IHSA Conference 2018 | (Re-)Shaping Boundaries in Crisis and Crisis Response: introducing the 2018 International Humanitarian Studies Association Conference by Dorothea Hilhorst

Today, in a rapidly changing world, humanitarian crisis response and humanitarianism is increasingly confronted with boundaries that are dissolving, displaced, or resurrecting. The bi-annual International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA) Conference taking place this week at the ISS seeks to unpack the way in which boundaries related to crisis and humanitarianism are shaped. IHSA President Dorothea Hilhorst in this article reflects on the importance of the conference in an era where governments are increasingly alienated from the vulnerable people that they have the duty to protect.


This week, the world has bereaved Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations. I have admired Annan as one of the most remarkable global leaders that during his time at the United Nations and thereafter tirelessly devoted himself to the promotion of democracy and the protection of vulnerable people. His death appeared in comments as the end of an era—a marker of the demise of value-driven internationalism.

Indeed, the prospects for crisis-affected people to secure protection, survival and refuge seem increasingly subject to the vagaries of geo-politics. Few governments remain that respect their duties to protect vulnerable people, and we see increasing polarisation between policies based on populist resentments against refugees and civic initiatives of solidarity to welcome people that are seeking for refuge.

It is in light of such events that ISS this week hosts the 5th bi-annual conference of the International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA). In more than 50 panels, academics, researchers and practitioners will discuss the state of affairs and emerging trends in humanitarian crises in the world today, involving refugees and displacement, conflict, disasters triggered by natural hazards, and protracted emergencies.

The conference reflects the broad concern of humanitarian studies, focusing on crisis and crisis responses and addressing these in relation to changing realities in world politics, welfare regimes, migration movements and concerns over the long-term effects of climate change and other ecological trends.

The cradles of many UN and humanitarian agencies, the USA and Europe, are seen to let politics of fear and security prevail over solidarity and international commitments. Countries close their borders or even seek to extra-territorialize their border control. The keynote of David Keen, professor of conflict studies at the London School of Economics, and several of the panels, will address the European politics towards refugees. The inhumane treatment of crisis-affected populations has now triggered a worldwide initiative, United Against Inhumanity, and we look forward to hear more about this initiative from Khaled Mansour during the opening of the conference.

Interestingly, while united international action at times seems increasingly elusive, this year has also seen the unanimous adoption of a landmark UN resolution that supports political action to address food crises related to conflict. Starvation as a weapon of war has been common in history, yet has not been recognised in international humanitarian law. It is only now, in this new resolution, 2417, that the starving of civilians or unlawfully denying them humanitarian access is recognised and condemned as warfare tactics. We are very pleased that the Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, Sigrid Kaag, as well as Alex de Waal, will speak about the relevance of the resolution during the opening of the conference.

The IHSA conference is a timely event to reflect on the profound changes happening in humanitarianism. The World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) of 2016 called for the rethinking of crisis response, bridging the domains of humanitarianism and development and increasingly localizing responses. The evolving Global Compact on Refugees compounds the trend to make humanitarian response subject to localized arrangements. The trend in humanitarian aid to build on people’s resilience had become mainstream and merits serious discussion on how these trends affect the possibilities for people and communities affected by crises to be assured of basic protection.

If we want to understand these shifts in humanitarianism, we have to delve deeply into the nuts and bolts of how they change practice on the ground. And this is exactly what the conference will do. The range of panels is impressive, enabling us to unravel how humanitarian practices are evolving. To name a few of the issues that come by in the panels: the link between humanitarian aid and national governments, issues of participation and accountability, the role of innovation in aid, and the role of debt in the ways that people can cope with crises.

Finally, I am excited to continue the discussion on the ethics of humanitarian studies. During the World Humanitarian Summit of 2016, scholars agreed on ethical commitments for humanitarian studies. These commitments concern collaboration and inclusion in humanitarian research; the study of the impact of the WHS; the further development of evidence-based approaches; the localization of humanitarian research and education; the impact and increase of the use of humanitarian research; and the protection of academic freedom and scientific ethics. While we observe, analyse and seek evidence to expand our understanding of crises and crisis response, I hope that humanitarian scholars will also use the conference to reflect on how our research can be made more relevant for crisis-affected communities.


TheaAbout the author: 

Dorothea Hilhorst is professor of humanitarian aid and reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam.

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