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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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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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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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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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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Humanitarian Observatories Series | Humanitarian observatories – seeking change from below

In the past few months, several humanitarian observatories have been set up in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and South Asia as part of a project on humanitarian governance and advocacy. These observatories review humanitarian action in the countries they’re located in and aim to contribute to humanitarian reform from below. In this post, Dorothea Hilhorst introduces this exciting new development and the Bliss blog series that will show what’s happening at the different observatories.

Launch DRC observatory 30 October 2022

Humanitarian governance is associated with many challenges related to the effectiveness of aid, accountability and trust, and the huge power imbalance between large humanitarian agencies and national aid providers, for example. Questions abound. How is the effectiveness of aid perceived by affected communities? How are funds allocated? Who are the people most in need? What is the role of the state in service provision? How is aid politicized, and whose interests are at stake? What is the role of national NGOs and civil society, and how are their voices heard?

Whereas many of these questions are addressed in international policies and debates, the influence of actors from the countries that are mostly affected by crisis – recipients of aid, national aid providers and others – on these policies and debates is wanting. As part of a humanitarian governance project hosted at the ISS, we have launched a series of humanitarian observatories for such actors to help monitor humanitarian governance processes in locales of humanitarian aid interventions with the aim of improving effectiveness and accountability. The project is briefly introduced below.


Creating networks, enhancing dialogue and collaboration

In an era of growing humanitarian needs, international advocacy has been focused on improving the effectiveness of aid, accountability, and the role of national actors. But these initiatives usually take place at the global level. We want to turn this around and reform humanitarianism by creating spaces for actors affected by aid interventions to monitor these in the places where they are enacted.

The project ‘Humanitarian governance. Accountability, advocacy, alternatives’ that seeks to do this is a five-year programme funded by the European Research Council. The programme is hosted at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague and is organized as a network with the following partners: the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia, Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, and KUTAFITI and the CREGED in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is a culmination of aspirations and activities of my previous work where I have always aimed to enhance dialogue and create networks of people across different parts of the humanitarian field, especially with people living through and working on humanitarian crises in their own setting.

The project hopes to create a space where people from those countries can meet and reflect on the challenges facing humanitarian governance in their country. For this reason, and following several exploratory discussions in the team, our partners have set up humanitarian observatories, which can be broadly defined as networks of a variety of actors that observe trends and processes in humanitarian governance and propose changes when needed. They can be imagined as spaces in which these actors keep an eye on how the humanitarian aid system functions in a specific context, providing an impression of the overall functioning of the system while also functioning amid all the humanitarian activities taking place. The observatories include representatives of affected communities, civil servants, members of civil society, and researchers from within and outside of academia.


Why focus on national or regional contexts?

There are several reasons why it is important to focus observatories on national or regional contexts:

  • National or regional observatories help observe humanitarian governance in its context. Due to reforms in the humanitarian sector, its organization is moving away from being centred on international actors and toward becoming more embedded in the countries of implementation. It is therefore important to observe humanitarian governance in its context, as it is affected by contextual issues such as the histories of governance development in a country, the relative strength of state and non-state institutions, and the level of economic development.
  • National or regional observatories amplify the voices of a variety of actors. International policy fora typically include voices of actors from different countries, but these are usually the same handful of humanitarian actors. By organizing the observatories locally, a larger range of actors can be involved and can make themselves heard, including actors from affected communities, researchers, and journalists.
  • National or regional observatories can become effective vehicles for promoting change on humanitarian governance in their context. Humanitarian advocacy can be defined as the activities of affected communities and their advocates to articulate, advance, and protect their rights (i.e. entitlements to assistance and citizenship rights more broadly), needs, views, and interests. This can be advocacy targeted at different actors and levels, including the humanitarian community. This works best when advocacy messages are context-specific, concrete, and implementable.


Spaces for learning and dialoguing

The observatories have further added value beyond monitoring the state of the humanitarian aid sector. For the members, they are a space for learning. Interestingly, the desire is also to learn beyond the context. The South Asia observatory, for example, is currently organizing a session about the situation in Sudan.

The observatories are a space for exchange. In meetings of the observatory, members can exchange their experiences and insights and can learn from each other. This was for example paramount in the sessions held in the DRC about sexual abuse in the sector – participants shared their personal observations and ideas.

The observatories can also be a space for strategic thinking to consider what the changes are that people wish to see in humanitarian governance. With this purpose in mind, the Ethiopian observatory has had several sessions to review a new piece of legislation on internally displaced persons and make recommendations on how this can include more accountability to affected people.

And, finally, the observatories can be a space for action and influence. To some extent, this is built into the observatory, as participants can take the recommendations back to their own organizations. And the observatory meetings usually end in agreeing on points of action, such as entering into conversation with authorities on a certain topic or seeking exposure by writing a blog post.


From conceptualization to implementation

There are currently four observatories: in the DRC, Ethiopia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and South Asia. A fifth observatory will be launched in The Philippines coming September. Each of the current observatories has held initial meetings. The agenda of the meetings is determined by the participants; hence, they all have a different agenda that is relevant to the context. In the DRC, the observatory is currently dealing with the role of the state and the issue of sexual abuse in the humanitarian sector. In Latin America, the focus is on the role of civil society and affected communities, in Ethiopia on accountability towards Internally Displaced Persons, and in South Asia on heatwaves.

While activities are planned in the context, insights will also be shared internationally. They will, amongst others, be discussed at conferences and events of the International Humanitarian Studies Association, and they will be shared in this series of blog posts. The series will consist of blogs of members of the observatories about the issues of their concern and the reforms they wish to see. The observatories are a young initiative, and their development is open-ended. So far, the experiences have been very promising, and I very much look forward to seeing how the observatories evolve and what we will learn from them through the future contributions to BLISS.

The Humanitarian Governance project has received funding from the European Research council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 884139).

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.

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.

Dilemmas for aid agencies working in Afghanistan under Taliban’s gender apartheid rule.

In late December 2022, the Taliban announced that aid organizations would no longer be allowed to employ women. It was the next step in a series of measures that make it increasingly impossible for Afghan women to study, live or think independently. In response, many aid organizations have stopped their work, others are continuing. What will be the effect of all this and where are the boundaries for continuing assistance?

The consequences of the ban are disastrous. After the takeover of power by the Taliban in 2021, the economy of Afghanistan collapsed, the government currently hardly functions and health services have disappeared except for aid-managed programmes. Drought, floods and last summer’s big earthquake all made matters worse. Current estimates are that 20 million people depend on humanitarian assistance and the ban on women’s employment will certainly cost lives. In addition, jobs are very rare in today’s Afghanistan. Many women who work for aid organizations are the sole breadwinner in their family. These families will face poverty if these women resign from their jobs.

UN diplomats and aid organizations are on high alert and they are feverishly meeting to seek strategies that enable them to stand up for human rights and yet maintain aid  as much as possible. The UN Security Council, as well as many countries, has also condemned the ban. Global humanitarian aid coordinator, Martin Griffiths, will be travelling to Afghanistan in the coming weeks in an attempt to persuade the government to change its mind. For the time being, however, the Taliban do not seem sensitive to outside pressure.

There are currently about a hundred aid organizations that have stopped their work. Some agencies take a principled approach: they condemn excluding female employees as a gross violation of human rights and are reluctant to strike deals with the Taliban about the provision of aid. Other organizations emphasize the logistical implications of the ban: aid is not possible in Afghanistan without women, because only women can reach the vulnerable women and children who need it most.

There are some organizations that can continue their work without disruption, including Médecins sans Frontières (MSF). Their employees are not yet affected by the new measure. The Taliban appear to be divided over the matter. The ban was issued by the Afghan Ministry of Economic Affairs, which is under the influence of the hardliner Taliban. Most national aid organizations are registered under this ministry. This implies that the ban also affects the programmes of foreign aid organizations that work through local partners. On the other hand, foreign organizations that implement their own programmes, such as MSF, fall under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has not adopted the measure. The Ministry of Health is also holding off the ban for the time being.

There are voices advocating that the aid organizations should draw a line and stop talking to the Taliban. However, many organizations will continue to look for a humanitarian space to uphold assistance in order not to let the population down. They are prepared to negotiate at a local level, where it is expected that some rulers may apply the ban more leniently. This is a common humanitarian strategy: negotiate where necessary and continue to look for ways to continue to provide aid. A disadvantage of this strategy may be that the Taliban can play off aid organizations against each other.

The ban is still fresh and evolving – new announcements are  expected soon. As far as I am concerned, there is one red line: organizations cannot agree to provide assistance when women are excluded from their services. Aid agencies, the UN and international governments should convey a common message: Aid that is reserved for men only is a no-go as this would contribute to the system of gender apartheid that prevails under the Taliban.

This blog is based on research that was supported by the European Research Council (ERC) Horizon 2020 programme [Advance grant number 884139].

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.

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.

How combatting illicit financial flows can prevent remittances from helping people during humanitarian crises: a closer look at Afghanistan

Remittances are a lifeline for many people in low- and middle-income countries, playing a particularly important role during conflict-related humanitarian crises by helping those affected by conflict stay on their feet. However, laws countering money laundering and the financing of terrorism during such crises can prevent remittances from reaching those that need them. Using the case of Afghanistan, Mohamed Muse and Rodrigo Mena in this article discuss the links between remittances and such laws and propose a critical research agenda focused on remittances as an important part of humanitarian crisis responses.


Humanitarian crises affect people’s lives in many ways, often leading to abrupt change that can shatter lives and livelihoods due to increased economic disruption, poverty, unemployment, and the reduced provision of services by the state resulting from them (see here, here, and here). In such situations, humanitarian aid is essential for supporting affected people. The assistance of relatives and friends is vital, especially when support networks and humanitarian agencies are not present in those places affected or where their support is limited in terms of coverage, access, or funds.

During crises, it is common to see diaspora mobilising to provide assistance to people living in crises by means of remittances – the transfer of money and other valuable resources to family or friends in crisis-affected contexts. However, laws that prevent money laundering and terrorism financing can prevent remittances from being used effectively as a response mechanism, particularly by forcing banks and other financial entities to stop money transfers to conflict-affected places.

Remittances are an important income for many. When viewing remittances as single transfers made from person to person, they might not seem to have much impact. By considering remittances in their totality, however, a completely different picture emerges. To begin with, they are an important financial inflow in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), second only to Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).[1] According to the World Bank, total remittances to LMICs in 2021 surpassed USD 600 billion and the forecasted figure for 2023 is even higher. What’s more, these figures only reflect money sent through ‘formally’ regulated systems such as Western Union and MoneyGram. In fact, most remittances travel through informal and group-specific remittance systems such as Hawala,[2] the most known and researched informal remittance system used by Middle Eastern and African communities.

Remittances make a big difference. Remittance-based financial flows contribute to multiple social and economic practices, from national to household levels and processes. For example, through remittances, Somali diaspora have contributed to the “peace reconciliation process” in Somalia by financially supporting conflict resolution processes, for example peace dialogues among the conflicting parties. Remittances also help sustain the livelihoods of recipients in conflict- and crisis-affected regions and can positively improve health, education, and the housing situation of poor people who receive them. They also help “boost the economy” after periods of crisis.

Remittances play an important role before, during, and after humanitarian crises. Importantly, remittances play a crucial role in supporting responses to humanitarian crises in general, including pre-disaster preparedness and post-disaster recovery efforts. Yet despite their importance, multiple regulations and policies limit, constrain, and shape the extent to which remittances can be resorted to during crises.

Laws combatting money laundering and terrorist financing (AML/CTF) are meant to protect illicit financial flows. According to the Financial Action Task Force (FAFT),[3] countries and their financial entities are required to implement and strictly follow AML/CTF regulations. ‘Know your customer’ (KYC) and de-risking practices are two such regulations that directly impact diaspora and their remittances. KYC requires banks and other financial entities to know about their customers before engaging in any financial transactions with them.

De-risking is another approach that banks have to comply with as part of AML/CTF regulations. De-risking requires banks and other financial entities to not engage with ‘high risk and sanctioned destinations’. The former refers to places in which terrorist groups operate, the latter to  entities that are subjected to sanctions mostly by the United States’ Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).[4]

Such regulations are curtailing remittances to Afghanistan. Here, they have created extra layers of challenges for Afghan diaspora and international humanitarian organizations. After the Taliban assumed power in Afghanistan in August 2021, it tumbled deeper into a financial and humanitarian crisis. With the ‘Fall of Kabul’, the country, which had already suffered a range of blows due to the conflict, poverty, and the COVID-19 pandemic, saw its reserves worth USD 7 billion being frozen by OFAC. Similarly, USD 400 million in Afghanistan emergency funds were blocked by the International Monetary Fund, which claimed that it could end up in the hands of Taliban.

Diaspora and their remittances came under global scrutiny as well. With an estimated number of 5.8 million Afghans living abroad, residents of the country received USD 788.9 million in remittances in 2020. This amount only accounts for money transferred via formally recorded channels like Western Union and excludes remittances sent to people in Afghanistan via trust-based channels like Hawala. After the Taliban takeover, many institutions followed a de-risking principle and AML/CTF policies, as a result of which both Western Union and MoneyGram suspended their operations in the country, which made remittances to Afghanistan through formal channels almost impossible. Thus, the trust-based Hawala system, already popular in the country before the current crisis, was increasingly used.[5]

However, Hawala and similar systems have been criticized and are feared to facilitate illicit streams of money, mostly because the transactions cannot be traced, and accountability practices are difficulty to have when the actors involved in the transactions cannot always be identified. Therefore, the enforcement of these global regulatory and supervisory frameworks seeks to protect such systems from harm. Because Afghanistan is on OFAC’s sanctioned countries list, remittances and other financial inflows have become impossible after the ‘Fall of Kabul’ because both humanitarian organizations and financial entities needed to adhere to AML/CTF regulations.

However, to limit and perhaps avoid any further catastrophic humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, OFAC started issuing General Licenses (GL). These licenses made possible humanitarian assistance (GL14) and inflows of personal remittances (GL 16). In this way, innocent Afghans have been able to get much-needed support from their family and friends abroad, as well as from international humanitarian organizations.

There is a need for a critical research agenda on remittances during humanitarian crises. As the case of Afghanistan shows, beyond the well-studied socio-economic role of remittances (see here, here, and here) and their (claimed) use for terrorism and crime, contribution to development, or as an obstacle to integration, they can also play an important role in responding to unfolding humanitarian crises. However, several important knowledge puzzles remain unaddressed and invite the development of a research agenda that can shed light on them, with possible research foci including:


  1. The role and integration of remittances in formal humanitarian responses.
  2. The impact of sanctions on societies affected by humanitarian crises and the challenges that these measures can create.
  3. How remittances link with inequality, either reducing them, considering that not everyone has equal access to remittances or networks of people that has migrate and can send money, or their impact in local economies, from inflation or foster businesses.
  4. How international humanitarian organizations navigate or address AML/CTF regulations when responding to different humanitarian crises.
  5. How remittances are linked to or use cryptocurrencies or blockchain technology, and the implication of this, for example, in terms of the traceability of remittances, speed of the transfers.

[1] All LMICs including China. When excluding China, remittances form the highest financial inflow to LMICs.

[2] Hawala is an informal value transfer system that is commonly used in the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. This transfer system operates outside or in parallel with traditional banking systems and is based on “trust” between those who move value (hawaladars), since no money is involved. Simply put, the sender contacts the hawala agent or hawaladar (Hawaladar A); then, Hawaladar A contacts a local hawaladar agent at the location where the money is to be sent (Hawaladar B) and asks him/her to deliver money to the final recipient. Hawaladar A and B then settle their accounts.

[3] FAFT is inter-governmental agency established in 1898 by group of G7 countries that fights money laundering and terrorism financing through the creation of regulations.

[4] OFAC is part of Treasury Department of US Government. OFAC administers economic sanctions to entities and individuals that are seen to be national security threats.

[5] A report by think tank Samuel Hall for example quips, “Afghan diaspora has been using Hawala extensively for remittances since the first waves of immigration, as most Afghan migrants in Iran and Pakistan did not have access to the banking system”.

This blog post and research was supported by the European Research Council (ERC) Horizon 2020 programme [Advance grant number 884139].

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

About the authors:

Rodrigo Mena is an Assistant Professor of Disasters and Humanitarian Studies. He has studied and worked in humanitarian assistance/aid, disaster governance, and environmental sociology for almost 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.




Mohamed Abdiaziz Muse is PhD Researcher at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs, Leiden University. Mohamed’s research focuses on global remittance regulations and state-diaspora politics in Sub Sahara Africa. Mohamed’s other areas of focus include international humanitarian aid, diaspora humanitarianism and economic development in Middle East and Africa. Email: twitter: @musegeellejr

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The role of National Governments in delivering humanitarian-development-peace nexus approaches: a reflection on current challenges and the way forward

The concept of humanitarian, development, peace (HDP) — referred to also as the triple nexus — gained momentum during the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, and more recently with the wide adoption of the recommendations on the HDP nexus issues by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – Development Assistance Committee (OECD-DAC) in 2019.

The HDP nexus pushes for strengthening the links between humanitarian, development, and peace actors and actions in contexts of protracted settings, where all three forms of assistance overlap within the same communities. The focus on strengthening these links, however, is not new. For example, the discourse on ‘linking relief, rehabilitation, and development’ (LRRD) from the 1980s, also attempted to better align humanitarian and development activities. It was, however,  critiqued because it saw aid as a linear process and lacked incentives for co-ordination, and focused primarily on the process of humanitarian agencies finishing their work, and development agencies taking over at some point. The triple nexus approach, on the contrary, pushes agencies and actors to improve co-ordination, collaboration, and coherence in order to increase aid effectiveness.

In this blog, I will explore the questions around engagement of national governments with triple nexus approaches. Specifically, I will look at (1) the importance of engaging with the national government; (2) existing challenges to this engagement; and (3) overcoming the challenges in engaging with the national government in relation to triple nexus approaches.

Wide acknowledgement for the need to engage with national governments

The overarching objective of the triple nexus approach is the prioritisation of better coordination and coherence between different actors and interventions in order to ‘end need’ and ‘leave no one behind’, thereby making the role of national governments a crucial element of this approach.

The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Results Group 4 in 2020 stated that “[National] Governments bear the primary responsibility to respond to disasters, protect their own populations, including displaced persons, abide by the refugee conventions, respect international humanitarian principles and law, and should drive the achievement of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] in their country.”[1] Additionally, the OECD-DAC Recommendation 2 advocates for the “appropriate resourcing to empower leadership for cost-effective coordination across the humanitarian, development, and peace architecture, by supporting local and national authorities, including legitimate non-state authorities wherever possible, and appropriate and in accordance with international law. Still further, the IASC Results Working Group 4 in May 2020, in regard to the triple nexus, states that actions must be “in consultation with government and leaders in all three pillars both within and outside the UN system.”

Therefore, while on one hand, national governments are critical for moving from emergency relief to long-term peace and stability, on the other, national governments can pose a threat to this progress when they are party to the conflict. This then becomes a difficult, and often a political dilemma, to determine how, and to what extent, should national governments be involved in planning aid strategies and interventions.

Challenges in involving national governments

One of the major concerns with engaging national governments in triple nexus approaches is that they will manipulate the strategies and interventions to their advantage — primarily by using the resources for their own gain — and fail to prioritise the interests of the majority of citizens. According to Berebi and Thelen (2011), aid, when given directly to affected population(s), rather than through unstable and potentially corrupt governments, can prove more effective. This is especially true for contexts dominated by conflict, where aid absorption is far less likely than in contexts that are safer and more secure.

This, however, raises an important dilemma— should a triple nexus approach sidestep government to focus on the need for more and better co-ordination in other areas? Purposely disengaging with the government in the spirit of more effective aid in the short and long-term, however, signals a lack of confidence in the national government, and thus, may cause more harm than good.

For example, according to a United Nations report from 2021 focused on South Sudan, since 2018, there has been more than an estimated $73 million, which has gone missing or  been syphoned off by various government officials and bodies. In fact, from the recent interviews, which I conducted in November 2021, there is evidence that there has been an increase in tensions between both international and national non-governmental organisations in South Sudan and the national government. This is reportedly because more and more international donors are side-stepping from working with and depending on the government, for ensuring distribution of funds to specific project interventions. Whenever possible, the funds, instead, go directly to the national NGOs and project implementers. In cases where the national and regional governments are involved, the money meant to reach the intended beneficiary is not only often delayed but is also deficient in the intended amount. This issue becomes even more complex when related to implementing a multi-component initiative, that may require several different government ministries to work together efficiently and effectively.

Moving forward

While this is only one issue of aid in the context of fragile and protracted settings when engaging with national governments, it is nonetheless, a very important one. For the triple nexus approach, I would argue that the national government, like all entities, is made up of different people with varying interests. Therefore, when engaging across actors and actions, a process of discernment, by international actors, should be a priori, in finding those individuals in government who are invested in meaningful change — focused on meeting the needs of the community and the country in a way that builds long-term peace and stability.

A triple nexus approach, therefore, must assess different levels of engagement, that balance information sharing with proactive engagement within government bodies to determine the best way of engagement. Those using a triple nexus approach, must recognise that in pulling together humanitarian, peace, and development actors and actions, it may mean that they are encouraging and promoting inter-governmental collaboration, co-ordination, and coherence, that might be weak or non-existent.

On a positive note, however, encouraging working relationships between different ministries can also become a conduit for them to see the benefits of more co-ordinated responses that are focused on immediate relief, as well as ensuring the long-term peace and development of the country. In essence, the triple nexus approach can provide an opportunity for supporting positive inter- and intra-government working relationships.

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

About the author

Summer Brown is currently pursuing her Ph.D. at the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University, Rotterdam. Her research focuses on how Humanitarian and Peacebuilding interventions work together from the perspective of National non-governmental organisations in South Sudan. She takes on consulting work focused primarily on the HDP nexus and conflict sensitivity respectively. Some of her clients include the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Mott MacDonald’s Girls Education in South Sudan programme, International Alert, Islamic Relief, Christian Aid and Caritas Switzerland.

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Where is the ‘social’ in researching mental health and psychosocial support?

In response to the social and psychological suffering caused by humanitarian emergencies, aid organisations implement ‘mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS)’. However, interestingly enough, academic research in MHPSS tends to only look at individual and psychological outcomes. This blog post outlines what social outcomes can be found in programme documents of aid organisations, and how we can improve the way we research these outcomes.

Mental health and psychosocial support

Armed conflict, disaster, displacement, and other humanitarian emergencies can cause great social and psychological suffering. These crises, as can be seen in Yemen, Ukraine, Ethiopia, and many other countries in the world, lead to loss of lives and homes, and rip families and communities apart. To heal trauma and rebuild social fabric, a wide variety of interventions are implemented under the heading of ‘mental health and psychosocial support’ (MHPSS). This response includes any type of support ‘that aims to protect or promote psychosocial well-being and/or prevent or treat mental disorder’ (Inter-Agency Standing Committee Guidelines, 2007). MHPSS starts from the recognition that the psychological and the social are closely interconnected. Examples of interventions include clinical mental health care, psychological first aid, and child friendly spaces. These interventions reflect the aim to address a great variety of needs – from building support through social networks to reducing anxiety with medicine. Approaches are moreover based on the availability of resources (i.e., access to healthcare facilities, community-based structures) in specific contexts. Given the protracted nature of humanitarian crises, as well as the increase in global attention to MHPSS, it is crucial to understand the way the psychological and social interact. Our study therefore reviewed the literature on the social outcomes of MHPSS (Ubels, Kinsbergen, Tolsma & Koch, 2022).


Researching the social outcomes

The ample academic research into MHPSS has a tendency to only look at individual and psychological outcomes. As a result, academic studies so far contribute to only a partial understanding of the impact of MHPSS interventions. We, therefore, turned to the programme documents of aid organisations. After reviewing 95 documents, it becomes apparent that aid organisations are more advanced in mapping social outcomes than academic institutions. Various types of social outcomes could be drawn from the literature. For example, strengthening cohesion within communities was a regularly found aim or outcome of interventions. This may be particularly relevant for contexts wherein host and refugee communities live in close proximity to each other. Improving personal relations and socio-economic positions were similarly recurring themes. We can think of families who are reunited after conflict and need to reinvent their family dynamics, or individuals who lost their livelihoods and are in need of social support to find economic resources. This information can help guide academic research, in showing which social outcomes deserve attention or should be further examined. Whilst the reviewed documents resulted in a useful overview, they lacked rigorous analysis (i.e., no inclusion of definitions, description of mechanisms to reach outcomes and measurement instruments).


Finding the ‘social’ in researching mental health and psychosocial support

The recommendations resulting from our study can briefly be summed up by looking at the following conceptual model we developed to enable systematic research:

(Ubels, Kinsbergen, Tolsma & Koch, 2022)

We should, first, make a distinction between individual and social level outcomes, and define which outcomes are being targeted by specific MHPSS interventions. Second, we should explain why we think the intervention can reach these particular outcomes. This includes direct outcomes (path A and B), but also changes over time (path C and D) and interactions between social and individual outcomes (path E and F). Third, we should find methods to ensure we properly measure outcomes, drawing tools from social sciences, medicine, and psychology. Fourth, we should find ways to also document the (positive and negative) unintended outcomes of interventions (Ubels, 2020).

Our mental health cannot be understood in isolation, so where is the ‘social’ in researching mental health and psychosocial support? Only through improving our understanding of the social outcomes of MHPSS, we can know its full possible impact. This will ultimately lead us to do more justice to the lived realities of people affected by humanitarian emergencies.

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

About the author:

Tessa Ubels is a PhD candidate at the Anthropology and Development Studies department of  Radboud University and affiliated to the Interuniversity Centre for Social Science Theory and Methodology.

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Humanitarian implications of sanctions to end the war in Ukraine

The sanctions package against Russia is expanding every day as the main strategy to end the invasion of Ukraine. While it is inevitable that ordinary Russians will suffer from these sanctions (as will people in the countries applying these sanctions), we must do everything in our ability to protect all civilians affected by this war, including people in Russia, from the impact of sanctions. This is not an easy task at all. On one hand, the sanctions might bring suffering to people in Russia (primarily for the most vulnerable ones), but on the other hand, they might lead to the end of the war, and, thereby, save many lives and reduce the extreme suffering of millions in Ukraine.

The great dilemma: using sanctions as a tool to end war

This great dilemma of how to stop the war while avoiding more suffering should not be taken lightly, and its impacts carefully assessed. On Tuesday evening, we listened to a conversation with two well-known military experts on the Dutch radio: Rob de Wijk and Arend Jan Boekestijn. After a while the conversation turned to the effects of the sanctions. Rob de Wijk stated, ‘‘We will smoke out the ’regime’.” He found it likely that the ruble would completely collapse, and hence destroy the Russian economy. Boekestijn went one step further. He praised that the Russians, as a result of the imposed sanctions, can no longer withdraw money from ATM machines. He continued, “when people get hungry, they will go out on the ’street’.” While the sanction seek to affect those in power, oligarchs, and the government itself, either of these two men did not seemed concerned about what their predictions would mean for the majority of people in Russia. On the contrary, they were impressed and fascinated by the sanctions, and almost jubilant about their possible effects.

The assumption, however, that hungry people will take to the streets to overthrow Putin is debatable. It ignores the fact that many Russians have already taken to the streets. In the early days of the war, an estimated 5,000 Russian civilians were arrested during widespread protests against the war. The effects of large-scale protests are also uncertain. Until now, we have never seen Putin care much about protests or act based on what people think.

The unsettling costs of sanctions: hurting the innocent and the most vulnerable

Provoking hunger is, unfortunately, a common weapon of war. Forcing the enemy to surrender through a siege that cuts off an area from food is a recurring theme in history. The creation myth of Carcassonne in France, in which Mrs. Carcass managed to deceive besiegers by throwing a well-fed pig over the city wall is just one of many examples. Emperor Charles V who besieged the castle did not realise it was the only pig left over in the desperately hungry city, and withdrew his troops when he concluded their siege was not successful. In the previous century, hunger has been used as a weapon of war in many conflicts — in China, Ethiopia, Biafra, Sudan, and so on. The Dutch hunger winter in the Second World War should not be missing from the long list as well, and nor should the so-called holodomor, in which Russia caused a dramatic famine in Ukraine in the 1930s, resulting in the death of more than 3 million people because of starvation.

Hunger often kills more civilians during wars than armed violence, and the long term effects of malnutrition are incalculable. The World Peace Foundation has listed 61 famines as part of conflicts that took place between 1870 and 2015. A conservative estimate of the number of victims came to 105 million deaths. To end hunger as a weapon of war, an international resolution was passed in 2018 condemning this. The resolution 2417 was an initiative of the Netherlands, and thanks to a great deal of diplomatic effort, it was adopted with unanimous support by the Security Council of the United Nations.

Making sanctions work without impacting civilians — is it possible? Sanctions are meant to end the invasion. Russia is targeting civilians with the bombing and seems to be rapidly accumulating war crimes. In the last 8 years, while war was ongoing in the separatist regions of Ukraine, humanitarian needs were immense. There were at least 850.000 people internally displaced, along with an acute need for socio-economic and psycho-social care. Aid providers shared with us about the difficulties they faced in the areas controlled by the Russian-backed separatists, ranging from concerns for the safety of aid providers to administrative hindrances (withholding permissions) in providing access. It will, therefore, be important to continue negotiating access to Ukraine, and enabling people to move freely in search for refuge, and most importantly seek an end to the invasion.

There is great optimism that the international solidarity and widely shared support for sanctions may facilitate the end of the war. It is inevitable that ordinary Russian civilians will bear some of the burden of the imposed sanctions. But we cannot let this become the goal. Instead, let us think about how to organise sanctions so that citizens are spared as much as possible, because the most vulnerable are, in every side of the conflict, the ones that usually pay the greatest costs.

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

About the authors:

Dorothea Hilhorst

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

Rodrigo Mena is Assistant Professor of Disasters and Humanitarian Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University.

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Rethinking Transactional Sex in Humanitarian Settings: Reflections for the way forward

Transactional Sex (TS) is often used as an umbrella term to encompass a wide range of practices ranging from sex work to sexual exploitation and abuse. TS is typically framed in humanitarian settings through reductive lenses that portray the person engaged in them as without agency, forced into “negative coping strategies” by a larger crisis. Academics and practitioners have challenged these dominant framings in the Transactional Sex in Humanitarian Contexts panel as part of the 6th International Humanitarian Studies Conference. The presentations highlighted both the complexity and the nuanced nature of TS in different contexts, and common trends spanning a broad spectrum of humanitarian and displacement settings, including Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), France, Greece, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Sudan, Switzerland, Syria, and Turkey. The panel offered a reflection of the ideologies and frameworks implicit in humanitarian operations, which can blind us to the diverse needs and strategies of those engaged in transactional sex.

Transactional sex in humanitarian contexts: contemporary paradigms and interpretations

Transactional sex is the exchange of sex for cash, goods, services, commodities, or privileges. It is often framed by humanitarians as a form of violence in and of itself. Characterised by victim/saviour relationships and rescue narratives, these problematic and essentialising representations can have real world implications on policy and programming, along with unintended, often negative impacts on the lives of those engaged in them. To further complicate matters, there is a lack of conceptual clarity, and standardised and consistent use of terminology, such that what many describe as “transactional sex” is commonly conflated and used interchangeably with survival sex, sexual exploitation and abuse, sex work or sex trafficking.

Transactional sexual relationships exist on a spectrum encompassing various states of consent, power, emotional attachment, economic compensation, and social acceptability. All panelists highlighted that the lived experiences of those engaged in transactional sex do not align well with these monolithic representations, and are rather shaped by numerous structural factors, relating to historical pathways of patriarchy, conflict conditions, and other social, economic, and individual factors that often intersect with intimate consensual relationships. There is growing recognition that interpretations of transactional sexual relationships are culturally determined and constructed, and that this work involves complex negotiation of strategies of agency. Transactional sex occurs against a backdrop of gendered social norms, which are constantly shifting, and may vary between and within countries and communities.

Limitations and challenges of the current discourse

This is not to say that transactional sex is necessarily a safe or desirable livelihood strategy. Transactional sexual relationships are shaped by various structural drivers and conditions that are often created by migration, and aid policies and politics, among other inherent power disparities that entail risks of gender-based violence, and negative impacts on sexual and reproductive health. However, it is crucial to recognise that individuals weigh such risks in relation to their own lives and define what safety and protection means for them. This is further shaped by other factors relating to sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, social and cultural factors, and disability, for example. Research and empirical insights from practitioners are increasingly challenging the erasures of non-heteronormative experiences of transactional sex and calling for more intersectional approaches in research and programming.

People engaging in transactional sex and civil society groups, including human rights defenders, health advocates, sex worker-led organisations, NGOs, and grassroots movements, have already provided rich empirical insights and recommendations across a wide-range contexts, which, however, have not been taken up meaningfully by the humanitarian community. For example, in the post-panel Q&A it was highlighted how the Women´s Refugee Commission (WRC) Working with Refugees Engaged in Sex Work: A Guidance Note for Humanitarians, issued in 2016, might have been overshadowed by the #Aidtoo movement in 2017, and how a moral panic seldom allows for nuance and complexity. Moreover, we may also need to recognise that not all those who engage in TS identify as sex workers, and humanitarian actors do not necessarily see TS as sex work, which may be why such guidance can be interpreted very narrowly.  More recently, UNHCR and UNFPA launched the operational guideline Responding to the health and protection needs of people selling or exchanging sex in humanitarian settings  (2021) which will hopefully provide a clearer framework going forward in this regard.

The way forward: Rethinking transactional sex policy and programmes.

It is crucial to examine whose knowledge, voice, and power drives policy – or lack of it – on issues around TS, and how people engaged in TS in humanitarian settings, including migrants and refugees, become problematised, supported, and intervened upon by institutions based on vulnerabilities associated with and/or biases regarding gender, sexual behaviour and orientation. It is worth reflecting on why some experiences are omitted or marginalised, and how conditions of vulnerabilities are created by these very same institutions.

Transactional sex will continue to be a coping strategy for many individuals who make complex decisions and tradeoffs in humanitarian and displacement settings. Sometimes it may be the least risky option compared to the available alternatives. Bringing in the perspectives from and lived experiences of people engaging in transactional sex offers a crucial step in understanding their lives, decision-making process, desires, needs, or wants, and understanding. This includes, for example, the structural conditions and policies imposed by governments and humanitarian institutions that drive people into this practice, as well as considerations about whether they want to continue to engage in transactional sex safely or find other strategies. Ensuring sustainable and inclusive programming, and refraining from causing harm by perpetuating stigma and exclusion, centres on this more holistic reimagining of the issue of transactional sex as a complex social phenomenon.

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

About the authors:

Clea Kahn has nearly 25 years of experience in the humanitarian sector in Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. She holds an LL.M. in international human rights law, an MSc in psychology, and is currently pursuing a doctorate in counselling psychology. Clea focuses on protection of civilians, gender-based violence and migration/refugee issues, and is a member of the ListenH project: Livelihoods and transactional sex in Humanitarian Crises. She can be contacted at

Michelle Alm Engvall is a cultural anthropologist with a specialty in sex work and humanitarian action. Her research focuses on how framed understandings of transactional sex influence policy and programming and how this can lead to unintended consequences for affected populations. She can be contacted at

Shirin Heidari is a senior researcher at the Global Health Centre, and research affiliate at the Gender Centre, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. She is the principal investigator of a multi-country multi-disciplinary research on transactional sex and health repercussions in forced displacement. She can be contacted at:

Megan Denise Smith is a humanitarian worker and gender-based violence specialist with ten years of experience working with migrants and refugees in Bangladesh, Egypt, Lebanon, Rwanda, and the UK. She is currently based in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) where she has managed IOM´s GBV programming as part of the Rohingya refugee response since 2017. She can be contacted at

Dorothea Hilhorst

Dorothea Hilhorst is professor of Humanitarian Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University. Her focus is on aid-society relations: studying how aid is embedded in the context. She coordinates the ListenH project: Livelihoods and transactional sex in Humanitarian Crises. Email: Twitter: @hilhorst_thea

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How Europe’s (anti-)migration policies are fuelling a humanitarian crisis

When some one million people crossed the Mediterranean in the course of 2015 to seek refuge, European countries called it a crisis. Yet the real crisis was created by European immigration and asylum policies and by the challenges they posed for aid providers. We discussed these issues at the  conference of the International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA) in August 2018 that was held at the ISS in The Hague. In this blog we highlight some of the key issues from our just-published conference special issue and show how the issues raised back then are still of concern today.  The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the violence experienced by people seeking safety in countries such as Italy, Greece, France, Belgium, Germany, Norway, and the UK.

Photo: European Commission DG ECHO. Available at:

Back in 2018, the humanitarian consequences of Europe’s migration policies were a key theme at the IHSA conference. We’ve just published some of the conference contributions in a special issue of International Migration entitled ‘Politics, humanitarianism and migration to Europe’. The issue seeks to unpack how European governments and the EU are creating a policy-induced humanitarian crisis, how this works in the micro-practices of migration politics, and what this means for humanitarian and political action. This blog article provides a brief overview of the key themes in the special issue.

Crisis-creating policy developments

In the issue, we observe many policy developments that are of humanitarian concern. European governments view migration as economically driven or as a threat to their national security. As such, migration has been criminalised for years. Policies such as strengthening border controls, the externalisation of borders, and a focus on smuggling and trafficking rather than on the causes of forced migration all result in humanitarian crisis. In addition, the EU or its member states (and the UK) have made agreements with Libya, Turkey, and Sudan to contain those seeking protection, which risks violating the human rights of those who flee. Support for Libyan coastguards or for Sudanese paramilitary border forces leaves migrants stuck in conflict- and crisis-ridden countries and/or in appalling conditions in migrant detention centres. The UK’s externalised border in France leaves those seeking asylum in the UK stuck in France without basic assistance and vulnerable to police violence. Border restrictions on the Italy-France border have a similar effect. And the closure of legal routes means migrants have to take more dangerous routes and use smugglers or traffickers. Preventing people from leaving or from coming to Europe amounts to a policy of letting die.

Micro-practices and the politics of exhaustion

Border restrictions, mass detention, and forced returns are complemented by a number of less visible deterrence tactics and strategies. The humanitarian crisis in Europe is characterised by these regimes of micro-practices, which include 1) migrants sleeping rough or in makeshift camps with little or no shelter, food and health care, 2) regular police violence, confiscation of possessions, and evictions, and 3) slow, confusing, and inconsistent asylum procedures. The latter make it difficult or undesirable to claim asylum. Migrants who are ‘illegalised’ in this way can be exposed to more violence and can be deported.

Combined with constant uncertainty, these regimes of micro-practices lead to a politics of exhaustion aimed at influencing people’s resolve to claim asylum or to make them leave. Camps and migrants stuck on borders in desperate conditions itself also acts as a deterrent and at the same time highlights action to defend national security for domestic audiences.  Another advantage is that regimes of less visible forms of violence make it difficult to identify intent or overtly illegal practices.

The restriction of humanitarian response and a shift to political action

In terms of humanitarian response, we identify a number of issues, including the criminalisation of assistance provision and the constraints faced by traditional organisations in Europe, as well as the rise in resistance and activism by newly created volunteer groups.

Here’s what been happening in the European countries covered in the special issue: In Italy, accusations by far-right organisations that NGOs are assisting in trafficking made it possible to develop legislation against the docking of ships carrying migrants and to restrict their protection once they have reached land. In Calais, France, local authorities have repeatedly tried to restrict assistance to refugees. In both the Italy and the France cases, providing assistance is deemed illegal and showing solidarity with refugees has become a crime. Examples can be found in many other European countries. As a result, new volunteer groups quickly became politically engaged – not only through assistance as a political act, but also by providing legal assistance, preventing police raids (for example in Belgium), gathering information, and lobbying politicians.

The politicisation of humanitarian action has complicated the role of more established organisations, who are bound by principles of neutrality and impartiality. In Germany, for example, room for manoeuvre for traditional state and non-state actors was legally restricted, but different political narratives enabled some flexibility. In Norway, some volunteer groups shifted to political action and others found ways of working with more established organisations. The greatest frictions between established agencies and volunteer activist groups are often found in humanitarian advocacy. An examination of the activities of these groups in Greece, Turkey and Libya, however, shows that complementarity between negotiating and confrontational strategies is required.

More unwelcome than ever

In the Europe we are living in today, security and political concerns continue to override obligations to respect human rights and to address humanitarian concerns. Crises among migrants and asylum seekers in Europe continue to unfold as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, Brexit, and the new EU Migration and Asylum pact. Covid-19 is by now known to have a disproportionate impact on displaced people. Even in Europe, many migrants live in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, in informal camps, on the streets, or in detention and asylum centres where the health risks are acute and conditions abysmal.  But besides the exacerbation of the appalling living conditions a number of other pandemic-related measures make the current asylum procedure more alienating than ever. These include:

Can the trend be reversed? We hope so. As Europe’s humanitarian crisis continues and worsens, the political nature of humanitarian action is becoming ever more apparent. It will require a concerted effort by all concerned actors to monitor, research, advocate, and resist crisis-inducing policies, and to demand that states uphold international human rights and humanitarian laws.

Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.

About the authors:

Dr Susanne Jaspars is an independent researcher and a Research Associate at SOAS, University of London.  She has researched the social and political dynamics of famine, conflict and humanitarian crises for over thirty years, focussing particularly on issues of food security, livelihoods, and forced migration.

Dorothea HilhorstDorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam.

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When the storm subsides: what happened to grassroots initiatives assisting refugees?

Back in 2015, cardboard placards bearing the words ‘Refugees Welcome’ that were shown in public spaces became an important way for ordinary European citizens to demonstrate solidarity with refugees and other migrants arriving en masse in Europe at the time. Citizen-led initiatives staffed by volunteers mushroomed, providing crucial assistance to refugees when humanitarian organisations were surprised and overwhelmed. But has something changed over the years as the amount of refugees entering Europe became smaller? What happened to these smaller grassroots initiatives as state and professional humanitarian actors gradually took over?

The arrival of migrants to Europe during the summer of 2015 and in the succeeding months saw massive political attention and media coverage at the time due to the sheer scale of the influx. Also remarkable was the widespread mobilisation of volunteers who helped refugees during and after their arduous journeys. Besides those initiatives led by civil society networks, many of the volunteers were ordinary citizens who had never or rarely been involved in volunteer initiatives before. They mobilised across Europe to provide basic assistance to refugees traversing Europe in a number of ways, for example in the form of food, shelter, clothes, access to Wi-Fi, and access to electrical outlets for charging mobile phones.

As the number of people wanting to help grew rapidly, it became necessary to organise volunteers and create structures. And so a flurry of new organisations arose in 2015 in Greece, the north of France around Calais, as well as in Paris – and basically in most of the European countries receiving an increased number of refugees between 2015 and 2016. Yet, as government policies on migration became increasingly strict and as fewer refugees arrived – at least to other European countries than Greece, where those who’ve made it there have mostly been stuck – what has become of these initiatives?

Following two of the main Norwegian volunteer initiatives created in 2015 can give us an insight into different paths some of these organisations have taken. Refugees Welcome Norway (RWN) and A Drop in the Ocean (Dråpen i Havet – DiH ) are two initiatives who took quite different paths, with one assisting refugees arriving in Norway and the other one organising volunteers to go help in Greece. Refugees Welcome Norway became the umbrella organisation for most of the spontaneous volunteer efforts that popped up, first in Oslo, and then across several other cities in Norway. It took its name from other similar organisations that were being formed in Germany and most other European countries at the time.

A Drop in the Ocean was created by a Norwegian woman with personal connections to Greece and who had jumped on the first possible plane to Athens in late August 2015 after having grown increasingly frustrated following radio debates on exactly what number of refugees Norway might take in. She saw many others wanting to follow suit. The initiative quickly started attracting many more volunteers, first from Norway, and then from a range of other countries as well, who wanted to go to Greece and “do something” to help the refugees arriving there. Over the years, it has become a rather well-respected NGO among those organisations doing humanitarian work on the Greek mainland and islands.

Fewer refugees arriving and other actors taking over

The context in which the two initiatives emerged changed over the next year – albeit in different ways. In Norway, fewer refugees arrived from 2016 onwards, primarily due to reinforced border controls, the returning of asylum seekers to Russia (who had crossed over to Norway at its northern border with Russia), and increased restrictions on family reunification. While RWN for a couple of weeks in August and September 2015 was busy providing basic assistance to those waiting in front of the police registration office, itself unprepared for these new arrivals, a new reception and registration office established by the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration by mid-October meant that immediate assistance became the responsibility of the state in collaboration with the Norwegian Red Cross.

In Greece, the situation changed in a different way: fewer refugees and other migrants arrived from March 2016 onwards following the entering into force of the EU-Turkey agreement – yet some boats still arrived in varying numbers in the subsequent years. More importantly, Greece’s border to Europe was sealed off, and those having arrived on the islands were prevented from moving further. For the volunteers in place, the work shifted from reception on the beaches to working in the various ‘camps’ that had been established on the islands. While many more established humanitarian organisations by then had set up their own operations, DiH felt its support was still needed.

Two paths: a preparedness structure in case of a “next refugee crisis” and a professionalising humanitarian organisation

The two organisations developed in different ways over the years, both adapting to changing needs, as well as to varying levels of volunteer ‘supply’, yet both continuing to be characterised by volunteering, either as a political force for change or as individuals contributing to benevolent acts at different levels. As fewer migrants actually reached Norway, the then-leaders of RWN shifted their attention to political lobbying – notably against the government’s forced returns of migrants to Russia. Others involved in RWN in 2015 and 2016 in the meantime launched other local initiatives, which can be read as direct spin-offs from the activities of RWN in the early days: from neighbourhood integration projects (offering the possibility to act as contact points for newly arrived refugees in volunteers’ neighbourhoods) to a second-hand shop handing out clothes to those in need. Several key leaders of RWN also drew on the structure that had been established earlier, with local chapters emerging in multiple cities and common systems made ready to organise, recruit, and deploy volunteers should the number refugees and other migrants rise again.

DiH developed in a different way: it sought to develop itself into a professional humanitarian organisation, all the while not replicating the undesirable sides of the sector. The organisation in many ways sees itself as a reaction to these, i.e. to the formalised structures and bureaucracy plaguing professional humanitarian organisations. When I visited their facilities on the outskirts of Athens a few years ago, they would stress how DiH volunteers were directly interacting with the refugees, getting to know them, as opposed to officials of international organisations who were too busy with paperwork inside their bunker offices. DiH has also become more involved in political lobbying in recent years, in particular towards the Norwegian government and decision-makers, for example by organising awareness campaigns to draw attention to the dire conditions of refugees in the Moria camp and other similar places, or by pressuring Norway to accept more refugees from Greece.

What both organisations have had in common is a strong emphasis on their origins as “popular movements”, based on a multitude of spontaneous desires to “do something” to help out. While formalising their structures, professionalising and adapting to changing needs, they continue to stress that it “should be easy to help”. Both of them have also over these years developed new volunteer recruitment strategies designed precisely to continue to “make it easy”, and to attract new volunteers when these were no longer coming in in large numbers.

Challenging humanitarian practices?

These benevolent acts can be understood both as emerging out of a desire or “need” to help fellow human beings in vulnerable situations (as such identifying primarily as humanitarian acts), as well as acts meant to protest against the non-action or insufficient response by the state and professional humanitarian organisations (as such self-defining as part of a broader social or political movement). Many initiatives started as the former, and evolved into the latter – with many of these volunteers arguing about the impossibility of remaining neutral and apolitical in the face of the injustices lived by the migrants. The intersection between humanitarian needs and protection needs, as well acts of helping out amidst state-led efforts to keep migrants away, makes this an interesting microcosm – also to study what is required for humanitarian aid to be precisely that – a humanitarianism based on humanity and impartiality. While most of the volunteer-based responses to the situation arising in 2015 have evolved into socially and politically engaged initiatives and have defined their actions as “humanitarian” to varying degrees, they nevertheless continue to challenge how humanitarian responses should be understood and practiced in highly politicised contexts.

This blog post is based on an article titled ‘Making It “Easy to Help”: The Evolution of Norwegian Volunteer Initiatives for Refugees’ that was published in International Migration. The article can be accessed freely here.

Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.

About the author:

Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert is a Senior Researcher and Research Director at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), and co-Director of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies (NCHS). She holds a PhD in International Relations and Political Science from the Institut d’Etudes Politiques (SciencesPo) in Paris. Maria’s research focuses on humanitarian and security interfaces in the European borderlands, and how they mutually influence each other: from European migration and border management policies to humanitarian responses to the reception crises in countries like Greece, France and Norway. She has also worked extensively on the role of border surveillance technologies and Search and rescue efforts at sea.

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The EU’s new pact on migration: what’s next after all the shock, sadness, and solidarity talk?

Several shocking events that transpired in Greece last year have not been met by truly humane solutions, showing that the performative moments of ‘refugee crises’ are not enough to move EU leaders into adopting a different approach toward refugees. The EU’s long-awaited New Pact on Migration and Asylum is supposed to change how refugees are treated, but with the European Commission set to promote ‘a European way of life’ through the pact, harsh practices are bound to continue, writes Zeynep Kaşlı.

It has been almost half a year since the catastrophic fire razed the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos in September last year, leaving around 13,000 residents without shelter in the midst of a COVID-19 lockdown. Some were immediately relocated to mainland Greece; however, over 7,000 refugees had no choice but to move to another makeshift camp, awaiting the processing of their asylum applications through ‘accelerated’ procedures. In this context, the question arises: will the EU change its approach toward refugees by introducing the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, and will anything change this year for refugees themselves?

A worrying development that almost went unnoticed

In March last year, at the time when the first COVID-19 cases appeared in most countries across the globe, Greek and EU authorities had to take immediate action at the Greek-Turkish land border when Turkish authorities announced they would not stop passage to Europe and allowed thousands of refugees to pass the Turkish side of the Kastanies-Karaağaç Border Gate in Edirne. In response, the Greek government suspended the submission of asylum applications for one month, and the European border and coastguard agency Frontex deployed 100 additional border guards from 22 EU member states to halt the influx of refugees. Their ardent resistance to forced migration ended with the killing of refugee Muhammad Gulzar, leaving others wounded. Many thousands of other refugees who could not enter Greece were left with no place to go, stuck in limbo between fleeing and surviving.

What do these events tell us about the EU border and migration regime? Do they have any transformative role to play in EU-level policy making, and, if so, what is that role?

The news of these rather shocking and extraordinary events quickly spread across Europe, evoking strong emotions and triggering actions, from deep empathy to suspicion of the intentions of displaced people waiting at the borders. Under these circumstances, the long-awaited New Pact on Migration and Asylum was launched by the European Commission on September 23, 2020 as a “fresh start on migration: building confidence through more effective procedures and striking a new balance between responsibility and solidarity.”

The initial assessment by civil society organizations of the legislative and non-legislative proposals clearly show that the New Pact is considered far from a novel approach in terms of the guarantees put in place for compliance with international and EU legal standards, in promoting the fairer sharing of responsibility for asylum in Europe and globally, or in terms of the kind of migration management practices it is likely to accelerate. These include ‘return sponsorship’ and the increasing use of detention, as well as the restriction and criminalization of all sorts of humanitarian activities.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned ‘shocking’ events are about to become (from a European gaze) an intermezzo of what van Reekum calls a routinized emergency visualized through images of migration by boat. I agree with van Reekum that as manifested in ongoing rescue operations in the Aegean Sea, emergencies gain a routine character due to the unresolved ethical questions that the New Pact seems to be far from solving.

Really ‘shocking’, or history repeating itself?

The events at the Greek-Turkish land border were not new. We witnessed a similar ‘shock’ back in mid-September 2015 when over 3,000 people marched to the Turkish border province of Edirne asking for safe passage to Europe. At that time, they were forcefully stopped a few kilometers before the Kastanies-Karaağaç Border Gate and were allowed to wait until the EU heads of state had an informal meeting on September 23 to discuss the implementation of the European Agenda on Migration and how to increase collaboration with third countries like Turkey to alleviate the migratory pressure on the EU’s frontline member states. Just like in 2020, they were put in buses and transferred to other Turkish cities, while quite a number of them were detained and forcefully expelled to Syria without due procedure.

Hence, what we can call the first intermezzo in 2015 led to the EU-Turkey Statement aiming for a fast-track return of the rejected asylum seekers from Greece to Turkey as a “safe third country.” Five years after this first intermezzo, we can confidently say that the EU’s hotspot approach combined with the EU-Turkey Statement proved to be a highly ineffective policy at best, demonstrated by the low number of returns under the deal, the declaration of the suspension of the deal by the Turkish government, and the order of the Court of Justice of the European Union questioning the authorship and responsibility of the deal.

The second intermezzo in 2020 coinciding with the launch of the long-awaited New Pact further revealed two things. First, the EU has become more dependent on the willingness of its neighbours near and far to continue hosting millions of displaced people. Second, the only action plan the EU and its member states are able to come up with is greater militarization at the border and fewer rights for thousands of people who have already survived different forms of violence throughout their journey to and in Turkey and are in search for a life with dignity and peace.

Going back to the question posed above, the performative moments of the crises seem to play only a reproductive, rather than a transformative, role in shaping the EU-level migration and asylum policy. While the violent encounters at the land border further strengthen what van Houtum and Bueno Lacy call the ‘iron borders’ of fortress Europe, the burning down of camps such as Moria and ‘compassion fatigue’ in the Greek islands are the epitome of the ‘camp border’ within Europe that basically brings home the EU’s decades-old externalization policy. Seen from this perspective, the extraordinary events we witness at the land borders, hotspots and camps described above are only a byproduct what Jeandesboz and Pallister-Wilkins also call part of the routine work of bordering to order politics.

This routine work of bordering already became crystal clear in the discussions on the title of Commissioner-Designate Schinas’ portfolio on migration, security, employment and education. Even though the portfolio title was soon changed from ‘Protection’ to the ‘Promotion of the European Way of Life’ due to sharp criticism, even the changed title remains symbolic of the failure of the EU to transform its refugee policy. This is particularly visible in its reference to a singular European way of life that is to be promoted across Europe. While the EU means different things to different sides of the European public, from the populist right to the green left, it remains a union of free mobility for the lucky few, whereas it has also become a deportation union for many.

As the relatively shocking news from Greece has slowly turned into an intermezzo of routinized emergency, in the face of allegations against the EU agency Frontex, a deeper discussion is necessary on what a ‘European way of life’ entails in the face of EU member states’ responsibility for displaced people arriving at their borders or in the neighbourhood of Europe.

About the author:

Zeynep Kaşlı is Assistant Professor in Migration and Development at ISS, affiliated with the Governance, Law and Social Justice Research Group. Her research interests include mobility, citizenship, borders, transnationalism, power and sovereignty with regional expertise in Turkey, Middle East and Europe.

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Are CSOs really involved in the SDGs, as promised by the international community?

CSOs are recognized as key partners in the collaborative pursuit of the SDGs, which provide a positive framework for action and dialogue. However, a recent study found that those CSOs who manage to become and remain engaged are mainly part of the aid system and operate in urban locations. Does the inclusion of these powerful CSOs mean that civil society is included in the pursuit of the SDGs, or is the opposite the case?

Task Team SDGs Header

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes that the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can only be made possible by strong global partnerships and cooperation. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) are recognized as key partners in the successful implementation and monitoring of the SDGs.

In the face of this increasingly urgent global agenda, the Task Team on CSO Development Effectiveness and Enabling Environment (Task Team) commissioned a research study focused on the identification of ‘factors that help and hinder the engagement of CSOs in the implementation of the SDGs’. The study was undertaken by the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) under the leadership of ISS scholars Kees Biekart and Alan Fowler. Key findings discussed here are derived from the Synthesis Report, summarizing evidence from 21 case studies in six countries: Costa Rica, Ghana, Hungary, Lao PDR, Nepal, and Tanzania.

Enabling environments required

Advancing the role of civil society in development requires two things: an enabling environment for CSOs operation and CSOs’ commitment to their own effectiveness. CSO enabling environment refers to an environment that supports the establishment and operation of CSOs, including multi-stakeholder dialogues, legal frameworks, as well as policies and actions of donors and governments towards CSOs. CSO development effectiveness is concerned with what CSOs themselves can do to address their effectiveness, transparency and accountability in order to effectively engage in development.

The crowding out of non-dominant CSOs

Unfortunately, one of the main findings in this study is that there is a lack of diversity of types of CSOs engaged in SDG processes, with those CSOs that are part of the aid system and in an urban location at an advantage: “This six-country study sees not only an urban bias in CSOs pursuing the SDGs, but also an intellectual class bias that is globally connected,” the study shows (Biekart, Fowler 2020).

This finding is confirmed by the 2018 Global Partnership Monitoring Round of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation (GPEDC) as well as the OECD publication ‘Development Assistance Committee Members and Civil Society’ published this year. During the GPEDC 2018 Monitoring Round, CSOs reported that “…these consultations are not systematic, which hinders their ability to provide quality input. Results indicate that these engagement opportunities by both partner country governments and development partners could be more regular, predictable and involve a more diverse set of actors” (GPEDC 2019). Similarly, the OECD study concluded that “systematic dialogue with CSOs is much more common at headquarters level than at partner country level. Dialogue does not necessarily meet good practice standards such as inclusivity, joint agenda setting, co-ordination among members, accessibility and timelines” (OECD 2020).

From this study, it becomes clear that there is a wide array of local, traditional and/or informal civil society being ignored. CSOs’ SDG-related knowledge is diminishing at local, rural areas, which also means that those CSOs’ skills, interests and areas of influence are not being used as powerful resources towards the realization of the SDGs.

Possible explanations

The lack of diversity of CSOs engagement in the SDGs is explained by the fact that governments play a main role in deciding which CSOs to include or exclude in such dialogues. It can also be explained by the finding that the SDGs have not led to any significant change in the way donors within the official aid system support CSOs. There is no significant increase in coordination like a common SDG funding pot or an effective national platform for donors’ dialogue with CSOs. Traditional competitive bidding and short-term support to CSOs remain the norm. Donors’ support continues to benefit large (inter)national urban located CSOs. The OECD 2020 report confirms this finding by concluding that most of member funding favours member countriy and international CSOs.

Donors may need to consider different funding mechanisms and requirements, which can be met by those CSOs that have less experience with and access to international funding. This is an opportunity for donors to encourage cooperation between CSOs and provide capacity development support, which can improve CSOs’ chances of being included in development processes in the future.

A step backward?

Governments are generally interested in the additional resources that CSOs bring to the table, but with narrower rules that limit their autonomy as independent development actors. The study shows a variety of mechanisms used by governments to constrain civic space, like limiting information access, selective CSO inclusion/exclusion, and stringent laws inducing self-censorship. It is important to stress that this study found that the implementation of the SDGs does not by itself lead to an ‘opening’ of civic space. The GPEDC 2018 monitoring round also confirmed that the enabling environment for civil society organizations is deteriorating. CSOs’ engagement in pursuing the SDGs provides insights into whether or not civic freedoms are respected, but it does not necessarily mean that a country is complying with international civic freedom agreements.

The need for continued engagement

All these findings demonstrate clear non-compliance with existing international commitments to ensure that CSO contributions to development reach their full potential. The work of the Task Team is, therefore, pertinent and urgent: bringing together donors, partner country governments, and CSOs to engage in open and inclusive dialogue to find common ground; recognizing the role of civil society as a shared responsibility; and helping implement the SDGs.

About the author:

Vanessa de OliveiraVanessa de Oliveira is a Senior Policy Officer at the Task Team Secretariat. The Task Team Secretariat is hosted by ISS.

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Fighting racism and decolonizing humanitarian studies: toward mindful scholarship

Addressing racism and decolonizing humanitarian studies is urgent, and as scholars we need to step up our efforts. Partnerships between scholars and conflict-affected communities are as unequal as ever, and the disparities between humanitarian studies in the global North and global South remain large. Dorothea Hilhorst here introduces the importance of localization in humanitarian studies that will be discussed in an upcoming workshop on 20 August, highlighting the need for equal partnerships and meaningful participation, as well as continuous debate to move beyond quick fixes in addressing structural and persistent inequalities.

Scholars taking notes during a lecture
Credit: IHSA

Triggered by recent renewed attention to racism and worldwide protests urging change, the lid placed on racism in the humanitarian aid sector has been blown off. Last year’s international meeting of ALNAP concluded that inequality and discrimination in the humanitarian aid sector are a reality, and threatens its core foundation, namely the principle of humanity that views all people in equal terms. Recent weeks have seen many excellent blogs about racism in the sector and how resorting to arguments centring on capacities often obscure racist practices.

Yet racism in humanitarian studies is rarely mentioned. As scholars, we are ready to lay bare the fault lines in the humanitarian sector, but what about our own practices? It is time to address racism and decolonize humanitarian studies, too!

Turning our gaze inward

Anthony Giddens spoke of the double hermeneutic between social science and society, which co-shape each other’s understanding of the world and adopt each other’s vocabulary. In the relatively small and applied community of humanitarian studies, the double hermeneutic between academia and the field is more than discursive. Humanitarian studies can be seen to mimic many of the characteristics of its subject of research. Problems with humanitarian action are thus likely reproduced in the scholarly community that focuses on humanitarianism.

Racism-related problems with humanitarian studies can be grouped in two clusters:

First, the organization of humanitarian studies leads to a field dominated by scholars from the Global North. While scholars critically follow attempts of the sector to localize aid in an attempt to reduce racism through increasing ownership of aid processes, humanitarian studies itself may be criticized for being centred in the Global North. Adjacent domains of disaster studies and refugee studies[i] have faced similar critiques.

Research and educational institutes are mainly found in the global North, and rarely in the Global South where most humanitarian crises occur. The picture is less skewed with regards to disasters related to natural hazards, where we find many leading institutes in the Global South. However, faculties and courses dealing with humanitarianism in the Global South are scarce (see the global directory of the International Humanitarian Studies Associations for exceptions). Reasons include the dire lack of attention to higher education in donor programmes focusing on conflict-affected countries, making it almost impossible to find funding for such programmes[ii]. In 2016, at the World Humanitarian Summit, participants drafted a set of ethical commitments called for, among other things, more space for scholars and communities from crisis-affected countries (IHSA, 2016). Three years later, signatories admitted to a lack of progress which they largely attributed to structural disincentives for collaboration in their universities.

Moreover, relations between northern and southern institutions rarely attain the nature of equal partnership[iii]. The best many southern universities can usually hope for is to become a poorly paid partner that has no say in the agenda of the research and whose role is limited to data gathering. The possibility of co-authoring may not even be mentioned. I have followed closely how a gender and development institute in DRC, built around four women PhD holders, could easily find work as a sub-contractor for research, but once they developed their own agenda and proposals, donors were not interested and preferred to rely on Northern NGOs or UN agencies.

The picture becomes even direr when we take into account ethics dumping, when risks are offloaded on local researchers. Many universities in the north have adopted restrictive measures and don’t allow researchers to work in ‘red zones’. These researchers then rely on remote research and use local researchers to collect the data. One scholar told me at a conference how frustrated he was that his university did not allow him to enter a conflict area. He took residence at the border where he could regularly meet his research assistants, who gathered his data at their own risk. His frustration concerned his own impossibility to engage with the research, not the fate of these assistants! He had not considered involving the researchers in the analysis or inviting them as co-authors.

Second, methodologies and the ethics of relating to the research participants whose lives we study are problematic. Humanitarian studies is seen to be extractive, blighted by 1) a culture of direct data gathering through fieldwork and interviews at the expense of secondary data, leading to overly bothering crisis-affected communities with research; 2) a lack of feedback opportunities to communities, who see researchers come and go to obtain data and rarely, if ever, hear from them again; and 3) the assumption that participatory methods are not possible in conflict-affected areas because it is feared that social tensions will be reproduced in the research process. It is also assumed that people facing precarity and risks may have no interest in deep participation in research.

Deep participation does not mean quick and dirty participation in data gathering, such as participation in focus-group discussions where researchers can quickly move in and out of the lives of communities. Meaningful interactive research involves partners and participants as much as possible in every stage of the research[iv]. There have, however, been positive examples of participatory research in crisis-affected areas[v], and it is time that we build on these experiences and advance this work.

Thus, racism and decolonization debates have implications for methodology. Pailey critically noted that ‘the problem with the 21st-century “scholarly decolonial turn” is that it remains largely detached from the day-to-day dilemmas of people in formerly colonised spaces and places’. Similarly, Tilley[vi] argued that decolonization means ‘doing research differently’ – equally and collaboratively.

Of course, there are also reasons for caution with participatory methods that may be more pronounced in humanitarian crises. First, social realities are, in many ways, influenced by (governance) processes happening elsewhere, beyond immediate observation. Second, participatory methods may be prone to identifying outcomes that reflect the biases of the research facilitators (facipulator effects) and/or political elites participating in the process. Third, participatory processes risk feeding into existing tensions and creating harm. Research in crisis-affected areas may entail more risks and tends to be more politicized compared with other research.

It is therefore important to build on positive experiences while maintaining a critical dialogue on the possibilities of participatory research in humanitarian studies. As scholars, we need to work hard to break down the disincentives, to work towards equal partnerships, and to develop more participatory methodologies that treat conflict-affected communities as competent and reflexive agents that can participate in all aspects of the research process.

The environments of humanitarian studies are highly politicized and complex, and there are no quick fixes for our collaborations and methodologies. Thus, while stepping up our efforts, we also need to rely on the core of the academe: continuous debate and critically reflection on how we can enhance partnership for ethical research in humanitarian studies.

Inspired? Join the IHSA/NCSH webinar on Thursday 20 August, 11-12 CET.

This blog was written at the start of a 5-year research programme on humanitarian governance, aiming to decolonize humanitarian studies. The project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, project 884139.

[i] Sukarieh, M., & Tannock, S. (2019). Subcontracting Academia: Alienation, Exploitation and Disillusionment in the UK Overseas Syrian Refugee Research Industry. Antipode, 51(2), 664–680.

[ii] In 2016, at the World Humanitarian Summit, participants drafted a set of ethical commitments that called for, among other things, more space for scholars and communities from crisis-affected countries (IHSA, 2016). Three years later, signatories admitted to a lack of progress, which they largely attributed to structural disincentives for collaboration in their universities.

[iii] Cronin-Furman, K., & Lake, M. (2018). Ethics Abroad: Fieldwork in Fragile and Violent Contexts. PS – Political Science and Politics, 51(3), 607–614.

[iv] Voorst, R. van and D. Hilhorst (2018) ‘Key Points of Interactive Research: An Ethnographic Approach to Risk’. In A. Olofsson and Jens O. Zinn Researching Risk and Uncertainty. Methodologies, Methods and Research Strategies. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, pp 53-77

[v] Haar, G. van der, Heijmans, A., & Hilhorst, D. (2013). Interactive research and the construction of knowledge in conflict-affected settings. Disasters, 37(SUPPL.1), 20–35.

[vi] Tilley, L. (2017). Resisting Piratic Method by Doing Research Otherwise. Sociology, 51(1), 27–42.

About the author:

Dorothea HilhorstDorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is a regular author for Bliss. Read all her posts here.

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Covid-19 | Gender and ICTs in fragile refugee settings: from local coordination to vital protection and support during the Covid-19 pandemic

ICTs are changing how marginalized communities connect with each other, including those in fragile refugee settings, where ICTs have been used to share information and organize in collective enterprise. This year, during the Covid-19 pandemic, WhatsApp has taken on a critical health function. Holly Ritchie here discusses how Somali women refugees are using this platform particularly in this challenging time and discusses the evolving role of ICTs in refugee self-reliance.

Somali women Nairobi
Somali refugee women in the turbulent but well-known economic hub of Eastleigh in Nairobi, Kenya. Credit: Holly Ritchie.

ICTs as fundamental ‘frugal’ innovations, and growing use during the pandemic

Information Communication Technology (ICTs), for example mobile devices and applications, are arguably the dominant technology of our time. From a consumer perspective, ICTs may be considered a form of ‘frugal’ innovation, as they present innovative, low-cost solutions to everyday problems that are flexible and accessible for users with limited resources. If used effectively, ICTs have been cited to be a major ‘game changer’ in human development, driving progress in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and fostering potential gender equality and empowerment.

Beyond basic connectivity, there is increasing use of mobile technology in humanitarian assistance, for example enabling cash transfers through mobile money, and facilitating access to basic utilities including energy, water and sanitation. During the current Covid-19 pandemic, governments and agencies in Africa have started to draw on mobile phone apps for public information and support, for example the establishment of WhatsApp chatbot servicesYet there has been little discussion on the use of such technologies by vulnerable groups themselves that may present both simple and socially embedded frugal solutions which can be employed during the health crisis and beyond.

Insights into Somali women refugees and ICTs in Kenya

My research with Somali refugees (in Kenya) and Syrian women refugees (in Jordan) has explored gender and the influence of social norms in refugee livelihoods.1 More recently, I have looked at the grassroots use of ICTs by refugees, and links to cultural dynamics in refugee inclusion and integration. On the back of these studies, in 2018, I started a small self-funded project to promote the well-being and leadership skills of a group of 25 Somali refugee women2 in the turbulent but well-known economic hub of Eastleigh in Nairobi, Kenya.3 As a trial in digital communication, in the early stages of the project I set up a WhatsApp group to facilitate coordination, despite limited smartphone ownership amongst the refugee women.4 It emerged that it was eventually possible to reach all of the women in the group however through either children’s or neighbours’ devices. And whilst the women were largely illiterate, women used voice messages and pictures to communicate on the platform.

Initially conceived as a means of simple coordination, the WhatsApp group soon took on a new social dimension with some women sharing inspirational Islamic messages during special days. Later as the women began a small tie-dye business, progress and designs started to be shared on the platform. The experience of the online group has permitted both a renewed sense of personal confidence and connection in a hostile setting, and the development of new collective agency and economic coordination. At a deeper level, for women that have direct access to smart phones, the technology enables new forms of cultural solidarity between the women, reinforcing identities through sharing of religious messages.

Refugee ICT experience during the pandemic – from health to livelihoods

This year, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the platform has taken on a critical health function, as vital health information, advice, and government directives are shared with the refugee group in English and Somali.5 This is further shared by the refugee women themselves with close family and friends, indicating the importance of refugee-own networks during a crisis. 
Beyond health information, the group has also provided a forum for situational updates and social support, as Eastleigh has faced rising levels of Covid-19 cases, and there have been increasing reports of police violence as malls have been forcibly closed and street trading prohibited. Working primarily as petty traders, the lockdown in Eastleigh has had a significant impact on the refugee women’s (safe) daily work and wages, and households are struggling to make ends meet. Whilst this remains an extraordinarily difficult time, the combined experience of digital communication and physical restrictions has accelerated refugee women’s interest in online business and marketing of their new textile products, particularly by younger group members.

Emerging lessons learnt – the evolving role of ICTs in refugee self-reliance

The refugee WhatsApp group has illuminated various ways that ICTs can boost refugee women’s self-reliance and resilience:

  • Simple ICT tools can be useful in local digital communication, including reaching poor and illiterate refugee groups (through voice messages/pictures)
  • ICT tools can permit vital social solidarity and economic coordination and online marketing
  • ICT tools can also facilitate the sharing of public health and security information, and the countering of fake/false news that is often distributed via social media or ‘on the streets’

In this fast-moving digital world, it is clear that ICTs are playing an increasingly important role in refugee socio-economic lives, although actual usage and adoption may vary at a local level, with differing levels of connectivity, support and access.6 Notably, ICTs can also be misused at a local level, with apps being employed to instigate unrest or violence. Further, there may be additional access barriers in refugee settings with clampdowns on connectivity imposed by local authorities.

Despite such challenges, in times of crisis, it is crucial for policy makers and aid agencies to recognize and draw on locally established ICT platforms and community groups to facilitate critical information dissemination, and local exchange and support. Over time, to better appreciate ICTs and gender in fragile contexts, aid groups should consider both physical access to mobile devices, but also links to social norms, cultural ideas (and ideology) and the role of local actors. This will permit a more nuanced understanding of the evolving role of ICTs in refugee women’s empowerment, social protection, and broader integration.

1. Ritchie, H.A. (2018a). Gender and enterprise in fragile refugee settings: female empowerment amidst male emasculation—a challenge to local integration? Disasters, 42(S1), S40−S60.
2. With outreach of up to 100 refugee women.
3. Due to its high presence of Somali traders and concentration of Somali refugees, the district is also known as ‘Little Mogadishu’.
4. An estimated 40 percent of the refugee women had smartphones.
5. For example, health advice from the Ministry of Health in Somalia.
6. Ritchie, H.A. (forthcoming) ‘ICTs as frugal innovations: Enabling new pathways towards refugee self-reliance and resilience in fragile contexts?’ in Saradindu Bhaduri, Peter Knorringa, Andre Leliveld Cees van Beers, Handbook on Frugal Innovations and the Sustainable Development Goals. Edward Elgar Publishers.

This article was originally published by the Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa (CFIA) and has been reposted with permission of the author.

About the author:

Holly A Ritchie is a post-doc Research Fellow at the ISS and a CFIA Research Affiliate.