Crises become permanent

Development Policy02 Apr 2009Frans Bieckmann

Crises, conflicts and emergencies are not simply deviations from normality, as is usually believed. Rather, there is much more continuity with normality. Often, crises are manifestations of, or they catalyze, intensified processes of change that were already going on in societies. In addition, we see that conflicts and crises are often prolonged, or have become (semi) permanent. We therefore need a different way of analyzing and theorizing about crises – more long term, more systemic – than usually is done by humanitarian agencies and their consultants.

This was one of the refreshing insights from the first World Conference on Humanitarian Studies, held in Groningen, the Netherlands, from 4 to 7 February 2009, which brought together around 500 academics, consultants, policy makers and practitioners from aid agencies all over the world. At the conference, more than 60 panels discussed all aspects of the causes of humanitarian crises, how they affect societies and the interventions that happen during a crisis, in particular humanitarian aid.

During the conference the International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA) was launched (see Box ‘International Humanitarian Studies Association’). Thea Hilhorst, professor of humanitarian aid and reconstruction in the Department of Disaster Studies, University of Wageningen, IHSA’s first secretary general and one of the organizers, described the conference as a meeting place for scholars from many disciplines – international relations, international law, development studies, sociology, anthropology, conflict studies and migration studies – who study ‘humanitarian crises caused by conflict, natural disaster and political failure’.

International Humaritarian Studies Association

The WCHS testifies to the growing field of humanitarian studies. To create a more permanent international venue for researchers on aspects of humanitarian crises, the WCHS will occasion the launch of the International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA).

IHSA will create a network of people engaged in humanitarian studies regardless of their ideological opinion, school of thought, scientific discipline or origins. The IHSA equally welcomes academic scholars, consultants, policy researchers, and reflective practitioners among its membership. Perhaps one of the most unique aspects of humanitarian studies is the large proportion of research which is funded through aid monitoring and evaluation structures, the large contribution therefore of consultants to the generation of knowledge and the keen interest in research-based policy development of many people in the field. It is a vibrant field of studies, and IHSA will provide a venue to discuss the dynamic constellations for knowledge generation and challenges that result from the relationships between these different kinds of research.

The areas of interest to IHSA are:

  • the causes, dynamics and effects of humanitarian crises (conflict and/ or natural disaster);
  • the responses practices of crisis-affected people and the political, military and humanitarian interventions towards crises;
  • the politics, discourses and dynamics of humanitarian response programmes and organisations
  • the policies and practices of disaster preparedness, early warning, rehabilitation and the linkages with development, peacebuilding, and security;
  • legal issues pertaining to humanitarian crises and humanitarian affairs;
  • the experiences and lifeworlds of refugees and internally displaced people, and the refugee regimes employed towards them.

The programme of IHSA will evolve through time. Activities will be geared towards securing and developing institutional and personal contacts between people engaged in humanitarian studies throughout the world, and may include the convening of conferences, the promotion of research and the preparation of publications. An important focus of the IHSA is to make the World Conference of Humanitarian Studies a recurring event.

Participants to the WCHS will be invited to become a member of the IHSA during the conference. According to the statutes, the membership will elect officers. During the first term, however, the IHSA will be governed by a founding Board. The IHSA will be hosted by Disaster Studies at Wageningen University, the Netherlands. Dorothea Hilhorst, professor of humanitarian aid and reconstruction, will be the General Secretary.

Founding Board Members of IHSA are (in alphabetical order):
Yasemin Aysan, Consultant; Risk Management and Recovery Planning; Turkey
Mihir Bhatt, Director Disaster Mitigation Institute, Gujarat
Ian Christoplos, Researcher Swedish University for Agricultural Sciences (SLU); humanitarian consultant
Dennis Dijkzeul, professor in the management of humanitarian crisis, Ruhr University, Bochum, Germany
Paul Harvey, consultant Humanitarian Outcomes, editor of the international journal of Disasters
Alex de Waal, Program Director at the Social Science Research Council, New York, and fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.
Peter Walker, Director Feinstein International Center, Tufts University, Boston, USA

Invitations for Board members from Latin America and Africa are outstanding and these will be announced during the conference.

Visit the IHSA Website.

One of the strengths of the field of humanitarian studies is the mix of academics and consultants, policy makers and practitioners, Hilhorst believes. ‘Many new insights have sprung from [their] critical and independent analysis of what is going on in humanitarian crises. Consultants often spend more time in the field than their academic counterparts, and often have a keen interest in the lives of local people. … Dialogue between the various research traditions should help to bring out the best in them in critical discussions on of the risks involved.’

Yet at the same time this mix raises questions about the methodology of crisis research, according to Hilhorst. One of the particularities of research in this field is related to the (supposed) short-term nature of crises: think-tanks and individual consultants tend to overshadow longer-term academic research. Although they often do excellent research that is useful for policy makers, the scope of such research tends to be narrow, and contributes to the mindset that humanitarian crises are temporary deviations from normality. Also, the independence of research is threatened, because much of it is funded by donors and aid agencies. The same is true of much academic research, Hilhorst adds. Donor-driven research is often short term, is not based on in-depth data, the agenda is dictated by the funding agency and the researchers ‘may be forced to smooth the sharp edges of their conclusions’.

It is maybe for this reason that analysts only now seem to understand that current day crises and conflicts are often so prolonged that they can become (semi-)permanent, as noted by keynote speaker Alex de Waal [and others]. In the past the particularity of these events was always described and framed as ‘a deviation from normality’, said De Waal.

This observation raises some important consequences for humanitarian practice, which were brought up in several workshops. Humanitarian interventions are legitimized by the particularity of the situation, pushing aside ‘normal’ sovereignties of the state and civil society. It is because of the suddenness of many emergency situations – and the need for rapid, efficient and effective responses – that foreign aid and peacekeeping forces are ‘allowed’ in. In such circumstances the goals of the aid agencies prevail. They usually focus on delivering material support, food or healthcare, Paul Richards said in his closing speech. Although important, little effort is made to restore and strengthen the social ties in a society: people should have the opportunity to shape their own lives. Richards cited the book Imposing Aid by Barbara Harrell-Bond, one of the special guests at the conference, who showed that allowing refugees ‘social agency’ yielded far more effective results than just providing them with material aid.

That humanitarian studies are too focused on external interventions was a common criticism at the conference. The starting point, said many contributors, albeit in different words, had to be the situation on the ground, and the processes in which the affected local population is involved. Reality can not be reduced to numbers on nutrition or child mortality, or to one single crisis or conflict. People have multiple needs and identities that are continually shifting. Alex de Waal described how the displaced peoples in Darfur could also be looked at as migrants or squatters. Although in a much more violent and rapid way because of the cruel ongoing war, a process of urbanization (and therefore modernization) is happening in Darfur, creating new realities that need to be handled appropriately.

This is not a logic that is familiar to many humanitarian workers, who usually focus on one technical aspect of the aid they provide to the victims. They don’t want to get involved in (geo)politics, but to remain neutral. But this ‘humanitarian space’, in which aid workers can work safely and according to their own principles, is an illusion. The notion of humanitarian space, says Thea Hilhorst, is problematic because it is ‘humanitarian agency centred’, and overlooks the services and mutual assistance provided by other actors. It is also ‘crisis centred’, in that it reduces all the problems in a country as related to the crisis and overlooks the normal institutions and economic processes that continue. If you look at a crisis from an aid perspective you don’t see ‘normality’ or even other simultaneous crises that could be going on elsewhere in the country.

As an alternative, Hilhorst and Maliana Serrano proposed the term ‘humanitarian arena’, to acknowledge that aid is shaped by a multitude of actors, and that humanitarian agencies operate alongside other service providers, including the local people, political and military actors, the state, civil society organizations and churches. The whole arena should be analyzed, including the role played by (international) NGOs and other foreign actors. Francois Grünewald, in another workshop, suggested that situations of ‘complexity and turbulence’ should be analyzed accordingly, starting from the real needs of the people involved, and not from externally imposed targets.

In his keynote address, Randolph Kent noted that the field of humanitarian studies had to broaden its scope from the local and national to the global scenes. ‘Crises are a reflection of the ways we live our lives, politically and economically and ecologically. It is now about changing global structures and processes.’ The focus of humanitarian practitioners on the particular crisis they are working on, obscures what Kent calls ‘synchronous and simultaneous crises’ that exist. He concluded that a much more systematic, comprehensive, long-term and forward-looking approach to research is needed.

Videos of the opening and closing sessions, speeches and keynote presentations by Thea Hilhorst, Alex de Waal, Randolph Kent, Paul Richards and Khadija Alia Bah, are available at the website of the International Humanitarian Studies Association.