Institutional care is an affront to rights of children with disabilities

In solidarity to the 16 days activism against gender-based violence, this article highlights the structural violence that impedes the rights of children with disabilities —including girls— in Kenya. The author Stephen Ucembe, who is an alumni of the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, emphasizes the need to protect the rights of children confined to institutional care.

Image Credit: Hope and Homes for Children

Every child, including those with disabilities, is entitled to the rights enshrined in the Convention of the Rights of the Child which Kenya has ratified. As a country, we have agreed to uphold these rights through the Children’s Act 2022.

However, in contravention of their rights, children with disabilities are often hidden away in communities or sometimes separated and isolated in institutions against their wishes. Isolation from communities on the basis of disability is discriminatory. It is a dereliction of duty – an abdication of responsibility by the government. Supporting these children to be visible in our communities and families normalizes disability. Hiding them from others dehumanizes and perpetuates stigma and discrimination, hence exacerbating the problem.

Furthermore, unnecessary placement in residential care institutions often multiplies violations; children with disabilities are denied other rights, like the right to family and community care, to culture, to identity, to freedom of association.

A global Human Rights Watch report, published in 2017 titled, ‘Children with disabilities: Deprivation of liberty in the name of care and treatment’ documented that children with disabilities often face severe neglect and abuse. This included beatings and psychological violence, sexual violence, involuntary and inappropriate medical treatment, use of abusive physical restraints, seclusion and sedation, denial of education and denial of regular contacts with families.

An investigative media exposé traced how the problems described above play out locally. It uncovered multiple human rights violations perpetuated against institutionalized children with disabilities, by a government agency.

Nobody is seeking to romanticize families and communities. There are many children facing abuse, neglect and exploitation, including stigma and discrimination within family and community settings. However, studies consistently point to serious violations in institutional care settings. Moreover, over 80 years of research shows that supported families and communities are far better equipped than institutions when it comes to improvement of children’s overall well-being.

The primary role of government should not be to create more barriers, or spaces that deepen inequality and diminish inclusivity. Yet, this is exactly what we do when we institutionalize these children or neglect them in communities. The role of the government should be to ensure their protection and enjoyment of all rights, through full inclusion and participation in the community.

To make inclusion a reality, we need responsive initiatives that tackle ubiquitous stigma and discrimination. That starts with community services and facilities available to persons with disabilities, enabling them to access education, housing, rehabilitation and therapy.  It extends to respite care centers that allow struggling care-givers time off, or time to go and work. And it means we must improve infrastructure and provide necessary assistive devices, aids and services, like hearing aids, crutches, wheelchairs, tricycles, white canes and walking appliances to support full participation.

Lastly, it’s up to us to ensure we do not leave these children behind in the care reform processes that the government has initiated. To support governments to include disabled children in family based alternative care, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities developed ‘Guidelines on deinstitutionalization, including in emergencies’.

These guidelines are meant to ensure an end to rampant violence against institutionalized persons with disabilities, including children. This advice should ensure children with disabilities are included and supported in families and communities, and prevent their institutionalization.

This article was first published on The Standard.

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About the author:

Stephen Ucembe is the Regional Advocacy Manager, Hope and Homes for Children. He is a professional social worker with skills, knowledge, and experience working with children and young people without parental care, and vulnerable families. His preference is to work in Kenya, or regionally (east and southern Africa) with organization (s) whose mission and vision is family and child focused.

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Glocalization: a possible key to decoloniality in the aid sector?

As global as needed, as local as possible: glocal is a buzzword both in the humanitarian and development fields. According to many, acting glocal is a possible response to the long debate on coloniality in aid, and the key for a new generation of international practices that are more aware, more equal, and more balanced. But recent practices show how also glocalization can be steeped into coloniality: who is deciding what is possible and what is needed? And which voices, among the many that are composing the so-called Global South are being heard?

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Coloniality and the aid sector

The Peruvian Sociologist Anibal Quijano used the word Coloniality to identify patterns, structures, norms, customs and beliefs, based on the generally white, Christian and Eurocentric vision of the world, formerly directly imposed on colonized countries, that remained there even after the colonization ended.

Coloniality expresses itself in 4 realms: Coloniality of power – how power is shared and used in a way that resembles the old models of former colonizing states, Coloniality of being– how human beings are classified in a hierarchical fashion according to  if they belong to the dominant group (or not), usually composed of white, European, Christian men, Coloniality of knowledge -how knowledge is categorized according to a Eurocentric perspective that juxtaposes the alleged “rationality” and “universality” of European knowledge, to any other kind of knowledge produced in other contexts, and Coloniality of gender, to refer to the imposition of European gender structures and categories over non European gender cultures and traditions.

The aid sector is directly linked to colonial history and it has been identified as  embodying several forms of neocolonialism. Critics focus mainly on three factors:

  1. Providing assistance is often a way to keep influencing the agenda of a self-governing entity, its decision making processes and allocation and use of resources located in former colonies;
  2. The sector lives on the assumption that knowledge is produced in the “Global North” and magnanimously brought to the “South”, that civilization, wellbeing and individual rights as they are conceived in the “North” are concepts that need to be introduced into a generally primitive and otherwise wild “South”
  3. In the mainstream narrative of the aid relation, the main character, the hero, the agent, is the person from the “North”, who is usually depicted as a white non-disabled man, while those who participate into actions and projects in the South are reduced to passive objects in need of help, often called “beneficiaries”.

There are several signs of momentum for decoloniality in the sector, and different initiatives have arisen to question the colonial foundations of the aid industry. Such initiatives look at narratives, logistics, human resources, visual communication, project cycle management and funding mechanisms. The most recent and visible move in this direction is the Pledge for Change, initiated by Degan Ali, Executive Director of the African non-governmental organization (NGO) Adeso, with support from the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership. Originally signed by five major NGOs, the pledge today has over twice that number of signatories. It identifies three streams of change: equitable partnership, authentic storytelling, and influencing wider change

In this landscape, one of the most vivid debates is around the role, space, position and power that communities, groups and organizations rooted in countries traditionally receiving aid have in shaping the relation with programs. Too often they are still considered passive beneficiaries of programs designed without their involvement, who should be grateful from whatever arrives from the white savior, even though what arrives is not adequate to the context and does not address needs and priorities.

Glocalization in aid

The concept of Glocalization was borrowed from marketing and introduced into the sector straight after the launch of the Agenda for Sustainable Development, as a key methodology for successful implementation of the agenda.

The meaning of the word Glocalization is usually summarized into “think global, act local”. It recognizes the need for a coexistence between global trends and dynamics and specific needs, priorities, knowledge, customs, and cultures.

From a decolonial perspective, the concept of Glocalization appears interesting at least for two reasons:

  • Values, knowledge, and epistemology: traditionally the whole aid industry assumes that valuable skills and knowledge arrive from former colonial powers. Aid workers bring “capacities” to those who allegedly don’t have any. A huge collection of local, indigenous, and traditional knowledge on which local systems are based is ignored, dismissed, and historically sidelines, or often intentionally destroyed. Glocalization encourages learning from the local and using local knowledge when it is the best fit to reach the intended outcome, without importing and imposing knowledge and practices from other contexts.
  • Agenda setting: who participates in decision making processes, who decides that something represents a problem, and that this needs to be urgently sorted with international support. The concept of glocalization includes and encourages agency from local actors and recognizes their power to shape global trends, while asking international actors to place themselves in a position of openness and active listening.

However, the use and ownership of the word “glocalization” has mirrored a still-very-unbalanced North-South relation. The first use can be seen in allegedly glocal actions and programs (including manuals that should support the practical implementation of glocalization), while the second simply accepted the term as a new buzzword that needs to be mentioned in project proposals in order to receive funds.

Looking at the use and application of allegedly glocal approaches, we are called to ask a difficult question: Who is deciding when local is possible and when global is needed? In other words, who has the power? Glocalization practices need to start at decision making level: no real glocalization can be possible if the agency of communities, civil societies and other actors located in countries traditionally receiving aid is not recognized and given space.

If we return to the concept of coloniality, we soon realize that for true glocalization, this practice needs to be deeply connected to a decolonial process. On the contrary, we are too often witnessing a sort of “glocal-washing”, where those who traditionally held power and resources keep doing so, through a seemingly different process. If existing power relations are not challenged, and if the process of knowledge production does not change, the usual suspects will decide how and when to ‘go glocal’.


Having difficult conversations

The word glocalization by itself suggests that there is no one-fits-all solution, and that every context needs to be interpreted, explored and listened to, in order to find adequate and unique solutions.
Each context requires a different balance between global and local, and this balance can emerge only if power relations are questioned, and if glocalization is approached from a decolonial perspective.
The first step are not the manuals produced in the so-called Global North. The first step is finding the way to have difficult conversations on power, knowledge, and resources, with the communities that will participate into aid programs.

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About the author:

Carla Vitantonio is a Humanitarian and development professional, author, researcher. She is a member of the board of the International Humanitarian Studies Association. In 2022, she was awarded the honor of Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Stella d’Italia by the President of the Republic of Italy, for her activity as a humanitarian and as an author.

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Humanitarian Observatories Series | Creating a space for Congolese to talk about issues including how widespread sexual abuse is ravaging the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s humanitarian sector

Sexual abuse is widespread in the humanitarian sector of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The observatory was set up to discuss, among others, crises that plague the humanitarian sector, including sexual abuse in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The Humanitarian Observatory (HO) is a suitable space for academics, civil society, international and state actors to discuss humanitarian governance challenges so to contribute in shedding light on how to go about them sustainably.

A pervasive issue with devastating consequences

Sexual abuse has become a significant problem in the DRC’s humanitarian sector. Incidents of sexual abuse by humanitarian actors  are widespread, as humanitarian activity has sharply increased. Independent news agency the New Humanitarian is one of the platforms reporting on these developments — in September last year it highlighted  the stories of 34 cases of alleged sexual abuse that resulted in pregnancy. The majority of the women reported abuse from employees of United Nations agencies, others from those working for international humanitarian agencies. More recently, that the number of women reporting sexual abuse by aid workers is still growing.

The reports of purported victims of sexual abuse indicate that sexual abuse in the DRC has two main faces: (i) the sexual exploitation of aid recipients — that is, trading aid for sex, and (ii) the sexual exploitation of job applicants or colleagues lower in rank — that is, trading sex for jobs, job security, or promotions. One of the women interviewed by the New Humanitarian related that she was only 15 years old when her boss started inviting her to a hotel for sexual relations, claiming that she was to have sex with him if she wanted to keep her job. A few months later, she became pregnant, and she is now in charge of raising her young daughter at her own expense.


A space for talking about sexual abuse

One year ago, in October 2022, a group of people in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) — humanitarians, academics, civil society actors and others — got together to form a Humanitarian Observatory.[1] The observatory, one of a handful set up in different countries as part of the

At the  observatory event on 15 March this year, we chose to focus the discussion on sexual abuse in the humanitarian sector in the DRC. Sexual abuse scandals in the humanitarian sector have been widely reported, but occasions where we as Congolese can talk about such issues are few and far between. The launch of the observatory therefore served as a space for us to openly discuss the issue — something that has not truly been done to date — in particular how sexual abuse comes about and what needs to be done to address the problem, especially by those working on the ground in the DRC.

Photo 1: humanitarian observatory members in group’s discussion about sexual abuse in DRC, 15 March 2023, Bukavu


Some observations

The meeting of the Humanitarian Observatory where the issue was discussed had 18 participants comprised of 10 men and 8 women. Of the 18 participants, four were humanitarian aid workers, ten were researchers, and four were civil society actors. We could therefore have a balanced discussion in which different participants highlighted different dimensions of the issue and proposed several possible measures. Below, we highlight some of the main observations that were made at the meeting.


Shame and fear drive silence

First of all, it was noted that victims are ashamed of having been sexually abused and therefore many victims prefer not to speak out in view of cultural restrictions for women; this is even more so in the case of male victims of sexual abuse. People may also be afraid to speak out because they fear retaliation from the perpetrator.

Similarly, even though most of the participants of the discussion are active in the humanitarian sector, there seemed to be an informal agreement among victims about refraining from telling personal stories about or mentioning the names of people they knew to be perpetrators. Instead, in order to keep the discussion safe, participants spoke about sexual abuse as an external phenomenon rather than as practices they are involved in or have witnessed first-hand.


Here are some other observations that participants made:

  1. The problem is widespread. Reflecting on the problem, the participants agreed that (forced or consensual) sexual relations are rampant in the humanitarian sector. Many humanitarian male actors have condoms in their offices or while traveling for fieldwork. Moreover, it is very common that victims are invited into hotel rooms. Women are deceived with flattering words of promises of marriage, or they are just being told they need to consent if they want to keep their jobs. This may also happen to young women in need that are exploited for promises of goods or other gains. It is also rather common that humanitarian workers seek sexual relations with women engaged in small trade activities around the humanitarian compounds or women engaged in small jobs for the agencies, such as cleaning or cooking.


  1. Men at all levels are the perpetrators. The participants to the observatory found it important to note that accusations of sexual abuse concern men at all levels of the organization, from managers and office workers (such as human resources officers) to fieldwork staff, drivers, guards, and people with odd jobs working alongside women in cleaning and cooking. This is important because these latter groups are often not aware of codes of conduct and are not being involved in awareness-raising activities.


  1. Several context-specific factors make sexual abuse possible. A first factor is formed by the misery, poverty, and vulnerability among community members, who rely mostly on humanitarian assistance. The second factor is formed by the long-term stay of humanitarian personnel and operations of humanitarian agencies in the area, with little control or accountability of international and national non-governmental organizations working in isolated or remote zones. In these conditions, many women seeking access to aid, funding, or employment have resigned themselves to the idea that sexual relations are a largely unescapable ‘part of the deal’ and that their protests will not be heard.


  1. Patriarchal norms help normalize sexual abuse. And above all, it was recognized that sexual abuse is related to a dominant or hegemonic Congolese masculinity based on common and informal cultures, where men behave as if they are entitled to have sex in return for favours.


Two recommendations

Reflecting on this discussion, we can ask how we can prevent and fight against the phenomenon. At the end of the observatory meeting, the participants together formulated two main recommendations for actions that can be taken:


  1. Rethinking norms of masculinity and combating toxic masculinity are crucial. Recognizing that the problem partly stems from cultural issues, it is a priority to promote positive masculinity through different means, including the news media and social media. It is important to combat predatory sexual behaviour and rethink masculinity norms. These should draw on alternative masculinity repertoires that can also be found in the DRC, such as the caring father or breadwinner forms of masculinity. In these, men are responsible providers for their family, including for their spouses, and at the same time provide space for women’s empowerment. It is a masculinity ideal where men considerably contribute to the household, both economically and socially.


  1. All workers in the humanitarian sector need to be made aware of behavioural norms and codes of conduct that should guide their actions. To combat sexual abuse in the humanitarian sector, awareness raising is a priority, focusing on humanitarian staff, including drivers, guards, and other male staff that are less exposed to training on codes of conduct and principles of humanitarian assistance. In addition, state actors, civil society organisations, and community members should be involved in awareness raising and following up on reported cases. It must be ensured that perpetrators are sanctioned according to legal, religious, and traditional norms of the Congolese society.


The above-mentioned actions will need to be enduring — a single, once-off intervention is insufficient given that cultural norms strongly shape the present situation, in particular by normalizing sexual abuse and providing a space for its continued existence. The Eastern Congo has become a permanent site of humanitarian assistance, and this is not likely to end soon. This means that sexual abuse will also remain an issue. This is not only a matter for the humanitarian agencies. It is important that all stakeholders, including communities, civil society, and state agencies, take responsibility to fight against sexual abuse.

[1] We acknowledge active participation of members of the Humanitarian Observatory discussions in the event of 15 March 2023 from which the current blog is written, namely Claude Iguma, Odile Bulabula, Gentil Kavusa, Denise Siwatula, Bilubi Ulengabo, Christian Namegabe, Shukuru Manegabe, Sifa Katembera, Henri Kintuntu, Wabenga Lunanga, Samuel Kyamundu, Prosper Lufungula, and Veronique Saleh.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Patrick Milabyo Kyamusugulwa is Professor at the Institut Supérieur des Techniques Médicales de Bukavu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He is member of the DRC Humanitrian Observatory and member of the Social Science Centre for African Development-KUTAFITI.

Delu Lusambya Mwenebyake is a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (Erasmus University Rotterdam), Delu is working on humanitarian governance in the Democratic Republic of Congo: Community-driven, accountability, and advocacy in Humanitarian Actions.

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International Humanitarian Studies Association Conference 2023: “Humanitarianism in Changing Climates”

The International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA), which is hosted at the Humanitarian Studies Centre at ISS, held its biennial conference at the beginning of November in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Held in collaboration with North-South University (NSU), and the Insights Network, the three-day conference featured a huge range of presentations and panel discussions on everything from migration, conflict, humanitarian education; and much more besides. The conference was also an opportunity to elect a new President and Board Members for the Association.  

Image Source: Author

The International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA), brings together both researchers and practitioners from across the Humanitarian Studies spectrum and its related ‘sister’ subjects: including conflict studies, migration studies, environmental sciences; and international relations. The Association was founded in 2009 by a group of researchers including Dorothea Hilhorst (ISS), who  stood down as the third president at the conference. IHSA has plenty of activities and opportunities for members, including working groups and expertise databases, but one of its biggest activities is the biennial conference.

This time, the conference was held in Dhaka, Bangladesh, (and online!) and featured over 300 attendees.  It highlighted over 60 different panels and roundtables held on a range of subjects including: “Filling the gap or filling the shoes? Civil society and political change in historical disasters”, “Who or what constitutes the Humanitarian?”, “Building  locally led solidarities over shrinking space for civil society”, and “Humanitarian action in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC): Its governance and peculiarities in the region”. You can check out the full list and schedule here, while various recordings of the roundtables will be available on the IHSA YouTube channel in the near future.


New President and Board Members elected

Antonio De Lauri (Chr. Michelsen Institute, Oslo) was elected by the IHSA Members as the new IHSA President, and will lead the Association for the next four years.

In a commendation speech, the outgoing President, Dorothea Hilhorst (ISS) said: “I’m delighted that Antonio will be leading the International Humanitarian Studies Association for the next few years: he is an excellent academic – a formidable intellectual that has a strong track record in field research in humanitarian arenas. He is a great networker and I am convinced he will be a wonderful IHSA President. I look forward to him working with the new board to bring the Association to a broader audience and take the IHSA community to become yet more meaningful to its members.”

Dorothea Hilhorst – one of the founding members of IHSA in 2009 – was the third President of IHSA after Alex de Waal and Peter Walker whom she succeeded in 2016. IHSA will now be hosted at the Humanitarian Studies Centre in The Hague, and will benefit from two new staff members, increasing the capacity of the organization exponentially. An exciting programme of events and initiatives is planned for the coming years.


New Board Members

Members of the Association also voted for new Board members to join the 10-person board. Palash Kamruzzaman (University of South Wales), Carla Vitantonio (CARE), and Juan Ricardo Aparicio Cuervo (Universidade de Los Andes) were newly elected, whilst Rodrigo Mena (ISS) and Andrew Cunningham were both re-elected. Board members serve for four years, and the newly elected members now join existing members Susanne Jaspars (SOAS, University of London), Nazanin Zadeh-Cummings (Rijksuniversiteit Groningen), Patrick Milabyo Kyamusugulwa (ISTM-Bukavu), and Maryam Zarnegar Deloffre (George Washington University).

Mohamed Jelle (UCL) and Virginie Troit (Fondation Croix-Rouge) have left the board following the end of their terms; IHSA would like to thank them for their work and dedication over the last four years.

The International Humanitarian Studies Association welcomes new members: students, researchers, and practitioners from across the world of Humanitarian Studies. You can find out more about member benefits by visiting the IHSA website.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Tom Ansell is the Coordinator of the Humanitarian Studies Centre and International Humanitarian Studies Association.

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How was life in Gaza before October 7th?

The war between Israel and Palestine has saturated the media with many views on the resulting effects. What about the state of things in Gaza prior to this violent conflict? In this blog, Irene Van Staveren — a professor of pluralist development economics at the International Institute of Social Studies — tickles our imagination to consider the complexities of social problems evident in Gaza prior to October 7, 2023 when the war broke out.

Image Source: Natalia Cieslik/World Bank, 2010.

Imagine you were a 13-year-old girl growing up in the Gaza Strip under ‘normal’ circumstances until a few weeks ago. Statistically, you would have made up over 40% of the total population along with all the other children up to the age of 14. You had three siblings. The likelihood of living below the poverty line was 53%. Just last year, hundreds of buildings were hit by rockets, including the power plant. Over the past years, you had experienced various bombings in and around Gaza City. As a result, like all the other children in your neighbo, you had an 87% chance of developing post-traumatic stress disorder according to the latest Human Development Report (p.89). There haven’t been any elections in 16 years, and your parents feel powerless.

You often didn’t have enough to eat because your parents had a high risk of unemployment (40% for men, 64% for women). One of your uncles had a fairly well-paying job outside of Gaza, which put him in the one percent who managed that. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to keep much of his salary as an UNCTAD report (p. 6) suggests that 30% of the earnings for such work go into the pockets of labour brokers. Your grandfather had a small olive grove and could sell some olive oil to foreign markets. However, he was increasingly stopped when trying to reach his grove. According to the same UNCTAD report (p.8), olive production had dropped by 60%.

So, you most likely shared a small living space with many people. This was quite challenging when you had to do your homework, especially because there was only electricity available half of the time. Often, there was no light in the evenings. Learning was a struggle, and the destruction of several schools led to the surviving children being divided among the remaining schools, making your class overcrowded.

The only escape from this situation might have been marriage. According to the Palestinian Authority’s statistical bureau, one in five girls gets married before their 18th birthday. You knew some of these girls – they dropped out of school early and became mothers at a young age. Finding a job was out of the question for them. Not that you would have had it much better. More than half of the youth in Gaza can’t find a job.

In the past, there used to be international aid to rely on. However, over the past ten years, it has plummeted from 18% of Gaza’s income to 2%, according to the World Bank (figure 2). Fortunately, most schools and many hospitals are run by the UN and aid organizations. But they face significant shortages of medicine and parts for medical equipment like X-ray machines. The WHO calculated that almost 70% of permit requests for importing these medical goods are denied. When your grandmother needed surgery at a hospital outside of Gaza, her doctor’s request wasn’t processed on time, putting her at a high risk of passing away. Thankfully, she survived. But you didn’t. Fourty percent of the victims of the current bombings in Gaza are children.

This column appeared in the Dutch newspaper Trouw, on 31 October 2023.

Image Credit: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

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About the author:

Irene van Staveren is a professor of pluralist development economics at the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University Rotterdam. Professor van Staveren’s theoretical interest is in feminist economics, social economics, institutional economics and post-Keynesian economics. Her key research interest is at the meso level of the economy with topics such as social cohesion, social exclusion, inequality and discrimination, as well as ethics and values in the economy and in economics.

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Jewish scholars refuse to be silent about Gaza

There have been many statements, petitions, Op-Eds and other forms of concern and condemnation from scholars following the resurgence of violence around the impasse between Israel and the Palestinians. This also includes Jewish scholars, such as an open letter from Jewish students at Brown University and another from Jewish writers. Moreover, there have been critical Jewish organisations that have long-supported a Palestinian-centred narrative, including the Promised Land Museum, and in particular their tribute to the late German-Dutch phycisist Dr. Hajo Meyer, Zochrot and Jewish Voices for Peace. In the same spirit, as Jewish employees and students at Dutch universities, universities of applied science and research institutions, we also refuse to stay silent about Gaza, and so present the following statement.

Photo: Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0 Deed, Destruction in Gaza, October 2023

We, Jewish employees and students in Dutch universities, universities of applied science and research institutions, refuse to stay silent about the recent surge in violence in Gaza.

We raise our voices to speak out against Israel’s war of destruction against the over two million Palestinians in Gaza, and demand an immediate cease fire. The high numbers of civilian victims of the Israeli bombardments so far, including the killing of thousands of children, a complete blockade for primary necessities of life in Gaza by Israel, and the actions and words of Israeli officials all justify the fear of a second Nakba; ethnic cleansing or genocide of the Palestinian population. “Never again” for us means never again for anyone.

We feel deep pain for the many civilian casualties during the attacks by Hamas on 7 October 2023. Precisely because we want to see an end to such gruesome violence, we refuse to abide by the logic of revenge that already has cost the lives of multiple times as many Palestinian civilians. We understand that the current wave of violence did not start with the actions of 7 October 2023, but is rooted in a long history of colonization, occupation and unequal treatment targeting the Palestinian people. If ending the current war against Gaza will only lead to a return to the status quo ante, this will mean a continuation of the violence that for Palestinians is a permanent reality. Peace, in this situation, will just be the prelude to the next major war.

Lasting peace is only possible on the basis of justice. At the very least, this means the recognition that the rule of law and human rights apply to all inhabitants of historic Palestine. It means recognizing the right of self-determination of the Palestinians, ending the blockade of Gaza and the occupation of the West Bank, acknowledgement of the right of return for all Palestinian refugees, and equal rights between Palestinians and Jews from the Mediterranean to the river Jordan.

We promise to continue our efforts in this direction, during and after the current war. We support the call from Palestinian civil society for ceasing all forms of cooperation with Israeli institutions that contribute to the occupation of Palestinian territories and the unequal treatment of the Palestinian population.

As long as the injustice for Palestinians persists, we demand that our institutions speak out against this as firmly as they did one and a half years ago at the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We forcefully resist any form of racism, islamophobia, antisemitism or other types of hate speech. We are inspired by the many Jewish voices in and outside of Israel that take a principled stance for Palestinian rights. As Jewish opponents of the Israeli actions, we are indignant about the attempts to equate criticism of the Israeli state and support for Palestinian rights with antisemitism. Islamophobia and antisemitism in response to the current war are very real problems. We ask our institutions to take active measures against a climate of threats, polarization and discrimination. However, to do so does not give a free pass to censor critical anti-war voices.

A safe learning environment does not preclude a firm stance against war and injustice. On the contrary, such a firm stance is our shared duty.

This statement was first published in Dutch in the NRC Handelsbad on13 November 2023.

Image Source: Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0 Deed, Destruction in Gaza, October 2023.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Dr. Alessandra Benedicty-Kokken (Lecturer, Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis, University of Amsterdam).

Prof. dr. Pepijn Brandon (Professor of Global History, Free University of Amsterdam).

Alcide Breaux (Student, Sandberg Institute and Gerrit Rietveld Academie).

Zazie van Dorp (BA Philosophy, LLB Law & employee University of Amsterdam).

Dr. Jacob Engelberg (Lecturer, Film, Media and Culture, University of Amsterdam).

Dr. Sai Englert (Lecturer, University of Leiden).

Gabriel Gottlieb (Student, Econometrics, Erasmus University Rotterdam).

Dr. Aviva de Groot (Postdoctoral researcher AI & Human Rights, TILT, Tilburg University).

Sophia Haid (Student, Media studies, University of Amsterdam).

Dr. Jeff Handmaker (Associate Professor of Legal Sociology, ISS, Erasmus University Rotterdam).

Levi Hilz (Student, Sociology, Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam).

Dr. Joost Kircz (Emeritus Lector Electronic Publishing, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences).

Naomi Kreitman (Student, Sandberg Institute).

Dr. Anna Mai (Postdoctoraal researcher, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics).

Yuval Molina Obedman, Ma (Recently graduated in Philosophy, University of Amsterdam, and International Relations, University of Leiden).

Dr. Tzula Propp (Postdoctotaal researcher, TU Delft).

Dr. Patricia Schor (Postdoctoral researcher, Free University of Amsterdam).

Juliet Tanzer (Student, Utrecht University).

Dr. Anya Topolski (Associate Professor, Ethics and Political Philosophy, Radboud University Nijmegen).

Dr. Markha Valenta (Lecturer, American Studies, Utrecht University).

Itaï van der Wal (Student LLM, Utrecht University).

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Militaries can’t target essential infrastructure during war—so why can they target telecoms?

In this blog, Tom Ansell looks through an International Humanitarian Law lens at cutting mobile network and internet access, such as recent targeting of telecoms by the Israeli military during their ongoing retaliation against Palestinian people in Gaza. Whilst the cutting off of utilities such as electricity and water are considered to fall under a ban on collective punishment, International Humanitarian Law does not mention cutting off communication infrastructures. When we consider how vital phone and internet services are for human dignity, organizing relief efforts, and documenting war crimes or countering misinformation, it might be time to consider the deliberate cutting off internet and telecoms access as a breach of International Humanitarian Law and so a war crime.

Image by Troy Squillaci on Pexels

During the Israeli ground invasion unfolding in Gaza, and the accompanying aerial bombing campaign, there have been widespread reports of internet and communications blackouts – caused by heavy and deliberate bombardment of telecoms infrastructure, and confirmed by the UN. Whilst slightly different compared to ‘switch offs’ by governments, and paling in comparison to the bombing of civilians, cutting off people’s (particularly non-combatants) means of communications and creating a ‘blackout’ is nevertheless an important and under-reported element of modern warfare. International Humanitarian Law (IHL), the so-called ‘laws of war’ which are made up of a number of legal conventions and treaties (most famously the 1949 Geneva Conventions, itself signed by Israel) and have been signed by most countries around the world, don’t mention preserving civilian communications.

So, considering how important mobile and internet access is not only for keeping in touch, but also coordinating societal responses to disasters such as war and documenting the associated chaos, should we consider telecoms infrastructure in a similar way to how we consider water infrastructure in war, as something off-limits for military targeting and thus protected?


Cutting off water, medical systems, and electricity are already War Crimes

During a war, an occupying power (i.e., the military or armed forces that has invaded) has several legal obligations set out in IHL. Breaking these are considered ‘war crimes’, and are punishable at the International Criminal Court or a special tribunal. Cutting off water, medical systems, electricity, food, aid, and unnecessarily targeting civilian infrastructure are considered War Crimes because they amount to ‘collective punishment’ of a civilian population. This is expressly forbidden by Article 33 of the 1949 Geneva Convention on Civilians – and since then there have been various updates and treaties that form part of IHL that also expressly forbid targeting or deliberately destroying ‘Objects Indispensable to the Survival of the Civilian Population’. These generally refer to foodstuff, water, and medical supplies (evidently vital to survival), and whilst telecommunications aren’t on the same existential level of food and water, with an estimated 6.7 billion smartphone subscriptions worldwide in 2023 (according to Statista), and the embeddedness of mobile phones in our lives, I’d suggest that smartphones have become indispensable to the survival of civilians in general.

Telecommunications and internet access is fast-becoming seen as a human right, too; closely linked to existing rights of Assembly, Expression, and Development. For example, in 2023 the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the UN said that “It may be time to reinforce universal access to the Internet as a human right, and not just a privilege” . Various countries around the world are also enshrining the right to internet access and connection in their laws, from its inclusion within the constitution of Greece , the Kerala High Court in India upholding access to the internet as covered by the right to education in the Indian Constitution, to Costa Rica’s Constitutional Court ruling that all Costa Ricans have the fundamental right to access information technology, especially the internet. Whilst it is true that Human Rights Law and International Humanitarian Law are different (for several legal reasons), IHL intends to protect the life and dignity of innocent people in warmeaning that there is at least a strong relationship and affinity in their intent.


Smartphones are vital for connecting and coordinating, especially in times of conflict

Let’s not forget that when we talk about cutting off all means of communication and access to the internet, we aren’t just looking at people not being able to contact their loved ones or the outside world (as bad as that is). People’s lives are put at risk by a ‘communications blackout’, because emergency relief is very often coordinated via mobile data and internet connections. When communications were cut off in Gaza on October 27, the Palestinian Red Crescent society reported that it had lost contact with its control room in Gaza, and that people were unable to call the 101 emergency number. If emergency aid organisations are unable to keep in contact with their staff, they can’t know if their staff are safe – nor can they know if their efforts to deliver food, medical, or other relief has been successful or needs to be targeted elsewhere.

A 2012 Save the Children report (completed in partnership with the Vodafone Foundation) makes it clear how important mobile phones are for providing information during a disaster. For example, after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, information messages were sent out via the mobile network ‘Voila’ by the International Federation of the Red Cross –95% of recipients said that the information they received was useful, and 90% said that the information they received helped them make a preparation or change as a result. And it’s not just information that’s sent through mobile networks, either, with emergency cash transfers often sent in this way.

We can see the value of access to mobile data in the current violence in Gaza (and previous instances too), with Israel apparently warning civilians in Gaza of impending military action or airstrikes by phone call or automated text message. Quite how these warning messages can be received without mobile network access, though, is an open question.


Documenting serious war crimes and countering false information

It’s certainly true that cutting off mobile communications and access to the internet is an act with fewer direct deaths and injuries than other more grave offences, yet having access to mobile data is important in documenting and ‘proving’ these other serious crimes. This has become extremely clear during the conflict in Ukraine following Russia’s invasion in February 2022, with the Ukrainian government even setting up an online service (‘e-Enemy’) for people to submit their pictures, videos, and messages that document brutality against civilians and other war crimes. This crowd-sourced evidence could prove vital in securing convictions for crimes should Russian military commanders or even politicians end up in front of the ICJ or a tribunal. And, as AccessNow warns, cutting off the internet could lessen the chances of Palestinians documenting serious war crimes. Allowing people to access social media and present their own documentary-style proof of their lived experience gives people voices, and also allows the countering of false and dangerous narratives with documentary evidence.


So, should cutting off the internet and telecommunications be a war crime?

International Humanitarian Law specifies a wide spectrum of ‘war crimes’, and whilst we often immediately think of the most grievous, any breach of IHL is a criminal act. Hence, and considering mobile connectivity’s important role in preserving human dignity, coordinating emergency aid response, documenting war crimes, perhaps the deliberate targeting of telecommunications should be included in the definition of ‘collective punishment’.

Image by Troy Squillaci on Pexels.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Tom Ansell is the Coordinator of the Humanitarian Studies Centre and International Humanitarian Studies Association.

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International Humanitarian Studies Association conference roundtable and North South University statement on Gaza: “As scholars and practitioners of Humanitarian Studies, we strongly condemn acts of widescale and indiscriminate violence against civilian populations”

This blog is part of a series about the International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA) conference in Dhaka, Bangladesh. In this piece, Dorothea Hilhorst (Professor of Humanitarian Studies at ISS, outgoing IHSA President) and Sk. Tawfique M Haque (Professor and Chair of Political Science and Sociology, North South University) present a statement made by participants of a roundtable held at the conference to take stock of the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Image Source: Author

At the IHSA biennial conference in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a roundtable took place on the ongoing violence and humanitarian catastrophe in Palestine. The roundtable included contributions from Professor Dorothea Hilhorst (outgoing IHSA President), Research Professor Antonio De Lauri (incoming IHSA President), Professor Sk. Tawfique M. Haque (North South University), Professor Shahidul Haque (North South University), Professor Mohamed Nuruzzaman (North South University), and Dr Kaira Zoe Canete (International Institute of Social Studies).

During the roundtable, several aspects of the ongoing humanitarian situation were discussed, including access for humanitarian aid, the interests and positions of stakeholders in the conflict more generally, ways to counter the situation being used to further polarize society, and what the role of Humanitarian Scholars is in the face of the situation.

The International Humanitarian Studies Association and Center for Peace Studies (CPS) at North South University would like to share this statement, following the roundtable:

We extend our solidarity and sorrow towards those grieving loved ones in Palestine and Israel, and deplore violence carried out during this conflict. As scholars and practitioners of Humanitarian Studies, we strongly condemn acts of widescale and indiscriminate violence against civilian populations. This extends not only to ongoing military violence, but the blocking of humanitarian aid and assistance.

These actions by the Israeli state and military amount to multiple breaches of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), including the 1949 Geneva Convention that was signed by Israel. We condemn the collective punishment of over two million people in Gaza, of which more than half are children.

We also highlight UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2417, which condemns the use of starvation as a weapon of war, and confirms that any blocking of humanitarian aid breaks IHL. Further, we draw attention to Israel’s role as an occupying power in the Palestinian Territories, and its commitments to maintain medical services and infrastructure under IHL.

We call for respect for and adherence to IHL, International Criminal Law (ICL) and UNSC 2417 to prevent starvation (due to blocking access to food, water, electricity, health care and other items essential to survival) and death of civilians. This means allowing immediate access to aid for those who need it and protecting civilians.

Humanitarian Studies scholars need to use their knowledge and evidence to speak truth to power and counter any silencing mechanism that jeopardizes academic freedom and the freedom of expression. One of the challenges of wide-scale violence, wherever it happens, is that it makes us question the value of humanity. We need all voices in this discussion to maintain dignity and respect, and we condemn the use of antisemitic and Islamophobic language, as well as narratives of dehumanization and polarization especially when they come from powerful institutions, political leaders, and states.

For more information about the IHSA Conference, check out their website.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Dorothea Hilhorst is professor of Humanitarian Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University.





Professor Sk. Tawfique M. Haque is the Director, Center for Peace Studies (CPS), South Asian Institute of Policy and Governance (SIPG), North South University.

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‘Important and urgent’: this decision-making matrix shows that we need to act now to fight climate change

Climate change was first flagged as a global risk several decades ago, but warnings were not taken seriously. Now that climate change is part and parcel of our daily lives, the need for immediate and concerted action to limit its effects is increasingly being recognized, but there is also strong resistance to the radical change required to do this. In this blog article, ISS Professor of Pluralist Development Economics Irene van Staveren contemplates how the well-known Eisenhower decision-making matrix can help us take climate change seriously. We are already in the ‘important and urgent’ box, she argues — an understanding that should drive us to act.

Image Source: Asana.

Some years ago, when I was receiving training in time management, I was introduced to the Eisenhower matrix. I am still grateful to the American general for it because I use the two-by-two table every day. The two columns are called ‘urgent’ and ‘not urgent’ and the two rows are called ‘important’ and ‘not important’. And that’s where you plan all your tasks.

The trick is to spend most of your time working on tasks that are important but not urgent. Then you can work wonderfully focused on your core tasks and not under time pressure and with the fear of not meeting a deadline. The latter happens if you have let time slip through your fingers or have not planned properly. Then you suddenly find yourself in the box of tasks that are not only important but also urgent.

Now that I am preparing a course on climate change for the Economics Bachelor at EUR in Rotterdam, I notice that the Eisenhower matrix can also be applied to climate change. When Shell knew more than thirty years ago that fossil fuels could lead to global warming, almost no one saw it as an important problem and certainly not as an urgent problem.

On the contrary, we all happily consumed fossil fuels, regardless of the CO2 increase due to more cars, taking flights and enabling deforestation for our consumption of meat. It was only in 1995, with the first international climate conference (held in Berlin), that policymakers seem to realize that it could become an important problem.

But it was not until twenty years later that governments worldwide were prepared to make agreements in Paris on a safe limit on warming: 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius. And now, many uncontrollable forest fires, severe floods and droughts, and rapidly melting ice caps later, it has also become an urgent problem.

So, we have all wasted too much time on other things, such as drilling new oil wells, pumping out old gas fields and pointing to other countries that emit even more CO2 or are catching up because their prosperity is much lower than ours. Some even thought it was better to first generate even more polluting economic growth in order to earn the money to invest in sustainable energy.

We now know better, continuing on the old path is expensive: every day that we intervene earlier, the costs in the future will be lower. We need to get to net zero faster as a popular and insightful book argues. And now we are all in the box of ‘important and urgent’. The deadline to stay below 2 degrees is close on our heels.

This means that we, particularly in the Global North, are now forced to take controversial measures, provided they have an effect in the short term. So, no new nuclear power plants or solar shields in space. But CO2 capture and storage underground. And mega wind turbines near nature reserves, because horizon pollution is not nice, but in about 30 years those wind turbines can be taken down again because, hopefully, we will have made the energy transition.

And much stricter regulations for the acceleration of CO2-neutral construction, production and transport, and much more and higher CO2 taxes. In short, now that the climate problem has become not only very important but also quite urgent, there is only one thing left: to reduce CO2 emissions as quickly as possible, as various authors are arguing as well. Eisenhower would have looked at us shaking his head: what a poor planning.

This column appeared in Dutch newspaper Trouw of 5 September 2023.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Irene van Staveren is a professor of pluralist development economics at the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University Rotterdam. Professor van Staveren’s theoretical interest is in feminist economics, social economics, institutional economics and post-Keynesian economics. Her key research interest is at the meso level of the economy with topics such as social cohesion, social exclusion, inequality and discrimination, as well as ethics and values in the economy and in economics.

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Migration Series | Precarity along the Colombia–Panama border: How providing healthcare services to transit migrants can foster new logics of inclusion and exclusion

Transit migrants journeying the Americas to North America often pass through Necoclí, a seaside town close to the Colombia–Panama border and the Darien Gap. Upon their arrival, they frequently require medical attention but can only access emergency medical services. In this article, Carolina Aristizabal shows how a limited healthcare provisioning system designed for immobile populations has been reworked by humanitarian organizations to help transit migrants receive the care they need. She argues that new logics of inclusion and exclusion emerge as a result of such reconfigurations — a development that may lead in some cases to xenophobia in local communities.

Image by Author

Traversing the Americas

On their way to Mexico, the United States, and Canada, irregular migrants coming from as near as Venezuela, Haiti, and Ecuador and as far as India and Senegal arrive at Necoclí, a seaside town located near to the Colombia–Panama border. Here, after crossing the Gulf of Urabá, they enter the Darien Gap, a geographic region in the Isthmus of Panama that connects South America with Central America. From there they travel further north. In 2022, around 250,000 migrants arrived in Panama through the Darien Gap; this year, by July 2023, around 252,000 people have already undertaken this journey.[1]


Health care provisioning: for whom?

When in Necoclí, transit migrants often require assistance, especially in the form of healthcare services. However, even though they may stay in the town for weeks on end, transit migrants are frequently seen as outsiders of ‘immobile’ social provisioning systems usually underpinned by citizenship. As a result, they have access only to limited medical services, which adds to the precarity they already face. Several humanitarian organizations have stepped in to fill the gap left by a lack of government healthcare services for this group of people. Yet, the local implications of this workaround remain underexplored.

For this reason, I decided to conduct research on the topic in the framework of the research paper for my Master’s degree in Development Studies. I observed and conducted interviews with healthcare providers and inhabitants of Necoclí last year because I wanted to understand the different ways in which the Colombian government and non-governmental actors organize and legitimize the provisioning of healthcare services to these transit migrants, especially in a context in which local communities are living under precarious conditions with unsatisfied basic needs. Some of my findings about precarity, categorization, and humanitarian action are highlighted below.


Continued precarity while waiting

When migrants arrive in Necoclí, a lack of reception facilities in the town add to the already existing, often precarious traveling conditions they face when making their way there. For example, while some of them can stay at hotels once they’ve arrived in the town, others have to sleep in tents and hammocks on the beach, close to the two municipal docks.

Staying close to the sea allows them to wash their clothes and bathe in its waters. However, they do not have a roof over their heads or access to running water or sanitary facilities, and they are less safe in public spaces. The border zone between Colombia and Panama is characterized by a weak governmental presence and the dominance of armed groups, especially the Gulf Clan (El Clan del Golfo), which controls drug and arms trafficking routes along this Colombian border (Garzón et al., 2018) as well as the migration dynamics in the territory to a large extent.[2]

Moreover, while some migrants are immediately able to buy boat tickets from a company offering transportation through the Urabá Gulf once they arrive, others must stay in Necoclí as long as needed to gather the necessary money to buy these tickets. This means that hundreds if not thousands of migrants may be stuck in the town for days or weeks on end before being able to travel further.


A lack of adequate healthcare services

Transit migrants typically undergo long and arduous journeys and upon their arrival in Necoclí may require medical attention to treat amongst others mental health issues, HIV infections, Covid-19 infections, rabies, and food or water poisoning. Pregnant women also need prenatal care. In 2022, Necoclí had one public hospital where migrants could receive emergency services for free, as well as some ‘low-complexity’ services such as vaccinations and laboratory tests for prioritized populations.

However, many of their health issues remain untreated partly because the government’s Principle of Universality does not apply to non-citizens. According to the Healthcare Law (Law 100 of 1993), under this principle everyone in Colombia has the right to access healthcare services at any moment of their lives, without any type of discrimination. Colombian nationals and migrants with resident permits can access any available public healthcare service. However, given the citizen requirement, migrants in transit can only access emergency services — highlighting the boundaries to the ‘Principle of Universality’.


A dual role for humanitarian actors

In 2022, to make up for the gap in the provisioning of healthcare services to transit migrants, non-governmental actors such as the Colombian Red Cross, the Colombian Institute of Tropical Medicine with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Mercy Corps, UNICEF, and HIAS started providing healthcare services that extend beyond emergency care. These services included 1) psychological assistance, 2) sexual and reproductive health services, 3) children’s growth and development programmes, and 4) dentistry — services that are considered ‘non-essential’ and were therefore not provided to transit migrants by the government.

In this way, humanitarian actors assumed two different roles: on the one hand, they supported the state in its responsibility to provide emergency services, and on the other hand, they complemented this service based on a more dynamic reading of the needs of transit migrants and of the types of health provisioning necessary.

For humanitarian actors, these services were provided based on the Principle of Humanity, which refers to the aim of saving lives “in a manner that respects and restores personal dignity”[3] for any person, as well as the IOM’s mission to promote “humane and orderly migration that benefits migrants and societies”.[4] Moreover, non-governmental actors also made use of the resident/migrant binarity to define their criteria of eligibility, since some of them provide healthcare services just for transit migrants, while others also provide medical attention to permanent residents under particular circumstances.

As an example from my fieldwork, a Colombian child living in Necoclí could not be part of the Red Cross growth and development programme, even though she or he had been insufficiently attended to by the Colombian health system due to a lack of resources. On the other hand, both a Colombian woman living in Necoclí and a transit migrant had access to Mercy Corps’s programme on sexual and reproductive health.


The need to maintain a delicate balance

The dynamics of transit migration changed the healthcare system in Necoclí since governmental and non-governmental responses to the needs of transit migrants are based on their principles and their capacities. They made use of the resident/transit migrant duality as an eligibility criterion to define medical attention. The importance of this research lies in the possibility to understand how governmental and non-governmental actors, as well as Necoclí residents, reconfigure and problematize the criterion that is used to define the accessibility of transit migrants to the healthcare provisioning system.

In a context in which inhabitants face big challenges to access basic healthcare services, the use of this criterion requires maintaining a delicate balance between responding to the needs of transit migrants and the needs of residents. The provisioning of medical attention for transit migrants arriving to Necoclí allows us to understand not only how an immobile social system responds to the needs of a mobile population but also to analyze how the precarious conditions of migrants and residents shape and legitimize the eligibility criterion to this system. When non-governmental actors exclude residents from their services, this can lead to perceptions of unfair treatment and acts of xenophobia by residents, which could deteriorate even more the precarious conditions of transit migrants.

In the framework of migration governance, the eligibility criterion that is used by governmental and non-governmental actors to provide healthcare services should go beyond their principles to also consider the imaginaries and relationships that they reinforce in local communities and that end up (de)legitimizing health provisioning for transit migrants.



[3] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2022

[4] International Organization for Migration, 2022

This is part of and concludes the Migration Series. Read the previous topics on the migration series:

How does a place become (less) hostile? Looking at everyday encounters between migrants and non-migrants as acts and processes of bordering.

From caminantes to community builders: how migrants in Ecuador support each other in their journeys.

From branding to bottom-up ‘sheltering’: How CSOs are helping to address migration governance gaps in the shelter city of Granada

“Us Aymara have no borders”: Differentiated mobilities in the Chilean borderlands

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Carolina Aristizabal is a Colombian political scientist and holds an master’s degree in Development Studies from the ISS. She has worked with non-governmental organizations and the local government in the city of Medellín, her hometown.

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Silence on the Afghan deportation drive from Pakistan reveals hypocrisy; the international community must honour its commitment to human rights

With the Government of Pakistan’s announced deportation drive, the situation of Afghan refugees in Pakistan has taken a shocking turn. In this post, three women refugee researchers from Afghanistan, writing with ISS researchers Karin Astrid Siegmann and Saba Gul Khattak, state that the international community is looking on as Afghan refugees in Pakistan risk deportation to and persecution in Afghanistan. Rather than deporting them, these refugees, especially vulnerable groups, should be resettled to third countries or granted asylum in Pakistan. The international community has a duty to help them, they write.

Unloading Second Refugee Bus B by Gustavo Montes de Oca

The shadow of Israel’s bombings of Gaza makes other humanitarian crises invisible. While writing this post, as undocumented Afghan refugees in Pakistan, we are in danger of forced deportation to Afghanistan where persecution awaits us.

And we are not alone. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees in Pakistan face a similar threat. At least 1.3 million Afghan nationals live in Pakistan as refugees. In addition, more than 600,000 of us came after the Taliban took over the Afghan government in August 2021.

We see the Pakistan caretaker government’s recent announcement that it will deport all ‘illegal foreign nationals’ after 1 November 2023 as a form of collective punishment. The Pakistan government claims that this deportation is for national security, but it further destabilises our precarious situation.


Afghan refugees in Pakistan already face terrible conditions

As undocumented foreigners, securing our livelihood through employment in Pakistan is impossible. A general lack of proficiency in Urdu, Pakistan’s national language, further weakens our bargaining power in our host society. Over and above this, those of us who belong to the ethnic and religious minority of Hazara Shias are easily identifiable among Pakistan’s different ethnic set-up. Our faces are our passport, so to speak. In Afghanistan, Hazara Shias face persecution which has caused hundreds of civilian casualties in unlawful targeted killings. In Pakistan, we and face similar discrimination on ethnic and religious grounds.


Deportation plan pits refugees against Pakistani people

The government of Pakistan’s announcement has aggravated this dire situation. While the Pakistani population has long hosted their Afghan neighbours in times of crises, the deportation plan cruelly pits the refugee population against Pakistani people. The government has announced strict legal action against any Pakistani citizen who, for instance, provides accommodation to ‘illegal aliens’. We see how Pakistanis have become even more hostile as a result.

Police harassment has become more pronounced, too. A year ago, the police would just knock at the door; now, they directly enter our homes. A recent fact-finding mission of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has found that several Afghan settlements in Islamabad have been demolished by the Capital Development Authority (CDA), ostensibly as part of an anti-encroachment drive. In fact, most residents are registered refugees and said they have been subjected to harassment, intimidation and extortion by the police following the government’s notification on foreigners.


In this crisis, we are asking: Where are the international champions of human rights?

The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, whose stated objective it is to “protect refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people”, has failed Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Following the Taliban takeover, the agency issued a non-refoulment (no forced return) advisory for Afghans outside of their home country. When, in early October, the government of Pakistan announced its plan to deport undocumented foreigners, UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) appealed to Pakistan “to continue its protection of all vulnerable Afghans who have sought safety in the country and could be at imminent risk if forced to return.”

Yet, the fact that the UNHCR has not registered a large portion of Afghan refugees in Pakistan has made them vulnerable in the first place. Hundreds of thousands of undocumented Afghans, especially women refugees, musicians, and social media activists living in Pakistan are now at risk because the registration of Afghan refugees has been stalled by this very UN agency. They now live in terror of deportation to a country that actively enforces gender apartheid and persecutes people based on their ethnicity, religion, and professional work. Instead of citing international customary law, and recent judgments from Pakistani courts that clearly state that Afghan asylum seekers have a right to asylum, UNHCR and IOM have adopted a stoic silence.


Western government’s calls to respect women’s rights are hollow

The protestations of western governments to ‘stand up for the rights of women in Afghanistan’ ring hollow in our ears. In 2001, the Taliban’s treatment of women provided the United States (US) with a justification for bombing Afghanistan (see also here). When the US signed the Doha Accord with the Taliban in February 2020 to bring an end to almost twenty years of war, this concern for women’s rights was forgotten, though. Meanwhile, our sisters in Afghanistan who have raised their voices against women’s systematic discrimination through laws and policies that have made women prisoners in their own country by the new Taliban government have been detained and subjected to threats, beatings and electric shocks by the Taliban authorities.

The countries that approved of the Doha Accord, a deal that excluded the Afghan government, share responsibility for the exit of Afghan nationals from their homes and their country. However, they turn a blind eye to the violations of human rights in Afghanistan as they do not wish to accept Afghan refugees.


The international community must break the silence — now

To address the ongoing humanitarian crisis that Afghan refugees in Pakistan face, the international community needs to break its silence and increase resettlement quotas immediately. Refugees who have been screened and identified as priority cases for resettlement need to be reassured that they will not be sent back to Afghanistan. The approximately 20,000–25,000 vulnerable Afghans identified by UNHCR need to be resettled abroad as soon as possible. We also call for the UNHCR definition of vulnerable Afghans to include those who worked for the civil bureaucracy, the military and police forces of Afghanistan during the time of the Ashraf Ghani government, but also single women and mothers.

Finally, the right to seek asylum is recognized as an international human right by Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Pakistan must be persuaded to grant asylum to Afghans in Pakistan rather than deporting us. We contribute to Pakistan’s society and economy in numerous ways. That contribution needs to be recognised.

Picture Credit:Unloading Second Refugee Bus B” by Gustavo Montes de Oca is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Three women refugee researchers from Afghanistan have fled Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in August 2021 for fear of detention as human and women rights activists.

Karin Astrid Siegmann is an Associate Professor in Labour and Gender Economics at ISS.




Saba Gul Khattak is a feminist researcher and expert in gender, conflict, and human security.



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Misinformation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is spreading like wildfire on social media — here’s why we keep reading fake news and what we can do to change it

Can you trust what you read on social media about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Even some of the most popular posts are misleading. With more and more people using social media as their primary news source, how can we make sure that we’re getting accurate information? This question becomes much more relevant in times of conflict, where misinformation could cause widescale violence. In this blog article, Tom Ansell looks at misinformation in times of conflict and what we can do to encourage better reporting in fast-moving and dangerous contexts.

Image source: Pexels

Twitter/X has been accused of stoking the fires of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict by multiplying misinformation. Examples include a video shared over seven million times that supposedly shows Israeli soldiers going house to house in Gaza City. In reality, the video is from 2021 and actually shows an Israeli police operation. Another example is a video of Hamas fighters ‘shooting down an Israeli helicopter’ that is from a video game and has been viewed by over 300,000 people.

These posts are not only pushing false narratives but are also spreading emotionally charged misinformation that can certainly stoke more violence. With the cause of the explosion at the al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza unclear, and with competing narratives from Gazan and Israeli authorities, plenty of misleading accounts have sprung up on Twitter/X that show videos reportedly of the explosion but that are actually from 2022, which has further inflamed tensions.

This is a worrying development for two reasons. First, engagement with and trust in ‘legacy’ media organisations, including national newspapers and media conglomerates, is at an all-time low across the world. Accurate and nuanced reporting that has been factually verified is no longer the dominant way for people to get their news. In various countries worldwide, more than half of people get their news from social media, including in Spain (50%), India (52%), Turkey (54%), Hungary (61%), Greece (61%), Peru (66%), and Nigeria (78%), according to Statista.

Second, people seem to be more likely to spread false information. An MIT study from 2018 suggests that Tweets (or X’s) that contain lies are 70% more likely to be retweeted compared to truthful posts, likely due to users’ ‘novelty bias’ (where new, surprising information is shared), or due to social media websites’ own algorithms.

Meanwhile, only a few weeks ago, the EU formally warned Twitter and Facebook about the growing proportion of misinformation on their networks, a warning that was re-iterated in the wake of the new waves of violence in Israel and Palestine. Whilst there are fact-checking accounts and initiatives on both networks (and also on Instagram, LinkedIn, TikTok, etc.), the real-world impact of mis- and disinformation that were identified in the COVID-19 pandemic has now come back sharply into focus with the ongoing campaign of violence in Israel and Palestine.


Why we read and spread disinformation

An appetite for quick information and near real-time updates has never been higher. And with few journalists immediately available and able to build a clear picture in a fast-moving context, an information gap grows. It’s precisely this gap that technology-focused and consumer-hungry social media networks fill by providing super quick updates and, often, photos and videos from the centre of a conflict zone that can push emotionally charged narratives and incite further violence.

Whilst there are large numbers of journalists from multinational legacy media organisations that can access conflict zones — usually wearing the famous blue ‘press’ bulletproof vest — — places where there is no authoritative or fact-checked source of news. This is particularly true for acute outbreaks of severe violence, where it is nearly impossible for a news organisation that is held to a high standard of accuracy to access the conflict zone. And when people cannot access authoritative news sources, they turn to alternative sources such as social media.

In protracted and lower-intensity conflicts, too, it is likely that local media will be unable to operate whether due to power cuts, looting, commandeering of equipment, or attacks on staff. And let’s not forget that in contexts with authoritarian governments, an independent local media is likely to suffer. Again, this can feed into a situation where people cannot access information from trusted sources and may turn to social media for the latest news updates.

Moreover, what drives engagement is often activating strong emotional responses in users through, for example, powerful images, videos, or narratives. Particularly within a conflict situation, by definition multilayered and complex, this leads the internal mechanisms of social media companies (“the algorithms”) to spotlight easily accessible and emotionally charged content. This combined with a huge hunger for information seems to lead in one direction: emotionally charged narratives reaching thousands of people without factual verification.


Social media provides lots of information, but often of low quality

As with many laissez-faire approaches, openness and freedom is to a certain extent an illusion. This is because, in the case of Twitter and Meta (the parent company of Instagram and Facebook), the company doesn’t exist to provide an information service- it exists to satisfy its shareholders and investors. The model for making money from social media is now fairly well researched, but in short: social media companies work as advertising platforms and sell advertising space. The longer someone engages with the platform, the more can be charged for advertising space.

The great equalising hope for peer to peer (P2P) media, where anyone can publish their views and ideas without editorial gatekeeping, including social media, is that it can give disempowered people a platform to voice their grievances or struggle and can reach audiences without waiting for a legacy media company to provide that platform. Within a conflict situation, this could extend to giving civilians a voice in the conflict or providing an outlet for non-state actors to give ‘their side of the story’.

However, whilst there are plenty of cases of legacy media organisations stoking hate, there is at least some basis for holding them legally accountable, even if it is slow-moving and limited. Social media companies, on the other hand, are not classified as ‘publishers’ and so do not have to kneel to publishing guidelines and law.


A role for citizen journalists and more strictly regulated platforms?

So, how can we find a balance between providing platforms for those people who are routinely missed by legacy organisations to speak their truths? One option could be equitable partnerships between media platforms and citizen journalists. Outlets like The Guardian seem to have a workable model for this.

Another solution could be strong legislation that considers social media organisations as the publishers that they are, and so holds them legally accountable for spreading misinformation. Perhaps a longer-term and more holistic solution, though, is creating platforms where the overall target is sharing accurate information and true voices, rather than seeking maximum returns on investment.

Image source: Pexels & Pexels.

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About the author:

Tom Ansell is the Coordinator of the Humanitarian Studies Centre and International Humanitarian Studies Association.

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Decriminalizing sex work is a first step towards assuring rights and recognition for sex workers in Belgium — but it is not a silver bullet

Each year, International Sex Workers Day celebrates sex workers’ resistance to the stigmatization, criminalization, and exploitation they face. This year, to commemorate the event, a seminar at the ISS discussed how sex workers’ advocacy resulted in the recent decriminalisation of sex work in Belgium. In this article, Marianne Chargois, Daan Bauwens, and Karin Astrid Siegmann discuss which further changes need to be made to ensure the dignity and rights of sex workers in Belgium.

Image by UTSOPI

We celebrated the week that concludes with International Sex Workers’ Day with an ISS seminar in which I, Marianne Chargois, member of the executive team of the Belgian sex worker union Utsopi, delivered a presentation titled “Swimming against the tide: Decriminalization of sex work in Belgium”. Decriminalization, a regulatory model that sees sex work as a regular profession and abolishes all laws that criminalize prostitution directly or indirectly, has been considered the best way to govern sex work because it helps protect sex workers’ health and well-being, enhances their access to services and justice, makes the industry safer, and, overall, improves the guarantee of sex workers’ human rights (Oliveira et al. 2023).


Until June last year, Belgian law criminalized services and third parties supporting sex work based on the understanding that all sex workers are victims of exploitation and human trafficking, independent of their own view of or consent to their situation. This could lead to bizarre situations where a sex worker’s accountant or even his or her child — basically anyone supporting sex workers — could be, accused of ‘profiting from the exploitation of sex work’ and could be fined or imprisoned for pimping.


Decriminalization is an important first victory

Utsopi has fought against these stipulations since 2015, and last year, the union won! Taking a seat at the negotiating table in the Belgian Ministry of Justice first of all made it possible for sex workers to argue that sex workers can give consent, stopping the infantilization of those working in the ‘adult industry’.


The revised law also defines pimping more clearly, so that normal economic transactions are not targeted anymore. Instead, the criminalized aspects are now more narrowly defined as the ‘abnormal profits and advantages from the organization of prostitution’ or the organization of sex work in disrespect of sex workers’ labour rights. In contrast to the earlier version of the law, this does not threaten consenting sex workers’ livelihoods. Rather, it enables them to access necessary things that are normal for all other workers, such as having a bank account, housing, or other basic needs.


But much still needs to be done

Yet, while important, decriminalization is just the first step towards the improved rights and recognition of sex workers — many other things still have to change. For instance, stigmatization and discrimination involve such high levels of symbolic as well as physical violence that the large majority of sex workers refrain from divulging that they do sex work. These hidden lives expose them to greater risk of exploitation, abuse, and blackmailing.


Broader social protection is required

Besides, Utsopi and its partner organizations are working with the government on the concluding phase of a labour law for the right to have an employment contract and guaranteed social rights. Directly after the reform in 2022, only independent sex work was possible in Belgium. Working as employees would enable sex workers to start benefiting from social security. This would for instance enable sex workers to go on early maternity leave, but also to cover their risks, which include sexually transmitted diseases, but also other risks that they face such as harassment or discrimination based on the sex work.


Cooperation from municipalities is essential

Apart from the national legislation, local governments can make it difficult to carry out sex work by imposing restrictive conditions. For example, some municipalities require sex workers to register, and locations for sex work often have to comply with specific regulations. Presently, there is still a lack of spaces to work legally and under decent conditions. Shared spaces, brothels self-managed by sex workers, or other possibilities still need to be created and guaranteed.


Migrant sex workers need to be included

Finally, maintaining a certain level of tolerance in sex work regulation remains necessary even after it has been decriminalized. Most sex workers cannot access existing legal entitlements. For undocumented migrants, for example, the lack of residence or work permits implies that abuses can go unreported out of fear of deportation. In fact, no decriminalization process is complete without entitling undocumented sex workers to rights. This also points to the ‘unfinished decriminalization’ of sex work in New Zealand. Being the first country to decriminalize sex work in 2003, New Zealand still excludes migrant sex workers from the ambit of the Prostitution Reform Act.


A regulatory ‘grey zone’ remains necessary

One complication related to the protection of sex workers’ rights is that for some, sex work is a backup to make ends meet in an emergency. This implies that these persons do not consider themselves sex workers and are, consequently, unlikely to claim associated rights and entitlements. To address these additional complications that sex workers face, a certain regulatory ‘grey zone’ remains necessary.


The decriminalization of sex work is not a silver bullet

These learnings from the Belgian experience add nuance and realism to the idea of decriminalization as the silver bullet for ensuring decent work for sex workers. Marjan Wijers, consultant, researcher, and activist in the field of human trafficking and sex workers’ rights, echoed this when discussing the Belgian reform. She highlighted the paradox that decriminalizing brothel-based sex work in the Netherlands in 2000 ushered in an even more restrictive legal environment for sex workers now based on administrative law.

Still, on International Sex Workers’ Day, Belgium’s ‘swimming against the tide’ was an apt celebration of sex workers’ agency to successfully challenge the legal and societal structures that marginalize and stigmatize them!

Note: Thanks to Silke Heumann and Maria Ines Cubides Kovacsics for their helpful feedback on and suggestions for improvement of this post.

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About the authors:

Marianne Chargois is a member of the executive team of the Belgian sex worker union Utsopi.







Daan Bauwens is the Utsopi director.


Karin Astrid Siegmann is Associate Professor in Labour and Gender Economics at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS).

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Israel’s blocking of humanitarian assistance breaches international humanitarian law

Gaza is under constant blockade and subject to multiple airstrikes every day — with little regard for avoiding civilian harm. This is a breach of international humanitarian law, which places specific legal imperatives on combatants not only during war but also as occupying forces after war. In this article, Professor of Humanitarian Studies Dorothea Hilhorst critically discusses Israel’s responsibilities in its role as a combatant, as an occupying force, and as a neighbouring country.

Image by Palestinian Red Crescent

International humanitarian law (IHL) has suddenly become a very popular phrase in political discourse. The Dutch government, in its support of Israel, notes that it expects the country to uphold ‘international humanitarian law’ (sometimes referred to as ‘the law of international war’). These conventions and laws cover various aspects of how a country can act during combat, for example around questions of whether Israel can target civilian infrastructure if it is located above a Hamas tunnel. More specifically, though, IHL relates to strengthening and maintaining humanitarian help for civilians.

The humanitarian situation in Gaza is catastrophic. Within the space of just a few days, around one million elderly people, men, women, and children have been driven from their homes. Around half of these people have sought shelter in a UN building, for example a UNWRA school, which are now so overcrowded that most people sleep outside on the street. There is less and less food, and water has had to be limited to under one liter per person per day — for those that are lucky to get anything at all. Operations and medical treatments are no longer being carried out, or if they are it is without anesthetic.

At the same time, there is a huge queue of trucks waiting at the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza. These are full of humanitarian aid supplies: medicines, fuel, and food. At the time of writing, 20 trucks have been allowed in Gaza, but that is far short of the minimum of 100 trucks needed on a daily basis. Other than that, the border between this convoy and the people of Gaza remains closed, with the WHO saying that the supplies could help doctors at medical institutions operate on 1,500 people daily — if they reach the people of Gaza in time. It is Israel that holds the key to unlocking this aid, with the border deemed unsafe (and so kept closed) due to rocket attacks and air strikes. Last week dozens of people were killed in such strikes at the border.

It is usual to speak of and work towards ‘humanitarian corridors’ during conflicts, i.e. specific routes that are safe for people to evacuate through, or for aid to travel via. Under IHL, combatants in war are required to work towards creating and maintaining these corridors. This, and much of IHL, is based on the principle that citizens are innocent during conflicts and that civilian deaths should be avoided at all costs. This principle applies both to minimizing civilian death from combat and also maximizing access for life-saving humanitarian aid. Israel has stated it maintains Gaza under siege to avoid aid being captured by Hamas. However, this fear cannot be a reason to abandon Gazanian civilians and let them perish. UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffith commented on Wednesday that humanitarian access and help have become a question of life and death, that withholding help can cost countless innocent lives.

Israel has various legal responsibilities both as a combatant and as an occupying force (both Gaza and the West Bank are occupied territories and have been since 1967). Marco Sassoli, an internationally renowned expert in IHL at the University of Geneva, has made it clear that Israel’s blocking and cutting off of electricity, water, aid, and food from Gaza since October 9 is in clear breach of the 1949 Geneva Convention, which Israel has signed. The 1949 Convention makes clear that an occupying force cannot collectively punish civilians, whilst it also specifically requires an occupying force to maintain medical systems such as hospitals. Then, we must look at Israel’s role as a neighbour — with a moral imperative to allow access and open borders to humanitarian assistance — whilst the border between Israel and Gaza remains hermetically sealed.

It is not clear how much pressure various countries are putting on Israel behind the scenes to open the Rafah border crossing (and other borders), but it is time for this pressure to be reflected in public statements that condemn the withholding of humanitarian aid and directly state that preventing humanitarian help breaches international humanitarian law.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Dorothea Hilhorst is professor of Humanitarian Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University.

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Belonging to and longing for the village: how the earthquake in Morocco reveals the importance of the homeland in shaping diaspora identity

What happens when a country gets hit by an unexpected, highly damaging earthquake? How does the aid this country receives afterwards look like when it has a diaspora community of more than one million people? And how does a tragic event such as an earthquake affect those million people and their diaspora identity? While diaspora identity is often defined by referring to the country of origin, in this article Malika Ouacha discusses how the earthquake in Morocco affected her and led her to foster a deeper understanding of her identity as member of the Moroccan diaspora.

Image by freepik

As I was preparing myself for another day of Family Constellation theory, I heard my husband scream from the living room: “What? An earthquake last night in Marrakech on the scale of 6.8 Richter?!” I didn’t really understand what he meant. “An earthquake? This heavy? But that has never happened before in our region,” I was thinking. At the same time, I remembered that there had been one in 1960 in Agadir, a city some 250 kilometres to the south of Marrakech.

The longer Nicolaas, my husband, continued to read the news article out loud, the more I understood that the news was real, that it really had happened. And that I had to start searching for my phone and call as many people as possible to find out whether they were safe. After trying several times and not being able to reach them, we decided to wait a bit longer. In the following hours, friends and relatives confirmed their safety, but they had a hard time describing what had happened. It was scary, unreal, and immensely tragic. Lives were lost, but initially, no-one knew how many. Thoughts started mulling through my head, and I found myself asking: How do you grieve such an event when you have just recovered from a pandemic which your country [Morocco in my case] barely survived?

Although I feel like I found my home in both two countries, I was fascinated by the instant feeling I experienced right after the news reached us. I live my life miles away, and so do many other diasporans, yet I felt that the affected people’s need for shelter and protection was my own need for a second or two.

Does this mean that one of the two countries is more important? Or that I am emotionally more attached to one compared to the other? I don’t think so, but I wouldn’t want to experience a natural disaster to find out. Therefore, I continued trying to go about life as usual that day, and in the days that followed, while also trying to process what had happened and what this could mean for the future. All the while, I kept having a feeling deep down that nothing would be the same after an earthquake like this one. Because although I was born and raised in Europe and only lived in Marrakech and the High Atlas Mountains for a few years, the annual return of my family and myself to the village we hail from each summer during my childhood and early adulthood resulted in a feeling of everlasting belonging to this specific region.

It made sense to me to respect my parents’ rules to speak only Tachelhiyt, the South-Moroccan language, in our household, even though we lived in the Netherlands, so we could return to the village safely every summer, knowing that my siblings and I spoke the language of the village. I could independently have conversations with my grandparents and cousins, walk to my uncle Mohamed alone, and talk to people on the streets.

My parents were assured of my safety in the village because I could ask a stranger on the street to assist me if I needed help. I could do this in the Netherlands, too, but I always sensed that my parents felt that my siblings and I were safer in the village in the Atlas Mountains, more protected. It seemed as if, even fifty years after having moved, the Netherlands kept feeling like a temporary place of residence to them. They never called it home like I did, although the two places both always felt like home to me.


Diaspora identity: how far is too close?

This lack of a sense of belonging in the Netherlands and the corresponding sense of still belonging in Morocco, which is how many diasporans still feel, is the reason why the earthquake affected more than just properties, workplaces, and human lives that were lost — it also affected diaspora identity despite the distance between those countries we were born and raised in and those countries we originate from. The earthquake made me ask whether we, as Moroccan diaspora, still belong there and whether our roots affect our lives here in Europe.

This left me to question whether our understanding of diaspora identity has really hit the core of both the phenomenon and the theoretical concept. Or if we still hover above its official definitions in academic and political debates. Is it truly just ethnicity and cultural norms and values? Or is it the combination of these three concepts, and our sentiments, our individual emotional household, and the way we view and experience the homeland? I tend to lean towards the latter conclusion given my reflections and analysis of the recent earthquake in Morocco and Turkey earlier this year.


Do we need saving from a permanent saviour?

I’m still reading one after the other request for donations from people who ask for money, food supplies, tents, and other things needed to survive. Yet, a long-term plan from the authorities remained absent until September 14th, when King Mohamed VI, Morocco’s current ruler, according to MAP donated USD 100 million to implement a long-term resettlement plan to rebuild the homes and lives of the victims of the earthquake. Where victims will be relocated to remains unclear, but affected friends and relatives spoke of the king’s act as a “a ray of sunshine during a heavy thunderstorm”.

In a country where the king has the last word in every decision needing to be made, this gesture signifies the presence of the government in a way that the region has never seen, as South Morocco has been and continues to be one of the least developed regions in its entire kingdom. I sensed an unexpected feeling of relief, although I saw many volunteers and philanthropists devote their time and means to the victims much earlier than the king did.

So perhaps the king’s ruling superseded the efforts of international NGOs and other non-profit organizations who were helping the affected people with their best intentions but within their own terms. And perhaps he therefore embodies a permanent saviour, as the king remains the king whose moral responsibility it is to look out after its own citizens. Maybe a permanent saviour saves this part of my identity, too, and therefore that of a diaspora as a collective, as the country is left in better hands now that a long-term plan has been demonstrated. Or maybe he saves, the least to say, only the memory of a country we once knew and still hold on to. Even if it is just in our nostalgic minds.

This could mean that the place my parents call home is left in better hands, and therefore a part of me, too, as it is a place close to my heart where I spent fruitful years in my early twenties and studied anthropology, volunteered at an orphanage, and did my first real ethnographic fieldwork after my graduation. A place where my late parents, grandparents, and ancestors were finally laid to rest, where close friends and relatives have their homes, where they enjoy their workplaces in the (finally post-pandemic) popular touristic medina and the ancient kasbah, and where we continue to meet several times a year. A place where I showed my Dutch husband the forever solid foundation of my Moroccan values and norms, which no lifetime outside of South Morocco could ever suppress.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Malika Ouacha is a Lecturer & Researcher at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, the Netherlands.

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Urban October | The complex present and future of urban centres

As urbanisation continues to surge, especially in the Global South, it is essential to address the myriad issues that contemporary cities face. The recent EADI/CEsA Lisbon Conference provided a platform to consider urban challenges and possible solutions. Tazviona Richman Gambe and Betty Adoch attended three panels, each with thought-provoking discussions on different urban issues.

Image: Baron Reznik under a creative commons licence on Flickr

City growth processes and outcomes

African cities are struggling with political and governance challenges emanating from the scale and nature of urbanisation they are experiencing. Urbanisation in most cities has been rapid and unproductive.  The local municipalities are not able to provide adequate municipal services. On the other hand, the urban poor cannot afford the municipal services. In their desperate efforts to generate livelihoods and become self-reliant, the urban poor adopt solutions that mostly violate the rules and regulations governing cities. This has resulted in widespread contestations for accessing and using urban services, resources and spaces. The emergence and growth of unplanned settlements have become a common feature of African cities. The access to and use of residential or commercial spaces has become a negotiated and fraught process involving various state and non-state actors. An attempt to enforce order in unplanned settlements or business places is met with protests and political battles involving the informal settlers/traders, their unions and state authorities. Owing to this, militaristic policing has become one of the common modes of governance adopted in cities to deal with urban poverty, migration and crime. The ‘attack and retreat’ form of policing adopted to enforce order and harmony in cities has become the normal rhythm of city life and everyday contestations that residents must endure.

The migration-urbanisation-conflict nexus

Political and economic crises are increasing, especially in countries in the Global South. The massive displacements of people caused by these phenomena have mainly shaped the scale of urbanisation unfolding in some cities. Conflicts usually occur between the displaced people and the residents of the receiving urban centres as the two groups fight for access to and use of urban land and other services. For example, armed conflicts are associated with massive displacements of civilians from their villages into urban centres, triggering rapid urbanisation driven by the establishment of numerous internally displaced camps. The displacements, coupled with the influx of international migrants, intensify land ownership disputes in various cities. Besides land disputes, the battle for the control of economic resources is also widespread in cities receiving many migrants. Residents usually dominate their cities’ economic, social and political life but feel threatened when migrants become equally involved. This results in competition for economic resources and opportunities that, in most cases, cause resentment among residents. In some cities, the competition for economic opportunities and resources has led to xenophobic violence, with the residents targeting mainly foreigners. This created divisions based on nationality, undermining the spirit of unity in diversity.

Climate change & urban resilience

Another salient theme focused on how climate change increasingly threatens cities in both the Global North and South, with a rising incidence of heat waves whetting the need for urban resilience and improved responses from citizens, governments and the private sector. Discussions stressed the need to seek interventions for reducing the adverse effects of heat waves, especially among vulnerable urban populations like the elderly, sick and refugees. Although there is still little preparation for extremely hot events in some cities, vulnerable urban groups benefit from bottom-up integrated approaches to improve the understanding of heat waves and adaptation strategies. Some strategies adopted include public cooling centres, green roofing and sunscreen use, although not everyone can access these due to cost or institutional barriers. Experiences have shown that real and speculative possibilities should inform urban resilience strategies. This enables various actors, including citizens, governments, and private sectors, to better prepare for future extreme heat waves. The spatial distribution of cooling centres and accessibility to transport and mobility are vital determinants of citizens’ resilience to excessive heat. However, inequalities (income, race and age) must be addressed to improve citizens’ adaptive capacities.

Urban futures: can cities offer solutions to global challenges?

The future of cities is a complex and evolving landscape shaped by numerous factors, including technological advancements, demographic shifts, environmental concerns, and social changes. To thrive in the coming decades, cities must address many challenges by improving service provision, enabling resource sharing, and improving local infrastructures. For example, cities will need to prioritise green spaces, urban forests, and sustainable transportation systems to mitigate the effects of climate change and improve air quality. Transitioning to renewable energy sources and improving energy efficiency will be crucial for reducing carbon emissions and, ultimately, the cities’ environmental footprint. The Internet of Things will enable cities to optimise traffic management, reduce energy consumption, and enhance public services through real-time data and connectivity. High-speed, reliable connectivity will be essential for smart city initiatives, enabling autonomous vehicles, telemedicine, and improved communication. Apart from that, advanced energy distribution systems will enhance grid reliability and support the integration of renewable energy sources. Addressing housing affordability through policies and innovative construction techniques is necessary to ensure diverse populations thrive in cities. Equally important are entrepreneurship and innovation hubs that can attract talent and drive economic growth, especially in the Global South. Cities need to plan for resilience against natural disasters through investing in flood protection, early warning systems, and disaster recovery plans. However, all these initiatives will not be easily achieved. There is a need for careful planning and improvement of urban governance through an approach that integrates diverse urban stakeholders to achieve liveable, resilient and sustainable cities.

This article was first published by EADI Debating Development Blog.

ImageBaron Reznik under a creative commons licence on Flickr

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Tazviona Richman Gambe is a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Development Support in the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences at the University of the Free State, South Africa. He is an emerging researcher working under the NRF Chair on City-Region Economies. His research interests include Africa’s urbanisation trajectories, regional economic resilience and urban planning and development.

Betty Adoch is a doctoral student at the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES), Department of Geography, Geoinformatics and Climatic Sciences (DGGCS), Makerere University, Uganda. She is an Assistant Lecturer at the Faculty of Education and Humanities, Department of Geography, Gulu University. She is also a researcher at the Urban Action Lab-Kampala Makerere University. Her research interest include Conflicts, Migration, Urbanisation trajectories, Natural resource management and Climate change in the global South.

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Academics must have a voice in social affairs, too, no matter their affiliation

The current wave of protests on the A12 highway in The Hague against government subsidies for fossil fuels have been both applauded and condemned. Several scientists have joined the protests in their professional capacity, which has led to questions of whether their activism threatens their independence as scholars. In this blog article, Dorothea Hilhorst responds to the argument of Dutch scientist and writer Louise Fresco in an NRC column last week that academics have no place in protests. All academics/scientists should be wary of their place in society and should use their positions of expertise to advocate for better outcomes, she writes.

Last Sunday, on 1 October 2023, I was standing on the highway of the A12 in The Hague, together with about 600 activists from Extinction Rebellion, until we were taken away by the police. I was fascinated by the colourful collection of activists with their original slogans chalked on cardboard and enjoyed the cheerfulness of the chants and the music. Many of the activists were here for the twentieth time in a row. Extinction Rebellion has been blocking the highway on a daily basis, starting 9 September, and aims to return every day until the Dutch government stops subsidizing fossil fuels.

As I was sitting on the road, I had serious conversations about why I was there as a scientist and whether my presence was at the expense of my independence. What struck me most is that the question of independence is so strongly linked to activism and taking action to the street. Scientists constantly interact with social groups. In fact, this is encouraged. Scientists who entrench themselves in their ivory towers have an increasingly smaller chance of obtaining scientific funding or promotions. Science is part of society, and the issues we deal with are largely determined by societies. And often enabled by societal actors, too, a lot of research is in fact financed by commercial companies.

It is very common for scientists to be active in politics in addition to their work and, for example, to serve on behalf of a political party in the Senate or on municipal councils. Scientists also often sit on supervisory boards or are attached to a company as supervisory directors. This often leads to additional income, which must be properly reported, for example on university websites, for reasons of propriety and transparency.

The social involvement of scientists regularly leads to questions about the independence of science, especially when it can be demonstrated that the scientist takes the interests of a company into account in the scientific work or — as is currently the case — if the question is raised whether it is ethically responsible to have companies such as the fossil industry, the tobacco industry, or alcohol producers help pay for research. Except in these specific cases, social involvement is seen as a must and is not considered to be in conflict with the independence of the academe. But strangely enough, it does when it comes to involvement in an activist organization — a clear double standard.

Take for example Louise Fresco, who recently argued in a column for the NRC that scientists and academics have no place in a protest, is an example of a socially involved scientist. In the past, she was a supervisory director of Rabobank, a major Dutch bank, and, as a scientist, she was co-director of Unilever in addition to her scientific work. She is currently a supervisory director at agriculture company Syngenta. In her column, though, Fresco says that scientists should not demonstrate . With that argument, scientists should also not be involved in an industry or political party. These organisations are not exclusively based in their actions by scientific evidence, and their agendas are always encompassing more that the scientist’s field of expertise can oversee.

I am happy that the activists of Extinction Rebellion are open to listening to my research findings about the consequences of climate change for poor people in poor countries — people who have never been on an airplane, yet who are paying the highest price for climate change. I think that with my scientific attitude, which is used to questioning and critically observing (like all scientists), I can contribute to the movement, and I notice that my questions about the action strategy are taken seriously, whether or not they are taken up. Above all, I am convinced that being on the A12 will not prevent me from remaining true to my independent research methods.

Is criticism of the alleged loss of independence of demonstrating scientists perhaps a veiled rejection of the method of civil disobedience that Extinction Rebellion has adopted? In that case, I advise Louise Fresco and other concerned colleagues to delve into the positive contributions to the world history of civil disobedience for, for example, the abolition of slavery, decolonization, or the fight for women’s suffrage. Scientists that remain in their ivory towers, or indeed continue to sit around glass-topped boardroom tables, can fail to engage with the full spectrum of society. This, surely, is to the benefit of no-one.

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Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Dorothea Hilhorst is professor of Humanitarian Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University.

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Climate change governance: Why a Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) approach is vital for preventing extreme weather events from turning into disasters

Climate change reports and scenarios paint a bleak picture of the present and the future — one filled with extreme weather events such as heatwaves, floods, hurricanes, storms, and droughts that could result in the loss of lives, threaten livelihoods, and exacerbate existing problems. But it is too simple to blame climate change for the increase in the number of disasters and for their effects. Today, as we celebrate Disaster Risk Reduction Day, disasters and humanitarian studies scholar Rodrigo Mena argues that a Disaster Risk Reduction approach to governing climate change could be essential for preventing extreme weather events and other climate-related phenomena from becoming disasters.

Image by Rodrigo Mena (Flood mitigation project, Afghanistan, 2017)

Watching the news these days, it is impossible not to hear about disasters: from floods in Greece and Sri Lanka to fires in Australia and Tropical Storm Philippe in Antigua and Barbuda. Climate change is often mentioned as an important factor driving these disasters and, what is more, thanks to climate change, we can expect more and more intense disasters in the future. Is all this true? And is there anything we can do? Can we mitigate some of the worst consequences of a disaster before it has occurred? In this article, written on the occasion of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) day, I discuss the relationship between disasters and human-caused climate change and emphasize the importance of DRR as an approach to mitigating and adapting to climate change.


Disasters and hazards aren’t the same

While fires, droughts, storms, and earthquakes are often perceived as disasters, experts stress[1] that these are just natural events that can possibly cause harm to people or property. For instance, a thunderstorm can be seen as a hazard due to its lightning and heavy rain, but it doesn’t always cause significant harm. A disaster on the other hand is said to occur when a hazard actually causes a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society, like floods that destroy homes or  hurricanes that leave many people injured.


Vulnerability turns hazards into disasters

Which conditions turn hazards into disasters, then? The key factor behind the occurrence of disasters is the vulnerability of people to specific hazards.[2] For instance, if a city is designed to withstand heavy rainfall or earthquakes, these events are unlikely to lead to disasters. This explains why earthquakes of similar intensity can have completely different impacts in Chile compared to Haiti, for example.

And this social vulnerability is shaped by political choices, resource allocation, funding availability, and cultural heritage. This is why the concept of a “natural disaster” is now considered a misnomer by the UNDRR, academics, and other actors, as it places more emphasis on the natural event than on the social and political conditions that truly explain a disaster. It is now also recognized that through the effective and timely use of DRR strategies, it is possible to prevent hazards from progressing to disasters.


It’s too simple to say that climate change leads to disasters

In brief, climate change mostly refers to long-term shifts in average weather patterns and conditions attributed directly or indirectly to human activity.[3] These shifts can result in variations in the frequency and intensity of weather events like hurricanes, heatwaves, and heavy rainfall, as well as changes in overall weather patterns. In other words, it does affect the weather, but as noted before, the development of disasters is often better explained by people’s vulnerability rather than the intensity or frequency of weather events alone.

Saying that climate change will result in more disasters is, therefore, imprecise (or at least not that simple), and we need to acknowledge some important nuances and exceptions. Ilan Kelman’s post on Pulse presents a good overview of these arguments with several scientific sources being referenced. An important takeaway, also seen in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, is that climate change may not always lead to more disasters if our societies take adequate action to reduce their risk of occurrence and impact — in short, if DRR measures are in place.

The problem seems to be, however, that we are not doing enough, nor are we doing it fast enough. Therefore, climate change is already and will continue to contribute to more disasters, but not because of more (or more frequent and extreme) natural events occurring. We as a society are not doing enough to curb carbon emissions that drive climate change, nor are we taking sufficient measures to reduce our vulnerability to climate-related hazards. In other words, we (or more precisely, some people in power) are deciding to have more disasters. DRR can and must play a critical role here.


Why to adopt a DRR approach in mitigating and adapting to climate change

DRR involves the steps and plans we make to prevent disasters from happening and ensure that when disasters occur, they cause as minimum harm as possible to people.[4] In addressing climate change, mitigation and adaptation remain the two primary measures. Climate change mitigation aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions, slowing climate change and so indirectly reducing the severity of climate-related disasters. Climate change adaptation on the other hand involves adjusting to current and new climate conditions to address related risks, for example through city design, food systems adaptation, or managing coastal and river delta infrastructure.

While DRR is not yet seen as an important measure to combat climate change, it’s vital in addressing the complexity of the crisis. How? DRR is an approach that can be applied in various situations:

As we emphasize the importance of DRR measures and strategies today, the invitation is then to avoid simplifying disasters as consequences of climate change (which also brings us to the complex world of attribution) and, as scientists Emmanuel Raju, Emily Boyd, and Friederike Otto plead, to “stop blaming the climate for disasters.” Instead, we should emphasize their complex nature as social and political phenomena, engage in broader discussions about DRR, and consider the measures that could be taken but are not effectively implemented to reduce the risks and impacts of disasters.

[1] See The Routledge Handbook of Hazards and Disaster Risk Reduction and Mapping Vulnerability Disasters, Development and People

[2] Including exposure as part of vulnerability



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About the author:

Rodrigo Mena is Assistant Professor of Disasters and Humanitarian Studies at The International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam. Dr. Mena has studied and worked in humanitarian assistance, disaster governance, and environmental sociology for twenty years, especially in conflict-affected and vulnerable settings. He lectures on humanitarian action, disaster risk reduction, methodology, and safety and security for in-situ/fieldwork research.

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Development between Extraction and Compassion

Extraction was central to the colonization of half of the world in the twentieth century, having played a key role in enriching already wealthy countries. But while colonization seems to belong to the past, the extractivist mindset based on the notion of extraction continues to pervade all aspects of our lives. In this blog article, a condensed and partial version of the inaugural lecture given by incumbent ISS Rector Ruard Ganzevoort on 12 October 2023, Ganzevoort discusses how extractivism shapes our lived realities and proposes a radically alternative approach to extractivism rooted in compassion.

In recent years, a new ‘Space Race’ has emerged, but instead of states trying to send rockets to space, this new one is centred on resource extraction. Corporations and start-ups are now seeking to extract resources from neighbouring planets and even asteroids — and programmes are being launched that bring them closer to doing so.

I confess that I am overwhelmed by the technological skills that make such endeavours possible. It is amazing that we can send humans to the moon and even actively envision journeys to other planets. And yet… There is something fundamentally unsettling about this story. What is deeply disturbing about this story is the unencumbered thinking about extraction — treating territories as terra nullius, no one’s land, just because the state or the population is not recognized by us, implementing laws alien to that land, and defending mostly the interests of the colonizers. And especially worrisome are the treaties that colonizing countries conclude in order to divide the territories between them without acknowledging the intrinsic rights of people indigenous to those territories.

Of course, one might object that these territories in space are uninhabited and that there are therefore no humans, animals, or other life forms whose rights might be compromised by our explorations and extractions. But first of all, that was also the argument in the past when the indigenous populations were not recognized as people with rights. It still happens in contemporary land grabbing at the expense of indigenous ethnic minority groups, pastoralists, and peasants who need the land the most. It is still the argument when we discuss the intrinsic rights of nature. And secondly, it is completely beside the point I want to make. That point is that such endeavours are emblematic for the extractivist agenda and attitude that has been so dominant and now is so contested in the development discourse. It is linked to the agenda of neoliberalism.


On the origins of extractivism

The concept of extractivism has migrated from its original location in the context of mining and producing raw materials and natural resources, usually shipped out of producing countries without much processing in the country of origin. In colonial times, this was of course the dominant model for North-South international trade. Countries like the Netherlands, England, and Spain would conquer or claim territories on other continents with the main purpose to extract valuable natural resources and produce whatever they could not grow in Europe.

Today, countries don’t officially call these activities colonialism anymore, but the underlying model has not changed. In many places, economic development is defined in terms of trading possibilities and trading is often focused on those resources and products that can be sold to strong economies like Europe and the USA, and increasingly also China. Even when we buy fair trade and organically produced coffee and cocoa (things we want and cannot produce ourselves), even when we improve local economies by stimulating the local processing of these resources, we are still working within the extraction-based economy in which the rest of the world serves the needs of the economic and political centers of power.

But extraction is not yet extractivism[1]. Extractivism refers to a philosophical perspective that questions the broader discourse of the mindset and cultural frameworks of extraction. It is a mindset that is pertinent to our thinking about development, about politics, about economy, and much more. It is a cultural framework underlying a significant part of at least European cultures and that is central to many geopolitical dynamics.

This extractivist approach is found everywhere and it may be helpful to explore some of these fields and reflect on the nature and consequences of extractivism. Beyond the first dimension of extraction — Planet Earth and other territories — we can reflect on extraction in the dimensions of finance, time, data, relationships, religion, and knowledge. Some of these dimensions operate primarily on the systemic or institutional level; other dimensions play out mostly on the individual level, which shows that it is indeed a dominant perspective across our personal, social, and organizational existence. I don’t try to be comprehensive in any way, and I will certainly generalize far too much, but I only aim to show how widespread and taken for granted this perspective is. Below, I briefly show the extractivist approach at work in our daily lives.



The more complex financial systems are, the further they move away from intrinsic value and the more they are part of an extractive system. Extractivism in a financial sense is visible in the accumulation of wealth on the one hand and debt on the other. In fact, following credit theories of money we can claim that money is identical to debt, only seen from the opposite perspective. Development is often financed by loans that create a new dependency and reinforce the dominant economies of the Global North while at the same time creating a market for the North to sell our superfluous or even defected products, thus extracting even more from the Global South under the guise of development. By providing money, we are therefore creating more debts and in fact, global debt (as a share of global GDP) has tripled since the mid-70s.



It is well understood by now that there is no such thing as free data.[2] While Big Tech wants us to believe they are creating new possibilities for us to connect and communicate and to access unlimited data and information, the reality is the other way around. By using Facebook, Netflix, Tiktok, and whatever we have on our smartphones, we are allowing these companies to gather data about us and our societies. We are not watching Netflix; Netflix is watching us. The surveillance society that has become possible through data technology is not only a threat for individual privacy. By extracting data, it creates power for the state and for commercial organizations that was formerly unheard of.



Extractivism is not only present in the actions and structures of institutional powers. It is also part of our own cultural attitude. At least in the West, I must add, because I don’t want to generalize too much across cultural differences, although cultural globalization is visible everywhere and Western culture remains dominant in many parts of the world and is propagated through commercial activities and especially popular culture. One dimension in which this plays out is how we relate to time. Expressions like “wasted my time” and “you have to get the most out of it” or “YOLO, You only live once” reveal this extractivist mentality.

The idea that time is a commodity of limited supply also leads to a perversion of how we look at ageing, again especially in Western cultures. The older people get, the less productive time they have left and therefore the less value they represent. In contrast, we can also see cultures where old age represents not a lack of future time but a richness of experiences.[3]



The commodification of time is paralleled in a commodification of relationships. The most dramatic version perhaps is found in forced marriage, sexual or domestic abuse, and marriage murders. But it is much broader. Modernization and industrialization have led to differentiation in tasks and activities and therefore also in relationships. Colleagues, friends, family members, neighbors, caregivers, trade partners… Many or all of these relational categories could coincide in pre-industrial times but are now commonly organized through different and separate relational spheres. And although there is in many cases still a good degree of mutuality and intrinsic value, there is also at least the risk of commodification where relationships are evaluated for their utility in satisfying specific needs.



And then religion, which I mention specifically because my chair here at ISS is in Lived Religion and Development. Religion can easily become part of the extractivist mindset for example when it takes on magical characteristics. Especially in critical circumstances, people may turn to religion trying to avoid imminent danger. In contexts of poverty, there is a strong temptation to follow prosperity preachers who claim that their approach to religion will bring health, material wealth, and much more. Religious leaders may of course act with sincerity, integrity, and humility, but they may also capitalize on their charisma and extract power, honor, and money from the community they are leading.[4]

I may note here one interesting parallel between missionaries and humanitarian aid organizations. Both are not only engaged with a society in need, usually far from their homeland and constituency. They also both typically share stories about their work in the field, highlighting the dire predicament in which they find the people they want to reach, the beneficial effects of their intervention, and the impact of the financial support of their donors. Everybody wins. The receivers of care or mission are supposed to benefit, the donors can feel good, and the missionaries or aid workers remain in business. Good intentions notwithstanding, both missionary and humanitarian work can easily turn out to be extractive sectors, and in fact, examples of white saviourism. The challenge is to explore alternative spaces of local agency.



Finally, and added here specifically because it regards us as an academic institution, is the role of extractivism in the generation and distribution of knowledge. The contemporary movement of open access and open science is at least trying to correct the perverse system in which public money and the individual drive of researchers have been exploited by commercial organizations.

But there is more. Even an academic institution like ISS that proudly carries the banner of social justice and invests in what we call Recognition and Rewards can in fact perpetuate a competitive rat race for especially younger scholars, whose energy and ambition are being used to further the academic reputation of the institute. Are we really building a nurturing and secure environment in which people can grow under fertile circumstances, or are we just as extractive as we reproach other institutions to be?

And even more seriously. Do we truly embrace different epistemologies and forms of indigenous knowledge, also when they come from other, previously colonized parts of the world? Or do we hold on to our Eurocentric model of knowledge generation and transmission, in which students from the global south are part of our business model, leading to the continuation of North-South knowledge-power dynamics and a potential brain drain from the south? I am not doubting anyone’s intentions, but we also need to reflect on our own role in development studies.


Compassion as radical alternative to extractivism

Maybe you are not convinced by every single example that I mentioned, but I hope that you can follow me when I suggest that extractivism is central to the Western mindset and potentially also influences other cultural contexts. It is at least, I would say, very much present in development discourse and practices. Can we reconceive development in non-extractive ways? We can learn from the debates about decoloniality and degrowth or post-growth. But if extractivism is an underlying cultural mindset that plays out across many domains of how we interact with the world around us, then we also need an alternative fundamental mindset that leads to different ways of relating to the world.

This alternative mindset may go by many different names. One concept that I personally find very appealing is compassion. Compassion is not a soft-hearted emotional response; it is a virtue that is developed over time through a long series of warm and painful experiences, hard and daily choices, honest reflection and introspection, and especially concrete actions. It is also a virtue that is central to many global and indigenous worldviews and religious traditions and therefore can be seen as a core element of human wisdom accumulated over many centuries, as religious studies scholar Karen Armstrong (2010) has outlined.

The concept of compassion combines three interrelated aspects that are relevant for our considerations today. First, it takes its starting point in recognizing that everything is connected. Second, the concept of compassion implies being willing to be affected by ‘the other’, be it fellow humans, animals, future generations, or anything else. “Willingness to be affected”. And then the third aspect of compassion is turning that awareness and willingness to be affected into action.

But this action can no longer be the paternalistic expert-driven top-down form of helping that dominated older paradigms of development and care. It must be based in the awareness of interconnectedness and accountability and therefore breathe the values of mutuality, equality, and justice. To quote the famous words of Aboriginal scholar-activist Lilla Watson: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

[1] Riofrancos (2020) offers an even more precise differentiation between extractivism as the policies and ideologies involved in extraction processes and extractivismo as the, especially Latin American, discourse critically reflecting on this.

[2] See Ganzevoort (2020) for further reflections on data and humankind.

[3] Nicely captured in the recent PhD thesis of Constance Dupuis (2023).

[4] See Sanders (2000) for an insightful analysis of charisma in early Christianity and in contemporary cases.

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About the author:

Prof.dr. (Ruard) RR Ganzevoort is the rector of the International Institute of Social Studies in Den Haag (part of Erasmus University Rotterdam) as well as professor of Lived Religion and Development.

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The recent upsurge of violence in Israel and Palestine signifies a “prelude to genocide”. How could this happen?

The tragedy that has been continually unfolding in Palestine for the past 75 years recently took a dramatic turn when Palestinian armed groups broke through the steel gates closing off Gaza and entered Israel on 7 October 2023. While the details of what occurred are gruesome, but also very unclear, their actions led to a further escalation by Israel, with senior figures in the Israeli government vowing revenge in terms that are tantamount to an incitement to commit genocide. The massive loss of human life and deliberate targeting of civilians has been accompanied by feelings of incredulity. People are asking: How could this happen? In this article, human rights and legal mobilisation scholar Jeff Handmaker provides some context.

Boiling point reached after many years of oppression

Even for someone like myself who has been closely following the situation in Palestine for more than 25 years, the human cost of what we have been seeing in the past few days has been difficult to fathom. Veteran Ha’aretz journalist Amira Hass in describing the sheer scale of what’s currently happening noted that:

In a few days Israelis went through what Palestinians have experienced as a matter of routine for decades, and are still experiencing – military incursions, death, cruelty, slain children, bodies piled up in the road, siege, fear, anxiety over loved ones, captivity, being targets of vengeance, indiscriminate lethal fire at both those involved in the fighting (soldiers) and the uninvolved (civilians), a position of inferiority, destruction of buildings, ruined holidays or celebrations, weakness and helplessness in the face of all-powerful armed men, and searing humiliation.

Hass’s statement captures why it is so challenging for Israelis and Palestinians (and their supporters) to recognise the other’s humanity. Israelis find it hard to see the other’s humanity, as they have been promised that they would be safe and secure behind colonial borders and have only now experienced atrocities at this scale. Palestinians also find it hard to see the other’s humanity as they have never suffered the illusion that they were safe and secure behind colonial borders and have been experiencing atrocities at this scale for more than 75 years.


The Hamas attack didn’t come out of the blue

It is important in this context to understand what was behind the attacks by Hamas-affiliated groups, purportedly in response to Israel’s appalling treatment of Palestinians who remain under occupation in the Gaza Strip. It was purportedly also linked to the Israeli government’s open support of settler colonialism in the West Bank, as well as brutal attacks against largely peaceful demonstrators during the “Great March of Return”  in 2018 and recent provocations around the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. One should remember what life in Palestine looks like at present, particularly in the Gaza Strip, and how it got there.

To begin with, Gaza is one of the most densely populated regions in the world, with more than two million people living in an area of approximately 362 square kilometres (smaller than the Caribbean island of Curacao, which has a population of 153,000). Moreover, Gaza has been subject to a strict military blockade since 2007 that has limited the freedom and opportunities of Palestinians in a fundamental way. It is frequently described as an open-air prison, and many have called the oppressive governance of the area by Israel as nothing other than an apartheid state. This is why the attack on 7 October has been referred to by commentators such as Israeli journalist Amira Hass as part of a “cycle of violence” that “shouldn’t surprise anyone”. In other words, it should be seen in context and not as an isolated event.


Reacting to a long history of domination and oppression

To grasp the deeper context of the current violence, it’s also important to understand three key historical moments, none of which obviously excuses the committing of international crimes. Each of these historical moments has involved extensive human rights violations and international crimes in the context of Israel’s long record of domination and oppression of Palestinians.

The first key moment was in 1948, when Zionist founders of the State of Israel committed a series of operations which, according to scholars such as Walid Khalidi, Ilan Pappe, and Nur Masalha, amounted to a mass expulsion and ‘ethnic cleansing’ of historical Palestine. This is referred to by Palestinians as the ‘Nakba’, or ‘Catastrophe’. Approximately one-third of uprooted and dispossessed Palestinians ended up living in refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, assisted by the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies. Around one-quarter of these refugees today reside in refugee camps in Gaza, and comprising around two-thirds of the population of Gaza.

The second key moment was the Israeli military’s capture of additional territories in 1967, including the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Golan, and Gaza. This resulted in further and forced displacement, movement restrictions, and other daily restrictions as Israel established settlements in the occupied territory. Israel withdrew the settlers 38 years later but has continuously maintained its occupation of the Gaza territory by air, sea, and land.

The third and most recent moment is Israel’s blockade of the territory starting 2007 in its current, extreme form, whereby it has been extremely difficult, and at times impossible, for Palestinians living in Gaza to access medicine, building materials, food, humanitarian assistance, and even electricity and water. Patients requiring advanced medical care that the overstretched hospitals in Gaza cannot provide have limited options due to the blockade, and as a result, many – including children – have died of easily treatable ailments. According to Physicians for Human Rights, the deteriorating healthcare situation has been particularly straining for women in Gaza. The ability of students to study abroad has also been extremely limited. Moreover, according to the United Nations, during the course of several brutal military operations, Israel has killed more than 6,400 Palestinians.

While these were key moments in what many commentators have characterised as Israel’s settler-colonial and apartheid regime against Palestinians, it is impossible to explain all dimensions. Suffice it to say that numerous documented violations that have been committed throughout these periods are currently the subject of an international criminal investigation by the International Criminal Court, albeit greatly delayed.


From oppression to onslaught

This brings us to 9 October 2023, when the government of Israel announced a “total” blockade of the Gaza Strip, including cutting off the electricity, food, and water supply to the area. Gazans were warned by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that they are to pay an “immense price” for the actions of Hamas and have warned Palestinians to “get out of there [Gaza] now” as the Israeli military was going to “turn all Hamas hiding places … into rubble”.

Of course, Netanyahu knows full well that Palestinians in Gaza have nowhere to go; Israel’s military have even bombed the one remaining exit route, the Rafah Crossing, and have refused to set up a humanitarian corridor. Thus, at a bare minimum, Israel’s actions amount to the war crime of collective punishment, directed at a captive population with nowhere to go. And with 300,000 Israeli reservists having been called up to serve in active military duty, fears are that the consequences for the people of Gaza could be far greater than they have ever been before.


A prelude to genocide?

Some years ago, Richard Falk, a Princeton University professor and former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories, was said to have characterised the ongoing siege of Gaza as a “prelude to genocide”.[i] It is immensely worrying that more and more parties are starting to believe that Falk’s sober prediction might be coming true. Human rights NGOs have long referred to the oppression of the Palestinians and the control of Gaza as a crime against humanity.[ii] However, it is especially recent events and public proclamations of retaliation by Netanyahu as well as by military commanders referring to Gazans as ‘human animals’ and vowing to give them ‘hell’, that are making Falk’s claim seem more and more believable.

Taken together, the evidence suggests there are very well-founded fears that what we are now witnessing are very explicit intentions to accomplish the genocide of the Palestinian residents of Gaza. Rather than simply asking how this could happen and extending unconditional diplomatic support and military aid to Israel, observers of this carnage should also ask themselves how the carnage can be stopped. The answer is certainly not to commit further atrocities.

[i] These developments should also be seen in light of the ethnic cleansing of Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh in September 2023, in which Israel also played a central role in and for which there have been limited consequences for the government of Azerbaijan, could readily be seen as a prelude to genocide in and of itself.

[ii] While Gazans have long characterised that what they are experiencing as a ‘slow-motion genocide’ that has created an almost uninhabitable situation for many of its two million inhabitants, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, B’tselem and others have characterised as the oppression of Palestinians in Gaza as an apartheid regime, which like genocide is also a crime against humanity. Reinforcing these concerns, a group of eight renowned Palestinian research institutes and human rights organizations, including Al Haq, have further explained how Israel’s discriminatory and exclusionary polices are an explicit and expansive tool of settler-colonialism and ‘structural and institutionalised racism’.

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About the author:

Dr. Jeff Handmaker is Associate Professor of Legal Sociology at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam and has published widely on topics concerning Israel’s decades-long impasse with the Palestinians. He conducts research on legal mobilization.

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