Tag Archives: Localization

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

Humanitarian governance and localization: What kind of world is being imagined and produced?

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This text first appeared on the TheGlobal and is re-posted here. The blog post draws on the introduction to a 2019 special issue on humanitarian governance by Dennis Dijkzeul and Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, ‘A world in turmoil: governing risk, establishing order in humanitarian crises’ published by Disasters.

Photo: TheGlobal

While localization is high on the agenda for humanitarian actors, at present, humanitarian governance does not support the localization agenda. To understand better why, we explore three issues underpinning humanitarian governance: the problem construction, consolidation and growth of the sector, and the sorting of civilians. We conclude that the localization agenda is important, but for it to succeed a fundamental change of the humanitarian system is needed.


Humanitarian crises conjure up a specific world of urgency and emergency populated by a set of ‘doers’: international organisations and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), heroic humanitarian workers, the military and the private sector, as well as donors. At the same time, it is well known that affected populations primarily rescue themselves, with the assistance of local civil society and host governments. Reflecting that reality, since the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, ‘localization’ of aid has become a mantra of the sector. Yet, things appear not to be going so well. In this blog we try to provide conceptual pointers for explaining why. In line with Michael Barnett’s insight that humanitarian governance voluntarily or involuntarily produces or contributes to some kind of societal order, we ask in this blog what kind of order is being imagined and produced through humanitarian governance in relation to the localization agenda.

In general, there are two versions of humanitarian governance in circulation: the narrow version is concerned with the provision of immediate relief to human suffering. This traditional humanitarianism does not attempt to politically change the world or take a position on conflicts, but instead uses the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence to gain access to people in need and alleviate their suffering. In this sense, it operates as a stopgap measure: it only addresses needs and does not judge openly the conflict that causes the suffering. The second and more extensive interpretation signifies a broader concern for human welfare and incorporates political change to address the root causes of suffering through human rights, conflict resolution, emancipatory movements, and development cooperation.

In everyday practice and discourse, both interpretations of humanitarian governance are used in parallel, which leads to confusion or disagreement about the goals and roles of humanitarian action. This also means that what we mean by localization is essentially unclear. To illuminate the implications of this discrepancy, we consider three critical issues for the localization agenda, namely: humanitarian problem construction, the consolidation and growth of the sector, and the sorting of civilians.

The paradoxes of top-down humanitarian problem constructions

Once a humanitarian emergency is declared, it then shapes not only who is supposed to act but what is supposed to be done. Humanitarian problem construction involves the conceptualization of social and political needs, crises, and risks as ‘humanitarian problems’; it also entails new and/or expanded conceptualizations of humanitarian suffering that call on humanitarians to be present on the ground with their staff, values, and toolkits; carrying with it the assumption that humanitarians and their toolkits are relevant, useful, and welcome. Underpinning and reinforcing this emphasis on emergency is the invention and promulgation of a technical vocabulary. For example, while we have now become accustomed to the use of ‘L3’ as a way of describing the worst emergencies, it is only from the introduction of ‘L’ levels in the UN humanitarian reform of 2011 that L3 has worked as a global symbol to designate the most serious level of crisis and help humanitarians create a globally stratified map of emergencies.

So far, the localization agenda has not substantially altered the conceptualization of social and political needs, nor of crises and risk. To push the localization agenda forward, humanitarian governance should pay more attention to local definitions of crises, risks and ‘appropriate’ aid, so that humanitarian problems are no longer just defined by professionals, who then control the planning and distribution of resources.

In a similar vein, we are witnessing the persistence of a classic problem of humanitarian action, namely that the humanitarian sector legitimizes its interventions by producing higher numbers of both individuals in need and concomitant funding needs to legitimate humanitarian requests and interventions. This includes, for example, the mortality surveys in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Iraq; contestations over maternal deaths; the 2005 non-famine in Niger; exaggerated population counts in refugee camps and more recently talk about ‘unprecedented numbers of refugees. This has a paradoxical effect on the humanitarian sector.

On the one hand, the very limited funding for local NGOs is also increasingly recognized as a structural impediment to localization. Data released in the 2017 Global Humanitarian Assistance report showed that funding for local NGOs stayed very low, at 0.3 per cent of tracked funding. Even when all local stakeholders are added together, including governments, they still only accounted for two per cent of funding. On the other hand, the identification of unmet needs led to continuous expansion among international NGOs, a kind of ongoing mission creep, which is an inadvertent consequence in line with the expansive nature of risk. These categories and numbers leave the humanitarian sector in the double bind that it is not doing enough while simultaneously being too expansive. In both cases, it is falling short of its own and external normative expectations. The mortality surveys in the DRC, for instance, showed a degree of suffering that was unprecedented, but also led to debates about their validity and impact as a justification for the expansion of humanitarian aid.

Consolidation and growth: where is the local?

In general, multi-mandate organizations follow the broader interpretation of humanitarian governance and thus address a broader array of problems, including the prevention of crises and linking relief and development. The presence of different interpretations of governance has not stopped and has probably facilitated the humanitarian sector’s growth and rapid consolidation over the last three decades. Overall, the humanitarian ‘industry’ handled $27.3 billion in 2016, a six per cent increase on 2015. The largest humanitarian NGOs now have thousands of employees and annual turnover of many millions of dollars. While the consolidation and growth of the humanitarian enterprise can be seen as a success story for the humanitarian industry as such, the gap between available resources and perceived humanitarian needs is portrayed as growing continually wider. Several scholars have pointed out that this endemic and multi-faceted response ‘gap’—with respect to funding, technical capacity, material goods, humanitarian access, or political will—is the product of efforts to construct (and not discover) meaning. For example, it takes analytical labor to define and construct humanitarians as ‘becoming unprepared or ‘unfit for purpose.” Humanitarian actors are apt at describing and presenting ‘gaps’ as fundamental threats to addressing needs and/or constructing a more humane world order. Once again, local perspectives on this issue require more attention.

The sorting of civilians

A final issue which affects the meaning of localization concerns the sorting of civilians, which is currently in large part shaped by considerations of risk and security as emanating from the global war on terror and extremism. In qualitative terms, not only the language used to describe the intended recipients of aid (victims, beneficiaries, communities in crisis, clients, target groups, people in need, survivors, or customers) but also the categories of protected civilians and the calculus of suffering deployed to sort and select protectable civilians are in continuous flux. Generally, the 1990s and 2000s saw a continuous expansion of legal and political victim categories, such as internally displaced person (IDPs), and this expansion continues with a discursive broadening of sexual violence as a key mode of categorizing ‘humanitarian victims’, as it happened in Bosnia and the DRC, for example.

Importantly, a countertrend that is enabled both by the risk politics of humanitarianism and the turn to technology is the parallel turn to resilience thinking and the sorting of ‘protectable’ civilians, which increasingly represents a shrinking of the categories of civilians that receive protection. In particular, resilience thinking puts the onus of responsibility for being prepared for, or able to cope with, crises more on local actors than on international ones, which can lead to a shrinking of the categories of people that receive protection or other forms of aid. Yet, when the capacities of these local actors need to be strengthened, this nevertheless leads to an expansion of capacity-building activities by international organizations involved in humanitarian work.


In sum, the way that humanitarian governance orders the humanitarian field in terms of problem construction, consolidation and expansion, as well as with sorting of civilians, does not yet support the localization agenda. The localization agenda is important but if it is to be taken seriously, it needs to go hand in hand with a far more fundamental change of the humanitarian system than has happened so far.