern protection contexts and the complex legal interplay pertaining to the roles (and immunity) that International Organisations have taken on regarding refugee rights, in interaction with governments, private entities, implementing partners and donors. Limited regulations combined with a dwindling of funding and the push for efficiency and ‘objectivity’ by external stakeholders has contributed to experimental technology-use, such as the use of iris-scanning technologies, automated vulnerability assessments and cash-assistance via block-chain technology. Humanitarian operations in Jordan and Lebanon are known for innovation and datafication of relief. Geographical areas that receive less humanitarian and academic attention are perhaps also prime locations for technological experimentation.

Recently, there has been more attention for data protection in humanitarian settings. International organizations have developed their own data protection policies. But matters such as limited information provided to data subjects, widespread (meta)data sharing and the permanence of data are persisting as is the presumption that a digital identity would result into a legal identity. Concerns about the use of data beyond its original purposes, cyber (in)security, and algorithm’s tendencies for entrenching structural inequalities also remain.

The increased usage of ‘new’ technologies can cloud that technologies have long been used in refugee management and already often simultaneously imposed control. For instance, physical copies of UNHCR’s Refugee Status Determination handbook were never made accessible, for concern that refugees would use them to ‘game’ the system. Current emphasis on data extraction and biometrics closely resemble colonial governance and its racialised exceptionalism. And some refugee communities have longstanding histories of being experimented on.

What is new is the persistence of data, their accessibility over distance and the ability to continuously reassemble data. Technologies can enable urban refugee settings to become camp-like environments by installing modes of surveillance and control. Digital transformations are not confined to refugee governance. But experimentations in humanitarian settings often provide normative and scientific affirmation for technological-driven measures and relate to larger macro-political developments, including anti-migration tendencies and bio-tracing efforts to control Covid-19.

Greater and inclusive techno-legal consciousness

The involvement of private sector and big tech often creates opacity. Across the board, there is need for greater techno-legal consciousness and more knowledge on the back-end of technological infrastructure, on how data can be (mis)used, exploited and misappropriated and how the activities of private partners – including but going beyond Palantir, IrisGuard, Accenture – oscillate between border control and humanitarian operations. Such private partnerships raise questions about normative frameworks used within UN organisations. Committed humanitarian operations might be dedicated to not sharing data, but it is questionable whether involved third parties will uphold the same standards.

This not an argument for more handbooks, for there is often a gap between guidelines produced in Brussels or Geneva and actual data practices by humanitarian workers and this can easily result in more work pressure in the ‘field’. Persisting hierarchical work cultures, fear that admitting mistakes would result in loss (jobs, funding) and the need to tell success stories continue to make learning from the past difficult.

Academics, activists, affected populations, the tech community, practitioners, and policymakers ought to join their efforts. This includes being mindful to the politics of translation, language and accessibility to knowledge. Concerned populations are actively involved in negotiating safety, also concerning their data use, but meaningful consent and access to necessary information. From the outset people on the move, trusted local researchers and communities already working on these topics ought to be involved in discussions on digital rights spaces. In the tech community emphasis is often put on removing biases whereas in refugee law, personal information and characteristics are crucial to determine the credibility of a claim. Such and other differences need to be recognised and addressed.

Implementing partners, headquartered in the EEA, are since 2018 required to follow the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). GDPR also applies to personal data collected from people beyond Europe. It does not apply to International Organisations. Workshop participants noted that the GDPR did not result in substantive changes in how data is collected, stored, and processed: other NGOs, not bound by GDPR, would be asked to do the work. Many countries across the globe have their own national frameworks for data protection, but these are not always enforced as GDPR would be. Data protection policies can also be (mis)used for government control.

Donors tend to push for efficiency and a logic of audit but have rather minimal requirement for data protection and technology-oriented programs. And claims about the functionality of technologies in humanitarian relief are hardly ever questioned or evaluated. It is therefore noteworthy that in April 2021 a European parliament member asked why the EU, by funding the WFP and UNHCR’s biometric identity systems for refugee registration in Jordan, was approving standards that within the EU would be deemed ethically unacceptable. This question will hopefully be taken forward. 

A case for digital refugee lawyering

Discussions on rights easily turn into discursive dances around responsibilities and sovereignty that do not relate to realities on the ground. The concept of digital refugee lawyering I put forward therefore perceives digital rights as a negotiated practice. It not only considers how technologies interact with the already precarious access to rights that is reality to many forced and illegalised migrants worldwide. It also explores how to ensure that – considering legal marginalisation in interaction with (lack of) rule of law – people seeking protection and persons working to aid their access to rights can draw safely upon the potentials of digital connectivity. How technologies operate and interact with social relationships relates to matters such as access, power, and privilege. There is potential that procedures taken to curtail Covid-19 can aggravate risks of refugees. And much of UNHCR’s processing procedures are now done remotely. Legal aid is following this development. This only makes discussions on how to act collectively and locally in favor of digital rights of refugees and other (illegalized) migrants more pertinent.

New MidEast policy brief on humanitarian biometrics in Yemen

​In this latest Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) Middle East Centre policy brief, Piloting Humanitarian Biometrics in Yemen: Aid Transparency versus Violation of Privacy?Maria-Louise Clausen  addresses the challenges of using biometrics for the World Food Program’s aid distribution in Yemen. It highlights the need for balanced approaches that counter fraud and aid diversion of humanitarian operations, while also safeguarding the privacy of beneficiaries.

Humanitarian work is under pressure from donors to prove efficiency, cut costs, and strengthen accountability. To this end, biometric data – such as fingerprints or iris scans – is increasingly used to register and identify beneficiaries in food assistance, refugee identity management, and cash assistance. The World Food Program (WFP) is on the forefront of this development, but in Yemen, their roll-out of biometric registration has been met with resistance from the Houthi authorities in the north. The Houthis accuse the WFP of not being neutral and violating Yemeni law by wanting control over biometric data. 

In response, the WFP has on several occasions scaled back its humanitarian assistance. The WFP maintains that biometric registration is necessary to prevent fraud and ensure effective aid distribution and emphasizes that beneficiary data is held in a secure system. Additionally, it is voluntary to have biometric information registered, but critics question whether the need for informed consent is meaningfully upheld when acceptance of biometric registration is a prerequisite for access to life-saving food and medical treatment.

The power struggle between the Houthis and the WFP shows how aid is politicized and weaponized. Civilian Yemenis are caught in the middle. The policy brief points out that the dilemmas related to efficient and transparent aid distribution are genuine, but that the introduction of biometrics can impose additional risks on the already most vulnerable. While biometric registration can prevent fraud and ensure effective aid distribution, more attention to the consequences of biometric registration for the beneficiaries is required.

The policy brief reflects findings from the project “Biometrics and the humanitarian intervention in Yemen”, which is supported by the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies (NHCS) and the PRIO Middle East Centre.

You can download the full MidEast Policy Brief here.

This article was originally published by the PRIO Middle East Centre.

Vaccine nationalism and vaccine diplomacy: Vaccine distribution and the global south

Written by

The coronavirus pandemic represents a massive challenge for all states. In the first instance, it is a health crisis, with thousands of citizens infected and dying across the world. At the same time, the health crisis is accompanied by an economic crisis, as government measures to deal with the pandemic lead to severe contractions in economic activity. Finally, it represents a potential political crisis, with governments facing the massive challenge of addressing both the pandemic itself and its effects.

The ability of states to deal with the crisis varies greatly. While rich countries with strong institutions are well placed to handle it reasonably well, poorer countries with institutions that are less effective are severely constrained.

Poor countries’ access to Covid19 vaccines depends on the production capacity and the policies of the vaccine producing countries. The vaccines were first developed in the West and Western countries have the largest production capacity, at least in the short term. However, vaccines are also produced in China, India and Russia.

Although everyone realises that “nobody is safe until everybody is safe”, responses to the pandemic and to vaccination have been driven by national interests rather than global cooperation and solidarity. While Western countries’ policies can be described as “vaccine nationalism”, doing everything they can to get access to as many vaccines as possible to their own citizens, emerging powers such as China, India and Russia, have been practicing “vaccine diplomacy” and used the pandemic to improve their relations with other states.

Constraints on vaccine distribution: Politics and economics

In addition to the global constraints in terms of production capacity, three interrelated factors constrain poor countries’ access to vaccines at the moment: lack of purchasing power, vaccine nationalism in rich countries and intellectual property rights preventing the production of cheaper vaccines. The first is purchasing power. At the moment, global production capacity is still limited in relation to demand. So far, rich countries, with 14% of the world’s population have obtained 53% of the vaccines. Almost all of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have gone to rich countries. The US and the UK have banned vaccine exports, while the European Union (EU) has exported 34 million doses to Singapore, Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong – countries that have no problem paying for vaccines. The EU has also sent about 9 million doses to the UK. Meanwhile, African countries, such as Uganda and South Africa, have paid more than twice as much per dose for the AstraZeneca vaccine as the EU. This has led the World Health Organisation (WHO) to warn that the world is on the brink of a “catastrophic moral failure”.

The second constraint for developing countries is political. With production capacity limited and concentrated in rich countries, poor countries have received a very limited number of vaccines. Rich countries have prioritized securing vaccines for their own citizens and have ordered several times more vaccines than they need. Taken together with the shortage of supply and poor countries limited purchasing power, this “vaccine nationalism” has left poor countries with only a fraction of the vaccines they need.

The third constraint is the system of intellectual property rights, which gives those who develop a vaccine an exclusive right to produce it for a specified time period. The first medicines were developed by Western companies with funding from governments and in cooperation with public research institutions. After the first vaccines were developed, Chinese and Russian companies have developed their own vaccines, while India’s Serum Institute has made an agreement with AstraZeneca to produce their vaccine with a license. The Serum Institute has produced 60 million vaccine doses, which have been supplied to over 70 nations, on a bilateral-grant or commercial basis. While China, India, South Africa and Brazil have the ability to develop and produce copies of the patented vaccines – so-called generics – significantly cheaper than the big Western companies, they are only allowed to do so if agreements are made with the patent-owning companies. India and South Africa have proposed that patent rules should be wavered in the current emergency situation. However, this was flatly rejected by both Western governments and the pharmaceutical industry.

International cooperation and vaccine diplomacy

Meanwhile, there are two countervailing factors that to some extent compensate for these constraints. First, the Covax initiative – a collaboration between UNICEF, the WHO, the vaccine alliance Gavi and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations – uses purchases by wealthier nations to fund vaccine supplies to poorer and middle-income countries. The Serum Institute is contracted to supply 1 billion vaccine doses to Covax this year, and received $300 million in funding support from Gavi and the Gates Foundation to assist it in expanding its capacity. By 1 April, 33 million vaccine doses India have been distributed through the Covax facility.

However, funding for Covax remains insufficient. According to the WHO, Covax has only received a quarter of the funds needed. Moreover, because of an increase in infections in India, export of vaccines produced in the country were halted in late March. In addition, India is now facing constraints in supplies of filters and bags needed for its vaccine production, as a result of a US ban on exports of such equipment. These developments will cause delays in the distribution of vaccines, including distribution under the Covax programme.

The second countervailing factor is the vaccine supplies coming from non-western countries. While Western countries have scrambled to obtain as many vaccines as possible for their own population, other countries have used vaccines as a political resource. China, India and Russia have all distributed vaccines to other countries, sometimes for free. Such “vaccine diplomacy” lies behind the distribution of vaccines to countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

In Asia, it has become part of the competition between China and India for regional influence. India, with its formidable vaccine manufacturing capacity, and a licensing deal to produce the AstraZeneca vaccine, has distributed 60 million doses, mainly to Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Its pharmaceutical industry is also the largest contributor of vaccine to the global Covax facility.

China has sent its own manufacturers’ vaccines to a large number of countries in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America – partly as donations and partly as sales. This vaccine provision has been linked with the Belt and Road Initiative, distributing vaccines as part of deals related to ports, roads and rail projects. China has also decided to provide 10 million vaccine doses to the Covax alliance.

Meanwhile, Russia has capitalised on delays in the EU’s programme to promote its Sputnik vaccine to Hungary, Serbia, Austria, as well as to Middle Eastern and Latin American countries, albeit in much smaller volumes than China and India. Russian and Chinese companies have also been willing to strike licensing deals to allow manufacturers in places such as Indonesia and Malaysia to partly or fully produce Covid-19 vaccines themselves.

So what are the implications of these factors for poor countries’ ability to vaccinate their populations? Clearly, the constraints faced by poor countries (purchasing power, vaccine nationalism and patent rules) have so far been much more severe than the countervailing factors (Covax, supplies from emerging powers). The result is that poor countries, by and large, will have to wait until rich countries have vaccinated their own populations before they will receive anything like the amount of vaccines they need. Meanwhile, the pandemic will continue, and new mutants are likely to emerge which may be both more infectious and more resistant to the existing vaccines.

Protection of civilians and the future of urban warfare roundtable

What do current trends in armed conflict and military technology mean for the future of urban warfare? This was just one of the many important issues discussed at a recent virtual roundtable on the future of the protection of civilians in urban warfare, hosted by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) in association with the Norwegian Red Cross (NorCross) and the NCHS.

In this fascinating and informative discussion, roundtable participants also explored issues such as the future prospects for International Humanitarian Law in settings of urban warfare, as well as implications for the regulation of uses of explosive weapons in populated areas as a means of protecting civilians.

Led by Kristoffer Lidén, Senior Researcher at PRIO, the roundtable features an opening interview with Hugo Slim (Oxford Institute For Ethics Law and Armed Conflict (ELAC), University of Oxford). Comments and reflections are also provided by Wanda Muñoz (International Consultant on Victim Assistance), Radhya Al-Mutawakel (Mwatana Organisation For Human Rights), Abigail Watson (Saferworld), and Nicholas Marsh (PRIO).

You can now view a recording of the full roundtable discussion below. The discussion is also featured in a bonus episode of PRIO’s Peace in a Pod podcast and is available here.

You can view the original PRIO event here.

Looking for the humanitarian backbone at the top of the United Nations

Written by

This blog first appeared on Flesh & Blood: The Blog of Mukesh Kapila and is re-posted here. You can access the original blog post hereMukesh Kapila is Professor Emeritus of Global Health and Humanitarian Affairs, University of Manchester.

The United Nations is not just another bureaucracy. Its structures and symbols mark a secular faith that is determined to save humanity, according to its holy book, the UN Charter.  To do that, it engages on four grand missions: fostering peace and security, progressing economic and social development, advancing human rights, and providing humanitarian succour.

The UN’s noble theology derives from universal human values that underpin the dreams and aspirations of billions, even if it’s flawed set-up fails so often. While it’s contradictions constantly test the patience of adherents, they are also remarkably persistent. Perhaps because they are perpetually hopeful that a wise leader is about to emerge who will do better than the last one that disappointed us so much.

The four grand missions are each headed by their own high priests and a great shiver of excitement runs through the UN’s hallowed corridors whenever one of these priesthoods is up for anointment. The one coming up now is for humanitarian affairs.

Of course, we don’t  live in medieval times. Thus, we are told that the selection of the correctly-titled position of the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator will be merit based (although it is not clear whether that is the merit of the candidate or their country). If you had been interested, you would have applied by the closing date of 15 March. You can be confident in the open and transparent selection process as applications were welcomed from anywhere (as long as you had fluent English), digitally (sorry if you didn’t have good internet), and from anyone (but especially women). You will be graded strictly accordingly to the UN’s human resources competency framework.

Naturally, the Secretary-General can’t rely solely on this process. So, he also conducts his own mysterious “search and consultations” and gets guidance from special visitations. In any case, we will know when the Secretary General’s divine hand lands on someone when, in the words of his messenger“It will be announced when it is announced, when you see white smoke”.  

There is a formal job description for the USG’s duties and responsibilities. It is well- written with a beguiling simplicity. After de-coding, we learn that the role requires a superwoman or man who will be the world’s conscience and can boldly hold the mirror to its misbehaviours. This is massively difficult nowadays with record levels of disasters, conflicts, population displacements, violations of international humanitarian laws, crimes against humanity, and attacks on humanitarian workers and facilities. 

The USG is officially licenced to call a spade a spade. Thus, fluency with a broad lexicon of words around horror, shock or outrage is essential as well as fine judgement on the shades of concern to be expressed in different contexts. Similarly calibrated must be the look of sincerity and compassion in front of the camera, depending on whether the setting is a refugee camp or a press conference. 

However, it will be wise not to over-do this, as it is prudent not to be too rude to despots and dictators, because they are UN members too. And, when the bad behaviours come from big powers or from within the permanent members of the Security Council, the incumbent must tread with extra caution. Be careful not to embarrass the Big Boss, who is up for re-election this year and will need the votes of all important countries. 

The world’s top humanitarian must also be adept at holding out the begging bowl which is implanted into the USG immediately on assuming office. The bowl is bottomless because of the ever-growing needs of the world’s most vulnerable. Hence, the USG must use all their begging, bullying, and cajoling skills with reluctant donors, but should beware becoming too boring or tiresome, by constantly asking for more and more.

When they do get some funds (perhaps 10 to 70% of appeals, depending on the crisis that is popular at a moment), they must exercise the wisdom of Solomon in doling out the dough. Nowadays, there are sophisticated metrics to measure misery but any USG with a heart instead of a computer chip will find it tough to tackle questions such as:  Whose suffering is more urgent? Whose needs are more deserving? Besides, much of the mobilised funds are often too little and too late, or ear-marked for concerns or countries that donors prefer.

So, when the right needs are, inevitably, not met at the right time in the right way, there will be complaints. The USG must always be a good sport and shoulder the blame. It is a natural extension of the role of the world’s conscience to be the lightening conductor for its woes and frustrations. Of course, everyone knows that most of the world’s problems don’t have humanitarian solutions but that is beside the point.

The USG will be extremely busy firefighting (mostly insoluble) crises around the world. That includes rallying humanitarian ‘troops’ everywhere. They fly many different banners and follow their own brands of the humanitarian faith. But it is the USG’s task, as Emergency Relief Coordinator, to get them pointed vaguely in the same direction or, at least, not at cross-purposes. How to do this is beyond the knowhow of the world’s most expensive business schools, although that has not stopped several consulting firms from establishing lucrative business lines in humanitarian leadership training. They get tax benefits by offering pro bono services to cash-strapped humanitarian bodies which reciprocate by serving as training grounds for junior consultants. After all, anyone wanting to get anywhere, has to start somewhere, and the humanitarian field is one of the very few public endeavours that is open to all comers (although, to be fair, this is getting better after the scandals of recent years and there is another profitable business line in monitoring quality and standards for conduct and performance). 

Meanwhile, the outward-facing USG must not neglect looking inside their personal fiefdom: the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). This consists of a split headquarters straddling  New York and Geneva and dozens of offices or representatives worldwide. It will be useful if the USG brushes up on their knowledge of Max Weber, that great 19th century sociologist who waxed lyrical on the topic of the perfect bureaucracy. If he was alive today, he would surely be overwhelmed by the beauty of the UN, in that regard. OCHA, as a constituent department of the UN Secretariat reflects all the attributes of the parent body and improves on it by adding its own bizarre structural complications.  

It is the job of the USG to manage OCHA and many a good incumbent has been broken at the wheel of change, especially when challenging its internal chieftaincies. The next post-holder would be wise to remember that although several humanitarian bodies have won the Nobel Prize, none have been awarded for pioneering organisational reform.

The Secretary-General will be mulling over these considerations while grilling hopeful candidates. Meanwhile, it is a fairly harmless ritual to offer him unsolicited advice on selecting his new humanitarian chief. This starts first by damning the incumbent to be replaced. That is quite OK as it is a generally recognised truth that all high careers end in failure because, as said by the idiosyncratic statesman, Joseph Chamberlain, “that is the nature of politics and of human affairs”.

Critics can make their job easier by following an established checklist. The obvious place to start is with gender and geographic diversity: if you are male and white, you can expect to be automatically pilloried. Especially, if your predecessors were the same as you. Even worse if they were of the same nationality.

Then it gets more complicated. We know that it won’t look good if the SG appoints a serial rights abuser to such a sacred role. Fortunately, candidates have self-attested that they have not violated international human rights and humanitarian laws. But what if their country is a champion violator of such decencies? Of course, a good person can’t be blamed for the sins of their nation. But they will have needed strong national backing to advance their candidature in an institution which is, above all, a club of nations. So should otherwise good candidates be blackballed if they are too close to less-than-wholesome governments?

Then let us come to candidates from humanitarian superpowers. Should the nationals of donor countries be favoured? There is an element of reward and recognition here as most international funding comes from just a few countries. Would selecting someone from a generous country encourage the miserly ones to step up? In any case, it is a well-known principle of international business that he who pays the piper gets to call the tune. Or conversely, it could be argued that candidates from countries that receive most funding for humanitarian crises are better qualified, and should get extra points in the selection hurdles?

May that also mean a bigger voice of understanding for the victims of humanitarian crises?

The SG may feel that these are all mutually-cancelling considerations. In those circumstances, a random selection made by picking a name out of a hat is as good as any tortuously-finessed choice.

Alternatively, he could throw away his complicated grids and checklists, and ignore all lobbyists. The Secretary-General could then liberate himself to make a truly revolutionary move. He could, without fear or favour, and without any other consideration, appoint to the top humanitarian position, someone that possesses a genuine humanitarian backbone. Doing that could also allow the UN to stand up straighter when facing-up to its detractors.

Will the UN Secretary-General have the special X-ray vision to detect the person with the sturdiest humanitarian backbone among the several worthy applicants?