Tag Archives Humanitarian

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 ...

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

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 ...

Changing the lexicons in war-to-peace transitions by Eric Gutierrez

Social researchers at times apply certain terms without critically reflecting on their use. For example, the word ‘humanitarian’ is used to refer to specific crises, while responses to such crises may move beyond humanitarianism. This article details the problematic of the application of certain research terminology and calls for a changing of lexicons in war-to-peace transitions.

Over the last two decades, the ‘world’s worst humanitarian crises’ have come, one after another. There was eastern Congo, then Darfur, South Sudan, Libya, and Syria, now Yemen, and more are in between. These are indeed man-made disasters and emergencies, causing untold suffering. But in 2007, David Keen advised that care should be taken when applying the word “humanitarian” to these crises, because, first, it implies that the solution lies with humanitarian relief. Though humanitarian response may alleviate suffering, it will not solve problems. Second, the word ‘may prejudge the motives of interveners as altruistic, when they can be much more complicated’ (Keen, 2007: 1).

Other terms are increasingly less applicable these days. Take “civil war” or “internal war” – does it still apply to the growing number of conflicts today with no clear front lines, where protagonists are not internal to any single country, and with no clear beginnings and possibly no definite endings, too? A war is aimed at a political or military victory, or at gaining control of territory in the conventional sense. Yet many of today’s “wars” are different – in some, protagonists have even developed an interest in instability as they profit from the war economy. There are more cases today of peacebuilding efforts failing, but not because of the complex constraints faced by peacebuilders. Rather, certain powers want them to fail.

Battles today are fought not just by armies with chains of command, but also by all sorts of irregular militias, criminals, or armed civilians with little discipline or no structure at all. “Soldiers” today include children kidnapped from communities with disintegrating social networks or youngsters peer pressured to join armed gangs.

The “end” of civil wars did not necessarily mean an end to violence. Rather, it merely marked a shift from militarised to other forms of social violence, as disputes over land, resources, and local rule continued. Severine Autesserre, who documented the violence in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) after the peace agreement has been signed, is intensely critical of the widespread use of the term “post-conflict”, because it obscures the primacy of land and other micro-level issues causing violence and producing anguish that were kept invisible and never resolved by the peace talks. She unpacks the methodological shortcomings of peacebuilding in the DRC that led to serious policy failures (Autesserre, 2010: 2).

In Central America, the end of militarised conflict often meant the beginning of criminalised violence. Monitoring by local and international groups such as the Geneva Declaration on Armed Conflict and Violence suggest that two countries with UN-brokered peace agreements in the 1990s – El Salvador and Guatemala – have more people dying today from violent crime (homicide and murder) than those killed in combat or incidents related to fighting during these countries’ civil wars. “Post-conflict” El Salvador suffers more violent deaths today than conflict-affected Iraq. Guatemala has one of the highest homicide rates in the world for a country that is officially not at war.

In addition, over 10% of the violent deaths recorded each year around the world are also attributed to manslaughter – a figure that includes the thousands of refugees and migrants from post-conflict countries who drown or are killed in attempts (labelled “illegal”) to move across territories, or to escape the transitions that are supposed to make life better for them.

So perhaps a first step in better framing war-to-peace transitions is to improve the lexicon in use. Caution is necessary when applying the terms so far listed. But more importantly, assumptions need to be seriously questioned. The expression “senseless violence” for example is a misnomer that divorces acts of violence from its context and ignores the telling details. Violence makes sense to its perpetrators – it could bring reputation, status, and meaning, not just utility.

Mark Duffield once posited that more recent examples of violence could simply be new and innovative ways of projecting political power. As Keen pointed out, famine and hunger, too (not just wars), could be politically manufactured to serve political and economic ends. Hence, violence is anything but pointless. Keen also rejected defining large-scale violent conflict in terms of a “breakdown of authority”. Citing the 1994 Rwandan genocide, he pointed out that ‘the problem was not so much that authority had broken down; rather, it was being imposed with ruthless and vicious efficiency.’ Hence, he argues that to automatically claim that authority has broken down where large-scale violent conflicts take place could be extremely damaging because it risks endorsing the dubious alibi of governments that have cleverly manipulated and exacerbated ethnic tensions (2007: 2-3).

Changing lexicons is not just a matter of semantics. Dropping some terms and using new ones can help frame the problems, and the responses, differently. A report on “Challenges in the Sahel” by the development agency Christian Aid, published in late 2017, used the term “perfect storm” to refer to that extraordinary combination of poverty, violent conflict, corruption, criminality, and climate change that drive the crises in the region. This implies that stand-alone security interventions not coordinated with development actors or other state actors, and vice versa, may not deliver desired results, or can even cause inadvertent outcomes. Solutions need to be smarter.

Also introduced was the term “unusual actors”, to characterise politicians who are corrupt but nevertheless get genuinely elected, or smugglers hunted by the law that may be the only providers of employment in disintegrating local economies. They may also spoilers of the peace who are predators to some but are protectors to others. “Unusual”, because though they may be “bad guys”, they are somehow tolerated, or even considered “good guys” by others. It posits that dilemma – how should humanitarian and development agencies deal with “unusual actors”?

To conclude, working differently on war-to-peace transitions may require changing lexicons, or at least requires more circumspection in the application of certain terms. We need to become better at bracing for perfect storms, and in preparing for, or at least recognising, the presence of rather “unusual actors”. Finding more comprehensive solutions means laying all options out, including decisions to walk away at certain moments.

Image credit: ECHO/H. Veit

About the author:

Eric Gutierrez is a researcher at the ISS. 


IHSA Conference 2018 | A failing UN and the prospects of world citizenship by Antonio Donini

IHSA Conference 2018 | A failing UN and the prospects of world citizenship by Antonio Donini

The UN in its current form does not serve the citizens it promises to protect. Is it time for a UN 2.0 that puts citizens at the centre? This article ...

IHSA Conference 2018 | The instrumentalisation of disasters by David Keen

IHSA Conference 2018 | The instrumentalisation of disasters by David Keen

Today, not just disaster but the functions—and instrumentalisation—of disaster have been brought right into the heart of Europe. If widespread official violence and the instrumentalisation of disaster can happen right ...

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 that are still occurring today. He shows how genuine change is made possible by a group of aid workers that are countering worrying trends in the humanitarian sector by means of a global movement called United Against InHumanity. This post is based on his keynote address for the 5th conference of the International Humanitarian Studies Association that took place at the ISS on 27 August 2018.

Fifteen years ago, I survived the attack against the UN headquarters in Iraq, but the explosion killed 22 of my colleagues, also demolishing a personal barrier that I have had for years. This barrier ostensibly had helped me to cope with the scenes of abject poverty and degradation; violent deaths and inexplicable violence; and the looming menace that I have had to live close to for years.

For months, I stood at the brink of an abyss of dark and bloody recollections. Memories came flooding back: a flattened refugee camp in Jenin; small tombs for children that had died of malnourishment in Hirat; stories of torture inflicted on political prisoners or suspects from Syria to Pakistan, to name but a few.

I no longer try to forget these scenes. The barrier that I had erected between myself and even harsher and more frequent atrocities in areas of conflict is gone. And for that I am grateful. Like many people who engage in humanitarian aid and the defense of human rights in situations of conflict, I have had to grapple with occasional attacks of depression and waves of sadness, but I see them as signs of a shared humanity and a healthy vulnerability.

They are also a call for resistance through writing, teaching, volunteering and, most important, working with others to defend the dignity and rights of people in conflict. It is a call for action to build and rebuild what our common humanity means and how we can work together to protect it.

The growing apathy of aid workers

However, there is a dominant sense among critics of the humanitarian aid system that the old has disintegrated while the new is not yet born, as Grasmsci said almost a century ago.

There is also a shocking indifference in global and regional centers of power as to the fate of hundreds of millions of people whose lives and livelihoods are decimated in conflicts. Over the past few years, millions have been killed, maimed or forced to flee their homes because of such horrific violence. Civilians are suffering in what has become normalised military operations in Syria, Yemen, the Gaza Strip and many other places. The Assad forces have used indiscriminate barrel bombs and chemical weapons against civilians, while the Israeli and the Saudi forces simply disregard the concept of military advantage as they bomb densely populated areas or vital infrastructure installations, killing and harming far more civilians than members of the Houthi or Hamas militias. Armed non-state actors, ISIS for example, have also committed their share of spectacular atrocities.

Compliance with the laws of war and holding violators to account are becoming increasingly difficult tasks. The refugee law is not faring much better. The EU deterrence measures against possible refugees are an abomination that resulted in thousands of people seeking asylum drowning at sea.

This is fueling cynicism among aid workers as well as recipients. Aid agencies are reportedly jockeying for a bigger slice of the USD930 million promised by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to the gigantic aid operation in Yemen. These two countries have led a merciless war against Yemeni Houthi militias, killing as many as 20,000 civilians. Starvation and blocking essential humanitarian supplies as a war tactic has been regularly used in Syria since 2012, predominantly by the regime, while aid agencies simply acquiesced as the authorities rejected one request after another to access besieged areas. And now, we face the criminalisation of both asylum seekers and those who help them in western countries.

These are disturbing trends.

What is more disturbing is how human empathy is eroding. With an unprecedented rise in populism, rights (legal and otherwise) are increasingly limited to citizens and then not even to all of them. Within societies from the US to India, more demagogue chauvinists advocate that all humans were not equal and that not all cultures can peacefully co-exist. They are not the majority yet, but their influence is mushrooming.

A need for greater political will

There is a glaring absence of political will at the state and intrastate levels. The cosmopolitan values that are at the root of much of the humanitarian and human rights movements seem to be in retreat. This absence of political will was very evident in the ICRC’s failure to introduce a new mechanism for compliance with the Geneva conventions in 2015, or in the miniscule outcome of the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, or the failure of the Refugee Summit in New York after two years of work to produce any real change to the grim reality.

So, to quote another Marxist, who was maybe luckier than Gramsci, what is to be done?

There is a large body of literature and policy studies that deconstruct the current aid system. There is a ton of policy papers and many think tanks that have ideas to reform/fix or change the humanitarian enterprise.

But what seems to be missing is sustained popular pressure to force a genuine change or quicken the pace of reform. There is a clear need for a movement of people to struggle alongside those who are affected in conflicts in order to ensure their rights to protection and basic needs.

United Against InHumanity: reason for optimism?

This is why a group of former and current aid workers, researchers, and activists have come together last year and started working to build such a global movement to produce action-oriented knowledge, engage in policy advocacy and, most important, organise and play an active political role against atrocities and the rising inhumanity in conflicts around the world.

United Against InHumanity (UAI) is still emerging, propelled by the outcome of extensive consultations with diverse groups and potential stakeholders in Africa, Asia, the Americas, Australia and Europe since late 2017 to turn a common feeling of indignation into a repertoire of impactful actions.

The overall purpose of UAI is to initiate and facilitate joint action by civil society at global, regional and national levels to challenge warring parties, their sponsors, governments and relevant international organisations in order to reverse the normalisation of indiscriminate warfare and the erosion of the right to asylum.

This is a tall order! But it is probably our only way to effectively stand against unbridled and murderous acts of inhumanity in conflicts instead of building barriers that we falsely think could save us.  

KhaledAbout the author: 

Khaled Mansour is a member of the emerging movement United against Inhumanity. He is a senior fellow at the Arab Reform Initiative. For the past 30 years he has been a writer in addition to working in aid, peacekeeping and human rights organisations around the world.

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

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 ...

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 and solve multiple systemic problems. Technological solutions alone, however, cannot properly address such complex problems. This blog engages in an ongoing debate among development scholars on some of the hopes and concerns related to the use of digital and web-based technology in this sector. The main conclusion: we need more case research on the use of technology and, in the meantime, the careful use of technology is invited.

The application of technology is gaining popularity in the humanitarian sector due to the series of perceived benefits and ‘solutions’ that it seems to provide. Increasingly, development scholars are warning of the unintended consequences that such technological ‘solutions’ can produce—some of them negative. Dr. Duncan Green, Senior Strategic Adviser at Oxfam GB, in one of his blog posts, cautions us about the limits of technological solutions, saying that ‘just because technologies can allow us to collect, store, analyse and communicate data and ideas in unprecedented ways should not lull us to think they can address old, entrenched problems in unprecedented ways. The primary constraints for human action are non-technological in nature.’

Long-term research on the topic by Dr. Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, Dr. Katja Lindskov Jacobsen, and Sean Martin McDonald, from the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), reminds us of how technology shapes humanitarian action; they also write in a blog post that technology is implemented in the humanitarian sector without adequate legal, ethical and methodological frameworks. Another warning comes from Dr. Emre Eren Korkmaz, post-doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford, who in a recent blog post shows how the use of blockchain technologies[i] by aid agencies to support people in need, especially refugees, is embraced with great hopes, but also brings along deep concerns. He highlights the complexity of certain socio-environmental problems that are unlikely to be sufficiently addressed by technological solutions alone. Sandvik, Jacobson and Korkmaz in deepening the debate then call for more research on specific cases of the applications of digital and web-based technology in the humanitarian aid sector.

The utility of technological ‘solutions

Is the use of more technology really making humanitarian aid and disaster responses better, faster or more efficient? Even though it is difficult to find a single answer to this question, the reality is that many believe that technology can fulfil this ideal. Let’s consider a few examples:

Satellite images are being used for data collection and project monitoring with the hope that this technology will obtain more accurate information, more quickly. Iris and fingerprint scanning for the registration of the recipients of aid bring the hope of reducing duplications on the delivery of aid and more focused assistance. The use of Skype, email, and cloud systems are essential for the day-to-day management of humanitarian aid, but the hope remains that they will also improve the coordination of disaster responses and humanitarian aid provision within and among organisations and agencies.

Technology, it is said, will also reduce excessive bureaucratic bottlenecks and could provide a solution to problems of access and increased insecurity in the field. The use of digital payment systems, e-transfers or “mobile money” revolutionised the ways of delivering economic aid, promising more flexible, faster and safer economic assistance as compared to moving and distributing cash. Finally, there is hope that the use of technology will help to avoid problems of corruption, power struggles, or inequality. It is believed that using technology is politically neutral, but this belief has proven to in fact be far from reality.

A panacea for deeper problems?

Despite the benefits that these technologies can bring, they cannot be used naïvely, as the use of any technology (and the use of the information obtained along with it) involves multiple political and social variables. New technologies interplay with the realities of the places where they are implemented, and in places requiring humanitarian aid, with the existing and emerging needs of people.

We must question how these technologies interact with the inequalities of these places or their political regimes. As Korkmaz warns in his blog, there is also risk of abuse —institutions can use digital identities ‘to track people’s choices and desires, which could lead to increased surveillance and the use of information against refugees.

Technology is also subject to instrumentalisation and can be used for purposes quite the opposite of those humanitarian purposes it is intended to serve. The way in which information is collected, analysed and presented, can also be motivated by other, non-humanitarian objectives. In other words, the use of technology is never politically neutral— it affects and is affected by actors and processes, in ways not always fully understood. Reflecting on this is as important as thinking about the benefits of using new data-collection technologies. And we must also identify when, how and which technology to use.

The need for more case studies

The expansion[ii] and international call[iii] for the use of technology need to go hand-in-hand with greater reflection and deeper knowledge of the real impact, benefits and consequences of technology’s use. As McDonald, Sandvik, and Jacobsen argue in their blog post, ‘humanitarians need both an ethical and evidence-driven human experimentation framework for new technologies.’

As the discussion on the need for awareness about the use of technology is already ongoing, it is important to start gathering information on specific cases showing how which technology is used in reality. Afghanistan presents a good case for examining the application of aid technology, as its use has increased here over the last decade4–6.

Ongoing research I’m carrying out as Visiting Scholar of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) on the (political) use and the introduction of data-collection technology in Afghanistan seeks to map this technology, also reflecting on who uses it, who can get access to the collected information, and how and for which purposes it is used. The research importantly also asks: does technology really fulfil the promises it carries?

The promotion of technology is still alive in Afghanistan and globally, as multiple new forms of technology are being implemented by the humanitarian sector, like bitcoin or blockchain technology9,10. However, the applicants of technology in the humanitarian sector should not be blind to its potential negative effects. Technology can be tremendously helpful, but must also pass the ‘do no harm’ test11,12 and should be applied in a reflective manner. In the meantime, the thoughtful use of technology and more research on the topic are invited.

[i] Blockchain technologies refers to a distributed and decentralized database of continuously growing records of digital information, ordered, linked and secured using cryptography.
[ii] The use technology in the humanitarian sector, if far from new, is a growing phenomenon since the late 20th Century1–3. The difference nowadays lies in its expansion and penetration at all levels of the humanitarian aid system.
[iii] There has been an international call to innovate and introduce more technology. For instance, two reports from 2013 reinforced the use of multiple communications and data collection technologies in the humanitarian system: the World Disaster Report from the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC), and the document Humanitarian in a Network Age from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

  1. Stephenson, R. and P.S. Anderson (1997) ‘Disasters and the information technology revolution’, Disasters 21, 305–334.
  2. Sandvik, K. B., M. Gabrielsen Jumbert, J. Karlsrud and M. Kaufmann (2014) ‘Humanitarian technology: a critical research agenda’, Int. Rev. Red Cross 96, 219–242.
  3. Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (2011) ‘Disaster Relief 2.0: The Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies. UN Foundation & Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnership.
  4. IRIN (2013) ‘Innovative ICT helps aid workers in Afghanistan’. Available at: http://www.irinnews.org/feature/2013/05/02/innovative-ict-helps-aid-workers-afghanistan.
  5. Boone, J. US army amasses biometric data in Afghanistan. The Guardian (2010). Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/oct/27/us-army-biometric-data-afghanistan.
  6. Zax, D. In Afghanistan, Cash Has Become The Most Effective Form Of Aid. Fast Company (2016). Available at: https://www.fastcompany.com/3065011/in-afghanistan-cash-has-become-the-most-effective-form-of-aid.
  7. Jacobsen, K. L. Experimentation in humanitarian locations: UNHCR and biometric registration of Afghan refugees. Secure. Dialogue 46, 144–164 (2015).
  8. Jacobsen, K. L. Humanitarian biometrics. In The Politics of Humanitarian Technology: Good intentions, unintended consequences and insecurity. 57–87 (Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2017).
  9. DH Network. Blockchain for the Humanitarian Sector: Future opportunities. Digital Humanitarian Network (2016). Available at: http://digitalhumanitarians.com/resource/blockchain-humanitarian-sector-future-opportunities.
  10. Bello Perez, Y. Can Bitcoin Make a Difference in the Global Aid Sector? CoinDesk (2015). Available at: https://www.coindesk.com/can-bitcoin-make-a-difference-in-the-global-aid-sector/.
  11. Jacobsen, K. L. Humanitarian technology: revisiting the ‘do no harm’ debate. ODI HPN (2015). Available at: https://odihpn.org/blog/humanitarian-technology-revisiting-the-%c2%91do-no-harm%c2%92-debate/.
  12. The Sphere Handbook. Protection Principle 1: Avoid exposing people to further harm as a result of your actions. The Sphere Project Available at: http://www.spherehandbook.org/en/protection-principle-1-avoid-exposing-people-to-further-harm-as-a-result-of-your-actions/. (Accessed: 5th January 2018)


Rodrigo (Rod) Mena is a socio-environmental AiO-PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University Rotterdam. His current research project focuses on disaster response and humanitarian aid in complex and high-intensity conflict-affected scenarios.

(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

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 ...

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: NGOs have an organisational reflex of banning outsiders from their kitchen, and keeping their potentially dangerous secrets hidden.

Abuses of power are common in any situation where vulnerable people depend on powerful service providers. But the key question that still haunts this sector is how organisations should deal with the rotten apples – the abusers of power. Even though Oxfam has taken earlier abuses and misconduct seriously, the organisation has acted alone and resorted to internal measures in dealing with the problem.

The case of the Oxfam country director hosting sex parties in the staff house in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake – perhaps it is only the tip of a rapidly expanding iceberg.

What matters is how organisations respond to such incidents. Have trespassers been sanctioned, and was the harm done redressed? Were the disciplinary procedures transparent, and have efforts been made to avoid the repetition of these events?

Read the full article on Irin News

Picture credit: Zephyris


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

Emergency sexwork: should NGOs recognize transactional sex as livelihood strategy? by Dorothea Hilhorst

Emergency sexwork: should NGOs recognize transactional sex as livelihood strategy? by Dorothea Hilhorst

About the author: Dorothea Hilhorst is professor of humanitarian aid and reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam.     Transactional sex is a widespread reality in humanitarian crises, ...