In January this year, a long day of interviewing aid workers involved in the Myanmar Rohingya crisis revealed that these aid workers often refrain from talking about the human rights violations in Myanmar. Out of fear to be forced to cease operations or to get fired, they keep silent and carry on. This raises the question: should the scholars engaging with them speak up in their stead? This blog provides a reflection of whether and how scholars can get involved in the entanglements of humanitarianism and conflict. It also provides insights into the ethical and practical reasons why both aid workers and scholars sometimes hesitate to become more engaged.
The time we were doing fieldwork relating to the governance and the accountability of aid in Myanmar coincided with a massive exodus of the Rohingya Muslim minority fleeing persecution and the destruction of their homes in the northwestern Rakhine province. Yet, as we asked broader questions relating to the accountability of aid, the stories of humanitarian aid workers resounded with us. Stories of frustration and powerlessness, as they felt barriers were posed to their work not only by authorities, but also by their own organisations. As scholars, we felt determined that we wanted to ‘do something’. But along with this urge to act came insecurities and concerns.
Providing aid in restrictive settings
Local and international relief agencies that work in restrictive conflict settings are doing something that is intrinsically difficult. Often perceived as a threat by authorities involved in violence, agencies need to make sure they remain tolerated and even supported by these same authorities in order to operate effectively and deliver aid to those in need. In practice in Myanmar, aid agencies are stuck in the middle of two discourses: that of the United Nations that from afar qualifies the military offensive in Rakhine as a « textbook example of ethnic cleansing », and that of Myanmar authorities, who claim they were fighting Rohingya militias only and deny targeting civilians.
Faced with the overwhelming need for support to continue operating in the field, most humanitarian agencies refrain from being overtly critical of human rights violations and prefer to assert their position as impartial and neutral aid providers. Only very few are allowed by the government to work in Rakhine, and those who may, generally keep silent about what they observe. No wonder: when in 2014 Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said that it was deeply concerned about the tens of thousands of people it was treating, the government forced it to cease operations in Myanmar. In order to avoid that for their own organisations, most aid agencies active on the ground thus strictly do and say what they’ve agreed to in (obligated) memoranda of understanding with the government—even if that does not match needs on the ground.
The personal dilemmas of humanitarians
These strategic decisions, however understandable, can have major consequences for the people whom agencies come to assist, but also have psychological implications for relief workers. Many suffer from what Hugo Slim has termed ‘bystander anxiety’. And this was also evident during our interviews: many of those we talked to in Yangon felt anxious and frustrated by the violence they observed in the field and the self-censorship they observed within their own organisations.
One field officer of a large international organisation felt that his agency was « sacrifying its principles and moral authority » in exchange for Rakhine field access and status, which was not even alleviating suffering on the ground because the government forbade actual activities. After he anonymously spoke to journalists, the whole team received a serious warning never to speak to the press again. He lamented the complete lack of internal discussions on these dilemmas, even as many of the staff, including Rohingya, « begged the organisation to speak out ».
We heard many similar stories from humanitarians working for INGOs or the UN. They could not openly discuss, let alone act upon, what they observed in the field. Particularly in meetings attended by the government, they knew « not to be critical ».
Here is where the scholars could come in, but often don’t do so.
Four broad arguments can motivate scholars to engage in the humanitarianism-conflict debate. First, as independent researchers in the field, scholars have more freedom to speak up. Second, many will argue that ‘speaking the truth’ is a scholarly duty. Third, scholars’ voice might carry differently than that of human rights organisations or journalists, as scholars are supposed to adhere to rigorous scientific and ethical standards that grant their research some credibility. Last, academics increasingly vary their channels to seek ‘societal impact’. Newspaper articles, debate evenings, social media and blogs such as this one can help convey to a wider audience what would otherwise remain obscured.
But this freedom comes with responsibilities. Scholars, somewhat like humanitarians, tread a fine line between engaging in effective action and making their own work—or worse, that of relief agencies or local research partners—harder or even impossible to carry out. Discussions about the role of researchers are by no means new. Take the discussions on scholar activism and action research (combing research and social change work), or the divide in the field of anthropology, amongst others, between those who believe they should retain distance in the field and those who support local activism or other types of involvement.
Ethics aren’t the only reason scholars often don’t speak up. Many of the issues that came up during our Myanmar discussions were practical, concerning safety, future access to visas and research permits, academic integrity, and access to non-academic channels, both in terms of networks and skills. Myanmar is a complex setting to work in, not only for humanitarians. Scholars and journalists also face difficulties in accessing the field, while some have been deported or arrested.
Moreover, the ‘hard evidence’ was thin. There would not be enough informants allowing for the rigorous cross-validation of statements. Interviews could not always be recorded and informants insisted that they, their agency and the locality where they operated should remain confidential to avoid raising colleagues’ or authorities’ suspicions. Were these stories even convincing enough for people who hadn’t been here, let alone fulfilling academic standards? Wouldn’t journalists after all be a better fit to relay them?
The answers might differ for each scholar, for each person. We share them to stir up a conversation and to share our doubts with researchers and (inter)national practitioners alike. Even with intentions to change local realities for the better, it’s not easy to take the leap from scholar to messenger. Yet, who else would fulfil that role?
This blog is a first attempt to support humanitarians who can’t speak up.
About the authors:
Roanne van Voorst is a postdoctoral researcher involved in the research project”When disaster meets conflict. Disaster response of humanitarian aid and local state and non-state institutions in different conflict scenarios” at the ISS.
Isabelle Desportes is a PhD candidate working on the governance of disaster response, in particular the interplay between humanitarian and local actors.