The Nordic model of global humanitarianism

Contestations and contextualisations

Humanitarianism is many things to many people. Humanitarianism is “an ethos, a cluster of sentiments, a set of laws, a moral imperative to intervene, and a form of government”. Contemporary public discussions tend to center on the functionality and integrity of the humanitarian system (protection and service delivery) or the tensions between “politics” and the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, and humanity.

However, humanitarianism has historically signified a wide variety of meanings outside what we today understand as a professionalised humanitarian sector’s area of operations in the “global emergency field”: for example as a specific sensibility regarding human suffering and criminal and public health law; as a call to action for social movements (anti-slavery, labor unions); or as a domestic political program for the improvement or repression of certain categories of citizens.

This latter notion of humanitarianism as a domestic political project was the focus for discussions between experts from Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden who met in Oslo 20-21 March 2017 for the UiO:Nordic conference. This conference track was hosted by the new cross-faculty UiO Nordic Branding project, led by Malcolm Langford. Langford also opened the track by reflecting on how we understand the ways in which the ideology and practice of a “Nordic humanitarianism” has become both an identity marker and a global brand. How can we as critical scholars make sense of the rise of Nordic humanitarianism as a branding exercise, as a politics of status-seeking or as norm entrepreneurship?

During our three sessions, we focused on unpacking the attributes of humanitarianism in the Nordic political context, and the importance of tracing how the “the dark sides” of Nordic welfare ideology has been an integral element in this development. Across sessions, attention was given to the multiple ways in which the humanitarian frame shaped the politics of citizenship, with respect to inclusion/selection, exclusion, and “normalcy”. Attention was also given to how ideas about cost and benefit equations have shifted over time, and how principles of cost-effectiveness and efficiency have been incorporated into notions of the Nordic “humanitarian good”: a sensibility both above and steeped in national politics.

One cluster focused on the relationship between care and control in a pre-welfare state period (interwar years) and a “post-welfare state period” (2015-).  The presenters reflected on how Nordic approaches to citizenship have been constituted through repressive public health measures (widespread sterilization practices) and criminal law in the past and the present. At the same time, in the midst of widespread political support for repressive measures, there has been dissenting voices.  As noted by Ainur Elmgren in her paper “People’s Health versus Individual Rights: Finnish Critiques of Legal Sterilization”, these dissenting voices made their case by presenting sterilization as a repressive public health measure and linking it strategically to the more general climate of repression of civil and political rights in interwar Finland. Moving to contemporary attempts by the Swedish government to deal with emerging “high-risk” urban areas, Mikael Bernardini, in his paper “Fragments to a New Nordic Model of Social Stratification? To Create Spaces of Economic Poverty and Manage them with Police Enforcement” suggests that we are currently witnessing new ways of combining criminal law and social welfare measures. These new combinations produce new forms of stratification, elsewhere labelled “penal humanitarianism”.

Another cluster considered the micro-politics of human rights ratifications and in particular changing ideas about tradeoffs between legal protection of vulnerable groups and political costs.  Taking as their joint point of departure the slowing rate of Nordic human rights ratifications, Johan Karlsson Schaffer (“Between Activism and Ambivalence: The Nordic States and Human Rights”) Hanne Hagtvedt Vik and Skage Alexander Østberg (“Why Virtuous? Explaining Swift Norwegian Ratifications of Human Rights Treaties in the 1980s: The Making and circulation of Nordic Models”) offered reflections on a range of sometimes surprising interconnections between foreign and domestic policy, not only in terms of the fact that governments have become less interested in ratification in fear of domestic implications, but also with respect to how cost-benefit considerations have shifted over time. For example for a given period, in order to satisfy domestic “left-wing” opinions, it was easy to be progressive in this field when and where the costs were low, rather than doing left wing politics at home.  As noted by Schaffer, the requirement for forced sterilization as a precondition for gender reassignment was removed by Sweden in 2012 and in Norway only in 2016. The discussion of these papers also suggested that not only “the dark side of Nordic welfare state” but also “the dark side of the Nordic juridification of politics” is a topic ripe for exploration.

Related to this discussion were two papers focusing on the export and import of ideas in the Nordic “good project”.  As part of her ongoing exploration of the rise of gender in Danish foreign policy, Kristine Kjærsgaard presented her paper “From International Agreement to National Implementation: The Impact of UN Women’s Conferences 1975-1995 on Equality for Women in Denmark”. This paper is a highly useful “prequel” and a reminder of the internationalist origins of many of the ideas about progress and gender equality we today assume are Nordic cultural products. In her paper “The ‘Nordic Model’ in International Development Aid: Explanation, Experience and Export”, Sunniva Engh traced the aspirations of the Norwegian development regime and its packaging as a project in its own right. The Nordic countries’ post-war foreign policies have been marked by strong international commitment, vocal support for an ordered international political system with the UN as a cornerstone, securing peace and furthering development. Engh presented a three pronged typology of the ‘Nordic Model’ in international engagement, namely as explanation, experience, and export, noting the highly mixed results with respect to the latter.

Finally, three interesting presentations by early career scholars focused on Nordic resettlement programs and the specific and often contradictory ideas about human suffering and citizenship underpinning these programs. Linn Marie Reklev presented her paper “Humanitarian Ideals, National Interests and Resettlement: Norwegian Discourses on Burden-Sharing Following the Syrian Refugee Crisis” (for an earlier discussion see here).  Katrine Syppli Kohl  analysed the Danish context in her paper “Governing Resettlement: Selecting refugees based on their potential for integration in Denmark” (see here for an earlier discussion). Reflecting on the salience of the “humanitarian discourse”, the “nation-state discourse” and the “cost and capacity” discourse for the Danish context, Kohl observed that the emphasis on genuine suffering went hand in hand with a desire to deselect individuals that were “too disturbed”. In parallel, while the official emphasis is on orderly resettlement, in practice the bureaucratic process appeared haphazard and random when looked at up close. She also noted that from 2016, Denmark no longer has a resettlement program. In the final paper in this cluster, Amanda Cellini  discussed historical Nordic resettlement practices in her paper “Settling Resettlement: A Normative Study of Norway, Sweden and the Resettlement of Hungarians in 1956/57” (see here for an overview on Nordic resettlement), and the similarities and differences between post-war and contemporary Nordic resettlement practices. In particular, Cellini highlighted the difference in speed. A widespread assumption in the study of contemporary humanitarianism is the assumption of acceleration; that both emergencies and responses happen at a faster pace. While contemporary resettlement candidates usually languish in camps for months and years, Cellini described how Hungarians were resettled within days and weeks.

Johan Strang is a University Lecturer at the Centre for Nordic Studies at the University of Helsinki. He is interested in Scandinavian politics and 20th century intellectual history.

Kristin Bergtora Sandvik is Professor at the Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law (UiO) and Research Professor in Humanitarian Studies (PRIO). She is also the project leader for Aid in Crisis? Rights-Based Approaches and Humanitarian Outcomes (funded by the Research Council of Norway and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs), which examines Norwegian humanitarian policy.

featured image
Image credit: Getty Images