Tag Archives Humanitarian

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

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 ...

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

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 under the eyes of a free press and under the watch of two of the world’s most established democracies, what then is possible in greater seclusion? This blog is based on a keynote speech delivered at the International Humanitarian Studies Association Conference held in August 2018 at the ISS.


Visiting Calais in October 2015, the child psychiatrist Lynne Jones asked, “how is it possible that on the borders of a north European town, there are some 6,000 people living in conditions worse than those I have encountered with Somali refugees on the Ethiopian border, Pakistanis after a devastating earthquake, or Darfuris in the deserts of Northern Chad, one of the poorest countries in the world?”

It was shocking to realise that such a situation could develop—and be allowed to develop—in the heart of Western Europe. When disasters have occurred in more distant lands, government and aid officials have often pointed to obstacles like remoteness, insecurity and the rainy season. But Calais is an hour-and-a-half by train from London and Paris.

Where the functions of disaster have been recognised, this has often been in relation to ‘faraway’ places. These functions may include political repression in a ‘state of emergency’ as well as profits from price movements and from the depopulation of resource-rich areas. But today, not just disaster but the functions—and instrumentalisation—of disaster have been brought right into the heart of Europe.

The instrumentalisation of disasters

A big part of the instrumentalisation of disasters today is the logic of deterrence. Many aid workers and human rights workers saw the appalling conditions on the Greek island of Lesbos as part of an attempt to deter migration. In Calais, government officials have sometimes made it pretty clear that they want to maintain pressure on the migrants and to make conditions so bad as to discourage people from coming, and migrants/refugees in Calais themselves also saw a connection. For example, one young Sudanese man from Darfur said in the summer of 2016 when we were in Calais that “beatings are getting worse as large numbers are here now and they [the police] want to discourage it.”

The political instrumentalisation of Calais has involved not just deterrence, but also political theatre aimed at domestic audiences. This is partly about stirring up fears and then exploiting them politically. Particularly in the run-up to the UK’s Brexit referendum in June 2016, Calais was repeatedly on the front page of the UK’s Daily Mail, the Daily Express, and the Sun—considered right-wing newspapers. It somehow symbolised, crystallised and exacerbated very deep-rooted fears about immigration, criminality, disease, terrorism, and loss of control.

Another political pay-off from the high-profile situation in Calais was that it allowed the British government under Labour and then under David Cameron to send a strong message that, even while still within the EU, the UK was taking tough measures to control illegal immigration. When UK border controls were set up in France in 2002, this contributed to a sharp fall in UK asylum applications. It also had the effect of fostering the informal migrant settlements around Calais, which were then used to underline the necessity of strong controls.

Ever since the first major settlement in Calais in 1999, there have been periodic police actions to intimidate and disperse people. I think a great many British people do not realise what has been done ‘on their behalf’ in Calais and surrounding areas. This is an example of what Mark Duffield referred to a long time ago as ‘functional ignorance’. The UK government is been deeply complicit in this particular ‘hostile environment’, and indeed Calais migrants have often expressed this view. The UK has helped to plan and fund dispersals and has also sometimes taken credit for them. For example, a 2010 UK government press release welcomed the package of actions agreed with France the previous year, saying a key measure was “the dismantling of the illegal encampments along the Channel and North Sea coast.”[1]

In October 2016, French police, in coordination with the UK, destroyed the most famous ‘jungle’ camp, which had been established on a landfill site ridden with asbestos in January 2015. But such measures tend to disperse migrants and make them less visible rather than actually resolving the situation. In his book Illegality Inc., Swedish anthropologist Ruben Andersson brilliantly documented the way migration controls shift the problem geographically while allowing short-term gains from appearing tough.

In Calais, the violence of French police has been well documented, for example by the Refugee Rights Data Project (now Refugee Rights Europe) and by Human Rights Watch. One Calais volunteer told us: “Everyone has had experience of teargas or rubber bullets. The head injuries from rubber bullets were terrible.”

Sadly, the very enterprise of the migrants seems to have attracted further police repression. This may reflect what Noam Chomsky once called the threat of a good example. While we were at the camp in 2016, there was a series of large-scale police raids on the surprisingly vibrant network of shops and restaurants, closing some and confiscating food, drinks and documents.

Violent action and the plausibility of propaganda

This brings me to Hannah Arendt’s concept of ‘action as propaganda’ – essentially the use of violent action (often by totalitarian regimes) to create a world in which implausible propaganda becomes more plausible over time. One historical example she gave was confining Jews to insanitary ghettoes and camps so that they came to appear disease-ridden and even less than human, in line with Nazi propaganda. Calais has been a horrendous example of ‘action as propaganda’, with harsh punishment of any signs of cultural or economic life; meanwhile, violence and disease are generally portrayed as part of the threat that Calais poses, ignoring the reality of a community that could be extraordinarily kind and hospitable. Even the violence and disease that have occurred in the camp have overwhelmingly been a consequence of neglect and overcrowding. Meanwhile, the very brutality of police responses has helped reinforce the message that these vulnerable people are somehow an existential threat to Western populations.

Calais is part of a much wider phenomenon of outsourcing migration control. This involves a large dose of de-responsibilisation, a fairly systematic tolerance for human rights abuses that are in some sense functional and that can also be conveniently blamed on others.

And if widespread official violence and the instrumentalisation of disaster can happen right under the eyes of a free press and under the watch of two of the world’s most established democracies, what then is possible in greater seclusion?

EU member states have enabled the Libyan Coast Guard to turn back thousands of people to Libya, where they face torture, sexual violence and other horrendous abuses[2]. In Sudan, the Rapid Support Forces (which grew out of the notorious Janjaweed militias responsible for genocide) have been deployed against migrants (usually from ethnic groups victimised in the genocide) as part of Sudan’s effort to demonstrate to the European Union that it can contain flows of migrants[3].

We need to be extraordinarily wary of the signals sent when certain populations are deemed systematically to be unwanted and even, in Arendt’s telling word, ‘undeportable’. Arendt showed that in the 1920s and 1930s, in a context of mass expulsions in Europe and a corresponding unwillingness to receive these people, “the very phrase ‘human rights’ became for all concerned—victims, persecutors, and onlookers alike—the evidence of hopeless idealism or fumbling feeble-minded hypocrisy.”[4] The Nazis had carefully tested the ground and found that almost no-one was willing to receive the Jews, Arendt stressed, before they launched their project of elimination.

How can all this possibly be justified? Well, today the shadowy figure of the ‘people smuggler’ has acquired important political functions as a scapegoat and a convenient alibi for neglect and abuse by a range of political authorities and unaccountable militias. Studies of the diverse economic and political functions of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism suggest that the rebel or terrorist has frequently become a kind of useful enemy[5]; I would suggest that in many ways the figure of ‘people smuggler’ has stepped conveniently into this pre-existing paradigm. And like the terrorist, the ‘exploitative smuggler’ is also routinely reproduced by the policies of those who claim to revile him, not least the tightening of immigration controls (as Andersson and others have shown).

Closely related to the relentless official focus on the ‘human smuggler’ is the tendency to place everything within an ‘anti-crime’ framework. Again, crime is a reality, but it is very dangerous when anything and anyone remotely connected to migration—including the attempt to claim asylum—is labelled as criminal. The emerging ‘anti-crime’ framework is also a great alibi for abusive officials or neglectful officials and a great way of disguising official involvement in fuelling conflict.

The redefinition of humanitarianism

Closely related to the war on crime and on human smugglers is a fairly systematic redefinition of humanitarianism. Humanitarianism has today been routinely redefined as the prevention of dangerous journeys. In these circumstances, Western government policies that make these journeys more dangerous; for example, the curbing of search-and-rescue in the Mediterranean, or encouraging violence in Calais, or even turning a blind eye to attacks on migrants travelling through Mexico serve as another form of Arendt’s ‘action as propaganda’. Within this emerging system, drowning may come to serve two related functions—first, as deterrence and, second, as propaganda for the allegedly ‘humanitarian’ project of preventing people from making the journey in the first place.

It seems to be a case – to paraphrase Henry II’s infamous reported incitement to the murder of archbishop Thomas-a-Becket, of “who will rid us of these troublesome migrants?” As with the creation of ‘safe areas’ in Bosnia that turned out not to be safe, Western governments cannot be honest about the evolving situation in France, Greece, Libya, Sudan, Mexico, Turkey, Sri Lanka and many other countries when they are obsessed with containing people within those environments.


[1] UK Prime Minister’s Office, 2010, UK-France Summit 2010 Declaration on Immigration, November 2. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-france-summit-2010-declaration-on-immigration
[2] Amnesty International, 2017, Libya’s Dark Web of Collusion, December
[3] Suliman Baldo, 2017, Ominous Threats Descending on Darfur, Enough, Washington, November; Susanne Jaspars and Margie Buchanan-Smith, 2018, Darfuri migration from Sudan to Europe; From displacement to despair, ODI, London, September forthcoming
[4] Hannah Arendt, 1951, The Origins of Totalitarianism, New York, Harcourt Brace.
[5] David Keen, 2012, Useful Enemies: When Waging Wars is More Important than Winning Them, Yale University Press.

David-Keen.jpgAbout the author: 

David Keen is Professor of Conflict Studies, London School of Economics. He has worked extensively on understanding war, including its causes and functions.

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


Thea

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.

RG4

 

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: ...

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, ...