Humanitarian Studies has been defined by Professor Thea Hilhorst as the study of societies and vulnerable communities experiencing humanitarian crisis originating from disaster, conflict, refugee situations, and/ or political collapse. This definition stemmed from the recent launch of the Humanitarian Studies Centre (HSC) on 31 August, 2023 at the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague. The HSC aims to build a network of researchers, practitioners, and policy makers to collaboratively impact the field of Humanitarian Studies.
The Humanitarian Studies Centre at ISS launched on August 31, with a full-day opening event to ‘take stock of Humanitarian Studies’. Guest speakers included Prof. Antonio De Lauri (Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies), Dr Juan Ricardo Aparicio Cuervo (Universidade de Los Andes), Rob Schuurmans (Acting Director, International Affairs, Municipality of The Hague), and Mariëlle van Miltenberg (Head of Humanitarian Aid at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). The day was intended to map humanitarian studies in the Netherlands and provide an opportunity for networking, with 36 presentations in different sessions showing the breadth and diversity of Humanitarian Studies.
The Humanitarian Studies Centre will also partner with and host several other organisations, including KUNO (Platform for Knowledge Exchange in the Netherlands), the SSRi (Safety and Security for Researchers Initiative), and the IHSA (International Humanitarian Studies Association). In her opening speech, Thea Hilhorst, who directs the Humanitarian Studies Centre, raised the question what humanitarian studies is.
What is Humanitarian Studies?
“I would like to start with a word of thanks, to the Netherlands government that endowed me with the Spinoza price that enabled setting up the Humanitarian Studies Centre. A first question, then, is of course: what are humanitarian studies?
The field was originally thought of as ‘the study of (international) humanitarian action’. However, perhaps because of my background in development studies, I have always carefully situated humanitarian action in society. Humanitarian action, in my mind, is an autonomous field embedded in society, as I elaborated with Bram Jansen in the idea of the humanitarian arena.
Even so, through time I felt it was needed to broaden the definition of humanitarian studies, away from a focus on international humanitarian action to take societies undergoing humanitarian crises as the starting point. Humanitarian studies, in my mind is:
The study of societies and vulnerable communities experiencing humanitarian crisis originating from disaster, conflict, refugee situations, and/ or political collapse. It studies the causes and impact of crisis; how people, communities and authorities respond to them, including efforts for prevention and preparedness; how humanitarian action and other external interventions are organized and affect the recovery from crises; and the institutional changes that crises and crisis response engender.
This definition implies that there are lots of people that contribute to Humanitarian Studies, without necessarily identifying with the label of ‘Humanitarian Studies’.”
A broad field, open to dialogue
“There is a large range of other academic fields that can interact with, influence, and be in conversation within Humanitarian Studies. We are like siblings in a large family, looking alike yet all with our distinctive features. These include conflict and peace studies, development studies, feminist and post-colonial studies, international relations, disaster studies, and refugee studies. It’s not just academic efforts that contribute to the field either; practitioners are also included – hence the hosting of KUNO at the HSC. The launch of the HSC is also a call to build a network of researchers, practitioners, and policy makers that build collaboratively to have the most positive effect in Humanitarian Studies.”
Not limited to the actions of Humanitarians
“Centering society within Humanitarian Studies means looking at what happens to society during moments of crisis, in contrast to previous approaches. Scholars were mainly interested in the exceptionality of crisis, the violence characterizing crisis, or assumed societies lost their organizing principles to become tabula rasa or institutional voids altogether during a crisis. Few people asked themselves how families managed to feed children, sent them to school, how babies were born, what happened to couples falling in love, who would help people with nothing to eat?
While a plethora of research and lived experience showed that people help each other during crisis (everybody would have died when they had to wait for international humanitarian actors), this largely escaped the eye of the academic world just as much as the aid community. Today, we almost see the opposite happening, with the aid sector celebrating the resilience of local communities, the self-reliance of people on the move and the everyday care they extend to one another.
Whilst it is important to celebrate peoples’ resilience during crisis, and solidarity within societies, this doesn’t mean that the field of Humanitarian Studies takes a rose-tinted view of what happens during crises. Nor can the field ignore the politicization of crisis situations. Lots of research has testified to the politics of crisis, and the ways in which actors reconfigure themselves to benefit from the crisis interventions or change the existing order according to their own interests and views. This happens at international as much as national and the local level, where for example chiefs may ask for sexual favours in exchange for assistance, or local traders may profit from crises by doubling their prices.”
Disaster and crisis as opportunity
“Optimistic people view disaster as a window of opportunity to build back better, and more pessimistic people predominantly see how elites make themselves stronger and richer in times of crisis. Where they agree is that moments of crisis also typically open space for change within society, with existing structures of governance often entirely upheaved, or unable to operate in the same manner. Some of the richest, layered and interesting studies humanitarian scholars have done is to see how institutional landscapes change in crisis situations, whether these changes are permanent, and whether these changes can be affected by carefully crafted interventions.”
A value-laden field
“What I love about humanitarian studies as the title of this domain of work is that it carries a value-laden property. Humanitarian studies is about dignity and it is about humanity. The father of modern humanitarianism, Henri Dunant, proposed that the key idea of humanitarianism is the desire to save lives and restore human dignity. He derived this notion from a tradition of Christian charity that did not seek to radically alter society. However, the notion of humanity has also inspired subsequent scholars. Last year I was in the beautiful city of Davos in Switzerland where a winter walkway is devoted to Thomas Mann, who wrote his ‘Zauberberg’ (the Magic Mountain) during a stay at Davos.
One of the quotes displayed on the walkway says: ‘What then, is humanism? It is the love of humanity, nothing else, and therefore it is political, and therefore it is a rebellion against everything that tarnishes and devalues humanity.’ That is for me the value that drives humanitarian studies.”
The Humanitarian Studies Centre aims to be a hive of activity around the field, with academic and applied research that will continue to centre both society and humanity in societies undergoing crisis or disaster. Along with Director Thea Hilhorst, Deputy Director Rodrigo Mena, and Senior Researcher Kaira Zoe Cañete, another Senior Researcher will also shortly be joining the team. Several PhD researchers are also affiliated to the centre. Non-academic staff include Coordinator Thomas Ansell, and Community Manager Gabriela Anderson Fernandez. An exciting programme of academic research, knowledge sharing, dialogue with practitioners, and much more is planned!
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About the author:
Dorothea Hilhorst is professor of Humanitarian Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University.
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