Humanitarianism, Perceptions, Power
The Good News . . .
Universality was one of the key themes of a major research project conducted at the Feinstein International Center under the rubric “Humanitarian Agenda 2015: Principles, Power, and Perceptions.” The research involved 13 country case studies of local perceptions of the work of humanitarian agencies in conflict and non-conflict environments. Qualitative information was collected from several thousand respondents—beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries—via interviews and focus groups at the community level. The research yielded a wealth of information on how local people viewed the work, attitudes, and behaviors of aid workers and their agencies with a focus on what was meaningful to those interviewed, i.e., “judgments” rather than “facts.” It also said a lot about how humanitarians see themselves, but more on that later.
The importance of universality in the conduct of the humanitarian enterprise emerges clearly from all the case studies, as it does from other similar research. Humanitarianism—and the values of compassion and alleviation of suffering that underpin it—is a global good broadly recognized the world over. A common core of humanitarian values emerges from the country studies, although these values may be interpreted differently from place to place, reflecting the experiences of particular conflicts and crises.
It seems that only Al Qaeda and some extremist militant groups it inspires, maintains an outright rejectionist stance. Many belligerent groups, of course, want to manipulate humanitarian action to their advantage or, as with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka, to accept the provision of relief only on their own terms. Even the Taliban, which has often targeted aid workers, has developed a more nuanced position. They are able to distinguish between the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and other “Dunantist” actors, with whose principles they have no quarrel, and the “corrupt agencies” that have taken the side of the government and the US-led coalition forces. Similarly, in Iraq, despite the toxic political and security environment, we found a strong resonance between the core elements of the humanitarian ethos and Islamic and Iraqi understandings of what “good charity” entails. Neutrality and impartiality, the studies show, are not theoretical concepts or pie-in-the-sky constructs; they are essential ingredients of effective humanitarian action. “Neutrality is not an abstract notion in Iraq,” our country study concluded, “but is regarded by communities and most remaining humanitarian organizations as an essential protection against targeted attack.”
There are of course a number of variations on the basic theme of universality. There is no situation where humanitarian action is totally principled and allowed to operate as such. Nor do all humanitarians strive to insulate their activities from partisan politics, advocacy, or expressions of solidarity.
In sum, humanitarianism emerges from the research as a universal value that resonates in all cultures and societies. The specificities may differ from place to place, as does the actual respect for norms and values, but the universal substratum is solid—perhaps surprisingly so. In all cultures people recognize themselves in largely similar precepts of what is admissible and not admissible when conflict or disaster strikes. We all seem to share this fundamental aspect of our common humanity. But this is where the good news ends.
. . . And the Bad News . . .
Universal ethos, Western apparatus: Humanitarian ideals have the potential to unite, but humanitarian practice very often divides. Our findings show that the universality issue underscores a real and often damaging clash between the value systems of “locals” and “outsiders.” The humanitarian enterprise affirms that the core values of humanitarianism have universal resonance, but this is not the same as saying that such values have universal articulation and application. Our case studies document many instances of friction at an operational level, reflecting general cultural insensitivity, poor accountability, and bad technique among humanitarian agencies. Cultural insensitivity affects the humanitarian relationship on both sides, though the onus for dealing with complex and delicate cultural issues in an appropriate manner falls primarily on aid workers and their organizations. The other two negatives—poor accountability to beneficiaries and bad programming or technique—are the sole preserve of aid workers. The consequence is that the “otherness” of the humanitarian enterprise undermines the effectiveness of assistance and protection activities. The prevalence of questions about the motivation, agenda, modus operandi, and cultural baggage of Western aid agencies is clearly troubling and presents major challenges. “Why do these young people come to our country?” people ask. “Is it because they can’t find work at home?” or “They want to help, but they tell us what to do without asking us.”
Our case studies, as well as more recent work we have done in Nepal, Somalia, and Pakistan, reconfirm the seriousness of this tension between insiders and outsiders arising from the cultural and political “baggage” that aid agencies bring to the communities they serve. The nuances are different, but the message is the same: humanitarian action is a top-down, externally driven, and relatively rigid process that allows little space for local participation beyond formalistic consultation. Much of what happens escapes local scrutiny and control. The system is viewed as inflexible, arrogant, and culturally insensitive. This is sometimes exacerbated by inappropriate personal behavior, conspicuous consumption, and other manifestations of the “white car syndrome.” Never far from the surface are perceptions that the aid system does not deliver on expectations and is “corrupted” by the long chain of intermediaries between distant capitals and would-be beneficiaries.
In other words, seen from below, the enterprise is self-referential and reflects the expectation that humanitarian theaters should adapt to it, rather than the reverse. It thrives on isomorphism (you can join us, but only on our terms) and deploys its network power through the imposition of management practices and standards that act as barriers to entry for local initiatives or non-like-minded national players or community groups.
What This Tells Us About ourselves
As with other aspects of globalization, the nature of the processes of humanitarian action and the standards that guide them are decided by outsiders and imposed through network power. Moreover, the top-down nature of the enterprise affects not only the response but also, and perhaps more importantly, the conceptualization of crises: as humanitarians, that we address those vulnerabilities that we recognize and fit our schemas, we speak to those who speak our language and who have copied our institutions, we impose our mental models, we tend to shape reality in our image rather than trying to see it from the ground up.
While agencies and academics have sharpened their tools to analyze local perceptions—and this in itself may well be a positive thing—has this actually made any difference in our relationships with communities on the ground? Paradoxically, not much.
We cannot see ourselves. We may hear the feedback, but it is very difficult for us to listen to it and to see how we really look. And the growing cottage industry of perception studies may well just be a fig leaf to justify what we do and how we do it. The perception gap is wide because we hear what we want to hear and people often tell us what they think we want to hear. The perception issue is a minor aspect of a much more serious problem: the essentially lop-sided nature of the relationship between outsiders and insiders that breeds disempowerment, and sometimes victimization. Like it or not, the discourse is a dominant one where “we” control the terms of the relationship—and the volume button.
The point here is that “humanitarian action” can mean very different things to the aid worker in her big white vehicle and to the “helpless recipient” or to the extremist who negates the value of humanitarian action. What “we” experience is not what “they” experience. “The experience of receiving humani
The Bigger Picture
Humanitarian action works as a powerful vector for Western ideas and modes of behavior. It is a powerful mechanism for shaping the relationships between the “modernized” outsiders and the multitude of the insiders. Technical knowledge and expertise—the nutritionist, the camp manager, the protection officer—are never neutral. Try as they may, aid workers carry baggage, practice, and ideology that shape the relationship. And power.
This is somewhat paradoxical because, like its human rights cousin, humanitarianism emerged largely in confrontation with power. We were on the side of the vulnerable and powerless, but in the process we have become strong. Humanitarianism started off as a powerful discourse; now it is a discourse of power, both at the international and at the community level. The humanitarian establishment mobilizes and moves huge resources, it interacts with politics (and business) at the highest level. It has become part of governance. Some would even say that it is part of government. The Northern/Western humanitarian enterprise has positioned itself as the central vehicle for relief and protection in crisis. It has lost the aura of voluntariness and the sense of mission it had when it was at the margins. It is now central to the conceptualization and management of the relations between the citadels of the north and the borderlands of the vast third-world periphery. It has crossed the threshold of power, even if most humanitarians—with a lack of self-awareness that borders on the schizophrenic—are loathe to admit it.
At the local level, it is deceitfully participatory. Despite much rhetoric about consultation and accountability to beneficiaries, it imposes pre-designed terms of engagement. Humanitarianism imposes Western forms of organization, concepts of management, technical standards, and the like. It brings the values, food, clothing, and music of the North to the last corners of the earth. The encounter between MTV-generation humanitarian outsiders and vulnerable groups in the periphery is not always easy or effective. Even when the outcome is positive, however, the encounter takes place on the terms and power relationships of the outsiders. The network power of the system acts as a barrier for different or alternative approaches.
Why This Matters
"There is nothing so ethnocentric, so particularistic, as the claim of universalism.” The challenge for those who recognize themselves in the values inherent in humanitarianism is to determine whether or not it is feasible, intellectually and practically, to devise a more culturally grounded approach to providing assistance and protection to people in extremis, that is, an approach that is based on truly universal values—a sort of “universal universalism”—rather than on the currently dominant Western universalism. So far, there is no consensus, no clear picture of what such a framework might look like. Is it a big picture ethical framework applicable across all cultures? Or perhaps a coalition of compatible universalisms? Should an open debate where “we” do not determine “their” agenda conclude that some new and more acceptable synthesis is indeed possible, it would go a long way in re-establishing the bona fides of a humanitarian apparatus that is currently seen as blind-sided and compromised. This would imply addressing the question of whether the relationship between the “giver” and the “receiver” is inherently a disempowering one or whether it could tend towards equality. It would also imply turning on its head the top-down nature of the current enterprise—a tall order given the drive to isomorphism and the power dynamics that are pushing in the opposite direction.
A glimmer of hope is to be found, perhaps, in the fact that humanitarianism in its different manifestations—as an ideology, a movement, a profession, and a political economy— remains a fundamentally ethical endeavour. The question, then, is to explore whether the humanitarian ethos can become a rallying point around which a more balanced, culturally sensitive, and grounded enterprise could be rebuilt.
Humanitarians often find themselves in the uncomfortable situation of being “condemned to repeat.” It is neither practical nor useful for Northern humanitarians to claim a monopoly in holding up a Sisyphean boulder that may well end up crushing them. It is essential that they reach out to others. To be successful, however, any such attempt would have to be grounded in an approach that allows perspectives other than the dominant Western universalist discourse to emerge and be heard.