What this conference tells me about humanitarian action

Development Policy,Peace & Security13 Jun 2011Sean Lowrie

Observation: Most of the participants are white

Inference: it is difficult to get visas to the USA, and much of the humanitarian thinking is occurring in the north and west

Observation: Most of the panel discussions are about the aid system

Inference: the humanitarian system is inward-looking

Observation: Rigorous evidence has been presented about the experience of aid recipients which suggests that dialogue and respect is fundamental to effective humanitarian action. While this has been deduced and upheld as a moral imperative for many years, now we have the evidence.

Inference: the humanitarian system is resistant to change

Observation: Rigorous research to be presented in a forthcoming book, will show that there has never been a ‘golden age’ of humanitarianism where we were not ‘instrumentalised’, instrumentalisation occurs in many forms, and in the case of Darfur – human vulnerability has increased because of it.

Inference: It is inevitable. But there are occasions when it can be resisted. Humanitarian principles matter, because they help aid workers be clear about who they are and what they do, and ultimately be more aware of instrumentalisation when it happens.

Observation: new research suggests that populations in humanitarian crises use religious belief as a coping strategy, and in some American populations it may even increase crisis survivability. Yet, unless one has experienced the metaphysical aspect of belief in the first person, how can one understand the population?

Inference: humanitarian action focuses on the body, not the mind. Are we missing a trick?