Tag Archives humanitarian aid

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

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 ...

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

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 ...

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: https://euobserver.com/opinion/136333

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.

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.

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

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 ...

Perpetuating data colonialism through digital humanitarian technologies by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik

Perpetuating data colonialism through digital humanitarian technologies by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik

In recent years, humanitarian spaces have become technologized as aid agencies have turned to digital technologies to improve aid allocation. Wearables and other forms of digital humanitarian artifacts can foster ...

COVID-19 | Rethinking how to respond to COVID-19 in places where humanitarian crises intersect by Rodrigo Mena

It is widely known that COVID-19 will disproportionately affect developing countries and impoverished peoples. Many of these countries are already affected by conflict and disasters including humanitarian crises, making the contexts even more fragile and complex and the threat of COVID-19 even more serious. Some approaches to fighting the coronavirus pandemic might not be feasible in these contexts where multiple crises intersect, argues Rodrigo Mena. The responses implemented in many countries are not sufficient to minimize impacts that include the potential loss of thousands of lives in vulnerable contexts; prevention and context-specific solutions that also address the root causes of humanitarian crises are needed now more than ever.

While many are waiting for the crisis to pass, we need to remember that hazards such as conflicts, earthquakes, or droughts do not take holidays during pandemic times. When they set in, governments will have to decide where to allocate the limited funds they have. Whereas many countries already have to make hard choices, hovering between strategies to prevent an economic recession and the prevention of the spread of the virus, countries with several pre-existing and ongoing crises, particularly those dependent on humanitarian aid, have even harder choices to make. When a disaster occurs together with COVID-19, will efforts be directed toward rebuilding the country or stopping the spread of the virus? And how will these countries deal with ongoing issues such as underdevelopment in general?

After four years researching disaster responses and humanitarian aid in conflict-affected places, I summarise here some considerations to take into account on why the general approach to COVID-19 might not be viable in many situations. Most recommendations can make things worse in traditional humanitarian crisis scenarios or places where the poorest and most vulnerable live. The places I studied faced disasters, conflict, and were generally underdeveloped, making them particularly vulnerable to any shock, including pandemics such as the COVID-19, and rendering governments incapable of responding effectively.

Refugee Camp, Bangladesh - COVID19

Refugee Camp in Bangladesh. Photo: Rod Mena

Additional issues are multiple. Here are a few:

  1. Lack of access to water. With about 780 million people in the world without access to clean water (780 million!) and in places facing conflict, ‘access to safe water is often compromised; infrastructure is damaged or goes into decline, pipelines are in disrepair, and water collection is dangerous’, as presented by UNICEF. The advice to wash your hands regularly or use disinfectant might certainly not be feasible for many. In fact, aid actors are already struggling to deliver water in many places and an extra demand for it can exacerbate or be the source of new conflicts.
  2. Lack of space. As many have indicated, COVID-19 will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable in the world, including those depending on humanitarian aid to survive. Social distancing might be impossible for the close to 30% of the world urban population living in slums, or for the close to 7 million living in refugee camps. And with more than 6% of the world’s employed population in the informal economy, the option to stay at home or quarantine looks unfeasible for many, let alone for those whose homes have been destroyed or left behind when they had to move because of disasters and conflict.
  3. Greater humanitarian need. In addition, less-developed countries and populations not being aided at the moment might also start needing support. For example, despite multiple difficulties in many refugee camps and crisis-affected areas, there is a system in place to support people in need, but people living out of those spaces might struggle as much or more with this pandemic. The humanitarian aid sector, thus, will face a greater number of people depending on external aid. How and whether the aid sector should assist people affected directly or indirectly by the coronavirus is still an open debate, not only in terms of the real capacities to do it beyond the funding, but also in terms of capacities to do it adequately and safely[1].
  4. Challenges to apply response strategies. A number of challenges can also impede the World Health Organization’s Test, Treat, Track strategy in places under high levels of conflict or facing humanitarian crises[2]:

Testing. If there is zero or reduced access to testing kits (and laboratories or medical personnel to run the tests), accurate figures on the number of deaths or infected people are obscured, making it difficult to plan how to provide relief.

Treating. When it comes to treating the most severely affected by COVID-19, the main procedure is connecting them to ventilators. A global shortage of ventilators is already apparent, and in least-developed countries, we need to add reduced access to reliable sources of electricity. In fact, close 20% of the world populations do not have access to electricity, and in low-income countries that can reach up to 60% —and yes, this includes hospitals that only have electricity via petrol or diesel generators.

Tracking. Then, when it comes to tracking the virus, we know that in places affected by conflict and disasters, many people are displaced or constantly on the move (there are 70.8 million displaced people worldwide, ranging from internally displaced persons to refugees and asylum seekers). Also, the demographics or databases of these places are not always reliable. This makes tracking very cumbersome or even impossible.

  1. Finally, the option to close borders or declare lockdowns might be detrimental in places affected by war or conflict, where many flee to safety or do not have access to goods and services to support their lives.

Vulnerability is created

These are far from all the concerns, but they are enough to show what is well known in disaster studies: that disasters are not natural but socially constructed, including the COVID-19 crisis, as a blog post from Ilan Kelman clearly shows. The pandemic that we have is much more the consequence of social and politically wrong decisions and lack of preparedness than the spreading rate or lethality of the virus. Particularly, a lack of preparedness or decision not to act based on the knowledge that we had (because multiple official reports indicated the probabilities of a pandemic like this and how to prevent it or mitigate its impacts), has greatly contributed to the severity of the crisis[3].

If we do not start thinking about how to prepare to COVID-19 in less-developed places with context-specific solutions, we will be repeating the story; we will keep choosing not to be prepared, which will keep on resulting in catastrophic impacts. If there is something that we have learnt from disasters in the past, it is that prevention is almost always better than responding. Not doing so, or expecting that measures as these reviewed above will work in the most vulnerable places, is to turn a blind eye and hope for the best.

[1] But now with a global economic recession and an aid system already with a 40% shortfall on the funds needed to assist everyone in need, as presented in the 2019 ‘Global Humanitarian Assistance Report’.
[2] And in many cases not even feasible in western countries like France or the United States.
[3] For instance, the ‘National Risk Profile 2016’ of the Netherlands indicated that ‘due to the possible destabilising impact, the main focus of the NRP [National Risk Profile] is on the risks of a large-scale outbreak of an infectious disease, such as a flu pandemic’. Similarly, in 2006, the United States developed the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza based on the risk of this event to occur (with the following update in 2017). Also, astonishingly, a report on global preparedness for health emergencies dated September 2019, issued by the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, co-convened by World Health Organization and the World Bank, that ‘explores and identifies the most urgent needs and actions required to accelerate preparedness for health emergencies, focusing in particular on biological risks manifesting as epidemics and pandemics’, concludes that a global pandemic ‘would be catastrophic, creating widespread havoc, instability and insecurity. The world is not prepared’.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Read all articles of this series here.

R. Mena (2019)About the author:

Rodrigo (Rod) Mena is a socio-environmental researcher and AiO-PhD at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University Rotterdam. His current research project focuses on disaster response and humanitarian aid governance in complex and high-intensity conflict-affected scenarios, with South Sudan, Afghanistan and Yemen as main cases. He has experience conducting fieldwork and researching in conflict and disaster zones from in Africa, Latin America, Europe, Oceania and Asia.

Image Credits: Rod Mena

Donor-driven agendas and the need to move beyond a capacity building focus in Myanmar’s research ecosystem by Jana Rué Glutting and Anders Lee

Donor-driven agendas and the need to move beyond a capacity building focus in Myanmar’s research ecosystem by Jana Rué Glutting and Anders Lee

Localization has become a buzzword among promoters of development aid following a recent shift in focus to the sustainability of development projects after the withdrawal of donors from contexts where ...

Counter-terrorist legislation is threatening independent humanitarian relief, and is set to get worse today by Dorothea Hilhorst and Isabelle Desportes

Counter-terrorist legislation is threatening independent humanitarian relief, and is set to get worse today by Dorothea Hilhorst and Isabelle Desportes

The Netherlands has recently joined a handful of other Western countries in developing counter-terrorism legislation with the hope of stifling terrorist activity and threats. The new legislation on counter-terrorism recently ...

Questioning the ‘local’ in ‘localisation’: A multi-local reply by Samantha Melis

The localisation agenda, which aims to localise funds and responsibilities to local actors in humanitarian responses, retains an ambiguous concept of ‘the local’. The inclusion of power relations at multiple local governance levels in the localisation debate is needed for a more realistic approach to locally led responses to disasters, argues Samantha Melis.

The localisation debate in humanitarian aid is not new, but it has regained momentum after the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit and the thereupon following Grand Bargain, where the commitment to direct more resources and responsibilities to local actors was a key element. However, both ‘the local’ and the action of localisation are more complex than what the policies might suggest. It is important to better understand who the local actors are and how a more locally led response is negotiated by all actors involved.

Horizontal and vertical perspectives of the local  

While the localisation agenda focuses mainly on the direction of funds and the building of local capacity, others have also emphasised the need to shift power to local actors. Granted, all these are important for changes to a system that is still mostly top-down and often excludes the voices of the local actors. However, for a more realistic view of the complexities that underly the localisation debate, the perspective of the local and the definition of what localisation means in practice needs to be further researched and contextualised.

The definition of ‘the local’ remains obscure and needs to go beyond local NGO partners. After a disaster, many different types of local responders are involved. Some might have a presence before, but others will be new and temporary, such as certain public and private sector groups, religious institutions, and other individual philanthropists. Also, in each case, civil society, and their role, will be different. Therefore, ‘the local’ varies depending on the context. Within a particular setting, these can be defined as the horizontal locals.

Localisation is usually discussed from a top-down, outsider perspective, with international actors focusing on the locality of the actors that are closer to the disaster and yet not integrated (sufficiently) of the ‘insider group’ of the international community. From a bottom-up perspective, some actors that would be considered local by the international community, such as the national government, are not always considered local by the communities. This often depends on whether they are seen as ‘part of’ or ‘outside’ their group boundaries. These are the top-down and bottom-up vertical locals.

Not one localised response, but multi-local governance

In my research on disaster response in post-conflict countries, this has direct implications for localisation. Localisation is, to a large extent, about resources and power relations, not only between the international and national, but also between different local actors on multiple levels of local governance. If the local governance levels are disconnected, or tensions exist between the horizontal and vertical locals, then localisation becomes even more challenging. These are obstacles that can only be overcome when horizontal and vertical locals are included in the debate and the relations between multiple local governance levels are better understood.

Opening up the conversation

The debate on localisation will benefit from a more layered approach, wherein the local is not only seen as one entity or as detached from the local and international perspective. Studying practical examples of locally led responses will contribute to more realistic and context-appropriate changes in current top-down humanitarian approaches. The concept of ‘the local’ and ‘localisation’ are not as clear cut as they seem to be, and adding depth to the debate opens up more questions that need answers, and continues the conversation in a more inclusive manner.

About the authors:

samanthaSamantha Melis (The Netherlands) is a PhD candidate at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), The Hague, of Erasmus University (EUR). She is currently involved in the project “When disasters meet conflict”, funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). Within this project, she focuses on the response to disasters in post-conflict scenarios.



IHSA Conference 2018 | How to defend a common humanity? by Khaled Mansour

IHSA Conference 2018 | How to defend a common humanity? by Khaled Mansour

In a gripping account of his witnessing of the gross human rights violations inflicted on others, Khaled Mansour asks why aid workers are becoming apathetic toward the crimes against humanity ...

IHSA Conference 2018 | Aid behind walls? A spatial view of humanitarian security by Janine Bressmer

IHSA Conference 2018 | Aid behind walls? A spatial view of humanitarian security by Janine Bressmer

The humanitarian aid community in reaction to security risks facing its staff is slowly but surely building a Fort Knox around itself. This article details only some of the risks ...

IHSA Conference 2018 | (Re-)Shaping Boundaries in Crisis and Crisis Response: introducing the 2018 International Humanitarian Studies Association Conference by Dorothea Hilhorst

Today, in a rapidly changing world, humanitarian crisis response and humanitarianism is increasingly confronted with boundaries that are dissolving, displaced, or resurrecting. The bi-annual International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA) Conference taking place this week at the ISS seeks to unpack the way in which boundaries related to crisis and humanitarianism are shaped. IHSA President Dorothea Hilhorst in this article reflects on the importance of the conference in an era where governments are increasingly alienated from the vulnerable people that they have the duty to protect.

This week, the world has bereaved Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations. I have admired Annan as one of the most remarkable global leaders that during his time at the United Nations and thereafter tirelessly devoted himself to the promotion of democracy and the protection of vulnerable people. His death appeared in comments as the end of an era—a marker of the demise of value-driven internationalism.

Indeed, the prospects for crisis-affected people to secure protection, survival and refuge seem increasingly subject to the vagaries of geo-politics. Few governments remain that respect their duties to protect vulnerable people, and we see increasing polarisation between policies based on populist resentments against refugees and civic initiatives of solidarity to welcome people that are seeking for refuge.

It is in light of such events that ISS this week hosts the 5th bi-annual conference of the International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA). In more than 50 panels, academics, researchers and practitioners will discuss the state of affairs and emerging trends in humanitarian crises in the world today, involving refugees and displacement, conflict, disasters triggered by natural hazards, and protracted emergencies.

The conference reflects the broad concern of humanitarian studies, focusing on crisis and crisis responses and addressing these in relation to changing realities in world politics, welfare regimes, migration movements and concerns over the long-term effects of climate change and other ecological trends.

The cradles of many UN and humanitarian agencies, the USA and Europe, are seen to let politics of fear and security prevail over solidarity and international commitments. Countries close their borders or even seek to extra-territorialize their border control. The keynote of David Keen, professor of conflict studies at the London School of Economics, and several of the panels, will address the European politics towards refugees. The inhumane treatment of crisis-affected populations has now triggered a worldwide initiative, United Against Inhumanity, and we look forward to hear more about this initiative from Khaled Mansour during the opening of the conference.

Interestingly, while united international action at times seems increasingly elusive, this year has also seen the unanimous adoption of a landmark UN resolution that supports political action to address food crises related to conflict. Starvation as a weapon of war has been common in history, yet has not been recognised in international humanitarian law. It is only now, in this new resolution, 2417, that the starving of civilians or unlawfully denying them humanitarian access is recognised and condemned as warfare tactics. We are very pleased that the Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, Sigrid Kaag, as well as Alex de Waal, will speak about the relevance of the resolution during the opening of the conference.

The IHSA conference is a timely event to reflect on the profound changes happening in humanitarianism. The World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) of 2016 called for the rethinking of crisis response, bridging the domains of humanitarianism and development and increasingly localizing responses. The evolving Global Compact on Refugees compounds the trend to make humanitarian response subject to localized arrangements. The trend in humanitarian aid to build on people’s resilience had become mainstream and merits serious discussion on how these trends affect the possibilities for people and communities affected by crises to be assured of basic protection.

If we want to understand these shifts in humanitarianism, we have to delve deeply into the nuts and bolts of how they change practice on the ground. And this is exactly what the conference will do. The range of panels is impressive, enabling us to unravel how humanitarian practices are evolving. To name a few of the issues that come by in the panels: the link between humanitarian aid and national governments, issues of participation and accountability, the role of innovation in aid, and the role of debt in the ways that people can cope with crises.

Finally, I am excited to continue the discussion on the ethics of humanitarian studies. During the World Humanitarian Summit of 2016, scholars agreed on ethical commitments for humanitarian studies. These commitments concern collaboration and inclusion in humanitarian research; the study of the impact of the WHS; the further development of evidence-based approaches; the localization of humanitarian research and education; the impact and increase of the use of humanitarian research; and the protection of academic freedom and scientific ethics. While we observe, analyse and seek evidence to expand our understanding of crises and crisis response, I hope that humanitarian scholars will also use the conference to reflect on how our research can be made more relevant for crisis-affected communities.

TheaAbout the author: 

Dorothea Hilhorst is professor of humanitarian aid and reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam.

Technological solutions for socio-political problems: revisiting an open humanitarian debate by Rodrigo Mena

Technological solutions for socio-political problems: revisiting an open humanitarian debate by Rodrigo Mena

The use of technology in the humanitarian aid sector is showing a steady increase based on a sense of hope that technology could help to improve the delivery of aid ...

(How) should scholars say what humanitarians can’t? by Roanne van Voorst and Isabelle Desportes

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 ...

Women’s Week | Challenging humanitarianism beyond gender as women and women as victims by Dorothea Hilhorst, Holly Porter and Rachel Gordon

Problematic assumptions related to women’s position and role in humanitarian crises are unpacked in a special issue of the journal Disasters on gender, sexuality and violence. The main lesson drawn from the special issue is that aid actors should tread carefully and seriously invest in their capacity to carefully monitor the intended and unintended effects of programming on gender relations.

At the United Nations (UN) World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in May 2016, ‘achieving greater gender equality and greater inclusivity’ was identified as one of the five key areas of humanitarian action. The WHS wanted this to be a watershed moment that would spark a shift toward systematically meeting the needs of women and girls and promoting their role as active decision-makers and leaders.

After more than four decades of discourses on ‘gender in development’ and a substantive history of evolving international law and practice on women, peace, and security, the WHS marked an important declaration that the humanitarian aid field takes gender seriously. ‘Gender’ too often has been understood as synonymous with ‘women and girls,’ neglecting questions of agency, vulnerability, and the dynamic and changing realities of gendered power relations.

The focus on sexual violence has brought significant attention to some of the challenges that many women face, but has also reproduced a generalised image of women as victims. That idea was already well-embedded in classic views of conflict that see men as aggressors and combatants and women as non-combatant victims. While this depiction is grounded in sad empirical realities, it leads to a kind of tunnel vision that only centres on the suffering of women, viewing them as the primary victims and primarily as victims. The victim discourse furnishes a rationale for providing women with direly needed assistance, and in fact, women themselves are often keen to play the role of victim to become eligible for aid, backgrounding other aspects of their identity, including their (political) agency. Nonetheless, this focus is problematic in obscuring other realities in which men and women assume different and more complex roles.

Humanitarian programmes often seek the participation of women because they (we) are considered the more caring gender. Women are often targeted for aid as a proven means to improve the wellbeing of children, foster more peaceful conditions, and prevent the misdirection of resources. In the process, international aid often aims to also structurally improve the position of women. This is why UNICEF considers engaging women in service delivery as a positive step towards promoting women’s rights, and describes it as the ‘double dividend of gender equality’.

While well-intentioned, all of these assumptions pertaining to women’s position and role in humanitarian responses have problematic aspects. These dimensions are what we aimed to unearth and explore in our new special issue of the journal Disasters on gender, sexuality and violence in humanitarian crises.[1]

What about men?

The attention on women as aid recipients drowns out the voices that are asking: ‘What about men?’ (not to mention other marginalised gender categories like LGBT communities). Men also cope with specific vulnerabilities, often related to their gender. They are much more often at the receiving end of lethal violence than women, and are frequently victims of sexual violence. When aid is channelled through women, it can lead to a situation where men’s vulnerability is forgotten, or where men feel emasculated or disenfranchised from their traditional social roles (see, for example, the contribution by Holly Ritchie to the special issue).  Such situations can have a variety of consequences, ranging from mental health problems among men to the (violent) re-assertion of men and masculinities.

Gender as relations of power

The articles in the special issue bring another layer to this discussion that all too often boxes men and women into stagnant categories. By prioritising these categorical issues that ascribe and assume particular traits as specific to men and women, debates may miss the mark regarding gender as relations of power that, like everything else, are cast into disarray during humanitarian crises. It is well-established that gender roles are interwoven with other social identity markers, and that these intersectional gender relations are, moreover, deeply ingrained in and reproduced by the working of all institutions in society, ranging from the personal between men and women to the working of cultural values, geopolitics, governance practices, and religion. In creating the special issue, we asked: how do humanitarian responses interact with these myriad aspects of gender and other interrelated social identities? And how do humanitarian responses thus affect gender relations?

Persistence and change

The special issue testifies both to the persistence of gender relations as well as their propensity to change. Julian Hopwood, Holly Porter, and Nangiro Saum found a drastic reported change in everyday gender relations in Karamoja, Northern Uganda, especially where women’s material resource bases were enhanced, but they raise questions about whether such change is enduring. The economic empowerment of women may spill over positively into other domains of life, or contrarily may undermine goodwill towards women’s positions and bring about a violent backlash against them (and against humanitarians)—or both. Likewise, well-meaning interventions can have adverse effects, as Luedke and Logan found in South Sudan, where a narrow focus on conflict-related sexual violence and recycled (although well-intentioned) responses thereto by international organisations were not only unhelpful, but also ran counter to and undermined local norms that might have protected women.

The instrumentalisation of gender

A final layer that complicates the analysis of and interventions in gender relations is that gender as an issue is often instrumentalised for different purposes. Gender has firmly become part of the high politics of international relations. More locally, an interest in the position of women can, for example, obscure attempts of a government to firm up its grip over local authorities, as Rebecca Tapscott found in another contribution to the special issue on Northern Uganda. Likewise, Hilhorst and Douma found that the responses to sexual violence in the DRC were instrumentalised for various purposes by a large range of actors.

Treading carefully

What do these different layers mean for humanitarian action, apart from standing as a reminder that paying attention to women should not result in turning a blind eye to vulnerability and agency of other gender categories? The special issue highlights the dynamic and entangled nature of gender relations, and how humanitarian and political attention to gender adds additional layers to the complexities of gender relations in crisis environments. Aid can often do lots of harm. This does not mean that gender objectives should be abandoned, but that aid actors need to tread carefully and seriously invest in their capacity to carefully monitor the intended and unintended effects of programming on gender relations.

[1] The issue is open access for the duration of 2018.

Picture credit: Kate Holt/Africa Practice


Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the ISS. Her blog article ‘Emergency sexwork: should NGOs recognise transactional sex as livelihood strategy?‘ further touches on the topics discussed in this article.

Holly head shot 2

Holly Porter is Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at the Institute of Development Policy and Management (University of Antwerp) and Conflict Research Group (Ghent University). She is also Research Fellow at the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa of the London School of Economics and Political Science.



Rachel Gordon is an independent research consultant on gender and humanitarian aid, and was formerly an SLRC Researcher and the SLRC Gender Team Leader, Feinstein International Center (Tufts University)/Overseas Development Institute.


Aid agencies can’t police themselves. It’s time for a change by Dorothea Hilhorst

Aid agencies can’t police themselves. It’s time for a change by Dorothea Hilhorst

The spreading "Oxfam scandal" will affect the entire humanitarian sector painfully. It brings into plain sight what observers of the internal workings of NGOs have known for a long time: ...

Eight years after Haiti shook: where has all the money gone? by Avagay Simpson

Eight years after Haiti shook: where has all the money gone? by Avagay Simpson

About the author: Avagay Simpson is a recent graduate of the International institute of Social Studies with a Master’s degree in Development Studies specialising in Governance and Development Policy. Prior to ...

Localization – according to whom? by Roanne van Voorst

About the author:
marijnzonderglimRoanne van Voorst is a postdoctoral researcher of humanitarian aid and disaster, at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. On 30 November 2017, she is participating in a IFRC-hosted workshop in Geneva, organized in the context of the Grand Bargain Localization Workstream.

The Grand Bargain aims to make aid more effective and efficient through a series of changes in the working practices of donors and aid organizations – localization is one of the most important themes. Evaluations should pay particular attention to experiences from Southern aid actors, as a recent study shows that they differ consistently from their Northern colleagues – and are not always taken into account.

Localization’ seems to have been a buzzword in the humanitarian aid-world for such a long time, that one could be tempted to think it would have become old news by now. Unfortunately, the opposite seems true: localization continues to draw consistent attention from policy makers and aid practitioners alike, because the humanitarian aid world is still considered unequal, with a small group of INGOs holding by far most of the means and power in the aid and development world.

The 2015/6-Grand Bargain commitments aim to change that. Signatories to the Grand Bargain have expressed that localization is crucial to make aid more effective and efficient. They committed to increase investment in the capacities and operations of national and local responders and to construct more equal partnerships between international and local actors. While similar ambitions have been voiced in the past, a number of barriers have stood in the way and best practice have not always been apparent. Both in the lead up to the Grand Bargain and particularly after its signature, a number of organizations have begun or planned research projects to fully investigate these barriers and opportunities and provide an evidence base for real change in the sector.

I urge these organizations to pay particular attention to the voices and experiences from Southern aid actors, as a recent study that I undertook with Dorothea Hilhorst indicates that there exists a huge, consistent difference in the ways Northern, larger INGO employees and practitioners working for Southern, local NGOs regard the status quo in the sector. Although this ‘gap’ is by no means a new topic, a relevant contribution to this debate is the consistent difference in perceptions that we found between aid actors working for larger INGOs and local NGOs working in areas characterized by conflict and disaster. This differentiated experience pertained especially to the ways in which the localization agenda is working in practice, particularly with regard to the issues of subcontracting versus partnerships, and the extent to which local practitioners trust the outcomes of international policy meetings.

The study we conducted is part of a large research project on humanitarian aid in settings of conflict and disaster. It included multiple rounds of in-depth interviews with an expert panel, in which 30 key humanitarian actors with great experience in the field participated. Participants remained anonymous – only the researchers knew who were interviewed. 10 out of 30 participants originated from the South and worked for a local aid organization. Another three panelists also have a Southern background yet work for an INGO. All 13 strongly differed in opinion with panelists with a Northern background on the following themes: the extent to which the localization agenda is being implemented, particularly with respect to equality in cooperation; trust in international policy processes; and the extent to which further integration between ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ aid actors (new donor governments and the private sector) should be an objective. Of course, the relatively low number of participants in this study makes it impossible to draw broad conclusions on any of these themes. Nevertheless, our finding tentatively suggests that research or policy decisions in which only ‘Northern’ voices are heard tell a limited part of the story – and this could give evaluations of localization practices, a skewed outcome.

Some brief examples of North/South differences can help to give an impression: According to the majority of panelists with a Northern background, localization has been a struggle so far, but there is already more and more cooperation between local NGOs and INGOs and partnerships are slowly but gradually becoming the norm. However, panelists with a Southern background say that while there exists a lot of new types of cooperation between their agencies and Northern NGOs, these are hardly ever equal partnerships. From Lebanon to Afghanistan to Liberia to South Sudan, we heard of case studies where local NGOs are being subcontracted by INGOs to carry out projects for them, but don’t get ownership of these projects. They find they have little to say in these projects and therefore there is hardly room for local innovation.

Similarly, practitioners with a Southern background pointed out that the concept ‘humanitarian aid’ itself is a Northern concept, which they often only use in communication with international ‘partners’, as this is the only way to get subcontracts or funding. In their daily work and in communication with local aid actors, they prefer to avoid the term and instead speak of partnerships and development, as these concepts resonate more in the local context.

Finally, while Northern practitioners almost always sounded optimistic when they spoke about policy agreements such as the Grand Bargain, Southern practitioners seemed to have lost trust in these and other policy outcomes. Because of the disappointment with outcomes of the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) and other commitments, local Southern NGOs are currently establishing and working through interest groups and consortia to pursue their own agenda. In some cases, these prove successful in pulling more power and funding opportunities towards local aid organizations.

These examples suggest that any research about localization that does not pay particular attention to the experiences of Southern aid actors, runs the risk of sketching an image of localization that is much more optimistic than real. If we ever want to turn the buzzword of localization, into actual practice – Southern voices will have to receive much more attention in research efforts.