Tag Archives racism

Hanging by a thread: what’s right – and wrong – with the new German supply chain law meant to protect human rights

Hanging by a thread: what’s right – and wrong – with the new German supply chain law meant to protect human rights

After years of civil society campaigning against the working conditions of supply chain workers in the Global South supplying German companies and consumers, the German government recently agreed to the ...

Germany is a deeply racist country―stop pretending otherwise

Germany is a deeply racist country―stop pretending otherwise

While Germany has been lauded for agreeing to take in 1,700 refugees from refugee camp Moria that recently burned to the ground, the country has been cited as a role ...

Fighting racism and decolonizing humanitarian studies: toward mindful scholarship

Addressing racism and decolonizing humanitarian studies is urgent, and as scholars we need to step up our efforts. Partnerships between scholars and conflict-affected communities are as unequal as ever, and the disparities between humanitarian studies in the global North and global South remain large. Dorothea Hilhorst here introduces the importance of localization in humanitarian studies that will be discussed in an upcoming workshop on 20 August, highlighting the need for equal partnerships and meaningful participation, as well as continuous debate to move beyond quick fixes in addressing structural and persistent inequalities.

Scholars taking notes during a lecture
Credit: IHSA

Triggered by recent renewed attention to racism and worldwide protests urging change, the lid placed on racism in the humanitarian aid sector has been blown off. Last year’s international meeting of ALNAP concluded that inequality and discrimination in the humanitarian aid sector are a reality, and threatens its core foundation, namely the principle of humanity that views all people in equal terms. Recent weeks have seen many excellent blogs about racism in the sector and how resorting to arguments centring on capacities often obscure racist practices.

Yet racism in humanitarian studies is rarely mentioned. As scholars, we are ready to lay bare the fault lines in the humanitarian sector, but what about our own practices? It is time to address racism and decolonize humanitarian studies, too!

Turning our gaze inward

Anthony Giddens spoke of the double hermeneutic between social science and society, which co-shape each other’s understanding of the world and adopt each other’s vocabulary. In the relatively small and applied community of humanitarian studies, the double hermeneutic between academia and the field is more than discursive. Humanitarian studies can be seen to mimic many of the characteristics of its subject of research. Problems with humanitarian action are thus likely reproduced in the scholarly community that focuses on humanitarianism.

Racism-related problems with humanitarian studies can be grouped in two clusters:

First, the organization of humanitarian studies leads to a field dominated by scholars from the Global North. While scholars critically follow attempts of the sector to localize aid in an attempt to reduce racism through increasing ownership of aid processes, humanitarian studies itself may be criticized for being centred in the Global North. Adjacent domains of disaster studies and refugee studies[i] have faced similar critiques.

Research and educational institutes are mainly found in the global North, and rarely in the Global South where most humanitarian crises occur. The picture is less skewed with regards to disasters related to natural hazards, where we find many leading institutes in the Global South. However, faculties and courses dealing with humanitarianism in the Global South are scarce (see the global directory of the International Humanitarian Studies Associations for exceptions). Reasons include the dire lack of attention to higher education in donor programmes focusing on conflict-affected countries, making it almost impossible to find funding for such programmes[ii]. In 2016, at the World Humanitarian Summit, participants drafted a set of ethical commitments called for, among other things, more space for scholars and communities from crisis-affected countries (IHSA, 2016). Three years later, signatories admitted to a lack of progress which they largely attributed to structural disincentives for collaboration in their universities.

Moreover, relations between northern and southern institutions rarely attain the nature of equal partnership[iii]. The best many southern universities can usually hope for is to become a poorly paid partner that has no say in the agenda of the research and whose role is limited to data gathering. The possibility of co-authoring may not even be mentioned. I have followed closely how a gender and development institute in DRC, built around four women PhD holders, could easily find work as a sub-contractor for research, but once they developed their own agenda and proposals, donors were not interested and preferred to rely on Northern NGOs or UN agencies.

The picture becomes even direr when we take into account ethics dumping, when risks are offloaded on local researchers. Many universities in the north have adopted restrictive measures and don’t allow researchers to work in ‘red zones’. These researchers then rely on remote research and use local researchers to collect the data. One scholar told me at a conference how frustrated he was that his university did not allow him to enter a conflict area. He took residence at the border where he could regularly meet his research assistants, who gathered his data at their own risk. His frustration concerned his own impossibility to engage with the research, not the fate of these assistants! He had not considered involving the researchers in the analysis or inviting them as co-authors.

Second, methodologies and the ethics of relating to the research participants whose lives we study are problematic. Humanitarian studies is seen to be extractive, blighted by 1) a culture of direct data gathering through fieldwork and interviews at the expense of secondary data, leading to overly bothering crisis-affected communities with research; 2) a lack of feedback opportunities to communities, who see researchers come and go to obtain data and rarely, if ever, hear from them again; and 3) the assumption that participatory methods are not possible in conflict-affected areas because it is feared that social tensions will be reproduced in the research process. It is also assumed that people facing precarity and risks may have no interest in deep participation in research.

Deep participation does not mean quick and dirty participation in data gathering, such as participation in focus-group discussions where researchers can quickly move in and out of the lives of communities. Meaningful interactive research involves partners and participants as much as possible in every stage of the research[iv]. There have, however, been positive examples of participatory research in crisis-affected areas[v], and it is time that we build on these experiences and advance this work.

Thus, racism and decolonization debates have implications for methodology. Pailey critically noted that ‘the problem with the 21st-century “scholarly decolonial turn” is that it remains largely detached from the day-to-day dilemmas of people in formerly colonised spaces and places’. Similarly, Tilley[vi] argued that decolonization means ‘doing research differently’ – equally and collaboratively.

Of course, there are also reasons for caution with participatory methods that may be more pronounced in humanitarian crises. First, social realities are, in many ways, influenced by (governance) processes happening elsewhere, beyond immediate observation. Second, participatory methods may be prone to identifying outcomes that reflect the biases of the research facilitators (facipulator effects) and/or political elites participating in the process. Third, participatory processes risk feeding into existing tensions and creating harm. Research in crisis-affected areas may entail more risks and tends to be more politicized compared with other research.

It is therefore important to build on positive experiences while maintaining a critical dialogue on the possibilities of participatory research in humanitarian studies. As scholars, we need to work hard to break down the disincentives, to work towards equal partnerships, and to develop more participatory methodologies that treat conflict-affected communities as competent and reflexive agents that can participate in all aspects of the research process.

The environments of humanitarian studies are highly politicized and complex, and there are no quick fixes for our collaborations and methodologies. Thus, while stepping up our efforts, we also need to rely on the core of the academe: continuous debate and critically reflection on how we can enhance partnership for ethical research in humanitarian studies.

Inspired? Join the IHSA/NCSH webinar on Thursday 20 August, 11-12 CET.

This blog was written at the start of a 5-year research programme on humanitarian governance, aiming to decolonize humanitarian studies. The project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, project 884139.

[i] Sukarieh, M., & Tannock, S. (2019). Subcontracting Academia: Alienation, Exploitation and Disillusionment in the UK Overseas Syrian Refugee Research Industry. Antipode, 51(2), 664–680.

[ii] In 2016, at the World Humanitarian Summit, participants drafted a set of ethical commitments that called for, among other things, more space for scholars and communities from crisis-affected countries (IHSA, 2016). Three years later, signatories admitted to a lack of progress, which they largely attributed to structural disincentives for collaboration in their universities.

[iii] Cronin-Furman, K., & Lake, M. (2018). Ethics Abroad: Fieldwork in Fragile and Violent Contexts. PS – Political Science and Politics, 51(3), 607–614. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1049096518000379

[iv] Voorst, R. van and D. Hilhorst (2018) ‘Key Points of Interactive Research: An Ethnographic Approach to Risk’. In A. Olofsson and Jens O. Zinn Researching Risk and Uncertainty. Methodologies, Methods and Research Strategies. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, pp 53-77

[v] Haar, G. van der, Heijmans, A., & Hilhorst, D. (2013). Interactive research and the construction of knowledge in conflict-affected settings. Disasters, 37(SUPPL.1), 20–35. https://doi.org/10.1111/disa.12010

[vi] Tilley, L. (2017). Resisting Piratic Method by Doing Research Otherwise. Sociology, 51(1), 27–42. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038038516656992

About the author:

Dorothea HilhorstDorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is a regular author for Bliss. Read all her posts here.

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COVID-19 | Europe’s far right whips out anti-migrant rhetoric to target refugees during coronavirus crisis by Haris Zargar

The explosion of the coronavirus has dramatically brought about fresh challenges for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. With countries adopting stringent measures to contain this pandemic, including rigid border controls, the outbreak will not only have a huge impact on those driven out of their countries by crisis situations, but may create another refugee tragedy that may be worse than what has been experienced before.


The global response to the spread of the virus formally known as COVID-19 has been shaped by the complexity of national political interests and hardened immigration policies. Xenophobic rhetoric about how migrants and refugees are potential carriers of the deadly virus and pose a health threat has already become a central theme for right-wing populists in Europe, who advocate for cracking down on immigration.

As Steven Erlanger aptly noted in an article for The New York Times, COVID-19 is not only proliferating, but is also “infecting societies with a sense of insecurity, fear and fragmentation”. The possible outcome in the aftermath of the pandemic, therefore, may be a further polarization of societies and ‘othering’ of refugees and migrants.

This will likely jeopardize their rights and future course, setting in motion a new wave of xenophobic and racial politics bolstering far-right groups in many countries as a result. And this global health emergency may allow governments to implement temporary immigration and health-related measures that could systematically target refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants on the pretext of containing the spread of the virus.

Politicians across the European Union (EU) have already begun to exploit the COVID-19 outbreak by levelling suspicion at refugees and migrants. Ultra-nationalist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán blamed migrants for the spread of the virus in Hungary: “We are fighting a two-front war, one front is called migration and the other one belongs to the coronavirus. There is a logical connection between the two as both spread with movement.”

In Italy, currently the most affected European country with the highest death toll outside China, right-wing political leader Matteo Salvini whipped up anti-immigration rhetoric by suggesting that migrants from Africa may have brought the virus with them. Greece’s nationalist government has cited the risk of COVID-19 infection as its reason for pressing ahead with a contentious plan to build “closed” camps for asylum seekers trapped on the Aegean islands of Lesbos and Chios.

In the Balkans, Croatian Health Minister Vili Beroš said migrants represent a ‘potential’ risk of spreading the virus, while Serbia’s far-right parties have threatened to expel about 6,000 migrants who are residing in the country. Far-right groups in France, Germany and Spain have called for suspending the Schengen agreement that allows passport-free travel among 26 member states in the EU. Border closures and tighter travel restrictions have been used as preventive measures during previous public health emergencies. Following the outbreak of diseases such as the Zika virus in 2016, Ebola in 2014, and H1N1 influenza in 2009, many countries imposed tight travel restrictions.

The World Health Organization has warned that trying to tighten border security will not work and may even impede the global fight against the spread of COVID-19. “We cannot forget migrants, we cannot forget undocumented workers, we cannot forget prisoners,” said WHO executive director and public health specialist Michael Ryan. “The only way to beat [coronavirus] is to leave no one behind.”

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders) has also urged Greece to immediately evacuate refugees and migrants from overcrowded camps on its islands owing to the high risk of COVID-19 spreading swiftly among people living in squalid conditions. The organization said that it would be impossible to contain an outbreak in such camp settings and that it had not yet seen a credible emergency plan in case of an outbreak.

Recent humanitarian situations such as the ongoing civil war in Syria have highlighted how the destruction of critical healthcare infrastructure in a country can contribute to the emergence of infectious and communicable diseases. With fears growing over the excessive strain on public healthcare services owing to the coronavirus outbreak and an inability to cope with the rising number of infected people, the health implications for refugees may be profound.


This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Read all articles of this series here. This is a shortened version of an article originally published by New Frame.


HarisAbout the author:

Haris Zargar is a PhD researcher looking at links between land reforms, social movements and armed insurgencies in Indian-controlled Kashmir. He has been a journalist for the past nine years, writing on the intersection of politics, conflict and human security. He worked as a political correspondent based in New Delhi with leading Indian new outlets including The Press Trust of India and The Mint. He holds degrees in Journalism and Development Studies from the University of Kashmir, and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.


Image Credit: EYE DJ on Flickr

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The battle for Zwarte Piet: Everyday racism in the Netherlands by Dorothea Hilhorst

Every year around this time, a major cultural and identity clash emerges in the Netherlands as proponents and opponents of Sinterklaas (the Dutch version of Santa Claus) clash over Zwarte Piet, his black servant. However, instead of leading to resolution, debates on Zwarte Piet have become increasingly marked by violence and intolerance, as some fiercely defend this tradition, while others call for change. What is the debate all about, and how can it provide us with insights on everyday racism in the Netherlands and beyond?


As a child growing up in a Dutch, white suburb, my favourite tradition in the Netherlands has always been Sinterklaas. It is our variation of Santa Claus, but our Sint gives the children presents on the occasion of his birthday on 5 December. Three weeks before the big day, Sint arrives by steamboat in the Netherlands and during the three weeks’ stay he visits schools, families, and hospitals to meet children. Before going to bed, kids place their shoes near the chimney or door. They sing the traditional songs about Sinterklaas, and add a root or water for Sinterklaas’ horse. In the middle of the night, Sinterklaas’ servants – so the story goes – would enter through the chimney and place sweets or presents in the shoes.

THE ISSUE WITH ZWARTE PIET…

As a child, Sinterklaas was the highlight of my year, and I was never aware of the racist character of the tradition. Sinterklaas is surrounded by servants that are black. Although there are many myths about the origin of Zwarte Piet, it is not difficult to see remnants here of the Dutch history riddled with slavery. The representation of Zwarte Piet, a servant with exaggerated racial traits, including shiny black skin, kinky hair, and fat red lips, is perceived by many as reproducing racial stereotypes and as a form of everyday racism. For the last ten years, the discussion on Zwarte Piet has escalated to become a principal battleground of what it means to be Dutch in the twenty-first century.

In 2014, a UN research team concluded that Zwarte Piet was indeed racist, and the report noted that the committee was shocked to find how ignorant Dutch society is about its history with slavery. The e-mail account of one of the researchers, Jamaican professor Verene Shepherd, had to be temporarily closed due to extensive hate mail from Dutch people who felt that one of their most precious traditions was being attacked.

ZWARTE PIET REIMAGINED?

While protest against Zwarte Piet is growing in the Netherlands, it is important to note that the tradition is not under attack. Nobody wants to ban the tradition of Sinterklaas, protesters just want a minor adaptation to Zwarte Piet. The proposed alternative is Roetveegpiet: a person of unspecified ethnicity that is blackened by the soot from inside the chimneys through which Piet supposedly enters the houses. This alternative seems simple and doable, yet the Netherlands continues to be utterly divided over the matter. When HEMA – a popular store – announced in 2015 that it was changing its December displays to the Roetveegpiet, it quickly had to backtrack because of a consumer boycott and security threats received by HEMA personnel.

In 2017, when Sinterklaas’ arrival by steamboat took place in the province of Friesland, a number of people blocked the highway to stop anti-Zwarte Piet demonstrators from holding a peaceful protest. The people who blocked the highway have recently been convicted by a court to several weeks of community service, but fail to understand why and show no remorse or regrets.

This year, 2018, the arrival of Sinterklaas was accompanied in many cities by violent attacks on peaceful protesters against Zwarte Piet. Apparently, the core of those coming to the defence of Zwarte Piet is now formed by football hooligans that take joy in throwing cans and other objects at the protesters. Dozens of the hooligans have been arrested. While extremist hooligans are the most visible part of the pro-Zwarte Piet movement, surveys show that in the society at large the support for Zwarte Piet is declining, but that he can still count on majority support among the population.

For this reason perhaps, the Dutch government so far has refused to intervene in the debate, claiming this is not a political, but a socio-cultural issue. Only last week, the leader of the Christian party Christen Unie that forms part of the current government coalition publicly announced his support for Roetvegenpiet.

It is quite incredible how Zwarte Piet has become the epicentre of the stormy discussion on how the Netherlands has to relate to itself in times of diversity and migration. Accusations of racism on the one hand and treason on the other entrench antagonism in the battle for or against Zwarte Piet.

RESISTING EVERYDAY RACISM

At ISS, everyday racism is a major topic of analysis. One of the things that I’ve learned from our international students is that something can be racist with or without intention. When somebody is reprimanded after telling a nasty joke about black people, the usual defence is, “Oh, but I never meant that to be racist, and, by the way, I have many black friends.”

But even without the intention of racism, a joke can be racist in the sense that it reproduces prejudice about minority groups with a different skin colour or a non-majority ethnic background. And even without racist intention, these friends may still find it unpleasant to hear the jokes.

How can this insight help us in the Zwarte Piet debate? Could Zwarte Piet critics believe that the large majority of Zwarte Piet lovers have no racist intentions? And could Zwarte Piet defenders then acknowledge that Zwarte Piet is nonetheless a hurtful expression of everyday racism?

1974 2 VAN DE DRIE MEISJES.
The author (on the right) with her sister in the 1970s.

In November 2013, the ISS community sent a letter to Erasmus University’s Rector Magnificus to raise the issue of the celebration of Sinterklaas and the everyday racism it represents. The letter was a response to an invitation (which just had a picture of Zwarte Piet) to celebrate Sinterklaas on the Erasmus University campus in Rotterdam. Authors of the letter called for the recognition and appreciation of principles of tolerance on which the ISS strives to be built and requested that the university starts to consider alternative forms of representation to overcome the racial stereotyping from the celebration of Sinterklaas. The letter was signed by 52 members of the community.


Picture Credit: MysterieusVP


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About the author:

Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam.