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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. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1049096518000379

[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. https://doi.org/10.1111/disa.12010

[vi] Tilley, L. (2017). Resisting Piratic Method by Doing Research Otherwise. Sociology, 51(1), 27–42. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038038516656992

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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The COVID-19 pandemic provides the perfect opportunity to investigate and quash corruption in the UN’s aid agencies by Avagay Simpson

More than 100 million people across the world living in war zones and other emergency settings are dependent on humanitarian assistance facilitated by the UN. These populations are likely to be profoundly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and require support now more than ever. The UN that in recent years has been fraught with corruption incidents and has witnessed the siphoning of humanitarian aid funds by aid workers now faces two choices. It can either fail to adequately monitor aid allocated to the fight against the pandemic that can allow corrupt practices to continue, or it can seize the opportunity the crisis presents to boldly fight corruption by reviewing and rethinking its aid allocation practices.


In 2018, ten years after Haiti’s devastating earthquake, I wrote a blog article here asking where the money allocated to humanitarian aid in Haiti had disappeared to. This article raised questions about the accountability of aid workers and the lack of transparency in international aid. Fast-forward to today and these questions are even more potent. An undercover investigation by the CNN revealed that dozens of areas in war-torn Yemen were receiving aid on paper but, in reality, war victims were not being helped. It also highlighted that the UN in 2018 found that 1% of aid allocated globally was going missing.

On 5 August 2019, AP in an article titled ‘UN probes corruption in its own agencies in Yemen aid effort’ reported that a WHO worker had tipped off Houthi rebels about ongoing investigations of the UN’s aid in Yemen for fear that her theft of humanitarian funds would be exposed. This resulted in the Houthi rebels confiscating computers with critical information before investigators could board a flight to Yemen.

Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world and has been going through a civil war since 2015. This civil war has been named the worst humanitarian crisis of our time: “more than 3.3 million people have been displaced; and 80% of the population need assistance and protection, including 10 million now reliant on food aid.”[1] Despite Yemen’s situation having been labelled the worst humanitarian crisis at present, the UN, whose mandate it is to solve international humanitarian crises, is failing to help the Yemeni people. This case illustrates that some UN representatives have strayed from the core mandate of the organisation and have instead opted for rent-seeking activities pursued in their own interest. It is alleged that billions of dollars were deposited in the personal accounts of UN staff in Yemen with suspicious contracts with monies not reaching the Yemeni people. How is this possible?

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) of the UN Secretariat is responsible for coordinating responses to emergencies and is supposed to manage, monitor, and deliver effective aid. But how robust are these monitoring systems? What mechanisms have been put in place by the UN to safeguard the transfer of money to the field, particularly to emergency zones?

Over the years, the UN has taken the initiative to address transparency and accountability issues in its organisations. In 2007, the United Nations Transparency Accountability Initiative (UNTIA) was launched to ensure that the billions of dollars contributed to aid would be delivered to those who need it most. Other initiatives preceding the UNTIA focused on enhancing the effectiveness of aid; some strategies include the development of codes of conduct, policy manuals on finance, complaint mechanisms, staff rotation schedules, resource tracking systems, and supply chain management.

These mechanisms are evidently not working, as in 2019 there were several other reported cases of corruption in humanitarian aid. These include the disappearance of US$18 million in aid funds from the UN, the EU and Saudi Arabia in Somalia. The Somalian Government received the funding, but the monies did not make it through the Central Bank’s treasury account. Similarly, in May 2019 it was revealed that the UN in 2018 found that millions of dollars had been stolen in Uganda. A whistle-blower in the government made the report and subsequent investigations by the UN European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) and Uganda’s government revealed that the number of reported refugees was exaggerated and the additional resources intended for these people stolen.

Clearly, despite the UN having several measures to improve accountability, the results are not supportive. While humanitarian crises are very complex, with vast, changing resource levels creating opportunities for corruption, sufficient emphasis on corruption prevention could help to nip it in the bud.

Rebecca Affolder (2017) in an analysis titled ‘An Accountable United Nations Development System for the 21st Century’ noted that the UN for the past 40 years has been consistent in developing proposals and blueprints to improve transparency and accountability but has failed to implement these sufficiently. She emphasised that the UN’s failure to implement reforms has resulted in ‘trust’ issues within the UN, between organisations, member states and civil society.

A 2008 report by Transparency International on preventing corruption in humanitarian assistance highlighted that even though mechanisms and policies exist to ensure transparency and accountability in humanitarian aid, these oftentimes are not put into practice. The report also indicated that complaint mechanisms are often not readily accessible to the public and in some instances only exist for staff.  The report also indicated that the majority of the staff interviewed from these participating agencies did not rate corruption prevention as a priority of their agency.

Given the nature of humanitarian aid, one may argue that it is difficult to focus on transparency and accountability when the primary aim is to save lives. Some may even go further to say that putting greater emphasis on corruption prevention may divert well-needed human resources require to help the needy. But think about how many could have been helped if there had been better accountability. The UN needs to rethink its approaches to humanitarian aid and implement measures to ensure that these accountability mechanisms are working as they should.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 100 million people are living in war zones and other emergency settings who depend on UN humanitarian assistance.[2] The OCHA is mandated to protect the people living in these areas and to ensure that they are receiving the intended aid and protection. This pandemic has created an environment ripe for corruption, but also presents a window for the UN to increase its fight in the war against corruption. Now is an opportune time to review, rethink, and act.

The UN is an important player in world humanitarian relief but needs to take a bold step in the fight against corruption. Its failure to act now means that sooner rather than later its legitimacy will be questioned—to the detriment of those in need of assistance.


[1]BBC News (August 1, 2019) “Yemen war: Has anything been achieved?” https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-49179146
[2] https://www.unocha.org/story/un-calls-global-ceasefire-combat-%E2%80%98common-enemy%E2%80%99-covid-19

About the author:

Avagay SimpsonAvagay Simpson is a graduate of the International Institute of Social Studies with a master’s degree in Development Studies specialising in Governance and Development Policy.  Her research interest are the governance of international humanitarian aid, non-profit governance, anti-corruption, and Public Policy. She also holds a master’s degree in International Relations and currently works as a consultant in Jamaica.

Image Credit: UN Photo/Marco Dormino on Flickr.