Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies: 2019 in review

Thanks to fresh new funding from the Norwegian Research Council’s NORGLOBAL program in early 2019 to establish a Research Network on Humanitarian Efforts, it has truly been an exciting year for NCHS. Through connecting and engaging with academics, students and practitioners of humanitarianism in Norway and beyond, NCHS has been able to serve its purpose as a platform for debate and exchange.

Top 3 most read NCHS blog posts 2019

1. Sørbø, Gunnar. “Europe’s new border guards”.
2. Reid-Henry, Simon. “Do you speak humanitarian?”.
3. Sandvik, Kristin. “Safeguarding: good intentions, difficult process”.

Looking back at 2019, three thematic areas stand out as having shaped the work of the Centre, as well as humanitarian agendas more broadly speaking. The themes migration, humanitarianism in conflict, and technologization of aid are likely to continue creating debate in humanitarian forums in the new year.

Displacement and migration

The UN OCHA Global Humanitarian Overview 2020 lays out how a record number of people are currently displaced, and displacement typically lasts for longer periods of time. In early 2019, 70.8 million people were forcibly displaced, and twenty-eight of the 50 countries with the highest numbers of new displacements faced both conflict and disaster-induced displacement.

Migration policies in Europe and its neighboring regions has continued to be a hot topic of discussion in 2019, and NCHS associates have contributed to the debate by scrutinizing the securitization of migration and relatedly humanitarian aid, and the concept of humanitarian containment. The latter reflects on humanitarian actors restricting the movement of refugees and other migrants through provision of certain services in a geographically restricted area, as explored by the CMI-led project SuperCamp. In Norway, the Norwegian-registered rescue vessel Ocean Viking operated by Médecins Sans Frontières and SOS Méditerranée  reignited the migration debate, as explored in this blog post by NCHS Director Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert on whether search-and-rescue (SAR) operations encourage people to attempt crossing the Mediterranean. A public event co-organized by NCHS, with PRIO and the University of Oslo, at Litteraturhuset, gathered academics, humanitarians and Norwegian politicians from various political parties to discuss whether there is any validity to the claim that SAR in the Mediterranean act as a pull factor. The topic clearly engages, being amongst our most highly attended events in 2019.Taking a step back from air-conditioned conference rooms in a sobering reflection on migrant deaths at sea after attending a funeral ceremony at Lampedusa, NCHS co-Director Antonio De Lauri reminded us all of the immense human tragedy which lays the foundation for this politicized debate. In his words, “A sense of loss pervaded today’s ceremony. Not only for the persons who didn’t make it, but also for the idea of Europe, itself drowned with those who believed in it”.

It is not only European migration policies and refugee protection means that have been put under and analytical lens this past year. In 2019, NCHS associates have debated Turkey’s Syria policy in light of the refugee question, historical perspectives from South America in light of Venezuelan displacement, outsourcing of border control to militia groups in the Sahel, and the Cartagena Declaration and refugee protection in Latin America.

As large movements of people are likely to continue shaping policies, humanitarian response and academic debates also in 2020, we remain committed to gather different types of interlocutors to learn from each other’s experiences.

The triple nexus and humanitarianism in conflict.

Initiated at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), the triple nexus refers to the need to coordinate humanitarian, development and (at times appropriate) peacebuilding efforts to more effectively reach those most in need. While the concept is by no means without criticism (e.g. Louise Redver’s report on what implementing the nexus looks like from the field, or Kristoffer Lidén’s argument against merging humanitarianism with development and security post the 2016 WHS), the years following the World Humanitarian Summit has seen a push for policies attempting to enhance synergies between emergency and longer-term relief efforts, as an effort to bridge the gap between humanitarianism, development and security. Yet, we are very much still in the implementation phase in terms of nexus-programming. From an analytical point of view, the concept opens interesting trajectories in terms of where ‘the humanitarian’ ends and where other disciplines and fields of practice begin. Further, when placed in highly politicized contexts of insecurity and peacebuilding efforts, how does the upholding of the fundamental humanitarian principles fare?

The political role of humanitarian aid and the relationship between security, peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts was the main thematic focus of the NCHS Research Network mid-year meeting at NUPI in August 2019. Gathering researchers from various disciplines with different entry-points to what ‘humanitarianism’ means, in particular when applied in a situation of conflict, we were able to engage in a rich debate about concepts, definitions, and their interpretations by various actors. Amongst these, an important point of view is how policies developed by actors external to the country where the conflict takes place are interpreted by local populations, as highlighted by the seminar on the EU’s engagement in external conflicts in the Sahel led by Morten Bøås.

The politics of humanitarian action was also the topic of a special issue of Disasters on humanitarian governance, edited by Dennis Dijkzeul and Kristin Bergtora Sandvik. Sandvik and Dijkzeul have later written two blog posts based on the introduction to the special issue, titled “Humanitarian governance and localization: What kind of world is being imagined and produced”, and “New Directors in Humanitarian Governance: Technology, Juridification and Criminalization”. Amongst the authors contributing to the special issue were several NCHS associates, analyzing humanitarian policy making as a form of governance from different entry points. Kristoffer Lidén’s article titled “The Protection of Civilians and ethics of humanitarian governance: beyond intervention and resilience” explores how the principle of Protection of Civilians in conflict has ethnical repercussions in actions undertaken by states and international organizations related to humanitarian, development and security practices. Jacob Høigilt’s article titled “The futility of rights-based humanitarian aid to the Occupied Palestinian Territories” argues that the Occupied Palestinian territories provides an example suggesting that rights-based approaches in humanitarianism might be futile if not backed by political power.

Humanitarian assistance has traditionally been delivered in situations characterized by instability and insecurity. In order to reach vulnerable populations, humanitarians have thus had to establish lines of communication with local, regional and national actors. Importantly, how these relationships are formed and maintained risk affecting the way the humanitarians are perceived in terms of upholding the principles of neutrality and impartiality. This balance, including the concept of ‘humanitarian diplomacy’ and whether independent humanitarian assistance is possible in today’s conflict, were discussed at length during the NCHS annual meeting at CMI in November 2019. NCHS co-Director Antonio De Lauri brought up some of the same themes when he gave the NMBU Annual Lecture in Global Development in December 2019, titled “The Politics of Humanitarian Intervention: Militarization, Diplomacy, Compromise”.

As violent conflicts continue to cause an immense need for humanitarian assistance, and reforms on reducing silos and enhancing cooperation between humanitarian, development and security efforts continue to play an important role in humanitarian policy, so too will we continue to focus on analysis on what the implications of the interlinkages may mean theoretically and in practice.

Data and ‘the digital’.

Technological developments have shaped all corners of society over the past decades, including humanitarianism and the delivery and governance of humanitarian aid. Yet, uncritical application of new technologies in the humanitarian field risk unintended negative consequences that may be harmful to local populations and aid workers alike. In 2019, NCHS associates have continued examining the effects of emerging technologies in the humanitarian field. Kristin Bergtora Sandvik’s paper on technologizing the fight against sexual violence is a good example, where Sandvik asks critical questions about the turn towards technology in humanitarian aid, and the rise of ‘digital bodies’. In 2019, Sandvik has contributed to developing the concept of ‘digital bodies’ further, including related to children’s rights, and ‘humanitarian wearables’ at a lecture at Oxford University.

However, the relationship between the humanitarian sector and technology does not have to be one sided. In a blog post, Sean McDonald argues that the humanitarian sector has much to offer the technology industry in terms of data governance, with the caveat of the latter being willing to learn from the former’s century of experience in building organizational structures. As technological developments continue to make its way into humanitarian operations, our main encouragement to academics and practitioners alike is to make thorough ethical considerations to help avoid misuse and potential negative implications.

Top 3 highly attended events co-organized by NCHS in 2019 (click on link to access seminar recording)

1. “Assisting and protecting refugees in Europe and the Middle East – politics, law, and humanitarian practices”. 19 September 2019, at PRIO, Oslo.
2. Humanitarian lunch seminar: SYRIA”. 7 October 2019, at the Norwegian Red Cross, Oslo.
3. “Redningsoperasjoner i Middelhavet: en pull-faktor?”. 25 November 2019, at Litteraturhuset, Oslo.

Looking towards the new year.

Although 2019 has without doubt been a successful first year for the NCHS Research Network on Humanitarian Efforts, we see no reason to rest on our laurels. In late 2019, The Research Council of Norway awarded several projects related to humanitarianism with funding starting from 2020, four of which are led by colleagues associated with NCHS. This year, we vow to continue engaging with academics, practitioners, policy makers and the broader public on questions related to humanitarianism. As stated above, we believe migration, the triple nexus and technological developments will continue to shape the humanitarian agenda in 2020, but these are by no means the only topics on which we will focus our efforts. As the year progress, we hope to engage with actors involved in the field of humanitarian studies on all topics of interest that may arise, and bridge practical and analytical knowledge by connecting research conducted on specific crises with practitioners’ own experience. Stay tuned and follow our web page and social media channels on Facebook and Twitter for more news.

Wishing you all the best for 2020.

Andrea Silkoset

Coordinator Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies

New projects on humanitarianism receive funding from the Research Council of Norway

The Research Council of Norway recently awarded several projects related to humanitarianism with funding starting from 2020. We are very pleased to introduce these four new projects led by colleagues associated with the NCHS.

Temporary protection as a durable solution? The “return turn” in asylum policies in Europe. Led by Jessica Schultz (CMI). In reaction to the high numbers of refugee arrivals in 2015, European countries have introduced a range of new and enhanced temporary protection policies. Temporary protection policies create unique challenges for the inclusion of refugees in receiving communities, and for the welfare system more broadly. Refugees with temporary status often come from fragile states and are unlikely, for a number of reasons, to actually return in the near future. This project explores the effects of temporary protection policies on refugee law and refugee lives in Norway, Denmark and the UK. By investigating how (primarily) post-2015 policies change the parameters of protection of Afghans, Somalis and Syrians, the project will produce evidence related to 1) the ways in which temporality is produced through changes to national refugee policies, 2) how these policies interact with facets of the welfare state designed to promote integration and 3) how temporary status affects how refugees manage the competing demands of settling in Europe and planning for an eventual return. Evidence from this project will inform policy dialogue concerning the tensions and tradeoffs that temporary protection policies involve, in Norway and elsewhere in Europe. It will also critically assess these developments in light of European and international refugee law.

China and the global aid architecture – Understanding China’s evolving development assistance. Led by Elling N. Tjønneland (CMI). China has expanded its humanitarian aid significantly in recent years, both through contributions (mainly in kind) to relevant UN agencies and direct to governments in countries affected by humanitarian emergencies. This project analyses the determinants of the Chinese development aid policies and the major expansion of China’s development aid, including humanitarian. It will also analyse how this impact on the global development aid architecture and policies. Case studies will be undertaken in Ethiopia, Mozambique and Tanzania and in the relations with the African Union.

The Power of Ideas: Muslim Humanitarians and the SDGs (HUMA). Led by Kaja Borchgrevink (PRIO). The United Nation’s Agenda 2030 call for new global partnerships for sustainable development, recognizing the significance of including private, public, secular and religious actors. Muslim humanitarian actors are increasingly recognized as important contributors in humanitarian and development efforts. In order to take the global partnership for development seriously, it is vital to understand this rapidly changing humanitarian landscape and how the whole range of humanitarian actors are working. Read more here.

Holding aid accountable: Plural humanitarianism in protracted crisis (AidAccount). Led by Cindy Horst (PRIO). Local residents and diaspora groups are key humanitarian actors, often being both the first responders and the ones that remain engaged in situations of protracted humanitarian crisis. Little is known about how accountability is understood and practiced by citizens in comparison to professional humanitarians. This project aims to explore how accountability is defined and practiced locally at the meeting point between civic and professional humanitarians in protracted crises. Read more here.

We look forward to following the results of these projects in the coming years.

IHSA 2020 Humanitarian Studies Conference

The 6th bi-annual conference of the International Humanitarian Studies Association will take place from the 4th to the 6th of November 2020 in Beirut, Lebanon. It is titled: New realities of politics and humanitarianism: between solidarity and abandonment. 

In 2020, the IHSA conference will be organized in collaboration with the Global Health Forum, by The Global Health Institute (GHI) at the American University of Beirut (AUB).

Important dates
– Call for Panels: 27 November 2019 to 30 April 2020
– Call for Papers: 5 May 2020 to 30 September 2020
– Conference Date: 4 to 6 November 2020

Panels can be uploaded under one of the 5 sub-themes
Stream 1 – Health, climate change and disaster risk reduction
Stream 2 – Decolonising Humanitarian studies? Ethics, knowledge production and application
Stream 3 – Political economy and politics of humanitarianism
Stream 4 – Technology and innovation track
Stream 5 – Migration, displacement and refugees

Read more about the conference here.

Podcast available (in Norwegian): Rescue operations in the Mediterranean – a pull factor?

Monday 25 November the NCHS, Nordhost/UiO:Norden, and the University of Oslo Faculty of Law co-hosted an event at Litteraturhuset in Oslo on rescue operations in the Mediterranean sea, and whether there is any validity to claims that such operations act as a pull factor encouraging more migrants to take the dangerous sea route towards Europe.

Speakers at the seminar included researchers, humanitarian practitioners from Médecins Sans Frontières and the Norwegian Refugee Council, and politicians from various Norwegian political parties, all presenting their views on European migration policies in light of recent migrant deaths at sea and public debates on the issue. The Italian Ambassador to Norway attended the seminar, asked for the floor and was invited to comment towards the end.

A recording of the seminar (in Norwegian) is now available, and can be accessed here.

Antonio De Lauri to give NMBU Annual Lecture in Global Development Studies

NCHS co-Director, Antonio De Lauri, is to give the NMBU Annual Lecture in Global Development Studies Friday 6 December 2019. The lecture is an annual event in association with the university’s Master Programme in Global Development Studies. De Lauri’s lecture is titled “The Politics of Humanitarian Intervention: Militarization, Diplomacy, Compromise”, and will in particular discuss (1) the difficulty in prioritizing humanitarian principles in contingent situations, (2) the exploitative dimension of humanitarian discourses in broad international political agendas, and (3) the current professionalization of humanitarian negotiations as a key instrument of foreign policy.

To register for the event or read more about the NMBU Annual Lecture, see here.

Podcast available: Sandvik on ‘Humanitarian wearables and digital bodies’ at University of Oxford

On Wednesday 13 November 2019, Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (PRIO/University of Oslo) spoke at a seminar hosted by The Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, titled “Humanitarian wearables and digital bodies: problems of gifts and labour”. A recording from the seminar is now available.

To access the podcast, click here.

Call for papers: Humanitarianism challenged

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.

New edited volume: Status and the Rise of Brazil

Esteves, P., et al., 2020. Status and the Rise of Brazil: Global Ambitions, Humanitarian Engagement and International Challenges. London: Palgrave Macmillan

The book is edited by Paulo Esteves, Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert and Benjamin de Carvalho, and explores the evolution of Brazilian foreign relations in the last fifteen years, with a special emphasis on its engagements in international cooperation, broadly seen. The edited volume has three thematic focus areas: diplomacy, international peace and security, and international development cooperation. Drawing on a wide range of methodologies, the book presents a combination of different approaches that seek to address how Brazil’s international ambitions can be understood in the light of shifting domestic contexts; explore Brazil’s investment in different types of foreign aid, from development aid to assistance in humanitarian emergencies; and consider Brazil’s view and approaches to foreign aid, humanitarian assistance and international peacekeeping operations.

About the editors:

Paulo Esteves is Associate Professor in the Institute of International Relations at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert is Senior Researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), Norway, where she is Research Director of the Dimensions of Security Department, and Director of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies (NCHS).

Benjamin de Carvalho is Senior Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) in Oslo, Norway. 

The edited volume is an output of the BraGS project, funded by the Research Council of Norway’s LATINAMERIKA program. The BraGS project was led by Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert (PRIO), including the participation of co-editors Benjamin de Carvalho (NUPI) and Paulo Esteves (IRI PUC Rio). The book includes contributions from BraGS project members Eduarda Hamann (Igarapé Institute) and Torkjell Leira (independent), as well as several other contributors.

Read more about the book here.

Strenghtening competencies for humanitarian negotiations

NCHS researcher Kristoffer Lidén (PRIO) participates in a professional roundtable on the development of competencies of humanitarian organizations for negotiations at the frontlines organized by the Center for Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation (CCHN) in Berlin 26-27 November. For a detailed program, with introductions to the different topics addressed, see here.

Speakers included H.E. Dr. Bärbel Kofler, Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Assistance, Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Grainne Ohara, Director of International Protection, UNHCR, Rehan Asad, Chief of Staff, World Food Programme (WFP) and Claude Bruderlein, Director of CCHN. The event also featured a launch of the 2019 version of the CCHN Field Manual on Humanitarian Negotiations, which can be read here.

Antonio De Lauri to give Jorge Dias Memorial Lecture at University of Lisbon

Antonio De Lauri, Senior Researcher at CMI and co-director of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies, is to give the Jorge Dias Memorial Lecture on 21 November 2019 at The Instituto Superior de Ciências Sociais e Políticas (ISCSP), University of Lisbon. The lecture is titled “Negotiated Humanitarianism: Diplomacy, Compromise and Principles in Complex Emergencies”.

Read more here.