Tag Archives: Humanitarian Studies

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

The humanitarian triad

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Three (at least) humanitarian imperatives should inform the taking moral and/or material action across borders in the name of humanity, not only the one – to act – that we all know: a just cause, addressed by just means, so as to achieve a just outcome. The trick if one may so put it of achieving a justifiable humanitarian morality-in-practice, and studies thereof, is to keep all three imperatives in play, under care and control, in the air, and of course on the ground, all at once. Shall we speak then of an imperative humanitarian triad to maximize humanitarian gain, and minimize humanitarian loss.

It behoves anyway always to think plural about noble keywords, that work also as lockwords, of which humanitarian is one, about their passive as well as active performative verbal dances. Ever mindful we should be too of what appears to have been the first use of ‘humanity’ as in the ‘crimes against’ phrase: as code for not ‘all of’, but specifically only ‘one section of’, humankind. In the nineteenth century a Russian foreign minister sought and found a euphemism – ‘humanity – for the persecuted Christian Armenians in a mostly non-Christian area in the Middle East whom the West wanted to aid. Only the other day much the same wording, for a similar situation, was on the waves again. What may appear purely universalist on first sight is revealed on analysis to be not that, but impurely particularist.

If, as I believe, it would be correct to say that precisely why some – not other – just causes are internationally taken up, say by an INGO, has not been much researched, then that surely is one obvious candidate for our urgent attention. Another is precisely how civil humanitarian intervention (as I wish to name it) being unlike armed operations being scarcely ever conceptualised as intervention, but as aid only, and as if somehow method-less: just ‘helping as one can’. CHI normally seems to get left out of intervention research completely (a recent edited collection of essays is exceptional as well as of itself a brilliant new contribution to humanitarian studies at large) . Further, while ex post humanitarian evaluation concepts and approaches continue to be developed, by comparison ex ante evaluation does not. Indeed it makes scarcely any appearance whatsoever in any of the standard manuals on gathering outcomes-oriented intelligence, evidence. If, again as I believe that is because quite how to do that is publicly anyway pretty much unknown, we have already a third area for urgent research by a humanitarian studies programme – including research to determine whether, if so how, when, and by which humanitarian agencies or divisions, ex ante modelling of likely outcomes are taken into account or not when deciding where to intervene.

What, on the other hand, has become lately only the more and more widely well known, frequently commented on in the media and elsewhere (for example after Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya), is humanitarian’s dark side: its errance-in-practice. Compassion across borders (or for that matter domestically), carried out whether smartly or otherwise, can kill as well as cure; be directed with care and responsibility or without; be wrongly assumed to work best either in a vacuum or through ‘mechanisms’ only. Moreover, it comes often with nothing but angry disconnects between two of its main sub-cultures (as an anthropologist would call them) of engagement, practice, and alterity: international humanitarian succour through for example emergency relief assistance, and international human solidarity through human rights protection. While even severely critical evaluation studies may not fail to recognise that, while either assistance or protection ‘saves lives’, in other regards or cases there may be little positive effect, or even some matters made worse. Civil, and military, humanitarian intervention, are alike in this regard, anyway as in civil-police-military (CIMPIT) operations often they find themselves combined somehow.

As for assistance people and protection people and their mores and ways, who qualify or do not qualify as ‘humanitarian’, ‘life saving’, can at time be constantly at issue each each denying the other set that encomium.

By the way, when the history of humanitarian assistance comes to be written, there will, I am sure be something to distil and learn from perhaps the first (fragmentarily) recorded instance international humanitarian assistance (ex post) evaluation that – somewhat serendipitly – my own reading has come up with as to outcomes: what has survived of the Roman evaluations of the outcomes (and surrounding issues) of their susciperetur humanitate to the goths as their empire was failing. It is extraordinary how absolutely contemporary what was perceived then, and as perceived then, remain today, two millennia later.

Being still largely institutionalised in part in patterns which are more supply-, than demand-, conditioned, humanitarian assistance and/or protection by itself guarantees nothing other than for some self-righteousness, personal redemption, and the like, not an effective service and its delivery and disribution; is not necessarily a self-evident good to those in whose image, and for whose needs, its funders and providers validate, brand and perhaps deliver it even when in accordance with ICRC protocol . It may even escape serious ex post outcomes-oriented evaluation and accountability altogether, let alone the ex ante kind of anticipatory evaluation the normal absence of which in public has been already noticed. The extent to which big aid charities in the UK know and say – if mainly only in closed meetings? – that they can now raise resources relatively ‘easily’ and ‘regardless’ of any pressures to guarantee proportionate results , is currently another part of the broader picture of the current international humanitarian aid scene. When, belatedly three months or so ago in London, I came to realize that hard fact of the matter, when attending one such closed meeting as kindly invited, I confess I was greatly surprised, and disconcerted. Moreover it followed another – to me – revelation only a week earlier, a finding from some new historical research: some of the presently major UK charities at their very beginnings, while open to charges of being amateur and unprofessional in some regards, were never that in their fund raising.

To research the humanitarian morality of various kinds of material and immaterial action taken – or threatened or withheld or denied – across borders in the name of humanity, continues therefore to have a number of difficult challenges to contend with, starting with the concept ‘morality’ itself, and ‘humanity’ [followed then by that of ‘intervention’ – whether military or civil – as to be worked through in my last seminar in this series of four, to be given as was the first at Bjorknes: the second, tomorrow, is what a couple of months of ‘small print’ qualitative anthropological interviews and observations (by Luigi Achilli and myself assisted greatly by Alice Massari) earlier this year among the UNHCR-defined Syrian refugees in Jordan, while specifically as commissioned on nutrition, threw up that if followed up by further, quantitative research this time, might potentially feed a different wider picture than appears to be generally accepted at present].

Among much else, what for the research proposed is required for present purposes is recourse to not an abstract, academic, moral philosophy, and merely a dictionary, etymological, type of definition of what morally (and otherwise) it means to be humanitarian, so much as an ethnographically- grounded approach to humanitarian morality-in-practice. Humanitarian justice as for example actually delivered by the Hague court is as much – or more – an output of its (divided) operational culture, as of any single best theory of international law. Humanitarian reason, far from being a matter of cognition and the intellect alone, goes beyond ordinary logic. Humanitarian praxis is much more than just effective practice, and project operations, only.

Present purposes then will be best served then by relationally dimensionalizing, rather than to seeking to come up with any single, trumping, best defining of, what humanitarian ought to be, or is, or does. Hence ‘the humanitarian triad’ of the present remarks. Humanitarian praxis, whether under fire or not, is normally as highly emotionally charged and fraught as at the same time from case to case, and context to context, is logically and practically demanding, necessarily as pragmatic as again at the same time principled. Aswellas-ism reigns.

 ……

Note by Professor Apthorpe:

An anthropologist of sorts, I have the honour currently of being currently a Vice President of Council at the Royal Anthropological Institute, London, and likely from next month also awarded a visiting, teaching, professorship in humanitarian studies at the LSE in that city. I confess to not yet having given up on wanting to bring between covers something based on my 2005-2009 classes on international humanitarian assistance that were devised for an optional (but hugely subscribed) course in an ANU graduate programme in international affairs (that originally was co-sponsored by PRIO and boasted a number of Norwegian civil, and sometimes also military, participants each year, indeed my present kind host at Bjorknes was one – of the former). Given in an international relations department, those classes reflected that setting, and critical theory. Much else remains to be added to the mix. Whether they were the first such university graduate level classes or not, last year under the title now of ‘Post-pieties?’ a souvenir I wrote of them made it to raymondapthorpe.com at least.

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.