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Launch of the Humanitarian Studies Centre (HSC): “Humanitarian Studies is about dignity and it is about humanity”

Humanitarian Studies has been defined by Professor Thea Hilhorst as the study of societies and vulnerable communities experiencing humanitarian crisis originating from disaster, conflict, refugee situations, and/ or political collapse. This definition stemmed from the recent launch of the Humanitarian Studies Centre (HSC) on 31 August, 2023 at the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague. The HSC aims to build a network of researchers, practitioners, and policy makers to collaboratively impact the field of Humanitarian Studies.

The Humanitarian Studies Centre at ISS launched on August 31, with a full-day opening event to ‘take stock of Humanitarian Studies’. Guest speakers included Prof. Antonio De Lauri (Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies), Dr Juan Ricardo Aparicio Cuervo (Universidade de Los Andes), Rob Schuurmans (Acting Director, International Affairs, Municipality of The Hague), and Mariëlle van Miltenberg (Head of Humanitarian Aid at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). The day was intended to map humanitarian studies in the Netherlands and provide an opportunity for networking, with 36 presentations in different sessions showing the breadth and diversity of Humanitarian Studies.

The Humanitarian Studies Centre will also partner with and host several other organisations, including KUNO (Platform for Knowledge Exchange in the Netherlands), the SSRi (Safety and Security for Researchers Initiative), and the IHSA (International Humanitarian Studies Association). In her opening speech, Thea Hilhorst, who directs the Humanitarian Studies Centre, raised the question what humanitarian studies is.


What is Humanitarian Studies?

“I would like to start with a word of thanks, to the Netherlands government that endowed me with the Spinoza price that enabled setting up the Humanitarian Studies Centre. A first question, then, is of course: what are humanitarian studies?

The field was originally thought of as ‘the study of (international) humanitarian action’. However, perhaps because of my background in development studies, I have always carefully situated humanitarian action in society. Humanitarian action, in my mind, is an autonomous field embedded in society, as I elaborated with Bram Jansen in the idea of the humanitarian arena.

Even so, through time I felt it was needed to broaden the definition of humanitarian studies, away from a focus on international humanitarian action to take societies undergoing humanitarian crises as the starting point. Humanitarian studies, in my mind is:

The study of societies and vulnerable communities experiencing humanitarian crisis originating from disaster, conflict, refugee situations, and/ or political collapse. It studies the causes and impact of crisis; how people, communities and authorities respond to them, including efforts for prevention and preparedness; how humanitarian action and other external interventions are organized and affect the recovery from crises; and the institutional changes that crises and crisis response engender.

This definition implies that there are lots of people that contribute to Humanitarian Studies, without necessarily identifying with the label of ‘Humanitarian Studies’.”


A broad field, open to dialogue

“There is a large range of other academic fields that can interact with, influence, and be in conversation within Humanitarian Studies. We are like siblings in a large family, looking alike yet all with our distinctive features. These include conflict and peace studies, development studies, feminist and post-colonial studies, international relations, disaster studies, and refugee studies. It’s not just academic efforts that contribute to the field either; practitioners are also included – hence the hosting of KUNO at the HSC. The launch of the HSC is also a call to build a network of researchers, practitioners, and policy makers that build collaboratively to have the most positive effect in Humanitarian Studies.”


Not limited to the actions of Humanitarians

“Centering society within Humanitarian Studies means looking at what happens to society during moments of crisis, in contrast to previous approaches. Scholars were mainly interested in the exceptionality of crisis, the violence characterizing crisis, or assumed societies lost their organizing principles to become tabula rasa or institutional voids altogether during a crisis. Few people asked themselves how families managed to feed children, sent them to school, how babies were born, what happened to couples falling in love, who would help people with nothing to eat?

While a plethora of research and lived experience showed that people help each other during crisis (everybody would have died when they had to wait for international humanitarian actors), this largely escaped the eye of the academic world just as much as the aid community. Today, we almost see the opposite happening, with the aid sector celebrating the resilience of local communities, the self-reliance of people on the move and the everyday care they extend to one another.

Whilst it is important to celebrate peoples’ resilience during crisis, and solidarity within societies, this doesn’t mean that the field of Humanitarian Studies takes a rose-tinted view of what happens during crises. Nor can the field ignore the politicization of crisis situations. Lots of research has testified to the politics of crisis, and the ways in which actors reconfigure themselves to benefit from the crisis interventions or change the existing order according to their own interests and views. This happens at international as much as national and the local level, where for example chiefs may ask for sexual favours in exchange for assistance, or local traders may profit from crises by doubling their prices.”


Disaster and crisis as opportunity

“Optimistic people view disaster as a window of opportunity to build back better, and more pessimistic people predominantly see how elites make themselves stronger and richer in times of crisis. Where they agree is that moments of crisis also typically open space for change within society, with existing structures of governance often entirely upheaved, or unable to operate in the same manner. Some of the richest, layered and interesting studies humanitarian scholars have done is to see how institutional landscapes change in crisis situations, whether these changes are permanent, and whether these changes can be affected by carefully crafted interventions.”


A value-laden field

“What I love about humanitarian studies as the title of this domain of work is that it carries a value-laden property. Humanitarian studies is about dignity and it is about humanity. The father of modern humanitarianism, Henri Dunant, proposed that the key idea of humanitarianism is the desire to save lives and restore human dignity.  He derived this notion from a tradition of Christian charity that did not seek to radically alter society. However, the notion of humanity has also inspired subsequent scholars. Last year I was in the beautiful city of Davos in Switzerland where a winter walkway is devoted to Thomas Mann, who wrote his ‘Zauberberg’ (the Magic Mountain) during a stay at Davos.

One of the quotes displayed on the walkway says: ‘What then, is humanism? It is the love of humanity, nothing else, and therefore it is political, and therefore it is a rebellion against everything that tarnishes and devalues humanity.’ That is for me the value that drives humanitarian studies.”

The Humanitarian Studies Centre aims to be a hive of activity around the field, with academic and applied research that will continue to centre both society and humanity in societies undergoing crisis or disaster. Along with Director Thea Hilhorst, Deputy Director Rodrigo Mena, and Senior Researcher Kaira Zoe Cañete, another Senior Researcher will also shortly be joining the team. Several PhD researchers are also affiliated to the centre. Non-academic staff include Coordinator Thomas Ansell, and Community Manager Gabriela Anderson Fernandez. An exciting programme of academic research, knowledge sharing, dialogue with practitioners, and much more is planned!

More information about the HSC is available on the ISS website. The HSC has been set up at ISS by Thea Hilhorst, following her Spinoza Prize in 2022.

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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Scholars at risk: why the Dutch system for protecting persecuted scholars is failing and why the government urgently needs to get involved

In the past, scholars facing persecution have regularly been received by Dutch universities, which have provided them with a safe space to continue conducting their research in times of adversity. In 2019, the Dutch system for providing a safe haven for such scholars collapsed – an event that went largely unnoticed at the time. Ever since, efforts to help scholars have been mostly futile, largely because the bureaucratic hurdles to providing a safe space are more or less insurmountable. In this article, Linda Johnson explains how and why the Dutch system for supporting refugee scholars has become ineffective and suggests what should be done about it.

Photo Credit: Ron Lach

The Russian invasion of Ukraine early last year galvanized universities in the Netherlands into a brief flurry of solidarity and a frantic but largely ineffectual effort to provide a safe space for Ukrainian researchers to continue their work. Working parties were set up, web pages were designed and countless meetings were held. The consternation was immense. Sadly, none of this led to much concrete assistance for imperilled scholars and students. There was simply no system in place that would allow grants to be paid out to those in dire need. It became abundantly clear that the infrastructure for supporting scholars at risk is inadequate.

The lack of an infrastructure for organizing meaningful support was systematically exposed in January this year in a report issued by a prestigious group of critical scholars (The Young Academy), who for the first time showed the deficiencies of the current system in a rigorous report that describes and analyses the situation as it is today. They have made clear that the infrastructure for supporting scholars at risk from all over the globe (Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria, Turkey, Iran and the list goes on…) is woefully inadequate. But how could this have happened and what needs to be done to remedy the situation?


The early days of Scholars At Risk NL

To answer this question, it is important to first take a look at what has happened in the past few years. In around 2010, the American organization Scholars at Risk (SAR) started approaching universities in Europe with a view to expanding global provision for at-risk scholars. I had been active in university internationalization circles globally for several decades; hence, I was one of the individuals approached for initial discussions on setting up a SAR provision in The Netherlands.

I was enthusiastic about the proposal and felt that the Netherlands should get involved in this important work. The aims of SAR and the mission of ISS were in alignment and it was not difficult to gain the approval of the then ISS rector (Professor Leo de Haan) to begin receiving students at ISS. Many ISS colleagues were in favour of creating a structural provision for scholars under threat. I set up an infrastructure and little by little extended the pilot so that the whole of the Erasmus University could participate.

We managed to place one or two scholars a year at ISS and occasional placements were found in other parts of the university. Mentoring a scholar who has had to flee for his/ her life is not easy work, but there were enough excellent colleagues willing to go above and beyond the call of duty to make the system work. Similar efforts took place at most universities in the Netherlands, largely based on solidarity and relying on colleagues who were willing to spend time and effort over and above their working hours to keep the system afloat.

Between 2010 and 2015, most European countries, including the Netherlands, set up programmes to help scholars at risk. The Dutch support organization for refugee students, the UAF, coordinated Dutch efforts and fulfilled the important task of disbursing the grants made available to scholars at risk. These grants came from a variety of sources (universities, private donations, local councils, SAR and others). For some time, things went well enough.


A turn for the worse

Sadly, in 2019 the UAF decided to end its partnership with the Dutch arm of Scholars at Risk. Worries had begun to surface about possible fines being imposed by the Dutch tax authorities because of the UAF’s role in the distribution of grants. The Dutch tax authorities had indicated that the modest bursaries could be construed as salary and would hence fall under the category of ‘notional’ employment on which the recipient would need to pay tax, and over which the employer would need to pay social insurance. This would multiply the costs involved and reduce the grants to a size too small to meet living costs for the scholar in question.

The financial risk was deemed too great by the UAF – in 2020, it withdrew entirely, effectively making it impossible for Dutch universities to offer financial assistance to at-risk scholars and also bringing to an end any structured coordination of support to at-risk scholars. Expertise on how best to support scholars at risk could no longer be shared and data could no longer be collected and collated on the numbers and origins of scholars seeking assistance from Dutch universities.

In short, since 2020, Dutch universities have no longer been able to make any provision to assist scholars at risk. This situation is in sharp contrast to the generous and well-organized support structures available in many European counties, such as Poland, Germany, the UK, and others.


Ripples of concern, but no comprehensive effort

In 2021, the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan led to a modest ripple of concern among Dutch universities. Small, but uncoordinated and largely unsuccessful efforts were made to offer a safe haven to a few Afghani scholars and their families. This proved to be impossible because of the lack of a grant distribution system. Very quickly, the concern ebbed away without any scholars being placed. A year later, in 2022, the onset of the war on Ukraine led to another ripple of concern within Dutch academia. The problem was closer to home this time. Most Dutch universities felt a moral imperative to get involved and to do something constructive to assist scholars and students from Ukraine. Nothing very concrete was achieved, in spite of the best efforts of some individuals.


Attempts to restart the system

A group of concerned university administrators from Dutch universities met several times throughout 2020-2022 to try finding a way to improve matters. I convened and chaired these meetings. It was agreed that Nuffic, the Dutch organization for internationalization and education, could perhaps take on the role previously fulfilled by the UAF. This seemed to be a good choice, as Nuffic has an extensive network within the Dutch higher education sector, is used to administering grants, and has considerable expertise that would be handy in helping to ensure that at risk scholars are placed in settings appropriate to their field of research.

Nuffic was keen to get involved but at the eleventh hour felt obliged to decline further involvement because of the risks involved in relation to tax authorities and the labour inspectorate. Back to square one…


An opportunity to turn the tide

At this point, the Dutch Young Academy decided to get involved. On 23 January of this year, the Young Academy’s report called ‘Support for at risk scholars in the Netherlands’ was launched. This was a tremendously important step: for the first time, a measured and reflective analysis of the support system was committed to paper in the form of a well-researched report. It showed that at-risk scholars are woefully underserved in the Netherlands. The main conclusion of the report is crystal clear: “There is currently no national infrastructure in the Netherlands for the registration and reception of at-risk scholars.”

The exposure of this embarrassing gap in provision for scholars at risk is important: it gives Dutch universities who wish to host scholars at risk the opportunity to do some repair work on a broken system. They need the assistance of the Dutch government in this endeavour. The question is whether this opportunity will be recognized and acted upon. The Young Academy has laid bare an uncomfortable truth. It is surely impossible for the government to ignore their plea for action……

I believe that the only way forward is for politicians to enter the arena to resolve the impasse. The tax authorities and the labour inspectorate understandably have little interest in ensuring that scholars at risk are supported within Dutch universities. It is hardly their core business. The ministers involved (Education, Culture & Science, and Finance) thus need to take the political initiative to remove the obstacles around the tax and labour regulations and to provide guarantees that will allow the universities in collaboration with Nuffic and UAF to fulfil their moral duty to support scholars who cannot practise their profession in freedom and/or whose very life is threatened.

“It is precisely scholars who are often the first people to pose a threat to repressive regimes, and they are therefore often among the first group who must take flight.’’ – ‘Support for scholars at risk in the Netherlands’, January 2023.

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

About the author:

Linda Johnson was the executive secretary of ISS, but has now retired. She is particularly interested in the societal relevance of research. In addition, she has done recent work on the safety and security of researchers and co-developed a course on literature as a lens on development.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.