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Glocalization: a possible key to decoloniality in the aid sector?

As global as needed, as local as possible: glocal is a buzzword both in the humanitarian and development fields. According to many, acting glocal is a possible response to the long debate on coloniality in aid, and the key for a new generation of international practices that are more aware, more equal, and more balanced. But recent practices show how also glocalization can be steeped into coloniality: who is deciding what is possible and what is needed? And which voices, among the many that are composing the so-called Global South are being heard?

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Coloniality and the aid sector

The Peruvian Sociologist Anibal Quijano used the word Coloniality to identify patterns, structures, norms, customs and beliefs, based on the generally white, Christian and Eurocentric vision of the world, formerly directly imposed on colonized countries, that remained there even after the colonization ended.

Coloniality expresses itself in 4 realms: Coloniality of power – how power is shared and used in a way that resembles the old models of former colonizing states, Coloniality of being– how human beings are classified in a hierarchical fashion according to  if they belong to the dominant group (or not), usually composed of white, European, Christian men, Coloniality of knowledge -how knowledge is categorized according to a Eurocentric perspective that juxtaposes the alleged “rationality” and “universality” of European knowledge, to any other kind of knowledge produced in other contexts, and Coloniality of gender, to refer to the imposition of European gender structures and categories over non European gender cultures and traditions.

The aid sector is directly linked to colonial history and it has been identified as  embodying several forms of neocolonialism. Critics focus mainly on three factors:

  1. Providing assistance is often a way to keep influencing the agenda of a self-governing entity, its decision making processes and allocation and use of resources located in former colonies;
  2. The sector lives on the assumption that knowledge is produced in the “Global North” and magnanimously brought to the “South”, that civilization, wellbeing and individual rights as they are conceived in the “North” are concepts that need to be introduced into a generally primitive and otherwise wild “South”
  3. In the mainstream narrative of the aid relation, the main character, the hero, the agent, is the person from the “North”, who is usually depicted as a white non-disabled man, while those who participate into actions and projects in the South are reduced to passive objects in need of help, often called “beneficiaries”.

There are several signs of momentum for decoloniality in the sector, and different initiatives have arisen to question the colonial foundations of the aid industry. Such initiatives look at narratives, logistics, human resources, visual communication, project cycle management and funding mechanisms. The most recent and visible move in this direction is the Pledge for Change, initiated by Degan Ali, Executive Director of the African non-governmental organization (NGO) Adeso, with support from the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership. Originally signed by five major NGOs, the pledge today has over twice that number of signatories. It identifies three streams of change: equitable partnership, authentic storytelling, and influencing wider change

In this landscape, one of the most vivid debates is around the role, space, position and power that communities, groups and organizations rooted in countries traditionally receiving aid have in shaping the relation with programs. Too often they are still considered passive beneficiaries of programs designed without their involvement, who should be grateful from whatever arrives from the white savior, even though what arrives is not adequate to the context and does not address needs and priorities.

Glocalization in aid

The concept of Glocalization was borrowed from marketing and introduced into the sector straight after the launch of the Agenda for Sustainable Development, as a key methodology for successful implementation of the agenda.

The meaning of the word Glocalization is usually summarized into “think global, act local”. It recognizes the need for a coexistence between global trends and dynamics and specific needs, priorities, knowledge, customs, and cultures.

From a decolonial perspective, the concept of Glocalization appears interesting at least for two reasons:

  • Values, knowledge, and epistemology: traditionally the whole aid industry assumes that valuable skills and knowledge arrive from former colonial powers. Aid workers bring “capacities” to those who allegedly don’t have any. A huge collection of local, indigenous, and traditional knowledge on which local systems are based is ignored, dismissed, and historically sidelines, or often intentionally destroyed. Glocalization encourages learning from the local and using local knowledge when it is the best fit to reach the intended outcome, without importing and imposing knowledge and practices from other contexts.
  • Agenda setting: who participates in decision making processes, who decides that something represents a problem, and that this needs to be urgently sorted with international support. The concept of glocalization includes and encourages agency from local actors and recognizes their power to shape global trends, while asking international actors to place themselves in a position of openness and active listening.

However, the use and ownership of the word “glocalization” has mirrored a still-very-unbalanced North-South relation. The first use can be seen in allegedly glocal actions and programs (including manuals that should support the practical implementation of glocalization), while the second simply accepted the term as a new buzzword that needs to be mentioned in project proposals in order to receive funds.

Looking at the use and application of allegedly glocal approaches, we are called to ask a difficult question: Who is deciding when local is possible and when global is needed? In other words, who has the power? Glocalization practices need to start at decision making level: no real glocalization can be possible if the agency of communities, civil societies and other actors located in countries traditionally receiving aid is not recognized and given space.

If we return to the concept of coloniality, we soon realize that for true glocalization, this practice needs to be deeply connected to a decolonial process. On the contrary, we are too often witnessing a sort of “glocal-washing”, where those who traditionally held power and resources keep doing so, through a seemingly different process. If existing power relations are not challenged, and if the process of knowledge production does not change, the usual suspects will decide how and when to ‘go glocal’.


Having difficult conversations

The word glocalization by itself suggests that there is no one-fits-all solution, and that every context needs to be interpreted, explored and listened to, in order to find adequate and unique solutions.
Each context requires a different balance between global and local, and this balance can emerge only if power relations are questioned, and if glocalization is approached from a decolonial perspective.
The first step are not the manuals produced in the so-called Global North. The first step is finding the way to have difficult conversations on power, knowledge, and resources, with the communities that will participate into aid programs.

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About the author:

Carla Vitantonio is a Humanitarian and development professional, author, researcher. She is a member of the board of the International Humanitarian Studies Association. In 2022, she was awarded the honor of Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Stella d’Italia by the President of the Republic of Italy, for her activity as a humanitarian and as an author.

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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

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

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

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.

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

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.