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Crises become permanent

Frans Bieckmann is Strategic Advisor at the Gemeente Amsterdam.

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’.

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 [See: Sussex website] 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.

Author: Frans Bieckmann

About the author

Frans Bieckmann is Strategic Advisor at the Gemeente Amsterdam.

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