Peace & Security13 Jun 2011Marieke Hounjet

The first day of the conference has left me with a bunch of ideas to write about. Do I want to write about the new buzz for evidence in humanitarianism? Or what about the use of images in the humanitarian field and how we react to suffering? One could write whole books about ‘the politics of compromise’ in humanitarian action, which was the title of another panel that I attended today. However, rather than focussing on one of these debates, I want to focus on something they have in common.

In all of the above discussions it was mentioned that humanitarianism is ‘evolving’. That in itself is not a ground-breaking statement, but if we analyse what was meant with evolving it was less ‘improving’ and more ‘changing’. One of the presenters on the evidence panel, mentioned that we’ve seen a few large debates over the last decades. First evaluators used to focus on the question of quantitative versus qualitative evidence; then it was all about the ideal evaluation through randomised evaluations, and now we are more thinking about how to gather evidence in dynamic and complex contexts. Does this mean our practice has improved or is it just a shift in paradigm?

Similarly, in another panel, it was mentioned that we cannot talk about a ‘right’ or a ‘wrong’ way of using images in the humanitarian sector. It’s true that the image of the starving child with a protruding belly and flies in its face is no longer acceptable in the aid industry and considered disrespectful. However, nowadays agencies are using images of smiling children – which the panellists agreed comes with its own set of problems.

The panel on humanitarian diplomacy carried a similar theme. Fabrice Weissman from MSF presented a historical overview in which MSF as an organisation ‘chose sides’ in the past, for example the side of Western democracy in the Cold War, and liberal intervention in the Balkans. In the 2000’s MSF has moved to a new ally, which is non-alignment, and that paradigm still stands.

However, one can ask the same thing – is this progress? Or are we merely experimenting, acting a certain way until experiences or evidence disprove us. Perhaps this is the practitioners’ way of doing business, there is no time for strategising when lives need to be saved. It’s after all the nature of humanitarianism to be reactive, and that might be the most difficult paradigm to change.