Tag Archives: humanitarianism

Close your eyes and picture “a humanitarian”. What do you see?

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The imperial past and the humanitarian present

This post first appeared on the CMI webpages, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. Salla Turunen is a Doctoral Researcher at Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI).

Yemen, Hajjah, Abs, Khudaish Camp, 13 June 2019. Photo: WFP/Mohammed Awadh

In the spring of 2017, a shocking piece of news popped on my morning news screen – two UN staff members, Zaida Catalán and Michael Sharp, a Swede and an American, had been killed in the central province of Kasai of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They were kidnapped along with three Congolese drivers and an interpreter, and two weeks later, Catalán’s and Sharp’s bodies were found. Catalán had been decapitated. 

Out of the horrific news I read daily, this one lived on both in the public eye and within my mind. But why this news in particular? Was it because I was preparing to embark on my first field office location as a UN staff member that spring? Or was it because Catalán was a Swede and I am a Finn, hence this event hit close to home? The broader issue here, obviously, is what enabled something to touch me on a personal level, while other manifestations of violence or misery remains ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

Catalán’s and Sharp’s dreadful ends raised waves of media attention.[1] Less is known internationally what happened to their three Congolese drivers and interpreter. Also, few would be able to connect the place and time of Catalán and Sharp’s disappearances with the decapitation of more than 40 Congolese police officers.[2] Further, perhaps even fewer could point out the decades of ongoing atrocious violence and mass graves in the region, tracing back to Rwandan genocide and beyond.

UN Sepical Envoy to the Great Lake Region, Mary Robinson’s convoy make a late trip back to Goma after she met with DRC president, Joseph Kabila in Rutshuru, the 29th of Novembre 2013 © Sylvain Liechti

Attacks against aid workers is increasing alongside the politization of their participation and motives. The most recent Aid Worker Security Report from 2019 states that the reporting year of 2018 was the second worst year on record for aid worker security. In 2018 alone 405 aid workers were affected by major violence: 131 were killed, 144 wounded and 130 kidnapped.[1] Contradictory to the media spotlight, the majority of the victims of these attacks were national staff members of the UN organizations and non-governmental organizations and received little international attention.[2] The Aid Worker Security Report continues:

“National staff, always the majority of victims in absolute numbers, now also experience increased attack rates and fatality rates per capita relative to international staff, reflecting increased localisation of aid in high-risk areas.”[3]

Why is it then fairly easy for me to recall and write about an event affecting international staff members over three years ago in contrast to something more recent with national staff members?

The geographical origins and skin colors of stereotypical humanitarians is one manifestation of its histories. As a researcher in the field of humanitarianism, I see how histories of race, ethnicity, colonialism, imperialism and Global South-Global North relations are ever-present and cross-cutting. These themes are woven into the fabric of what we understand as humanitarianism, wherein humanitarianism does not exist separately from the non-humanitarian world and, rather, is a product of it.

In a traditional understanding,[1] humanitarian principles of humanity, independence, neutrality and impartiality direct towards helping those whose human dignity is being threatened and violated. But, importantly, humanitarian misfortune – and particularly the severity of it – does not emerge from a vacuum. Even in the case of natural disasters, a high-income country is better equipped in rapid and effective response compared to a failing state. It is here where these histories and trajectories play a role, both on the sides of people in humanitarian need and the humanitarians themselves.

In shedding light on the details of ‘how’ these historical roles and trajectories manifest, I turn to Hannah Arendt. As an individual with personal experiences of antisemitism under Nazi Germany and one of the twentieth century’s foremost political philosophers, she is a master in analysis of origins of human cruelty and inequality.[2] Arendt’s ‘Origins of Totalitarianism’ refers to the overlap of racism and imperialism which is elemental in understanding the history of Western humanitarianism and further, the humanitarian world of today.[3]

On the one hand, Arendt considers racism as the totalizing concept and main driver behind systematic and structural inequality and deprivation. It originates from historical developments of race-thinking which captured the fatal conceptualization of race. For Arendt, the European ideology of race signified the worst of Western civilization with the most devastating consequences: “race is, politically speaking, not the beginning of humanity but its end, not the origin of peoples but their decay, not the natural birth of man but his unnatural death”.[4]

On the other hand, imperialism, as understood in an Arendtian sense, was a child of racism and colonialism originating in the ‘Scramble for Africa’ and beginning in the 1880s. Imperialism seeks to expand political powers overseas by interference par excellence in other governance regimes and ways of living. Arendt capsulizes imperialist attempt as dividing “mankind into master races and slave races, into higher and lower breeds, into colored peoples and white men”.[5]

In the on-going era of ‘black lives matter’, a prominent question is why white lives matter already?

The historical trajectory of racism and imperialism provides an understanding to this question, although without making the current situation any more just. One key configuration is that race has married class and its unequal power networks since the beginning. According to Arendt, race-thinking was integrated with the class societies of the nation-state building West of the 18th century. Based on an imperialist political philosophy which incorporated businessmen into politicians[6], the law of the state illustrated not a “question of right or wrong, but only absolute obedience, the blind conformism of bourgeois society”.[7] Whereas race substituted nation as the principle body politic, bureaucracy was the principle for foreign domination,[8] the glue holding overseas expansionism together.

Distribution of famine relief in the Madras Presidency. From the Illustrated London News (May 26,1877) via Wikimedia Commons

Connections can be drawn between the racial and imperial past and the humanitarian present, and also to the events of DRC in 2017 with the dramatic loss of aid workers. Humanitarianism is a product of its surrounding world and its roots lay in the same soil. A known researcher in humanitarianism, Michael Barnett, goes as far as to label the period of 1800–1945 as “the age of imperial humanitarianism”, from which the subsequent ages of humanitarianism followed.[9] The stereotype of a white humanitarian has been around long enough for our minds to associate seamlessly with it:

If you close your eyes and picture “a humanitarian”, what do you see?

These connections continue further. On a conceptual level, imperialism was, and political expansionism is, often paved with alleged humanitarian intent. Further, both humanitarian intervention and imperialism are located in the spectrum of international interventionism. On a practical level, and borrowing Arendt’s words, interventionism is primed with Western riches, not only monetarily, but also “in education, technical know-how, and general competence” (often applicable among humanitarians), which then also “has plagued international relations ever since the beginning of genuine world politics”.[10] An illustrative example is that consequentially to the ‘Scramble for Africa’ and many other related developments, the following humanitarian interventions found geopolitical ground in Africa and many of the biggest humanitarian aid receivers can still be found on the continent today. This dance between the imperial past and the humanitarian present can, of course, be found also in other places.

When racism and imperialism combined, human lives got different price tags based on geographical origins and skin color. While this was also true under colonialism, imperial ideology continues to travel by ideas. Talal Asad captures one of these fatal ideas:

“the death of poor people in the world does not matter as much as the death of people in affluent societies. In saying this and acting on this belief, the patterns of living and dying in the world come to be affected by it.”[11]

Prior their deaths, the patterns of Catalán’s and Sharp’s living varied from that of their Congolese drivers and interpreters. After all, they were the “UN experts” on their mission.[12] Is it, then, only following the unjust logic that difference also marked the pattern of their deaths?

The events of DRC are illustrative in the humanitarian context, particularly of the attention being paid to national and international humanitarian workers. Transcending from imperialism, the idea of human worth becomes a subjective estimate based on racial origins in which Western whiteness is the social norm.[13] This, of course, does not equate to whiteness becoming a safe haven for peace and prosperity. Whiteness can transcend further into specificities, divided by religious differences, nationalities and minority-majority politics. Turning to the example of Nazi Germany, certain categories of whiteness were prioritized over others.

But to conclude where I started, in Congo. In a humanitarian sense, what we pay attention to and what resonates with us on a personal level is a complex myriad of conscious and unconscious ideas of human worth. Were Catalán’s and Sharp’s lives worth more than that of their driver and interpreter companions? If measured in terms of public outcry, the answer seems to be yes. If measured in terms of grief caused by a loss of a family member, my estimate would be to say no. Perhaps it is trivial to even talk about measurements on a such horrific occasion. Rather, and on a personal note, why did I get shaken by the decapitation of one white woman, but miss the news of decapitation of over 40 Congolese police officers, when the context was the same? My best bet is to turn to the racial and imperial history from which our present conceptualizations and understanding of the world stems, and start to unlearn from there.

[1] See, for example, the statement by the United Nations Secretary-General at https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2017-03-28/statement-secretary-general-death-two-members-group-experts, the Human Rights Watch at https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/03/28/dr-congo-bodies-two-un-experts-found, the New York Times at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/20/world/africa/congo-zaida-catalan-michael-j-sharp-united-nations-democratic-republic-of-congo.html, Foreign Policy at https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/11/27/congolese-cover-up-un-congo-murder-zaida-catalan-michael-sharp/ and the Amnesty International at https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/11/drc-un-must-investigate-disturbing-cover-up-claims-over-murders-of-experts/.

[2] See the Guardian at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/26/congolese-militia-decapitates-more-than-40-policemen-as-violence-grows.

[3] Humanitarian Outcomes, Aid Worker Security Report 2019, available at https://www.humanitarianoutcomes.org/sites/default/files/publications/awsr_2019_0.pdf

[4] Foreword by Egeland, J. in Weiss, T. G., & Barnett, M. (2013). Humanitarianism contested: Where angels fear to tread. Routledge.

[5] Humanitarian Outcomes, Aid Worker Security Report 2019, p. 2.

[6] With this concept I refer to the mode of humanitarianism represented by its classical actors, such as the IFRC and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), who defend the ethical terms and neutrality of their practice. Comparatively, new forms of humanitarianism can be seen strictly instrumental toward desired outcomes, such as introducing democracy and overthrowing oppressive groups, see for example Mascarenhas, M. (2017). New humanitarianism and the crisis of charity: Good intentions on the road to help: Indiana University Press.

[7] In the field of humanitarian studies, I am not, by any means, the first or the last to affiliate to Arendt. Some contemporary examples include Owens, P. “Hannah Arendt, Violence, and the Inescapable Fact of Humanity”, in Anthony F. Lang Jr and Williams, J. (eds). Hannah Arendt and International Relations: Readings Across the Lines, Palgrave, London, 2005; Young, I. M. “Power, Violence, and Legitimacy: A Reading of Hannah Arendt in an Age of Police Brutality and Humanitarian Intervention”, in Minow, M. (ed.) Breaking the Cycles of Hatred: Memory, Law, and Repair, (2002): 260-287, and Weizman, E. The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza. Verso Books, 2011.

[8] Arendt herself addresses this issue only on rare occasions, rather, numerous similar references to human rights can be found in the publication.

[9] Arendt, H. (2004). The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Schocken, p. 209.

[10] Ibid, p. 202.

[11] Ibid, p. 185.

[12] Ibid, p. 189.

[13] Ibid, p. 242.

[14] Barnett, M. (2011). Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

[15] Arendt, H. (2004). The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Schocken, p. 163.

[16] Asad, T. (2007). On Suicide bombing. New York: Columbia University Press.

[17] See for example Human Rights Watch, available at https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/03/28/dr-congo-bodies-two-un-experts-found.

[18] I claim that here an intersectional connection to gender can be found; similar to male gender in the spectrum of genders, whiteness in the spectrum of races is “not an identity, not a particularizing quality, because it is everything”. Haywood, C. and Mac an Ghaill, M. 2003. Men and masculinities: Theory, research and social practice. Buckingham: Open University Press, p. 103.

Israeli annexation plan will spark catastrophe for besieged Palestinians: the world must act

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Dr. Ghassan Elkahlout is Head of the MSc. Program in Conflict Management and Humanitarian Action at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies.

IDF paratroopers in 2018. Photo: Israeli Defense Force via Flickr

As the world fixates on the novel coronavirus crisis, the Israeli government has inflicted a not so novel disaster on the Palestinians: the annexation of territories in the West Bank. A unilateral step amplifying the predicament present in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, there is no doubt that the seemingly ceaseless conflict will have significant and grave consequences.

As a continuation of the “Deal of the Century” presented by the U.S.A earlier this year, the Prime Minister of Israel has repeatedly declared his intention to annex up to 30% of the West Bank from July 1st, with his sights set on the Jordan Valley and many of the illegal Israeli settlements throughout the region. His justification is that it’s merely an extension of sovereignty.  

The Palestinian Authority condemned Netanyahu’s plan and promised an array of measures including severing funding to the unlivable Gaza Strip and cutting the salaries of thousands of officers and clerks. In support, Qatar, one of the Strip’s major humanitarian donors, has announced it may suspend financial aid to the Strip. These measures aim to hold Israel responsible as a military occupier, in an effort to deter the annexation plans. However, the consequence of such interventions would be catastrophic for Gaza, pushing it over the brink into eventual collapse and driving millions of Palestinians further into the abyss of occupation and blockade.

What’s next for the impoverished Gaza Strip?

Cutting salaries to PA’s servants and stopping humanitarian aid to Gaza will worsen the already bleak situation.  Over 70,000 Palestinians in Gaza would lose their livelihoods. This would be disastrous against the backdrop of existing financial crisis faced by the main United Nations agency working in the Strip, the UNRWA – which this year received only one-third of its $1.2 billion dollar budget, the lowest raised in 70 years according to Elizabeth Campbell, UNRWA’S director in Washington. Many people will plunge beneath the extreme poverty line, joining the almost 38% of the population already below it. With 70% of Gazans already food insecure, the UN predict that 1 million people may go hungry.  

Gaza has been in dire humanitarian crisis for the last two decades. The 14-years Israeli-imposed blockade has been a vacuum of hope and stability, with devastating impacts for Palestinians. According to the World Bank, unemployment has risen to 53% (67% for young Gazans) . Since 2007, the gross domestic product of Gaza has shrunk by 50%.

Efforts to ease the suffering in Gaza has been regularly strangled.  Many humanitarian actors adopt a ‘no contact policy, minimising their interactions with the de-facto ruling party of Gaza, Hamas. Major humanitarian organisations are forced to operate in an environment constructed to keep them out; a significant number cannot deliver their humanitarian programming. Those that can enter the dwindling humanitarian space face the threat of being accused of funding terrorism.

Without an immediate change, supporting the impoverished population will become even more of a mammoth task, with little resources to support such efforts and vital international backing absent. Inevitably, many Gazans will feel as though violence is their only resort. Is Israel and the international community prepared for the prospect of another outbreak of a third uprising?

 The international responsibility

The rise of social and economic adversities across the Middle East has caused nations to turn towards the Palestinian cause. However, Palestine, and Gaza in particular, has never before experienced such humanitarian turmoil. As the world faces a unified struggle against Covid-19, it is crucial that the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is not neglected. Immediate action is required to stave off catastrophe. The international community must act with rigor and intent to alleviate Gaza’s economic and social crisis. Humanitarian action has been regularly implemented in Gaza – but this is not enough. The international community should exert pressure on Israel to stop any unilateral steps. The stagnant peace process must be revived.  However,  continued lack of political will to reach a solution provides a gloomy outlook on the political future of Palestinians. Nevertheless, the international community must strive to achieve the bare minimum, which is immediately providing effective humanitarian relief to the depleted Gaza strip. The clock is ticking. Gaza is on the verge of complete subsistence, never has the need for purposeful and resolute action been greater.

The Politics of Humanitarian Aid to Myanmar

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This text first appeared on PK Forum, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. Marte Nilsen is Senior Researcher at Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

Women in a market in Myanmar. Photo: eGuide Travel CC BY

I felt like I had defeated the dictators when I walked out of Yangon’s Mingeladon airport for the first time, more than 20 years ago. Unnoticed, I had sneaked out of the que and avoided the mandatory exchange of three new, unfolded, and spotless 100-dollar bills into the FEC monopoly money that the Myanmar military regime made foreigners use. Before arrival, I had gone many rounds with myself considering the ethical dilemma of visiting Burma, or Myanmar, under the repressive regime of the generals. I had seen the leaflets and posters all over Northern Thailand, asking tourists not to go. I knew about the brutal crackdown of the student uprising ten years earlier. I knew about the civil wars, the humanitarian suffering, and about Aung San Su Kyi in house arrest. Yet, I decided to go. I had to see for myself.

Myanmar was something else. The tea leaf salads, the Shan noodles, the cheroot cigars, the green tea and the palm sugar jaggery. Getting conned by black market money changers down at Sule Pagoda. Listening to cheesy Burmese love songs to the tunes of Metallica in coffeeshops serving black coffee with lime. The blasting karaoke on overnight busses. Getting lectured, in secrecy, by school teachers and tour guides about politics and about the radio that was broadcasting from my home town in Oslo. The strange feeling of normality interrupted by the large red billboards in white writing with propaganda from the military regime, reminding me about the repression and the hardship.

Returning to Myanmar 14 years later, it was like arriving to a different country. T-shirts and shoulder bags picturing the Lady was sold openly on the streets. A booming civil society and people speaking freely about politics, about the war and the suffering, and about the peace process. Dissidents returning from exile. In October 2012, together with our local partner, PRIO organized an academic conference about democratization and peace in Myanmar – the first of its kind in many decades. Myanmar was opening up, but international actors engaged in heated arguments and disputes about the reliability of the reforms and the sincerity of the generals.

Building up since the response to Cyclone Nargis in 2008, the politics of aid to Myanmar was reaching a peak of tension. Anyone providing humanitarian relief for people in Myanmar would have to consider the political implications of their approach and be prepared to be met by harsh criticism for their stance. Were any operations dealing with the illegitimate regime in Naypyidaw consequently undermining the struggle for democracy and minority rights, or were such concerns trumped by the humanitarian imperative of providing assistance wherever it is needed? 

Was it more effective to pressure the military with isolation and international sanctions, or did these sanctions only hurt the people of Myanmar? Could support to civil society groups inside Myanmar lead to a transformation of Myanmar society and to political changes in the long run, or would this strategy only benefit existing elites with close links to the regime? These were the kind of questions that characterized the heated debate. The different positions were strongly held by the various aid providers and advocacy groups, and they were based on competing theories of change. 

In the first years of the transition since 2011, I followed closely the work and the different approaches of the three Norwegian organizations with the largest operations in Myanmar and along the Thai-Myanmar border – The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), the Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) and the Norwegian Church Aid (NCA). 

Norway had become an engine in the international shift from sanctions and isolation to engagement, and initiated a number of humanitarian programs inside Myanmar to support the peace process and the reforms. Some of these initiatives were operated by NRC and NPA, while NCA expressed concern against the initiatives and feared that they would be implemented at the expense of support to refugees on the Thai-Myanmar border. In 2017 I visited some of the key humanitarian projects of these three Norwegian organizations in Myanmar and along the border, and I conducted interviews with staff, partner organizations and aid recipients. 

In my study I found that these three organizations exhibited characteristics from three competing humanitarian approaches that are commonly found among aid providers in Myanmar. While NRC strived to operate with a neutral approach aiming to secure humanitarian principles without pursuing any other political agenda, NPA cultivated a more pragmatic approach aiming to work with the government to open up space for local organizations. 

This approach was the result of a clear political thinking that the humanitarian suffering can only be stopped through a transformation of the Myanmar Society from below. This political thinking was largely shared by NCA, but while NPA saw a value in expanding its support within Myanmar, NCA maintained an idealist approach aiming to support exile organizations to push for human rights and seek to hold international donors, the Myanmar government, and the military accountable for their actions. 

One of the most difficult dilemmas for aid providers working in authoritarian and repressive states involved in violent conflict is the trade-off between getting humanitarian access in the short term and securing human rights for the future. To gain access to the areas where people are in desperate need of outside assistance, humanitarian providers need to bargain and compromise with the regimes that cause the suffering. Where the line between confrontation and collaboration should be drawn is a constant source of debate among aid providers. 

The controversies in Myanmar concerned two strategic divides: One between staying neutral (NRC) and having a political agenda (NPA, NCA); and one between maintaining a distance to the old regime (NCA) and seeking careful engagement (NRC, NPA). However, I would argue that despite the competing strategies, the different approaches among humanitarian actors have, unintentionally, contributed to a division of labour, enabling them to address a variety of Myanmar’s humanitarian needs. 

Achieving peace, development and democracy in a country like Myanmar, with its complex conflict dynamics and history of injustice and repression, is bound to be a long and winding road, involving a multitude of actors and engagement strategies. There is no simple recipe to progress. My first visit to Myanmar back in 1998, and the journeys of other travellers at the time, didn’t do much either way concerning democratization or repression. 

But it did lead to some incredible meetings between people with different experiences and references, to meaningful exchanges of ideas and insights, and to long-lasting friendships. Similarly, it is not the different approaches of various aid providers that is going to determine the success of Myanmar’s peace process or path to democracy and prosperity. That will be the struggle of the Myanmar people. However, the diversity of support that humanitarian actors can provide to people in desperate need and to people with aspirations, abilities and commitment to transform their country and their communities has been crucial in the past and will remain important in the years to come.

“We are all fragile, but we are not all equally fragile”: Humanitarian operations amidst the COVID-19 pandemic

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Illustration: Prachatai via Flickr

As the COVID-19 pandemic is spreading across the globe, its impact touches all corners of society. What happens when the pandemic reaches areas that were already dealing with various sorts of humanitarian challenges, and in what ways are humanitarian operations being impacted both directly and indirectly? In a time where the news are being flooded with information related to the pandemic and much of national authorities’ time and resources are being spent at mapping domestic repercussions, this post is an attempt to highlight some of the potential impacts COVID-19 can have or is already having on humanitarian operations around the world.

Responding to the pandemic and related repercussions has become a key priority for humanitarian actors, and humanitarian information hubs are now posting regular updates related to the pandemic response. The United Nations has launched a Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19, and SPHERE and its partners have developed a manual with guidance on how to apply humanitarian standards to the COVID-19 response. Reliefweb has established a page devoted to the COVID-19 pandemic, including an interactive map showcasing the pandemic in locations with a humanitarian response, appeals and response plans, manuals and guidelines, maps and infographics, reports by humanitarian actors and more. The Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX) provides global COVID-19 epidemiological data.

While all areas of humanitarian operations may be critically affected by the pandemic and related mitigation efforts, four thematic areas have emerged in humanitarian circles as the most discussed so far: 1) Health infrastructure and health information; 2) Exacerbation of existing vulnerabilities; 3) Refugees and other migrants; and 4) Access and delivery of humanitarian aid.

Health infrastructure and health information

As the disease has brought some of the world’s most advanced and well resources health systems to their knees, many humanitarian practitioners have expressed concern for what will occur when the virus reaches countries with less developed health infrastructure. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has warned that developed countries must assist those less developed, or potentially “face the nightmare of the disease spreading like wildfire in the global South with millions of deaths and the prospect of the disease re-emerging where it was previously suppressed”. Coordinated global action is also the key message of the recently published UN report Shared responsibility, global solidarity: responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19.

These concerns are not unfounded. For instance, the Central African Republic, a country with a population of almost five million people, only has three ventilators for the whole country. In Venezuela, now with 165 confirmed COVID-19 cases, hospitals were lacking basic resources and health personnel had been fleeing the country already before the arrival of the virus. Moreover, if a large number of people all fall ill at the same time, the efforts to take care of patients contracting the virus is likely to divert resources away from other lifesaving work, such as other health programmes. Senior Policy Fellow at the Center for Global Development Jeremy Konydyk gave a stark reminder that during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, other diseases caused more deaths than what Ebola did.

Konydyk is not the only one to make comparisons to the Ebola outbreak. On a slightly more optimistic note, it has been pointed out that developing countries with recent experience in fighting epidemics such as Ebola are to some extent better prepared for handling COVID-19. For instance, existing Ebola screening systems have rapidly been converted to screen for coronavirus disease at airports and border crossings. Given many African countries’ recent experience with fighting epidemics, overall young populations and less frequent travel, Gunnar Bjune argues that a targeted response towards the most vulnerable populations would be more efficient and appropriate for the region.

Another important lesson from the Ebola epidemic is the importance of accurate and trusted public health communication to reduce misinformation and distrust amongst the public, as pointed out by Christopher Wilson and Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert in their 2018 article on communication technology in humanitarian and pandemic response. Providing accurate information and building trust in health officials will be a key issue also for combating COVID-19.

Exacerbation of existing vulnerabilities

As with all emergencies, the repercussions tend to be distributed unequally in society and exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. The COVID-19 pandemic and the measures taken to mitigate the spread of the disease are likely to follow the same pattern. Those without existing safety nets will be hit the hardest. In the words of Senior Editor at the New Humanitarian Ben Parker during a recent webinar: “we are all fragile, but we are not all equally fragile”. 

The world economy, which was already weak before the pandemic, is falling into recession. Reduced fiscal revenues will negatively impact welfare programmes, leaving the most vulnerable without access to essential services. While a plummeting global economy and international travel restrictions have severe impacts in their own rights, they may also create difficulties in obtaining imported goods like food and medical equipment. Trade-dependent countries will be particularly vulnerable. In a recently published report, the World Food Programme predicts that global food insecurity is likely to increase.

Vulnerabilities on the basis of gender are also likely to be exacerbated, in particular due to the mitigation strategies employed to fight the pandemic. As Margot Skarpeteig, Policy Director at the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD), writes for Bistandsaktuelt, men are more likely to contract the disease, but the repercussions will hit women and girls the hardest. Based on lessons learned from the Ebola outbreak, Skarpeteig points out that lockdowns could lead to an increase in domestic violence, that closure of schools could result in an increase number of rapes and child marriages, and that rerouting of resources could lead to worse maternal care, all of which mainly impact women and girls. Several of these concerns are echoed in the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan.

Other vulnerable groups who are likely to be severely affected include the urban poor, refugees and other migrants, and groups generally marginalized in terms of access to economic welfare and health services.

Refugees and other migrants

As the pandemic is also turning into a mobility crisis, refugees and other migrants are facing mutually reinforcing vulnerabilities, as they are often housed in crowded areas with limited health and sanitation facilities and now also experiencing enhanced immobility.

Many governments have imposed lockdowns and closed their borders to stop the virus from spreading. This has devastating impacts on many migrant workers, in particular those relying on daily wages, many of which do not have a social network to rely on. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi call for refugees and other migrants – regardless of their formal status – to be an integral part of national systems and plans for tackling the virus, as many of them do not have access to basic health services.

Further, several frameworks put in place for refugees are now temporarily being removed. On 17 March, IOM and the UNHCR announced a temporary suspension of resettlement travel for refugees. In Uganda, authorities have put up a temporarily bar on arrivals of refugees and asylum seekers. Syrian refugees in the two main refugee camps in Jordan have been on lockdown since 21 March. In Greece, there have been major concerns for and calls for evacuation of camps with very limited health and sanitation facilities, and in early April the refugee camp in Ritsona was quarantined as 20 refugees tested positive for COVID-19.

Kristin Bergtora Sanvik and Adèle Garnier have called attention to how the pandemic is reshaping refugee and migration governance through ‘legal distancing’. Countries hastily adopt restrictive regulation on migration and asylum processes on the one hand, while simultaneously slowing down due process mechanisms. The results are further exclusion and marginalization of already vulnerable groups.

Delivery of humanitarian aid: Access and localisation

While humanitarian organizations are working hard to maintain their existing operations, most humanitarian work is affected by the pandemic and mitigation efforts in some shape or form. Through travel restrictions, imposed regulations, and withdrawal of staff, the pandemic is affecting the delivery of humanitarian aid in multiple countries, and the impacts are cascading as the disease reaches new corners of the world.

Amongst the effects on aid operations covered by The New Humanitarian over the past week are: aid access is blocked for ’unsanitary’ quarantine spots in Burundi; transport bans in Burkina Faso create access challenges for humanitarians; non-essential aid workers are being evacuated from the Democratic Republic of Congo creating limits on staff; border closures in Afghanistan threaten supply chains; and flight bans hamper aid delivery in Yemen. Imposed restrictions on gatherings and travel are hampering both delivery of humanitarian assistance and general access to vulnerable populations. On 25 March, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) reported that they were unable to reach 300,000 people in the Middle East alone.

As large international organizations are struggling to reach people in need, the pandemic might turn out to have an unexpected effect on localisation. The so-called ‘localisation agenda’, and outcome of the World Humanitarian Summit 2016, vowed to increase funding to national and local partners, and involve them in decision-making and assistance in humanitarian response. Since 2016, the humanitarian system has been criticised for failing to support localisation (see for instance Sandvik and Dijkzeul’s blog post from 2019). The conditions caused by the pandemic, however, might change how international and local staff coordinate and operate. Similar to how many enterprises are being forced to speed up digitalization to keep in touch from various home offices, the restrictions on travel and limits on international staff might force international humanitarian actors to increasingly rely on local partners in delivery, coordination and management of humanitarian assistance, as well as enhancing communication structures between the local responders and international assistance providers.

Uncertain outcomes and long-term consequences

While the four themes mentioned here seem to be the most frequently discussed in humanitarian circles so far, the range of repercussions caused by the pandemic and mitigation efforts has yet to be seen.

It is highly likely that other issues may emerge as the situation develops, and the long-term consequences remain unknown. Technological measures applied to keep the pandemic at bay are amongst the issues that might cause severe and unintended long-term consequences (such as tracking mobile devises, drone surveillance, collecting biometric data etc.). Humanitarian data governance is not a new issue (see for instance Katja Lindskov Jacobsen and Larissa Fast’s 2019 article for Disasters), as it often deals with sensitive data from vulnerable populations. During previous health crisis people with diseases have faced discrimination and stigma, such as people living with HIV and Ebola survivors. Keeping in mind also future consequences, it is therefore of vital importance that ethics and privacy is considered, and that actors employ responsible data governance and management.

The lack of testing capacities in many countries and overworked international and local staff may also result in the exact impact of the pandemic being hard to state specifically at any point. Yet, there is no doubt that the impacts will be large and long-felt for humanitarian operations and the people already in need of humanitarian assistance.

There must be something I can ‘help with’

Written by

This text first appeared on CMI and is re-posted here. Salla Turunen is a PhD fellow at CMI with a research focus on humanitarian diplomacy and the United Nations.

Illustration by Pernille Jørgensen/CMI.

What is usually white, offers short-term solutions and is often misplaced? An international volunteer.

At the age of 20, I spent two months as a volunteer English teacher in a Buddhist monastery in Nepal. Like many white, Western, and particularly young women, I too wanted to participate in ‘doing global good’. I too saw images of ‘less privileged’, non-white women, children and men in the ‘Global South’, which in contrast to my home surroundings had an effect. I too felt that there must be something I can ‘help with’.

Recently, I read a blog post of We Aren’t Just Vehicles for your Guilt and Privilege: A View from Nepal by Rishi Bhandari, a Nepali who grew up surrounded by international volunteers. Bhandari’s key criticism surrounds volunteer travel in a post-colonial manner: White savior comes to the short-term ‘rescue’ by pursuing to save the illusion that the white savior has created in their mind of the ‘beneficiaries’ and their surroundings. For Bhandari, and for many post-colonial scholars, the perceived privilege comes along with imagined capability to ‘teach’, ‘help’ and ‘empower’. This is problematic, among others, due to lack of local contextual knowledge, Global North epistemologies and mere naivete.

Having done my graduate degree in gender studies and currently doing a PhD in the field of humanitarianism, I identified intellectually several of Bhandari’s arguments. Mary Mostafanezhad (2014) discusses how volunteer tourism commodifies empathy and stretches our imagination on how neoliberal capitalism articulates in global social relations. Michael Mascarenhas (2017) flags that colonial countries have a long-standing tradition to send, particularly young, people overseas in the guise of goodwill, democracy and charity, which translates into the spread of the Western cultural, political and economic hegemony. As for global politics, Johannes Paulmann (2013) argues that the overall humanitarian commitment from the Global North has safeguarded the moral positioning and superiority of the West and the commitment itself is a kind of postcolonial remedy. Yet, despite such intellectual approaches, the blog post was speaking to me on another level – as addressing the thoughts of the 20-year-old me.

Illustration by Pernille Jørgensen/CMI.

There are several different kinds of volunteering opportunities for those who are interested. Importantly, volunteering doesn’t equal to international volunteering. An example of this are national Greek volunteers in crisis-ridden Greece of the 21st century’s second decade, during which volunteering became a governmental, institutional and social reconfiguration of the new Greek and European Union citizen (Rozakou 2016). Despite having had volunteering opportunities inter alia among the elderly, youth and homeless in my home country, such considerations were swept away by the temptation to combine volunteering with travel.

Back in the beginning of this decade, I remember having had a discussion with another Finnish volunteer on her experiences which eventually created a yearning for myself to do something similar. Many volunteer experiences begin this way – from an intersectional perspective, you hear the side of the story from a person who bears resemblance to yourself and you are attracted to their insight. Alternatively, if the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain: After my volunteering, I received numerous inquiries particularly via Facebook from other interested people from the Global North asking about the NGO I ended up working with and my insight and experiences as a volunteer in Nepal.

After a quick Google search for key words “volunteer Nepal” today, I was given 26,700,000 results in 0.83 seconds.

When I began my search for my volunteer travel in 2010, the volunteering opportunities through online searches seemed endless, and they still appear to be so. After a quick Google search for key words “volunteer Nepal” today, I was given 26,700,000 results in 0.83 seconds. At the beginning of my twenties, when scrolling through the World Wide Web for these opportunities, I saw a program for an English teacher, which I felt back then to be an area in which I could ‘contribute’ – interestingly enough as a non-native English speaker.

As far as I would like to remember, my intentions for deciding to become a volunteer were ‘good’ from the position and perspective I then had. As many other young Global North volunteers, I was curious about the world and motivated by the opportunity to see another part of it while simultaneously interacting with people from different cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds. Having recently finished my high school studies, I was in the search of directions and interests for my life and somehow the idea of travelling far in order to see near seemed appealing. And as far as I recall, also my social circles in Finland found my thoughts and determination for international volunteering a fascinating discussion topic, inevitably accumulating my social capital.

The program costs (including residence and food in the monastery) and the flights from Helsinki to Kathmandu and back were around 3000 euros altogether. A hefty investment for a high school graduate in a gap year as I was working in the restaurant field at the time, earning approximately 1300 euros per month. But this was a target I felt withdrawn to direct my savings to. Soon enough I was on the airplane heading to Kathmandu, then completing my volunteering and personal soul-searching after which heading home with an experience of a memorable summer. In Finland, I was interviewed by the local newspaper and radio on my experiences of volunteering and living in a Buddhist monastery, broadening my personal spectacular into a public one.

The consideration that I have made professional gains through such volunteering, is a painful one.

Without going into the details of my volunteer experience itself or the possible usefulness of my work (as these reflections would be only one-sided), I have been reflecting my decision to go in retro-perspective. Particularly, by employing critical thinking tools I have acquired during my years in academia. There I was, a young, well-meaning Western adventurer finding courses for my life at the expense and in the everyday of other people. Simultaneously, I had a sincere feeling of contributing to an enterprise more novel and greater than my individual self. With time and education in social sciences, I become more aware of the history and reproduction of global inequalities which had been embodied in my volunteer experience. My economic situation and overall global positioning as white, Western and travelled individual with English language capabilities (to name a few) enabled me to volunteer in a manner that the majority of the world’s population cannot. With that being said, I am also considering has my new privilege – academic education – somehow overridden my previous privileges in giving me new tools to criticize volunteer travel[1] today in a way which was out of my reach when I made the decision to become a volunteer.

Illustration by Pernille Jørgensen/CMI.

Overall, reflecting volunteer travel from the positionality I have today feels problematic as for me such experience is not an intangible intellectual discussion or societal phenomenon, but a part of my personal and professional past. Later in life, and particularly as a young professional otherwise lacking years of applicable work experiences, I have also stated my international volunteering in my curriculum vitaes, which, undoubtedly, have aided my professional opportunities in my international career. The consideration that I have made professional gains through such volunteering —which grounds and continues to exists on the basis of global inequalities— is a painful one. Expanding from personal agony into systematic structures, both Mary Mostafanezhad and Michael Mascarenhas (2014 & 2017) underline that young volunteers today are also increasingly cognizant of the pressure to gain international experiences to open doors for educational and professional opportunities in which volunteer travel plays a role. Also, prestigious universities and trainee programs have taken such an ‘exposure’ as a part of their programming in ‘qualifying’ young professionals to face the global challenges of today.

This phenomenon feeds also into the professionalization of the humanitarian field, of which Thomas G. Weiss and Michael Barnett (2011) write:

In other words, [humanitarian] volunteers began as amateurs. But increasingly the humanitarian enterprise frowned upon such naïfs and began demanding that staff have real expertise and rewarded them accordingly. A CEO or CFO of a major not-for-profit aid agency should not require less training or fewer skills or relevant work experience than a CEO or CFO of a for-profit Fortune 500 company. And if they are experts, they expect to be paid accordingly. (p. 116, emphasis added.)

Volunteer travel does not seem to have an end in sight, rather, it seems to accelerate in an increasing pace, and it has firm structures in its support and maintenance. Seemingly ever-increasing number of NGOs, INGOs and private sector social corporate responsibility programs provide opportunities in which volunteer travel can be deployed. As discussed, it is also now being more and more integrated and formalized in the spheres of education and professional careers. As scholars, activists and journalists argue, volunteer travel remains deeply problematic as individual, small-scale intervention (whether based on morality, empathy, guilt, curiosity, educational and professional development or something else) lack the means and muscles to redress macro level challenges such as poverty and weak governance. Silver bullet solutions, such as volunteer travel, and the framing of global inequalities in their format are perplexing and contested to begin with, posing the question whose interests these bullets actually serve.

Volunteers are motivated by various shades and impressions of other people’s imagined existence which are given illustrations inter alia in media and aid campaigns’ propaganda and images. Regrettably, volunteer travel continues to reinforce global inequalities by offering patch solutions at its best and without adequate means to address the underlying root causes of suffering. What at first glance seems to be a hearty interaction between a volunteer and a host-community member, can actually contribute to bolstering of inequalities. In addition to lacking the desired macro level impact, the micro, individual level effects take place.

For example, for Rishi Bhandari growing up in Nepal surrounded by international volunteers, it meant the following:

– I first encountered international volunteers when I was five, and I loved them! As a five-year-old kid, who doesn’t enjoy being tossed up into the air and given candies? But the irony was that they always only stayed for a short period of time, so the fun interactions were tainted by the knowledge that it was all going to be over soon. And when they would leave I would feel a keen sense of loss.

– When I reflect on it, I feel like the volunteers were treating us like we were from another planet. We were commodities to be used for a short period of time, not children with feelings and aspirations, or who are prone to attachment issues. There is a certain sense of exoticism associated with volunteering with kids overseas, that you can see on the posters that advertise these experiences.

The images seem to say: “Look at these smiling brown children! They are poor but happy!”

– Volunteers internalise these messages and treat children like toys, who are there to be touched and be tossed around. They didn’t treat us as complex, rounded human beings.

Nepalese culture is a valuable and living entity in its own right.

Rishi Bhandari

Volunteer travel will continue to exist. Volunteers may be young people in their gap year like I was, or they might be retired couples seeking to ‘give back’. International volunteering like other cross-cultural interactions, can break down artificial barriers between people and plant seeds to a deeper understanding of our shared humanity. The problem with volunteer travel is, however, that the movement in its current format is mostly a one-way street. It is the Finnish girl fresh-out of high school student who uses her gap year savings to go teach English to Buddhist monks in Nepal. It is not the young person from Bangladesh who comes to the United States to educate American children without any  professional quaifications equipped only with her or his high school diploma, young enthusiasm and life-experience.  

[1] The term volunteer travel is used in parallel with terms volunteer tourism and voluntourism, commonly referring to international volunteering for short periods of time, usually weeks or some months. Particularly volunteer tourism is often compared to mass tourism in the so-called developing countries, in which the former is seen pursuing to bring positive impacts to the host-communities and destinations whereas the latter has been criticized for the lack of such positive impacts (see for example Harng Luh Sin 2009).


Mascarenhas, M. (2017). New Humanitarianism and the Crisis of Charity: Good Intentions on the Road to Help. Indiana University Press.

Mostafanezhad, M. (2014). Volunteer Tourism. Routledge.

Paulmann, J. (2013). Conjunctures in the history of international humanitarian aid during the twentieth century. Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development4(2), 215-238.

Rozakou, K. (2016). Crafting the volunteer: Voluntary associations and the reformation of sociality. Journal of Modern Greek Studies34(1), 79-102.

Sin, H. L. (2009). Volunteer tourism—“involve me and I will learn”?. Annals of Tourism Research36(3), 480-501.

Weiss, T. G., & Barnett, M. (2013). Humanitarianism Contested: Where Angels Fear to Tread. Routledge.

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

What Can Data Governance Learn from Humanitarians?

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Sean McDonald argues that the humanitarian sector has much to offer the technology industry, and explores the relationship between the two. This article first appeared on Centre for International Governance Innovation, and is reposted here.

About the author: Sean Martin McDonald is the co-founder of Digital Public, which builds legal trusts to protect and govern digital assets. Sean’s research focuses on civic data trusts as vehicles that embed public interest governance into digital relationships and markets.

World Food Programme (WFP) aid arrives in in Aslam, Hajjah, Yemen. The programme recently accused the government of redirecting aid to fund the war and insisted that aid recipients participate in a biometric identity-tracking system, sparking a data governance standoff. (AP Photo/Hammadi Issa)

Over the summer, the World Food Programme (WFP) — the world’s largest humanitarian organization — got into a pitched standoff with Yemen’s Houthi government over, on the surface, data governance. That standoff stopped food aid to 850,000 people for more than two months during the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Essentially, the WFP accused the Houthi government of redirecting aid to fund the war and insisted that aid recipients participate in a biometric identity-tracking system. The government responded by accusing the WFP of being a front for intelligence operations; this was opportune, given the recent controversy over their relationship with Palantir. In the end, the parties agreed to use the WFP’s fingerprint-based biometric identity system, despite reported flaws. The dispute, of course, wasn’t just about data — it was about power, trust and the licence to operate.  

While they may seem worlds apart, the humanitarian sector has much to offer to the technology industry. One of the things humanitarians and technologists have in common is an extraordinary power to operate. For humanitarians, power takes the form of an internationally agreed-upon right to intervene in conflicts – for some, with legal immunity. And technology companies have the ability to project themselves into global markets without the need for traditional government approval.

In one sense, they’re opposites. Humanitarians have had to meticulously negotiate the conditions of their access to conflict zones, based on non-intervention principles, the terms of host country agreements with governments and, increasingly, data-sharing agreements. In contrast, technology companies have mostly enjoyed the freedom to operate globally without much negotiation, taxation or regulation of any type. But, in recent years (as illustrated by the WFP example) humanitarian organizations are starting to face the political and regulatory implications of collecting, using, storing, sharing and deleting data. Technology companies, it seems, are following the same path; they face significant public pushback from nearly every corner of the world, from international standards bodies and antitrust investigations to privacy fines and class action lawsuits.

Humanitarian organizations have considerable history and experience negotiating for the licence to operate in political and unstable contexts – which should inform the people and companies designing data governance systems. Here are five places to start:

Licence to Operate

Humanitarians and technology companies can, and sometimes do, operate in places where the government is actively resistant to their presence. While the stakes are often lower for technology companies, the costs involved in negotiating licence to operate country-by-country, and the technical complexity of maintaining product offerings compatible with divergent political contexts, are high. As a result, most technology companies launch offerings, and then react to, or defend against governmental and public concerns. That approach is decidedly opportunist, sacrificing long-term goodwill for short-term gains. Humanitarian organizations have extensive debates around their right to access affected populations, and under what conditions they earn that mandate. One thing humanitarians can teach technology companies is the importance of contextual negotiations and compromise to improve medium-term sustainability and long-term growth.

The Political Complexity of Neutrality

The technology industry has become a popular political scapegoat, often coming under fire for all kinds of bias. Technology companies arbitrate complex social, commercial and political processes, some without any dedicated operational infrastructure. The larger companies have built trust and safety teams, content moderation units of varying types, and online dispute resolution systems — all of which are designed to help users solve problems related to platforms’ core functions. Each of these approaches has grown significantly in recent years, but largely to mitigate damage created by the technology sector itself – and often without transparency or the ability to shape rules.

Humanitarian organizations, in contrast, are defined by their commitment to several core, apolitical principles: humanity, neutrality, impartiality, independence and to do no harm. The major humanitarian organizations have built organizations and reputations for upholding those values, often amid violent conflict, that scale globally. The technology industry, and in particular those seeking the licence to provide public digital services or to govern public data — has a significant amount to learn from the organizational structure of complex humanitarian operations. 


Federation is an organizational structure that manages common infrastructure and operational hierarchies. Federation is second nature to technology companies when it comes to code, but they are just learning how to federate and devolve their organizational structures. Humanitarian organizations have been working through devolved, federated organizational structures for decades — the International Federation of the Red Cross, for example. There is a natural, and well-documented tension between independence and upholding common standards across networks – especially in technology systems. Yet, humanitarian organizations have built federated organizations that enable them to operate globally, while availing themselves of the two most important aspects of building trust: investment in local capacity and accountability.


In addition to negotiating a licence to operate with governments, humanitarian organizations often invest in domestic response capacity, and in recent years, localization has become a driving strategic imperative. Humanitarians increasingly realize they need to offer value beyond direct emergency aid, in order to foster more durable solutions and earn the trust of communities. Technology companies often make their products available internationally — and they often invest in countries where they maintain a physical presence, but they rarely set up a presence for the purposes of investing in local communities or in ways that extend beyond their business interests. Technology organizations looking to build trust and public approval in the ways they govern data could learn from the humanitarian sector’s investments in local capacity, resilience and independence.


While the humanitarian sector faces a lot of controversy over accountability, their typical operating practice is to engage in direct negotiations with local parties, which is different than technology companies, who generally start with one set of terms they apply globally.  The default terms of the technology industry’s cardinal data governance contracts — terms of service agreements and privacy policies — enable them to unilaterally change the terms of the agreement. It’s impossible to rely on the terms of a contract that can change at the whim of one party – or when the underlying goes bankrupt or gets acquired. The actors within the technology industry seeking public trust in the way they manage data can learn from the humanitarian sector about the need for credible parity between negotiating parties and distributed accountability.

The good news is that the humanitarian sector and the technology industry are well on their way to forming deep alliances; the heads of several major humanitarian organizations have placed private sector coordination and co-creation at the centre of their strategies. The World Economic Forum is laying the foundation for private companies to participate in international governance bodies. And, private foundations and investors increasingly play a role in shaping response efforts. 

Unfortunately, these relationships may be a double-edged sword. Technology companies can take advantage of humanitarian organizations’ unique licence to operate to work in regulated spaces, test new products without repercussions and even justify the creation of invasive surveillance. This new generation of relationships between the humanitarian organizations and technology companies offer opportunities for each group to learn from the other’s structural solutions on problems relating to shared issues of trust, neutrality and global scale. Let’s hope that the technology industry chooses to learn from the organizations that have spent the last century building, testing and scaling organizational structures to deliver the best of humanity.

Penal Humanitarianism: Introducing a new blog series (Part I)

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This is the first post in a six-part series on ‘Penal Humanitarianism’, edited by Kjersti Lohne. The posts center around Mary Bosworth’s concept and Kjersti Lohne’s development of penal humanitarianism, and how penal power is justified and extended through the invocation of humanitarian reason. The blog posts were first posted on the “Border Criminologies” blog, and are re-posted here. The series start with an introduction to the concept ‘penal humanitarianism’, and an outline of the blog posts to follow.

Introducing the New Themed Series on Penal Humanitarianism

Humanitarianism is many things to many people. It is an ethos, an array of sentiments and moral principles, an imperative to intervene, and a way of ‘doing good’ by bettering the human condition through targeting suffering. It is also a form of governance. In Border Criminologies’ new themed series, we look closer at the intersections of humanitarian reason with penal governance, and particularly the transfer of penal power beyond the nation state.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010, in Lira, Uganda. (Photo by Whitney Curtis).
The image is from the ICC’s social media ‘shareables’ portfolio to ‘Help raise awareness of these issues by sharing these visuals with your friends, family and networks’.

The study of humanitarian sentiments in criminology has mainly focused on how these sensibilities have ‘humanized’ or ‘civilized’ punishment. As such, the notion of humanism in the study of crime, punishment, and justice is associated with human rights implementation in penal practices and with normative bulwark against penal populism; indeed, with a ‘softening’ of penal power.

This themed series takes a slightly different approach. While non-punitive forces have a major place in the humanitarian sensibility, we explore how humanitarianism is put to work on and for penal power. In doing so, we look at how muscular forms of power – expulsion, punishment, war – are justified and extended through the invocation of humanitarian reason.

In the following post, Mary Bosworth revisits themes from her 2017 article and addresses current developments on UK programmes delivered overseas to ‘manage migration’. She shows that through an expansion of these programmes, migration management and crime governance has not only elided, but ‘criminal justice investment appears to have become a humanitarian goal in its own right’. Similarly concerned with what happens at the border, Katja Franko and Helene O.I. Gundhus observed the paradox and contradictions between humanitarian ideals in the performative work of governmental discourses, and the lack of concern for migrants’ vulnerability in their article on Frontex operations.

However, in their blog post they caution against a one-dimensional understanding of humanitarianism as legitimizing policy and the status quo. It may cloud from view agency and resistance in practice, and, they argue, ‘the dialectics of change arising from the moral discomfort of doing border work’. The critical, difficult question lurking beneath their post asks what language is left if not that of the sanctity of the human, and of humanity.

Moving outside the European territorial border, Eva Magdalena Stambøl however corroborates the observation that penal power takes on a humanitarian rationale when it travels. Sharing with us some fascinating findings from her current PhD work on EU’s crime control in West Africa, and, more specifically, observations from her fieldwork in Niger, she addresses how the rationale behind the EU’s fight against ‘migrant smugglers’ in Niger is framed as a humanitarian obligation. In the process, however, the EU projects penal power beyond Europe and consolidates power in the ‘host’ state, in this case, Niger.

Moving beyond nation-state borders and into the ‘international’, ‘global’, and ‘cosmopolitan’, my own research demonstrates how the power to punish is particularly driven by humanitarian reason when punishment is delinked from its association with the national altogether. I delve into the field of international criminal justice and show how it is animated by a humanitarian impetus to ‘do something’ about the suffering of distant others, and how, in particular, the human rights movement have been central to the fight against impunity for international crimes. Through the articulation of moral outrage, humanitarian sensibilities have found their expression in a call for criminal punishment to end impunity for violence against distant others. However, building on an ethnographic study of international criminal justice, which is forthcoming in the Clarendon Studies in Criminology published by Oxford University Press, I demonstrate how penal power remains deeply embedded in structural relations of (global) power, and that it functions to expand and consolidate these global inequalities further. Removed from the checks and balances of democratic institutions, I suggest that penal policies may be more reliant on categorical representations of good and evil, civilization and barbarity, humanity and inhumanity, as such representational dichotomies seem particularly apt to delineate the boundaries of cosmopolitan society.

In the next post I co-wrote with Anette Bringedal Houge, we address the fight against sexual violence in conflict as penal humanitarianism par excellence, building on our study published in Law & Society Review. While attention towards conflict-related sexual violence is critically important, we take issue with the overwhelming dominance of criminal law solutions on academic, policy, and activist agendas, as the fight against conflict-related sexual violence has become the fight against impunity. We observe that the combination of a victim-oriented justification for international justice and graphic reproductions of the violence victims suffer, are central in the advocacy and policy fields responding to this particular type of violence. Indeed, we hold that it epitomizes how humanitarianism facilitates the expansion of penal power but take issue with what it means for how we address this type of violence.

In the final post of this series, Teresa Degenhardt offers a discomforting view on the dark side of virtue as she reflects on how penal power is reassembled outside the state and within the international, under the aegis of human rights, humanitarianism, and the Responsibility to Protect-doctrine. Through the case of Libya, she claims that the global north, through various international interventions, ‘established its jurisdiction over local events’. Through what she calls a ‘pedagogy of liberal institutions’, Degenhardt argues that ‘the global north shaped governance through sovereign structures at the local level while re-articulating sovereign power at the global level’, in an argument that, albeit on a different scale, parallels that of Stambøl.  

The posts in this themed series raise difficult questions about the nature of penal power, humanitarianism, and the state. Through these diverse examples, each post demonstrates that while the nation state continues to operate as an essential territorial site of punishment, the power to punish has become increasingly complex. This challenges the epistemological privilege of the nation state framework in the study of punishment.

However, while this thematic series focuses on how penal power travels through humanitarianism, we should, as Franko and Gundhus indicate, be careful of dismissing humanitarian sensibilities and logics as fraudulent rhetoric for a will to power. Indeed, we might – or perhaps should – proceed differently, given that in these times of pushback against international liberalism and human rights, and resurgent religion and nationalism, humanitarian reason is losing traction. Following an unmasking of humanitarianism as a logic of governance by both critical (leftist) scholars and rightwing populism alike, perhaps there is a need to revisit the potency of humanitarianism as normative bulwark against muscular power, and to carve out the boundaries of a humanitarian space of resistance, solidarity and dignity within a criminology of humanitarianism. Such a task can only be done through empirical and meticulous analysis of the uses and abuses of humanitarianism as an ethics of care.

Call for papers: Intersections of Humanitarianism

Kickoff workshop of the EASA Anthropology of Humanitarianism Network (AHN)

Goettingen, 01-03 November 2019

What does humanitarianism look like when it intersects with the state and the military? Or with the local ways of giving? What sort of help are we dealing with when humanitarian forms of reasoning and practice become intertwined with “that which is not humanitarianism”, to paraphrase Gupta (1995: 393)? Anthropological studies have suggested that a lot of work has to be invested into keeping up the boundaries of humanitarianism (Fassin 2012, Dunn 2018, Gilbert 2016). The result of this work has been a loose network of aid that moves throughout the world and replaces, suspends, or otherwise sidesteps state sovereignties in an attempt to save lives (Redfield and Bornstein 2011, Ticktin 2014, Schuller 2016, Ramsey 2017).

In this workshop, we will focus on what sort of hybrids emerge when, instead of maintaining its boundaries, humanitarianism intersects with other ways of thinking and acting. What kind of politics does this enable or prevent (cf. Feldman 2018)? What types of social dynamics, positions, and exclusions take place in such cases? We invite papers that explore the following five thematic strands:

  1. Humanitarianism and voluntarism: What happens when humanitarianism becomes intertwined with vernacular ideas about how to help others (including activism, solidarity, or charity)?
  2. Humanitarianism and military: how is the relationship between humanitarian aid and the use of military force evolving in the context of transnational securitization and border management?
  3. Humanitarianism and development: How do large-scale humanitarian initiatives relate to developmental projects?
  4. Humanitarianism and human rights: How does humanitarianization of state politics and human rights look like?
  5. Humanitarianism and religion: Which moral configurations emerge as part of humanitarian projects and how are they related to religious orders?

This will be the first meeting of the Anthropology of Humanitarianism Network (AHN), founded in 2018 by the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA), with an aim to provide a platform for a broad discussion on the meanings and practices of humanitarianism and on the possible future directions of an anthropological study of humanitarianism. The kickoff workshop “Intersections of humanitarianism” will provide a venue for the network members to meet in person, share ongoing research, and make plans for the future development of the network.

Please send abstracts of 200 words to ahn.easa@gmail.comas well as a 100 words bio by 30 June 2019.

The workshop “Intersections of Humanitarianism” is supported by EASA, Centre for Global Migration (CeMIG) of the Georg August University Goettingen, and Chr. Michelsen Institute.


Carna Brkovic, Georg August University Goettingen

Antonio De Lauri, Chr. Michelsen Institute

Jens Adam, Georg August University Goettingen

Sabine Hess, Georg August University Goettingen

Do you speak humanitarian?

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By Simon Reid-Henry, Associate Professor in the School of Geography at Queen Mary, University of London & PRIO affiliate

I’m delighted to be invited to the launch of round two of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies today in Oslo, with the establishment of a new network on humanitarian efforts.

There are now over half a million humanitarian professionals and between 2,500 and 4,500 organisations. This according to the event plenary – “Unravelling Humanitarian Concepts” –  delivered by Doris Schopper, the director of CERAH in Geneva. Over the past few years, Schopper has been leading an initiative to develop an online “humanitarian encyclopaedia” to try and bring some coherence to this congeries of actors (you can read more about their work here). But does the humanitarian sector actually need more ‘coordinating’ and more uniformity, as we are often told? Well, yes and no. As Schopper points out, there is today more than ever before an almost unmanageable diversity of cultural, disciplinary and organisational backgrounds within the humanitarian sector (just compare the leviathan like ICRC with the niche ‘pop up’ outfits that have arisen in response to the refugee crisis). Her point is that humanitarianism lacks a common “language” by which means these actors might more usefully “communicate”. 

But diversity is key too. In a way that is what the humanitarian sector best does: it fills in the cracks. And to ensure that this effort to find a common humanitarian language doesn’t ultimately descend into the usual tropes of global ‘governance’ I think also this felt need for unification and professionalisation needs resisting to some degree. For example, Schopper points out that there are 63 different definitions of resilience. This is a problem, she suggests. Arguably the greater problem here, however, is that resilience, as a meta concept, is so broad and influential that it can sustain 63 overlapping definitions (John Rawls and Martha Nussbaum be warned). 

For my money, one of the more interesting things to come from Schopper’s talk was the way to which (a) disciplinary and institutional backgrounds shape the extent to which people agree on basic concepts (anyone who has done interdisciplinary research will confirm that!); and (b) that the sources of people’s conceptual knowledge are worryingly – and conversely – very similar. Over 35 per cent of respondents in the surveys that Schopper and her colleagues undertook in the process of building their encyclopedia, for example, took their understanding of the word “humanity” from Wikipedia (Humanity Journal’s editorial collective also be warned). That’s another away goal for Wikipedia contra the academy. 

Surely the more salient point here is that this conceptual confusion – a “lack of coherence” and “blurred messages” as Schopper puts it, or “boundary work” as those schooled in Science Studies would more likely say – is precisely what the humanitarian sector does want. It allows them to get on with their own work as they see fit, not as others see fit: least of all those they seek to assist. Interestingly, in a section on ‘salient concepts’ used by humanitarian actors there was no mention at all of concepts like ‘care’ or ‘assistance’ in the category of most frequently used concepts. Rather, everything was about organisational good practice and ‘accountability’. No surprises there, perhaps – but this is revealing all the same.

As one of the audience members observed at this point, this is also a powerful reminder of the power of institutions to shape the way that knowledge is used – a point my earlier work on institutions and innovation has emphasised. And it raises, in turn, the problem of intellectual language. An example of this, and it also cropped up in the discussion, is the following: is what we are after in humanitarianism more “convergence” or more “understanding”? The former is corporate prattle mostly; the latter is more socially-enframed – and stronger for it. In other words, the question is less ‘who speaks humanitarian?’ but ‘what they are speaking when they do so?’: what is the humanitarian agenda in other words? This was apparent from another question, which raised the point that the emergence and contestation of concepts is not always an intellectual but frequently an ideological process. Both practical issues (one’s institutional standing, the political associations of certain terms) and political matters (e.g. neoliberal demands for ‘efficiency’ or even geo-strategy) play a role. As the audience member added, you can define “civil society” however you want, but a Russian state interlocutor will still likely frown on the term from the get-go. 

Nonetheless these are some important findings here and I think this work is going to be a touchstone reference for debates over humanitarianism going forward (it certainly adds to recent scholarly discussions like those in Past & Present on the matter of humanitarian historiography). If you want to find out more you can do so here. The work is based on content analysis of an impressive 478 Strategy and general document publications between 2005 and 2017. One of the things they hope to come out of it is a Humanitarian Encyclopaedia. I can see how that sort of intellectual “field guide” could be extremely useful. Then again, the politics of conceptual knowledge goes somewhat beyond this. The fuller work is available here: at HumanitarianEncyclopedia.org and you can follow updates at @HumanEncyclo.

This blogpost was first posted on the authors’ own blog: