Tag Archives Humanitarian

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

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

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 explains why the current international system is becoming irrelevant. A world citizenship approach must urgently be explored. This blog is based on a presentation delivered at the International Humanitarian Studies Association Conference held in August 2018 at the ISS.


When the founding fathers—and the single founding mother—were assembling the building blocks of the United Nations in the waning months of WWII, they were spurred by narrative of ‘never again’. Jettisoning the lofty Wilsonian ideals of the League of Nations, they expressed their notions of peace and security through a mix of functionalist ideas (strongly influenced by David Mitrany) and the victors’ can-do capitalist spirit—a sort of Fordism applied to international relations: the right mix of money and technical expertise would set the scene for peace and development ‘in larger freedom.’ The notion that collective action problems (i.e. politics) could be solved or at least defused by depoliticising them through technique is one of the great contributions of the UN to international cooperation. This approach worked more (decolonisation) or less (superpower crossed vetoes) for some 50 years. Then something broke.

Despite the heart-warming rhetoric of ‘we the peoples’, the unit of measure in the international system was definitely the state. Sovereignty was worshipped in the UN. It became the Temple of States. But while states were busy honouring and polishing the Temple’s tabernacle, the world had moved on. The post-WWII order built on sovereignty, triumphant capitalism and superpower rivalry collapsed with the Wall, but the institutions established to ‘manage’ this order hardly noticed. It became progressively clear that the ‘system’ was constitutionally unfit to deal with transnationality and that ‘sovereign’ states were unable to rein in unregulated transnational capitalism and globalisation, not to mention radicalised non-geographical armed groups and movements, the havoc they and the GWOT wreaked, population flows (forced and voluntary), and climate change. Trump and the demise of multilateralism are but an epiphenomenon in the collapse of the so-called rule-based world order.

What did the UN ever do for us?

A system of global order based on the idealised notion of sovereign states, and their power configurations as they stood 70 years ago, are poorly equipped to deal with collective action problems that are transnational at their core. Moreover, citizens have no say whatsoever in how these institutions are run and for whose benefit. All attempts to reform the UN have failed. Yet it rambles on with its tiny brain and huge dyslexic body to which additional appendages are added as soon as a ‘new’ problem hits the headlines. Conventional wisdom has it that only a WWIII might provide enough motivation and vision to equip the UN for the future. Let’s not go there. Instead, let’s think outside the box.

If UN reform is pointless, then DRUNSA is the answer: Don’t Reform the UN, Start Again.[i] Build something in parallel; if it works, it will move centre stage. There is a research agenda here on how to make transnational citizen participation the cornerstone of any institutional reform.

The argument goes like this: the Temple of States was not conceived as a tool to deal with transnationality. It sacralises sovereignty and demonises the individual with or without citizenship. Yet in transnational times, states are unable to cope with crises, and citizens have no say on the consequences of transnational forces that affect them directly. Citizenship, for now, is inherently linked to the nation-state. But if the nation-state is no longer able to respond to citizens’ needs and is downright hostile to those seeking refuge or lack citizenship, perhaps the time has come to redefine citizenship by de-linking it from territory.

For now, this is little more than a pipe dream. But shouldn’t the question of the participation of human beings on matters that affect them directly be put on the agenda? And if this agenda cannot be handled by the UN because it goes against the grain of the outdated power dynamics of a sclerotic organisation, shouldn’t citizens and civil society start thinking of a UN 2.0—or better still a UCO (United Citizens Organisation)? This UCO would be based on the principle that “as a citizen of the world, I should have a say on anything that affects me”. In an extreme example, “if democracy is supposed to give voters some control over their own conditions … should a US election not involve most people on earth?” [ii] This is actually not such a revolutionary idea. It has been around for a while.[iii]

The point here is that mainstream international institutions are increasingly less relevant to the nature and scale of the conflicts and crises of the early 21st century. The toll on civilians caught up or trying to flee vicious wars is particularly high. Armed conflict itself is changing and so is its cortège of humanitarian consequences. We are in a pre-Solferino moment where the old laws no longer work and new ones adapted to the current dispensation have yet to emerge.

The humanitarian internationale suffers from similar ills as the state-based international “system”. Its very makeup is consubstantial with the state system as it is based on the triad of western donors, UN agencies, and prevalently western NGOs (in ethos if not in terms of nationality). It may have reached its structural limits. Humanitarian principles have stood the test of time but it is unlikely that they will survive the current wave of transnational crises and conflicts.

 A good place to start DRUNSA is by bringing the citizen into the decision making around humanitarian action. Rhetoric around participation and accountability to affected communities abounds, but the stubborn reality is that the humanitarian enterprise is anything but accountable or participatory. It continues to be an establishment—some say a club—in which the rules have been set, so to speak, by absentee feudal landlords who have no clue about how the land is tilled.

To sum up, it is dubious that nation states can have durable success in combating transnational forces (of capital, finance, ethno-religious millenarism and the like). These movements are better countered transnationally through an UCO or coalitions of civil society groups or similar citizen-driven initiatives.

United Against Inhumanity: citizens at the centre

And this brings us to United Against Inhumanity (UAI), an emerging global movement of citizens and civil society who are outraged by the inability and unwillingness of the formal international system to address the causes and consequences of armed conflict. One of the goals of UAI is to work with citizen and civil society organisations and to put the citizen at the centre of efforts to combat the inhumanity of warfare and the abomination of measures that deny those in need of refuge the right to seek asylum. It aims to increase the political and reputational damage to perpetrators and to support civil society mobilisation actions on the inhumanity of war and the erosion of asylum.


[i] Kudos to Martin Barber for having coined the acronym and set up the DRUNSA organisation of which as far as I know he and I were the only two members.
[iii] R.Dasgupta, “The demise of the nation state”, The Guardian, 5 April 2018.

hqdefaultAbout the author: 

Antonio Donini is a humanitarian researcher and one of the initiators of the emerging United Against InHumanity movement. This blog is based on a presentation he gave at the 2018 IHSA Conference. He can be reached at: antonio.donini@tufts.edu.

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

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

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 associated with the building of physical and psychological walls, showing that ultimately, this act negatively influences the relationship between humanitarian staff and local populations. Humanitarian aid workers and scholars must actively investigate how they manage the security of humanitarian staff to prevent this from happening.


Ahead of 2018 World Humanitarian Day on 19 August, organisations are again pushing for recognition of the safety of their staff and operations in countries such as Yemen, South Sudan, Syria and the DRC. In 2017, 313 aid workers were victims of major attacks, of which over 90% were national staff.[1] The perception of this type of violence is hugely influential for how the humanitarian community engages with and responds to the environment where aid work aims to alleviate suffering.

The discourse on violence in humanitarian work, and specifically that of severe violence, has helped exaggerate existential threats and foster a climate of heightened fear.[2] It is in this context that humanitarian risk management found significant traction.[3] Although the delivery of aid has always been in areas experiencing severe violence and suffering from natural disasters or conflict for example, humanitarian security is increasingly seen as a vital part of protecting both the concept and practice of aid.

The need for ways to assess humanitarian security risks

However, there exists no common framework for assessing and responding to risks for humanitarian programming and staff. Ideally, such frameworks are used to identify harm, the probability and severity of the impact, and the development of an appropriate response by the organisation.[4] However, the widespread use of “standard” risk management approaches in humanitarian work represents an increased reliance on standardised assessments and “expert” opinion. The knowledge of staff on the ground, whether in senior management positions or not, arguably no longer feeds into the creation and implementation of security protocols and manuals.

Blanket approaches to the management of security, including both operational and staff security, may mean that stringent restrictions on the movement and visibility of aid workers results in their distancing from those they aim to help. Building concrete walls, setting up barbed wire fences, and posting a security guard in front of the main gate may be a way to deter violence, yet this approach to security can do more harm than good in the long run.

Humanitarian organisations must do more

Presently, the international community approaches security from a reactive stance, often putting in place measures only after major incidences have occurred and without institutionalising dedicated security advisor roles. Yet, and indeed, while aid will never be delivered in entirely “peaceful” spaces, humanitarian organisations must do more to approach their security in ways that neither threaten their own existence, nor that of their staff and the local population.

The current environment of risk management does not allow for the consideration of individual decisions based on available information.[5] This “new” risk management approach is, arguably, institutionalised in aid organisations and erodes individual and local autonomy in favour of distant security experts.[6] Further, the use of security protocols and fortification procedures, in combination with continuous attacks against aid workers, continues to push organisations to react by putting up walls, setting up perimeter lining of their buildings, and reducing the movement and visibility of staff.

This discourse of fear poses significant problems for the future of humanitarian action:

“Risk” leading to invisibility, separation, or absence: Approaching risks in humanitarian programming from a reactive stance can result in the visible separation of aid workers from the local population through their withdrawal into fortified aid compounds. Beyond the visible separation, security protocols can generate a discourse of fear of the “Other”, and can even lead to the absence of humanitarian aid programmes or a transfer of risk to local partner organisations without an accompanying transfer of capacities.

Top-down and divisive approaches to security: Not only does a blanket approach to security fail to consider local information and experiences, but it also can significantly hinder the communication between HQ and the field, as well as between the senior positions on the ground and the national staff. This divide can lead to a loss of trust between the two, resulting in a stop of reporting on security incidences to protect jobs and the program as a whole.[7] The stark divide between both the number of national versus international staff affected by violence, as well as the different security procedures for each, significantly contributes to this.

Materiality of reactive security management and its impact on everyday life inside and outside the compound: The materiality of the actual fortification can serve to enable and hinder, shape and change the way in which aid workers inhabit the space inside the compound. Daily routines of requiring permission to exit the compound, using armored vehicles when doing so, and physically and visually reducing ‘seeing’ the beneficiary are results of existing security measures. This can not only have implications for how aid workers act inside the compound, but also for how they perceive their own security, positionality in the local context, and their relationships with other organisations and actors in the space. The compound’s spatial manifestation itself can also influence the local economy. Building materials required for fortification (or even the building of an office space) can impact and alter demand, potentially resulting in price inflation, a reduction of available goods, and an undermining of both local building practices and businesses.

The translation of security protocols and manuals into the everyday: Whereas the generation and implementation of security manuals and protocols is most likely not going to be phased out anytime soon, the way in which aid workers interact with these structures and guidelines every day can greatly improve or undermine how humanitarian aid is carried out and perceived on the ground. Protocols become operationalised through their interpretation, use and adaptation in the context in which they are employed. Restrictions on movements and strict reporting chains can lead to aid workers not only experiencing the local environment in very “securitised” ways, but can also visibly signal to the local population that the organisation sees their space as insecure outside the walls of their own “safe” compound.

Rather than ignoring some of these issues, the humanitarian community must actively investigate its own security management and understand how their actions, materiality and visibility can contribute to safely delivering the assistance they are set up to do. This involves recognising their complicity, through their own discourse and everyday actions, in generating an environment that would rather build walls than find ways to safely integrate themselves in the local society they aim to serve.


[1] Humanitarian Outcomes, “Aid Worker Security Report: Figures at a Glance” (London: Humanitarian Outcomes, 2018), https://aidworkersecurity.org/sites/default/files/AWSR%20Figures%202018.pdf.
[2] Larissa Fast, Aid in Danger: The Perils and Promise of Humanitarianism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 51.
[3] Important to note here that there is a distinction between risk and security management of aid organizations. Risk management encompasses, as one of its dimensions, the management of security.
[4] Victoria Metcalfe, Ellen Martin, and Sara Pantuliano, “Risk in Humanitarian Action: Towards a Common Approach?,” Policy Brief, HPG Commissioned Paper (London: Overseas Development Institute: Humanitarian Policy Group, 2011), 2.
[5] Mark Duffield, “Risk-Management and the Fortified Aid Compound: Everyday Life in Post-Interventionary Society,” Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 4, no. 4 (2010): 463, https://doi.org/10.1080/17502971003700993.
[6] Duffield, 463.
[7] Ashley Jackson and Steven A. Zyck, “Presence and Proximity: To Stay and Deliver, Five Years On” (Geneva: Norwegian Refugee Council; UNOCHA; Jindal School of International Affairs, 2017), 41, https://www.nrc.no/globalassets/pdf/reports/presence-and-proximity_to-stay-and-deliver—five-years-on_final_2017-web-version.pdf.

References
Duffield, Mark. “Risk-Management and the Fortified Aid Compound: Everyday Life in Post-Interventionary Society.” Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 4, no. 4 (2010): 453–74. https://doi.org/10.1080/17502971003700993.
Fast, Larissa. Aid in Danger: The Perils and Promise of Humanitarianism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.
Humanitarian Outcomes. “Aid Worker Security Report: Figures at a Glance.” London: Humanitarian Outcomes, 2018. https://aidworkersecurity.org/sites/default/files/AWSR%20Figures%202018.pdf.
Jackson, Ashley, and Steven A. Zyck. “Presence and Proximity: To Stay and Deliver, Five Years On.” Geneva: Norwegian Refugee Council; UNOCHA; Jindal School of International Affairs, 2017. https://www.nrc.no/globalassets/pdf/reports/presence-and-proximity_to-stay-and-deliver—five-years-on_final_2017-web-version.pdf.
Metcalfe, Victoria, Ellen Martin, and Sara Pantuliano. “Risk in Humanitarian Action: Towards a Common Approach?” Policy Brief. HPG Commissioned Paper. London: Overseas Development Institute: Humanitarian Policy Group, 2011.

Bressmer_photoAbout the author: 

Janine Bressmer is a PhD Candidate at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. Her research examines how humanitarian organizations approach the security of their operations and staff, the spatial manifestations of security in terms of fortified aid compounds, and the implications for the practice and concept of humanitarian action. The project is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

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

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 violations in Myanmar. Out of fear to be forced to cease operations or to get fired, they keep silent and carry on. This raises the question: should the scholars engaging with them speak up in their stead? This blog provides a reflection of whether and how scholars can get involved in the entanglements of humanitarianism and conflict. It also provides insights into the ethical and practical reasons why both aid workers and scholars sometimes hesitate to become more engaged.


The time we were doing fieldwork relating to the governance and the accountability of aid in Myanmar coincided with a massive exodus of the Rohingya Muslim minority fleeing persecution and the destruction of their homes in the northwestern Rakhine province. Yet, as we asked broader questions relating to the accountability of aid, the stories of humanitarian aid workers resounded with us. Stories of frustration and powerlessness, as they felt barriers were posed to their work not only by authorities, but also by their own organisations. As scholars, we felt determined that we wanted to ‘do something’. But along with this urge to act came insecurities and concerns.

Providing aid in restrictive settings

Local and international relief agencies that work in restrictive conflict settings are doing something that is intrinsically difficult. Often perceived as a threat by authorities involved in violence, agencies need to make sure they remain tolerated and even supported by these same authorities in order to operate effectively and deliver aid to those in need. In practice in Myanmar, aid agencies are stuck in the middle of two discourses: that of the United Nations that from afar qualifies the military offensive in Rakhine as a « textbook example of ethnic cleansing », and that of Myanmar authorities, who claim they were fighting Rohingya militias only and deny targeting civilians.

Faced with the overwhelming need for support to continue operating in the field, most humanitarian agencies refrain from being overtly critical of human rights violations and prefer to assert their position as impartial and neutral aid providers. Only very few are allowed by the government to work in Rakhine, and those who may, generally keep silent about what they observe. No wonder: when in 2014 Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said that it was deeply concerned about the tens of thousands of people it was treating, the government forced it to cease operations in Myanmar. In order to avoid that for their own organisations, most aid agencies active on the ground thus strictly do and say what they’ve agreed to in (obligated) memoranda of understanding with the government—even if that does not match needs on the ground.

The personal dilemmas of humanitarians

These strategic decisions, however understandable, can have major consequences for the people whom agencies come to assist, but also have psychological implications for relief workers. Many suffer from what Hugo Slim has termed ‘bystander anxiety’. And this was also evident during our interviews: many of those we talked to in Yangon felt anxious and frustrated by the violence they observed in the field and the self-censorship they observed within their own organisations.

One field officer of a large international organisation felt that his agency was « sacrifying its principles and moral authority » in exchange for Rakhine field access and status, which was not even alleviating suffering on the ground because the government forbade actual activities. After he anonymously spoke to journalists, the whole team received a serious warning never to speak to the press again. He lamented the complete lack of internal discussions on these dilemmas, even as many of the staff, including Rohingya, « begged the organisation to speak out ».

We heard many similar stories from humanitarians working for INGOs or the UN. They could not openly discuss, let alone act upon, what they observed in the field. Particularly in meetings attended by the government, they knew « not to be critical ».

Here is where the scholars could come in, but often don’t do so.

Four broad arguments can motivate scholars to engage in the humanitarianism-conflict debate. First, as independent researchers in the field, scholars have more freedom to speak up. Second, many will argue that ‘speaking the truth’ is a scholarly duty. Third, scholars’ voice might carry differently than that of human rights organisations or journalists, as scholars are supposed to adhere to rigorous scientific and ethical standards that grant their research some credibility. Last, academics increasingly vary their channels to seek ‘societal impact’. Newspaper articles, debate evenings, social media and blogs such as this one can help convey to a wider audience what would otherwise remain obscured.

But this freedom comes with responsibilities. Scholars, somewhat like humanitarians, tread a fine line between engaging in effective action and making their own work—or worse, that of relief agencies or local research partners—harder or even impossible to carry out. Discussions about the role of researchers are by no means new. Take the discussions on scholar activism and action research (combing research and social change work), or the divide in the field of anthropology, amongst others, between those who believe they should retain distance in the field and those who support local activism or other types of involvement.

Ethics aren’t the only reason scholars often don’t speak up. Many of the issues that came up during our Myanmar discussions were practical, concerning safety, future access to visas and research permits, academic integrity, and access to non-academic channels, both in terms of networks and skills. Myanmar is a complex setting to work in, not only for humanitarians. Scholars and journalists also face difficulties in accessing the field, while some have been deported or arrested.

Moreover, the ‘hard evidence’ was thin. There would not be enough informants allowing for the rigorous cross-validation of statements. Interviews could not always be recorded and informants insisted that they, their agency and the locality where they operated should remain confidential to avoid raising colleagues’ or authorities’ suspicions. Were these stories even convincing enough for people who hadn’t been here, let alone fulfilling academic standards? Wouldn’t journalists after all be a better fit to relay them?

The answers might differ for each scholar, for each person. We share them to stir up a conversation and to share our doubts with researchers and (inter)national practitioners alike. Even with intentions to change local realities for the better, it’s not easy to take the leap from scholar to messenger. Yet, who else would fulfil that role?

This blog is a first attempt to support humanitarians who can’t speak up.


chantal-ariens-portret-high-res.jpgAbout the authors:

Roanne van Voorst is a postdoctoral researcher involved in the research projectisa”When disaster meets conflict. Disaster response of humanitarian aid and local state and non-state institutions in different conflict scenarios” at the ISS.

Isabelle Desportes is a PhD candidate working on the governance of disaster response, in particular the interplay between humanitarian and local actors.

 

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

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

About the author:
Thea
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, and one of the strategies that many people use to secure their livelihoods. Dorothea Hilhorst argues that humanitarian agencies, instead of ignoring this reality or understanding it solely as a form of sexual violence should rethink their view on the issue.


The #MeToo movement has swept through the world with millions of women testifying to sexual violence they have encountered. It has not left the humanitarian world untouched. In a brave guest column for Irinnews, two anonymous aid workers lift the veil of #MeToo in the humanitarian world. The humanitarian world, reads the by-line of the column, is not populated by saints, and the aid workers speak out about sexual harassment and assault in their sector.

Sexual violence in the humanitarian world is an extremely sensitive topic. It conflicts with everything humanitarian aid stands for and is morally akin to sex scandals in the Catholic Church. It evokes the scandal that rippled through the aid world in 2001 when female refugees in West Africa complained about being forced by aid workers to trade sex for food. Codes of conduct and other high-level interventions have subsequently promoted preventive action and alertness to abuse.

The aid workers writing the column also refer to the use of sex workers by male colleagues, especially in Africa. They take offence at the banter of these colleagues who come to the office after the weekend and brag about their sexual adventures. While I share the sentiment that such talk is offensive to anyone forced to listen in, I have difficulty accepting – as the column suggests – that  sexwork in the context of humanitarian crises must always be seen as sexual violence. To my mind, humanitarian actors should broaden their view of transactional sex beyond sexual violence and acknowledge that it is an important aspect of livelihoods.

2017-10-25-PHOTO-00000008.jpgIn the wake of the 2001 scandal, transactional sex in humanitarian emergencies – if discussed at all – has usually been considered under the heading of sexual violence. The sector is uneasily silent about the phenomenon, even though there is ample evidence which suggests that women – and men –resort in great numbers to transactional sex to survive a humanitarian crisis or to organize their livelihoods in times of duress. Apart from prostitution, where sex is directly exchanged for money, there is a massive and ill-demarcated resorting to transactional sex where the exchange of gifts is part of a broader set of relations. Although this is often construed as a form of sexual violence where powerful men abuse women’s despair to gratify their desires, there is also agency in the choice of people to engage in transactional sex. In 2016, I was part of a research team of the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium, investigating the multiple realities of prostitution and transactional sex in Eastern DRC, together with colleagues from the gender center of the Institut Supérieur de Développement Rural in Bukavu, DRC. Our report, based on a large survey, interviews and focus group discussions showed a variety of reasons to engage in transactional sex, most importantly poverty and distress – but also the desire to advance in education or careers.

There are important reasons why the humanitarian world should be more explicitly concerned with transactional sex. Once it is recognized that transactional sex is often a livelihood strategy, this would also open the way for the provision of services and protection against some of the risks that come with the trade. Many women in our research revealed health problems related to their sexual relations. Lack of contraceptives makes pregnancy for most a constant threat, with many stories of children borne from transactional relations. Among the 480 sexworkers we surveyed, more than 200 reported to have undergone one or multiple (illegal) abortions. Awareness programmes and reproductive health services could make a big difference to this number.

There are clearly moments when transactional sex should be treated as sexual violence. Obvious cases are when perpetrators take advantage of the fact that someone has no other option to survive, when it concerns children, or when aid workers abuse their position and trade aid for sex. Outside of these, there remain many cases where adults engage in consensual yet transactional relations in areas of humanitarian crises. However, these relations are prone to become violent too. The stories of women we interviewed were full of instances of clients that refused to pay or used force, and of police officers demanding free sex. Transactional sex can never be an excuse for rape. The point is that outlawing transactional sex or making it a taboo will make it more difficult to identify and address cases of violence and abuse.

Once they get rid of the atmosphere of taboo and prohibition around transactional sex as a form of livelihood, authorities and service providers could start to listen to the specific stories of abuse, and encourage victims to report them. Making transactional sex a topic on the humanitarian agenda – seeking to strike a balance between ethics of aid, respecting the agency of people engaging in transactional sex and offering protection and services – is a first step