Tag Archives: development

Conundrums in the Embrace of the Private Sector

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The humanitarian sector faces an unprecedented number of crises globally. The growing operational and financial deficit in the capacity of governments and humanitarian organizations to respond has led to calls for changes in the way such crises are understood and managed.  This involves a strong focus on cooperation and partnerships with the private sector.  A large part of the allure is the notion that private-public partnerships will make humanitarian response faster by entrenching market-oriented rationalities, thus enhancing effectiveness. This is also how the private sector presents itself:

One should never underestimate the power of private companies who offer aid. Companies are almost always focused on efficiency, good negotiation, building their reputation (their brand) and getting things done on time and on budget (Narfeldt 2007).

Here, I will try to complicate this narrative by pointing out some conundrums in the vigorous humanitarian embrace of the private sector.

Back in 2007, Binder and Witte noted the emergence of a new form of engagement through partnerships between companies and traditional humanitarian actors, often based on a desire to demonstrate corporate social responsibility (CSR) and to motivate employees. In parallel, they observed that the War on Terror had enlarged the scope of traditional work with a role for commercial players to provide relief services. Today, these trends continue as public-private partnerships have emerged as a (donor) preferred humanitarian strategy to increase efficiency and accountability (see for example Drummond and Crawford 2014), goals that to some degree seem to merge as efficiency has become an important way of demonstrating accountability. The rationale for a greater inclusion of the private sector in humanitarian action is that partners can contribute to humanitarian solutions with different expertise and resources. Private companies are profit-driven and thus incentivized to comply with the specific deliverables and time frames set out in contracts. Donors are attracted to low overhead and lesser need for constant engagement and monitoring. Moreover, the private sector owns much of the infrastructure on which information and communication technologies are based.

The objections to private sector engagements are well-known and predictable. The outsourcing of humanitarian action has been criticized by commentators pointing to the loss of ground truth, and to the often poor-quality resulting from the private actors’ lack of understanding of humanitarian action, contextual knowledge, and crisis management skills. It is argued that companies are, by their very nature, mainly interested in “brand, employee motivation and doing more business” (Wassenhove 2014). Intensified private sector engagement thus leads to a marketization of humanitarian values (Weiss 2013) where “the humanitarian ethos is gradually eroded” (Xaba 2014).

In the following, I will instead question the idea of efficacy by challenging some of the assumptions underlying the turn to the private sector. I consider how the call for intensified cooperation overlooks persistent tensions inherent in the humanitarian market and in actors’ rationalities. I also identify what seems to be a fairly prevalent sentiment, namely, the assumption that such cooperation may serve the double objective of delivering humanitarians from the much-loathed Results-Based Management (RBM) regime while simultaneously delivering aid more effectively.

The first difficulty is structural: the turn to business cooperation is informed by the notion that the humanitarian market is inherently efficient and effective because it is a regular market. However, as noted by Binder and Witte, the humanitarian market may be characterized as a “quasi-market,” which exhibits an indirect producer–consumer relationship. In the market for humanitarian relief, the consumer (i.e. the aid recipient) neither purchases nor pays for the delivered service. Aid agencies are the producers, donors the buyers, and aid recipients the consumers. As a result, the market is loaded with asymmetries and uncertainties: Donors have difficulty determining whether the services they pay for are indeed adequately delivered, while recipients have few means of effectively making complaints or airing grievances. Nielsen and Santos (2013) note, for example, the often unanticipated and inappropriate delivery of equipment, as well as personnel. In a trenchant critique, Krause (2014) describes this as a market where agencies produce projects for a quasi-market in which institutional donors are the consumers and populations in need are part of the product being packaged and sold by relief organizations.

Interestingly, the currently most successful technology-based humanitarian endeavor is also a concerted attempt to remedy the quasi-status of the humanitarian market: Over the last decade, the international development community has invested heavily in the so-called financial inclusion agenda, aiming to make poor people less aid-dependent; this is sometimes labelled ‘resilience through asset creation.’ The partnership between the World Food Program and MasterCard, for example, uses “digital innovation to help people around the world to break the cycle of hunger and poverty.” For the World Food Programme, this is part of a broader strategy to move away from food aid and to improve food security through cash assets. As I have noted elsewhere, the underlying rationale is that access to financial services such as credit and savings will “create sizeable welfare benefits” as beneficiaries of aid are drawn further into the market economy as customers. The goal of implementing “cost-effective” electronic payment programs is to help beneficiaries “save money, improve efficiencies and prevent fraud.” The belief is that cash can ‘go where people cannot’ andprovide them with choice. However, while these strategies are motivated explicitly by the desire to turn the beneficiary more directly into a customer, the accountability regime constructed around these systems remains directed upwards to donors.

The second assumption to be examined is that of shared motivation and shared values, going beyond disapproving criticisms of ‘neoliberal governance strategies.’  I think it is important to recognize that call for intensified private sector collaboration masks a rather thin shared understanding of both the nature of humanitarian work and of the competence, presence, and relevance of the private sector, and that this impinges on how this collaboration plays out. Binder and Witte observed that past attempts to pursue partnerships with corporate agencies have often been frustrated as agencies have been unclear about the intended outcomes for the partnership, or have viewed it as a way of developing a long-term funding arrangement. According to Nielsen (2014), private-humanitarian collaboration is currently characterized by underlying disagreement about what constitutes ‘meaningful’ innovation, and how that impinges on responsible innovation and on accountability and CSR more broadly; there is a sense that the humanitarian customer often “does not know what s/he wants.” The private sector actor is frustrated about having to take all the risk in the development of products, while humanitarians fret about taking on future risks, as they will be the ones to face public condemnation and donor criticism if the product fails to aid beneficiaries in the field. Mays et al. (2012) identify a mismatch between humanitarian and business systems, leading to a clash between entrepreneurial and humanitarian values and the imperative to save lives and alleviate suffering. This resonates with my own observations, as humanitarians complain about being offered inadequate or unfeasible solutions; about being used as stepping stones to market access to the greater UN market; or simply about differences in rationality, where the private sector partner frames the transaction commercially by ‘thinking money’ and the humanitarian partner by ‘activity on the ground.’

Finally, the erstwhile push for business management approaches to humanitarian action was the result of a push for greater accountability and a need to professionalize humanitarian work. Perhaps the most significant import was Results-Based Management (RBM), a management strategy “focusing on performance and achievements of outputs, outcome and impact,” which provides a framework and tools for not only planning activities, but also risk management, performance monitoring, and evaluation. Over the course of time, humanitarians have become exasperated and frustrated with the RBM rationale, both because it is sometimes seen to be contrary to principled humanitarian assistance, and more often because RBM and the results agenda engenders a type of bureaucratization where humanitarians feel that they are “performing monitoring” instead of monitoring performance (borrowed from Welle 2014).

While some humanitarians now strive for a shift towards systems accountability (where they will be held to account with respect to their responsibility for maintaining functional and workable supply-chains or information sharing systems, not specifically demarcated deliverables), others see the private sector as the solution to the RBM straightjacket. There seems to have emerged a notion that increased private sector involvement may in fact allow humanitarians to kill two birds with one stone. Much of the attraction of partnerships and outsourcing to the private sector seems to be that RBM obligations can be offloaded to these actors, through subcontracting and outsourcing that details deliverables and outcomes. Hence, the private sector is both envisioned to be faster at delivering RBM-like outputs — now imagined as a separate objective for humanitarian actors — and quicker to deliver humanitarian response.


Note: This blog, written by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (PRIO), was originally posted on the website of the Advanced Training Program on Humanitarian Action (ATHA).

The Humanitarian–Development Nexus: Lessons from Northern Uganda

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International aid can be grouped into two separate realms; humanitarianism and development. Increasingly these segments of the international system rub shoulders, sometimes even overlapping and challenging each other. The realms of humanitarianism and development draw on distinct rationales involving different actors with their particular mandates: humanitarianism’s imminent needs-based approaches building on the principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence are as such fundamentally different from the more long-term, political, rights-based development approaches.

When I lived in Kampala in 2005–6 for my dissertation fieldwork on the World Bank-Uganda partnership, most researchers, international aid agencies, activists and advocacy organisations were focused on the civil war in northern Uganda where the Lord Resistance Army (LRA) had been terrorising, looting, killing and abducting civilians over two decades. Meeting other researchers and other donors I was often asked why I did not focus on the situation in the north. When I arrived Kampala again in 2012 to incept studies on the protection of civilians in northern Uganda, Kampala friends and informants – including representatives of the UN, donor agencies and the government – often asked why I came now, since the humanitarian actors were wrapping up and terminating their activities in northern Uganda, with some relocating to the new hotspot of the northeastern Karamoja region, other withdrawing from Uganda, while some choosing to stay by reconfiguring their aid portfolio.

While seemingly trivial, these brief temporal snapshots – reflecting a general turn in the collective mentality of aid practitioners and researchers – draw attention to more profound questions pertaining to the humanitarian sector and the protection of civilians discourse. The first refers to benchmarks, i.e. how and when do whom decide a situation is no longer a humanitarian crisis but rather a recovery and development phase? Does removing the humanitarian crisis label necessarily mean there are no more humanitarian concerns that need to be attended to? Secondly, what does the transition say about the nexus and interplay between humanitarian action and development activities, and how are humanitarian concerns and protection activities programmed for in a non-humanitarian context?

When I recently visited northern Uganda (February 2014), a representative of the NGO forum said that Gulu, the regional capital, for a long time suffered from NGO obesity, but that the situation now was in reverse – too many NGOs had withdrawn too soon with too much unfinished business. The massive NGO influx causing this obesity was prompted by the CNN effect caused by Jan Egeland when he, in the capacity as head of OCHA, in late 2003 brought attention to the conflict, describing the then 17-years old civil war in northern Uganda as the worst forgotten humanitarian crisis on earth.[1] Soon, the world’s attention was on the civil war in Uganda, and subsequently a plethora of international donors and humanitarian actors moved in with large humanitarian programmes to protect the civilian population and aide the government’s efforts.

For over two decades the Acholi population in Northern Uganda has been affected by the LRA and the government’s failure to sufficiently quell the LRA and stop its terror, looting, killing and abduction, and in the wake of this, to address imminent humanitarian concerns and the widespread lack of development in the northern districts. By 2006 more than 90% of the Acholi population, about 1,7 million peoples, in northern Uganda lived in more than 200 IDP camps seeking refuge and protection from the LRA.

The camps, designated as ‘protected camps’ were set up by the government from 1996 and onwards as a means to protect the civilian population from the civil war. As such, the camps – which the government forced the population to relocate into – are a witness of the government’s own failure to protect its citizenry and its inability to beat the LRA military. Yet, these camps were far from safe. They had high mortality rates due to weak protection and service provision. People within the camps died from violence, malnutrition, malaria and AIDS,[2] and those moving outside of the camp – to go to the market, fetch water, collect firewood, and farm their land – feared being attacked by the rebels. In this context, international donors, NGOs and multilateral organisations played a key role in remedying the situation among civilians both within the camps and in affected communities.

Gulu, the regional capital of northern Uganda was, however, soon put on a strict diet for its NGO-obesity. After the conflict effectively ended in 2006 when the LRA was pushed out of Uganda (yet still at large, roaming the borders of CAR, DRC and South Sudan) and with the start of the peace talks in Juba, South Sudan, people gradually started to move back to their home communities. As such, 2006 marked the start of the end of the humanitarian crisis – at least at the official level: In 2008 the government took the donors to the north showing them that the war had ended, that the guns were silenced and that the people had started to return to their home communities. This was very much the government’s call – just as swift as they decided to establish the camps and forced the rural people to move into them, the government also closed the camps based on its own assessment and claim to victory over the LRA after its massive military offensive code-named Operation Iron Fist (2002–6). International donors – primarily multi- and bilateral ones not present in the north albeit funding activities there – bought into the government’s argument, persuaded that the humanitarian crisis was over and not in need of external humanitarian assistance.

Recasting the situation as a phase of recovery and development, the government urged the donors to move their funding from humanitarian action to development assistance. With this other aid mechanisms become prevalent. Instead of being guided by the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence in which humanitarian actors largely bypass the state to implement their own programmes or provide financial support to activities of existing non-state actors, development assistance is far more political both regarding which programmes that are implemented but also because development aid to a much larger extent should involve domestic state structures under the auspices of the notions of participation and ownership guiding development partnerships.

In northern Uganda, instead of channeling the monies directly to donor selected partners, the government demanded the donors to route their monies via its national budget, as direct budget support. Thus, the government was able to finance its general programmes in the north and to secure the implementation of its own Peace, Recovery and Development Plan (PRDP) and the Northern Uganda Social Action Fund (NUSAF).[3] To the donors, particularly after having consented to the government’s assessment that there no longer was any humanitarian crisis going on, it was hard to rebut the government’s appeal. A consequence of the transition, or the recast of the situation from one of crisis to one of recovery, meant not only a general transition from humanitarian to development aid. It also meant a dramatic reduction in the number and scope of humanitarian NGOs and activities to the advance of the government’s own plans now funded by external actors.

However, despite relative peace having gradually returned to the area, humanitarian concerns persist and multiple legacies of the conflict have still not been fully addressed. The transition from humanitarianism to development came sudden, and today’s common rendering of this change is that too many organizations withdrew too soon with too much unfinished business that are not sufficiently addressed by the government’s development plans. These concerns include issues of repatriating and reintegrating former abductees and LRA soldiers, reducing the prevalence of guns among civilians; reducing the amount of unexploded ordinances; address the psycho-social effects of violence and war, particularly emanating from the inhumane IDP camp policy and the camps as a system of ‘social torture’.

When returning from the camps many realized their land had been occupied. Hence issues of land rights and access to arable land in an area where the majority depends on subsistence farming are major concern and source to violence and social unrest. This, coupled with lack of farming knowledge among those born and raised in the camps, have made many of the returning IDPs to settle in the urban areas, notably in and around Gulu, where idleness and unemployment cause drinking, social problems and violence, including gender based violence. The social services are weak and largely missing, the governance system is malfunctioning and there is a lack of democracy. The development of social services as e.g. schools and health clinics was paused during the conflict. The civilian population is not properly aware of their rights, and different traditional structures and justice systems still prevail over the formal governmental framework making access to justice arbitrary and largely limited to urban areas.

In sum, there are many concerns that challenge both the individual and collective peace and security in northern Uganda. Admittedly, many of these issues are not only of a humanitarian matter but pertain perhaps equally to the realm of development aid. To a large extent these problems are of the same ilk as found elsewhere in Uganda, and might just as much be linked to poverty as to the civil war. It is, however, undeniable that in Northern Uganda these problems have been exacerbated by the prolonged conflict and the lack of development over the last two decades. The challenges have also become more visible after the end of the conflict, gradually surfacing with the withdrawal of humanitarian actors erstwhile filling the void of the government’s lack of protection and service delivery.

Yet, the question remains whether these concerns should be understood and addressed as pertaining to the realm of humanitarianism or development – and indeed the extent to which such a distinction, if at all, is relevant. Returning to the two initial questions referring to benchmarking and the humanitarian–development nexus, the case of northern Uganda provides for some interesting observations.

Regarding benchmarking, the case demonstrates that removing the humanitarian crisis-label from the situation in northern Uganda was far from merely based on an assessment of the humanitarian needs on the ground and among the affected population. While the situation in the north has improved significantly over the last years, recasting it as one of development has most likely served less the needs of the civilians than the government’s needs to reassert control over the north and claim victory over the LRA. Interlinked, the case illustrates how it matters whether one classifies the situation as one of humanitarian crisis or as one of post-conflict recovery and development, as this translates into which part of the international toolbox that is at your disposal – and indeed conversely, that it provides limitations on what type of actors and activities that are present in the given situation: the demise of the humanitarian actors also meant removing critical rights based advocacy groups and activities not only bypassing the government but often also challenging it.

Development activities are nominally more conducive to the government’s own strategies and structures. As the Ugandan columnist Andrew Mwenda holds, the Ugandan government has for decades played politics with the conflict in the north, transforming it into an opportunity for regime survival by enabling the government to quell political resistance under the auspices of civilian protection.[4] With this, however, came a plethora of international actors that not only aimed to aide the situation, but also gave attention to the political challenges and weak governance. Moving into the development phase could thus be seen as one way of getting rid of the many critical voices. More profound, however, is how the nominal move from humanitarianism to development can be seen as a means of the government’s long-term strategy of political consolidation and rebutting political opposition in the north, now driven by foreign aid.

The case also informs about another inevitable concern of protracted crises and the war-to-peace-continuum where it is difficult to demarcate the transition from one phase to the next, i.e. the nexus of humanitarianism and development – and thus what often is described in negative terms as a humanitarian mission creep. Humanitarianism and development are two features of international aid. Despite overlaps, they work according to different principles, where humanitarianism’s claim to neutrality rubs shoulder with the politics of development. Obviously, and as many have pointed out in a number of cases, including Northern Uganda, the practices of humanitarian aid tends to fall far from its guiding principles. If not by intention, humanitarianism operates in a political landscape and inevitably has political effects. The complex linkages of the Ugandan government, local and international agencies and NGOs, as well as the current and historical political opposition emanating from the north have made humanitarianism part of the political context.

The relationship between the two-pronged sides of international aid is nevertheless a matter of perspective. While the nexus between humanitarianism and development causes disturbance among policymakers and debates in conference rooms at the headquarters level, those working in the field often have a more pragmatic relation to this schism, and the intended beneficiaries of international aid tend not to distinguish between humanitarian action and development aid. Yet, as argued above, their differences have practical effects for the delivery of aid and the protection of civilians – as observed in the ongoing transition humanitarianism to development in Northern Uganda.


[1] http://reliefweb.int/report/uganda/war-northern-uganda-worlds-worst-forgotten-crisis-un

[2] http://www.irinnews.org/report/56063/uganda-1-000-displaced-die-every-week-in-war-torn-north-report

[3] It should be noted that these programmes, run and coordinated by the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) came under critical donor scrutiny from 2012 and onwards due to the unmasking of rampant corruption, thus causing donors to reduce support to these programmes.

[4] Mwenda, A. (2010). Uganda’s politics of foreign aid and violent conflict: the political uses of the LRA rebellion. The Lord’s Resistance Army. Myth and reality. T. Allen and K. Vlassenroot. London, Zed Books: 45-58.

Mali: Humanitarian Challenges and Fragile Security, What Role for the UN?

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Despite heavy August rain, Gunhilde Utsogn (Special Assistant to the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, Mali) and John Karlsrud’s (NUPI) discussion on the humanitarian challenges facing Mail drew a large audience of academics, NGO workers, representatives from international organizations, embassies and the Norwegian armed forces to PRIO. Co-hosted by PRIO and NCHS, the seminar aimed to take stock of current developments in Mali and their ramifications for humanitarian action, as the war-torn country holds elections and welcomes the UN MINUSMA peacekeeping mission.

The events occurring in Mali are often presented as a fall-out from the Libya conflict: Northern Malians, who had for decades resided in Libya, returned to Mali well-trained and well-armed after the fall of Qadhafi. Northern Mali has a long history of Tuareg-rebellion against the Southern elite located in the capital Bamako, and has over the years seen a smuggler economy develop in the region, as it serves as a transit route for drug trafficking from South America to Europe as well as for weapons trafficking. Frustrated by the presidents’ handling of the rebellion, and by the rebels’ easy defeat of the Malian army; a faction of young officers seized power in a coup in March 2012. The Tuaregs took over control over the North of Mali in the power vacuum that followed, only to lose this control to the well-armed Islamists shortly after. The transitional president subsequently invited France to come to the rescue. In January 2013, French troops intervened militarily to stop the advance of the Islamists, following their capture of key towns in the North. Yet despite the military successes of the French troops breaking the Islamists’ control of this part of the country, the security situation remains volatile. In April, the UN Security Council agreed to send troops to take over from the French and African forces. This peacekeeping force, to which Norway has committed to contribute, began arriving last month. Meanwhile, an accord was signed between the Malian government and the Tuareg rebellion at the end of June in Ouagadougou. Despite some irregularities, the first round of presidential elections on July 28 saw a record turn-out of voters and the second round was conducted successfully on 11 August, leading to the victory of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

However, the humanitarian situation in the region remains highly precarious. For many observers, the challenge in Mali is not so much an emergency as a development crisis, where long term strategies are needed. Even before the 2012-events, food insecurity was chronic, with hundreds of thousands of malnourished children. The rainy season frequently brings cholera outbreaks. Yet, the conflict has undoubtedly exacerbated the problems: 800,000 children have already missed a school year. Despite the generosity of neighboring countries in opening their borders, the high number of Malian refugees in the region and the displaced population inside the country makes the situation even more fragile.

The key issue emerging from the debate between the speakers and the audience is whether the current UN mission, with its ambitious but highly aggressive mandate, is what Mali needs?

MINUSMA will be a fairly standard large multidimensional peacekeeping mission, with about 11200 troops, 1440 police and probably more than 1000 international and national civilian staff. The mandate authorizes MINUSMA to stabilize key population centers and to “deter threats and take active steps to prevent the return of armed elements to those areas”. It should also create a secure environment and secure the main roads. The French troops in Serval will operate alongside MINUSMA “to intervene in support of elements of MINUSMA”. MINUSMA is also given a broad range of substantive tasks including security sector reform, demobilization and reintegration of armed rebels, including children, good offices, supporting an inclusive dialogue, and supporting the presidential and legislative elections.

Although the mandate is fairly aggressive if one reads between the lines, it is not as explicit as the mandate that recently was given to MONUSCO in the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, the trend of increasingly assertive mandates given to peace operations, effectively turning these operations into peace enforcement operations is worrying. None of the traditional principles for UN peacekeeping will in effect apply – including consent of all the parties, the non-use of force and impartiality. MINUSMA is also tasked with supporting the new government in re-establishing or extending state authority and few if any will be in doubt about the fact that the mission will be partial. The human rights record of the national army is weak at best, and although the mandate includes a task in training the national army, human rights violations can be expected to continue, in turn also tainting MINUSMA.

It is also paradoxes that while the mandates for UN peacekeeping operations are becoming increasingly aggressive; the tolerance for losses of UN troops is going down. Since the bombings of the UN HQ in Baghdad in 2003, in Algeria in 2007, and other more recent attacks in Nigeria, Afghanistan and South Sudan, the UN has been criticized for its ‘bunkerisation’ – imposing increasingly strict security measures that in effect closes the UN off from contact with the local population. This is especially the case for the UN’s humanitarian agencies but also its civilian peacekeepers. Although the UN argues that this is not the case so far in Mali, only one successful terrorist attack can and will change this situation overnight. The increasing likelihood of “terrorist” attacks against aggressive UN peace “enforcement”, also means that attacks against other UN agencies operating in the same volatile area, or humanitarians for that matter, may increase.

Internally, the aggressive mandate of MINUSMA also deepens the schisms between the military, political and development components of the UN on the one hand, and the humanitarians on the other. From the humanitarian perspective, there is considerable concern that the peacekeeping mission will infringe on the humanitarian space (humanitarian agencies to operate safely and effectively on the ground) and compromise humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and universality, understood by humanitarians themselves as preconditions for gaining access to civilians in war-torn areas. UN humanitarian actors may soon find themselves imposed with escorts due to a tightening of security rules and the mandate to secure roads in the North. In what is still effectively a war zone, the different parts of the UN may very quickly come at odds with each other.

These concerns are well-known from debates on the costs of stabilization missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the last two decades, peacebuilding and stabilization programs have incorporated humanitarian aspects into their mandates, contributing to serious problems in the field for humanitarian actors.

Over the last decade a division of labor has developed between international organizations engaged in conflict and post-conflict situations in Africa. Regional and sub-regional organizations have engaged in the sharper end of conflicts with peace enforcement missions, e.g. in Somalia, while the UN has focused on the following phase of peacekeeping. Naturally, many cases blur this distinction, but in principle this has been a mutually good division of work. However, with the recent mandates for MONUSCO in DRC and MINUSMA in Mali, a worrying trend of a more aggressive UN is emerging. To sum up the discussion, a central question is if this aggressive peacekeeping is what Mali needs and which long-term consequences for humanitarian action can be expected?

A Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies?

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This is our first blog posting at the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies. The Centre is the brainchild of a multidisciplinary group of researchers from CMI, NUPI and PRIO, while the blog will host a mixture of reports from the field; thoughts on new issues such as emerging donors, urban violence and humanitarian technology; discussions on (in the first place Norwegian) humanitarian policy and critical reflections on the emergent field of humanitarian studies. We welcome your comments and inputs.

Change is upon international humanitarianism.

Whether caused by violent conflicts or natural disasters, humanitarian interventions (armed and unarmed) raise fundamental questions about ethics, sovereignty, and political power. The global humanitarian system has gone through significant, and often poorly understood, changes over the last two decades. What are the implications for the protection of civilians? Humanitarian work has expanded to cover more long-term development activities at the same time as emergencies have become more frequent. Meanwhile the division between man-made and “natural” disasters is getting increasingly blurred. Humanitarian reform initiatives, with their focus on accountability, transparency and financing, have become institutionalized. But they are raising further questions in their wake.

New actors are rapidly transforming the humanitarian landscape: heavyweights like China, Brazil and Turkey engage in cross-border humanitarian action in ways that differ from the “classic” humanitarianism of Northern donors.  Global philanthropy and the rise of “for profit” NGOs reshape the political economy of humanitarian aid. Social media and so-called “humanitarian technologies” continue to transform understandings of what disasters are, and how civilians can be aided and protected.

In the midst of this, most humanitarian assistance remains a local affair: Human rights groups, social movements and a multiplicity of faith-based organizations bring their specific rationalities to the table in their efforts to address the needs of community members and displaced individuals fleeing from crisis. And of course, for all that humanitarianism is constantly in the news, most of the time the international community is not present, or it arrives too late.

The Norwegian government and Norwegian NGOs have long been (and remain) important actors on the humanitarian stage.

Humanitarian principles are central to overall Norwegian foreign policy, and humanitarian donorship is central to the Norwegian national identity.  In 2011, funding for humanitarian issues totaled 3, 3 billion Norwegian Kroner. This constituted 12% of the Norwegian aid budget, and according to OECD/DAC, the Norwegian contribution represented around 3 % of all humanitarian aid given.  Norway is home to myriad organizations that self-define as “humanitarian”, ranging from mom-and-pop shops to the big internationally known organizations like the Norwegian Red Cross, the Norwegian Refugee Council, CARE International, Save the Children Norway, the Norwegian Peoples Aid and the Norwegian Church Aid.

These organizations work in conflict zones across the globe. While Norway’s roles in peace negotiations and in development aid have been contentious issues for some time, the channeling of these funds to the world’s emergency zones has so far been relatively uncontroversial at home.  For all Norway’s imprint around the globe there is surprisingly little public debate about humanitarian issues in Norway itself.

Based on our work in a range of conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Colombia, the Horn of Africa and the two Sudans; in post-conflict settings like Liberia and Uganda; and in the air-conditioned meeting rooms of the “humanitarian international” in New York and Geneva, our aim is to change that.