Tag Archives: Decolonization

Fighting racism and decolonizing humanitarian studies: toward mindful scholarship

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This text first appeared on Bliss, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam, and a PRIO Global Fellow.

Photo: International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA).

Addressing racism and decolonizing humanitarian studies is urgent, and as scholars we need to step up our efforts. Partnerships between scholars and conflict-affected communities are as unequal as ever, and the disparities between humanitarian studies in the global North and global South remain large. Dorothea Hilhorst here introduces the importance of localization in humanitarian studies that will be discussed in an upcoming workshop on 20 August, highlighting the need for equal partnerships and meaningful participation, as well as continuous debate to move beyond quick fixes in addressing structural and persistent inequalities.

Triggered by recent renewed attention to racism and worldwide protests urging change, the lid placed on racism in the humanitarian aid sector has been blown off. Last year’s international meeting of ALNAP concluded that inequality and discrimination in the humanitarian aid sector are a reality, and threatens its core foundation, namely the principle of humanity that views all people in equal terms. Recent weeks have seen many excellent blogs about racism in the sector and how resorting to arguments centring on capacities often obscure racist practices.

Yet racism in humanitarian studies is rarely mentioned. As scholars, we are ready to lay bare the fault lines in the humanitarian sector, but what about our own practices? It is time to address racism and decolonize humanitarian studies, too!

Turning our gaze inward

Anthony Giddens spoke of the double hermeneutic between social science and society, which co-shape each other’s understanding of the world and adopt each other’s vocabulary. In the relatively small and applied community of humanitarian studies, the double hermeneutic between academia and the field is more than discursive. Humanitarian studies can be seen to mimic many of the characteristics of its subject of research. Problems with humanitarian action are thus likely reproduced in the scholarly community that focuses on humanitarianism.

Racism-related problems with humanitarian studies can be grouped in two clusters:

First, the organization of humanitarian studies leads to a field dominated by scholars from the Global North. While scholars critically follow attempts of the sector to localize aid in an attempt to reduce racism through increasing ownership of aid processes, humanitarian studies itself may be criticized for being centred in the Global North. Adjacent domains of disaster studies and refugee studies[i] have faced similar critiques.

Research and educational institutes are mainly found in the global North, and rarely in the Global South where most humanitarian crises occur. The picture is less skewed with regards to disasters related to natural hazards, where we find many leading institutes in the Global South. However, faculties and courses dealing with humanitarianism in the Global South are scarce (see the global directory of the International Humanitarian Studies Associations for exceptions). Reasons include the dire lack of attention to higher education in donor programmes focusing on conflict-affected countries, making it almost impossible to find funding for such programmes[ii]. In 2016, at the World Humanitarian Summit, participants drafted a set of ethical commitments called for, among other things, more space for scholars and communities from crisis-affected countries (IHSA, 2016). Three years later, signatories admitted to a lack of progress which they largely attributed to structural disincentives for collaboration in their universities.

Moreover, relations between northern and southern institutions rarely attain the nature of equal partnership[iii]. The best many southern universities can usually hope for is to become a poorly paid partner that has no say in the agenda of the research and whose role is limited to data gathering. The possibility of co-authoring may not even be mentioned. I have followed closely how a gender and development institute in DRC, built around four women PhD holders, could easily find work as a sub-contractor for research, but once they developed their own agenda and proposals, donors were not interested and preferred to rely on Northern NGOs or UN agencies.

The picture becomes even direr when we take into account ethics dumping, when risks are offloaded on local researchers. Many universities in the north have adopted restrictive measures and don’t allow researchers to work in ‘red zones’. These researchers then rely on remote research and use local researchers to collect the data. One scholar told me at a conference how frustrated he was that his university did not allow him to enter a conflict area. He took residence at the border where he could regularly meet his research assistants, who gathered his data at their own risk. His frustration concerned his own impossibility to engage with the research, not the fate of these assistants! He had not considered involving the researchers in the analysis or inviting them as co-authors.

Second, methodologies and the ethics of relating to the research participants whose lives we study are problematic. Humanitarian studies is seen to be extractive, blighted by 1) a culture of direct data gathering through fieldwork and interviews at the expense of secondary data, leading to overly bothering crisis-affected communities with research; 2) a lack of feedback opportunities to communities, who see researchers come and go to obtain data and rarely, if ever, hear from them again; and 3) the assumption that participatory methods are not possible in conflict-affected areas because it is feared that social tensions will be reproduced in the research process. It is also assumed that people facing precarity and risks may have no interest in deep participation in research.

Deep participation does not mean quick and dirty participation in data gathering, such as participation in focus-group discussions where researchers can quickly move in and out of the lives of communities. Meaningful interactive research involves partners and participants as much as possible in every stage of the research[iv]. There have, however, been positive examples of participatory research in crisis-affected areas[v], and it is time that we build on these experiences and advance this work.

Thus, racism and decolonization debates have implications for methodology. Pailey critically noted that ‘the problem with the 21st-century “scholarly decolonial turn” is that it remains largely detached from the day-to-day dilemmas of people in formerly colonised spaces and places’. Similarly, Tilley[vi] argued that decolonization means ‘doing research differently’ – equally and collaboratively.

Of course, there are also reasons for caution with participatory methods that may be more pronounced in humanitarian crises. First, social realities are, in many ways, influenced by (governance) processes happening elsewhere, beyond immediate observation. Second, participatory methods may be prone to identifying outcomes that reflect the biases of the research facilitators (facipulator effects) and/or political elites participating in the process. Third, participatory processes risk feeding into existing tensions and creating harm. Research in crisis-affected areas may entail more risks and tends to be more politicized compared with other research.

It is therefore important to build on positive experiences while maintaining a critical dialogue on the possibilities of participatory research in humanitarian studies. As scholars, we need to work hard to break down the disincentives, to work towards equal partnerships, and to develop more participatory methodologies that treat conflict-affected communities as competent and reflexive agents that can participate in all aspects of the research process.

The environments of humanitarian studies are highly politicized and complex, and there are no quick fixes for our collaborations and methodologies. Thus, while stepping up our efforts, we also need to rely on the core of the academe: continuous debate and critically reflection on how we can enhance partnership for ethical research in humanitarian studies.

Inspired? Join the IHSA/NCSH webinar on Thursday 20 August, 11-12 CET.

This blog was written at the start of a 5-year research programme on humanitarian governance, aiming to decolonize humanitarian studies. The project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, project 884139.

[i] Sukarieh, M., & Tannock, S. (2019). Subcontracting Academia: Alienation, Exploitation and Disillusionment in the UK Overseas Syrian Refugee Research Industry. Antipode, 51(2), 664–680.

[ii] In 2016, at the World Humanitarian Summit, participants drafted a set of ethical commitments that called for, among other things, more space for scholars and communities from crisis-affected countries (IHSA, 2016). Three years later, signatories admitted to a lack of progress, which they largely attributed to structural disincentives for collaboration in their universities.

[iii] Cronin-Furman, K., & Lake, M. (2018). Ethics Abroad: Fieldwork in Fragile and Violent Contexts. PS – Political Science and Politics, 51(3), 607–614. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1049096518000379

[iv] Voorst, R. van and D. Hilhorst (2018) ‘Key Points of Interactive Research: An Ethnographic Approach to Risk’. In A. Olofsson and Jens O. Zinn Researching Risk and Uncertainty. Methodologies, Methods and Research Strategies. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, pp 53-77

[v] Haar, G. van der, Heijmans, A., & Hilhorst, D. (2013). Interactive research and the construction of knowledge in conflict-affected settings. Disasters, 37(SUPPL.1), 20–35. https://doi.org/10.1111/disa.12010

[vi] Tilley, L. (2017). Resisting Piratic Method by Doing Research Otherwise. Sociology, 51(1), 27–42. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038038516656992

What Shapes Which Migration Flows We Study?

Written by Marta Bivand Erdal, Research Professor, PRIO & Board Member, NCHS

How might declonising the academy intersect with academic everyday practice, for instance in the context of migration studies? As efforts to decolonise the academy are gaining force, not least in universities in the United Kingdom, such as at the School of Oriental and African Studies, questions about how this timely intellectual scrutiny can or ought to affect academic everyday practice should be pondered. Especially in relation to how the ‘decolonise academia’ initiatives help foster greater knowledge and understanding, thus stimulating and furthering academic inquiry.’

Map of the British Empire from the India & Colonial Exhibition in London, 1886. PHOTO: The British Library

When we discuss decolonising the academy, we are talking about power, and more specifically power hierarchies. So, we are discussing unevenly distributed power when it comes to defining knowledge, which inevitably leads to skewed knowledge, to incomplete knowledge.

Empires in the plural

We know of the British empire, and the colonial enterprises of the French, Spanish or Portuguese, and later on the Americans. In the context of Norway, we also recognise the more complex imperial histories involving both the Norwegian state’s approach to the indigenous Sami populations, and Norway’s union first with Denmark, then Sweden, leaving Norway an independent state only from 1905. Yet, there is still reason to expand on this plurality of empires – historically and geographically.

References to Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Heart of Darkness are frequent, especially in the literary quarters of ‘post-colonial’ theory, including Edward Said. Conrad’s novel was published in 1899, and was at the time a quite radical critique of imperial practice, drawing on Conrad’s own experience as a sailor in the British empire. The book later received criticism for dehumanizing descriptions of Africans in what was then the Belgian colonised Congo, by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, and not without reason.

However, my point with drawing attention to Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ is to underscore the need for scrutiny of the roles of empires in the plural – where Conrad serves as a useful example. He was born in Poland, at a time when the country did not exist on the European map, but rather had been divided into three and absorbed among other by Russia. He was born into a family where both his mother and father were active in the Polish underground as anti-tsarists activists. His parents died early and he left Poland at 16.

How is this relevant for a discussion on decolonising the academy taking place in Norway? First, in recognizing the many different empires and colonisations which exist historically and geographically. Notably in relation to Norway’s neighbour, Russia and its region. Second, to critically assess the role of language in knowledge production and communication, also in relation to colonisation. For, how much do we know, today in Norway, of knowledge production and academic exchange, in Russia, or in the larger region which was under heavy influence of the Soviet Union until less than 30 years ago? And if we are not well-versed here – why not? And by extension; which imperialisms come to matter in efforts to decolonise the academy, and which perhaps do not?

Which international migration flows are studied, and why these?

Whilst the interest in the academic study of international migration is growing, the interest in international migration in Russia and its neigbouring countries is disproportionately small, that is, in the English-language migration studies literature. This is despite the fact that international and regional migration in Russia and its neighbouring countries, by any measure, is a huge contemporary phenomenon. Why? And does this not intersect with issues of defining which knowledge is of interest and relevance?

In migration studies more broadly, questions of power of definition and of colonial legacies, frequently come to the fore. Not least in relation to race. But also in the ways in which colonial legacies matter for migration management policies around the world. Despite the fact that global interconnections and interdependencies are obvious in migration studies, there are unresolved issues and dilemmas insufficiently reflected upon. For instance, in relation to who is an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’ and how researcher positionality impacts findings. It continues to be a challenge that rigid boundaries between “the majority” and “minorities” are taken at face value, obscuring the multiple ways in which power-hierarchies matter in processes of knowledge production and knowledge communication. These are fundamental questions, where matters of power are at the core.

For justice, for knowledge

Finally, from the perspective of research being conducted at an institute such as the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), what might the practical implications of reflecting on decolonising the academy be? As a start, recognising that there can be no peace without justice, and that this, arguably, ought to also involve equitable processes of knowledge production. Here, the obvious backdrop is the extreme imbalance in wealth, whereby academics based in Norway, for all the challenges which exist here, with temporary contracts, among other, are super-privileged in the global context. How then to adopt academic everyday practices which can in anyway contribute to processes of knowledge production that are more equal?

One place to look, is to the ways in which we engage in research collaboration with international partners. Who do we work with and how? Whatever the structural constraints which are there – in the short term – are there things which can be done in order to make such research collaboration practices more equal? And within this – how do we productively engage with conceptions of the world which are – or appear to be – fundamentally different to our own? A first basic step is to recognise that we need to ask ourselves these questions, and to invest time and energy in doing so.

By engaging actively in academic everyday practices that are built on principles of co-production of knowledge – however that translates in different fields – we not only do our small bit to contribute to more equal knowledge production, hence to justice. We also contribute to knowledge production, which through being more equal, can contribute to a global body of knowledge that is more complete.

This blog post was orginally posted on the PRIO blog