This text first appeared on Global Policy and is re-posted here.
According to an influential conception, humanitarian governance entails ‘the increasingly organised and internationalised attempt to save the lives, enhance the welfare, and reduce the suffering of the world’s most vulnerable populations.’ The actors involved in humanitarian governance include affected populations, civil society, host governments, the military, the private sector, international organisations and NGOs, and donors. Much of this governance is associated with the intended as well as the unintended consequences of humanitarian action.
In particular, these unintended consequences have brought about a quest for institutional or moral improvement of humanitarian action. Presented as progress narratives, these initiatives – or techniques – range from efforts to enhance accountability, for example through legalisation, to offering better technological solutions. However, in recent years, the techniques of humanitarian governance are increasingly also incorporated into narratives of decline, where attempts to govern humanitarianism is also seen to hinder humanitarian access, hamper aid delivery and undermine the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence. This blog post reflects on some of the new directions in humanitarian governance and the ambiguity of some of the principal techniques of such governance.
Starting from the mid-1990s, a number of sector-wide transparency and accountability initiatives (e.g., SPHERE, the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) International, People in Aid, Groupe URD’s Compass, and more recently the Core Humanitarian Standard) have influenced humanitarian organisations. Criticism has been directed at ‘the accountability industry’ for emphasising standardisation and technocratisation, which hide the actual politics, and for prioritising upwards accountability to donors at the expense of true, participatory accountability processes with communities in crisis. Still, the quest for accountability remains a core normative ambition and shapes attempts to govern in the humanitarian arena.
As part of this, humanitarians are increasingly ‘code of conducted up’, in particular with respect to intimate personal relationships and financial transparency. What would previously be deemed either private behavior – such as substance abuse – or individual moral and personal failure – such as buying sex – is increasingly construed as a risk-generating activity threatening specific operations, organisational reputations, and the legitimacy of the sector itself. Despite the Oxfam sex scandal, there is not sufficient evidence – or a concerted push to establish such evidence – on whether the humanitarian sector is currently doing better in terms of its accountability.
Moreover, the ongoing digitisation and datafication of humanitarian action have become central techniques of humanitarian governance, and increasingly shape our understanding of and response to emergencies. Digitisation is dramatically changing the way aid agencies provide assistance, from blockchain technology to provide cash transfers to the use of biometrics with iris scans and fingerprinting to register and track beneficiary assistance. This has led to faster information exchanges and greater transparency about what is happening on the ground. At the same time, the integration of information technology has enabled an increasing degree of remote management, which has changed the dynamic between communities in crisis, responders, regional offices, and headquarters.
The technologisation of humanitarian space have also brought on a much closer relationship with the private sector: big tech outfits as well as small startups. These actors also have limited experience with and knowledge of the ends and objectives of the humanitarian sector, while pursuing their own financial objectives with respect to commodification and use of data. In addition, the attendant security challenges are slowly receiving more attention. Spyware is being deployed by governments and warlords to provide surveillance of humanitarian officials and civilians. Data collected by humanitarian organisations may be stolen and misused by the same actors. Indifference, incompetence and bad planning might result in data breaches.
Humanitarian governance is increasingly undertaken through law and law-like language as actors are held accountable through legal or quasi-legal mechanisms. One important trend is the evolving body of international disaster response law (IDRL) aiming to eliminate bureaucratic barriers to the entry of relief personnel, goods and equipment, and the operation of relief programmes, as well as addressing regulatory failures to monitor and correct problems of quality and coordination in disasters.
A different kind of legalisation is taking place through the evolution and institutionalisation of a legal standard for a ‘duty of care’ for humanitarian staff. The 2015 Steve Dennis versus the Norwegian Refugee Council case from the Oslo District court, have shifted the conceptualisation of the duty of care standard for humanitarian staff from being a good practice standard in human resource management to becoming a standard considered from and articulated through the language of law and liability. Although it is positive the humanitarian organisations need to work out the operational details of their duty of care, it can also lead to risk-avoidance or an increase in bureaucracy.
There is also an increasingly frequent assertion that ‘humanitarianism is being criminalised’ (here, here, here or here). According to the humanitarian narrative of ‘the criminalisation of humanitarian space’, such criminalisation can hamper access to affected communities and compromises the ability of humanitarian actors to deliver principled aid to fulfill the humanitarian imperative of assisting according to need. This includes the prohibition of material support for terrorism, that was extended to include humanitarian advocacy in the 2010 US Supreme Court decision Holder v. the Humanitarian Law Project and the use of the US False Claims Act to go after humanitarian NGOs operating in the occupied Palestinian territories. Based on complaints from a private individual In 2017 and 2018, the American University in Beirut (AUB) and the Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) have reached costly settlements with the US government. Oxfam is currently facing a $ 160 million legal threat under the False Claims Act. Several more cases are under seal.
In parallel, there has been a broad trend towards to criminal prosecution of volunteer workers who have offered material support or protection – such as housing, transportation, food, education or rescue – to asylum seekers and refugees (here, here or here). Humanitarian work is here being construed as human smuggling or trafficking. At the same time, some types of criminalisation are viewed as beneficial to ensure that humanitarians do no harm to beneficiaries or each other, for example with respect to sexual harassment and sexual violence.
This blog post draws on our introduction to a 2019 special issue on humanitarian governance “A world in turmoil: governing risk, establishing order in humanitarian crises” published by Disasters. As discussed in the introduction and further analysed in this blog post, it is ironic that the quest to deal with the unintended consequences of humanitarian action, has unintended effects as well. First, the initiatives listed above are often difficult to implement. Second, they also bear the risk of technocratisation: these techniques are not neutral; they may hamper participation and obscure power politics. As illustrated by criminalisation, some governance attempts can even contribute to a shrinking of humanitarian space. Third, they can lead to a lack of respect for the humanitarian principles, so that the protection of people in need is not well ensured.