Tag: humanitarianism

Playing Politics with Compassion after the Paris Attacks (and why humanitarianism is in trouble)

Photo Credit: ruimc77 on Flickr

In response to the November 13, 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 129 people President Obama stated:

Once again, we’ve seen an outrageous attempt to terrorize innocent civilians.  This is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.

President Obama’s statement was a resounding call for universal compassion; the emphasis on “all of humanity” and “universal values” recalls the language of humanitarianism, enshrined in the foundational documents of the United Nations (UN) including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its related covenants. In the aftermath of the attacks, humanitarian values have been threatened by political posturing by the extreme right Front National party in France and by Republican (and one Democrat) governors and presidential hopefuls in the United States who are calling for either a suspension of Syrian refugee resettlement programs in the United States or limiting resettlement to only Christian refugees. Yesterday, France’s president François Hollande defied extreme right opposition and announced a commitment to accepting 30,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years.

The xenophobic and racist policies being advocated by US Republican governors and presidential candidates are an alarming affront to humanitarianism, threaten core humanitarian principles of humanity and impartiality and presage a backsliding of humanitarian policy to an unenlightened era. Continue reading

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Rape-Stoves, Techno-Rationality and Global Humanitarian Policy

Cookstove_1Samer Abdelnour and Akbar Saeed have published a terrific article in International Political Sociology. “Technologizing Humanitarian Space: Darfur Advocacy and the Rape-Stove Panacea” critically traces the emergence of fuel-efficient cook-stoves as a global “solution” to sexual violence in refugee camps.

Here’s the abstract:

We examine how an unassuming domestic technology—the fuel-efficient stove—came to be construed as an effective tool for reducing sexual violence globally. Highlighting the process of problematization, the linking of problems with actionable solutions, we show how US-based humanitarian advocacy organizations drew upon spatial, gender, perpetrator, racial, and interventionist representations to advance the notion that “stoves reduce rape” in Darfur. Though their effectiveness in Darfur remains questionable, efficient stoves were consequently adopted as a universal technical panacea for sexual violence in any conflict or refugee camp context. By examining the emergence and global diffusion of the rape-stove problematization, our study documents an important example of the technologizing of humanitarian space. We postulate fuel-efficient stoves to be a technology of Othering able to simplify, combine, decontextualize, and transform problematizations from their originating contexts elsewhere. When humanitarian advocates construe immensely complex crises as “manageable problems,” the promotion of simple technical panaceas may inadvertently increase the burden of poverty for user-beneficiaries and silence the voices of those they claim to champion and serve.

I remember teaching about the firewood/rape nexus in refugee settings during my days at GSPIA, but I was not aware of how the technology had proliferated since then or of many of the pernicious side effects of this technocratic solution to a multi-dimensional problem (here is an op-ed version by Abdelnour). It was nice to read a detailed critical assessment of such a policy, and to think about how many other globalized practices are doing more harm than good (or maybe some good and some harm) in places where well-meaning agents are struggling to deal with so much nastiness. Fuel-efficient cook-stoves to reduce rape are a band-aid, but so are refugee settings themselves: technocratic efforts to cordon off nastiness from vulnerable populations, and cordon off vulnerable populations from their host societies. The takeaway is that looking below the rug of humanitarian policy leads to some pessimistic conclusions. Continue reading

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Invisible Children – Pretty Dang Visible

KONY, WE GON’ FIND YOU – as soon as I buy my bracelet!

Anyone who has been on Facebook and Twitter over the past 24 hours has probably seen impassioned pleas to watch a high-production video by Invisible Children, an American NGO (whose Board of Directors just happens to be entirely white American males). And anyone who is following many of the IR tweeters out there, you have also probably began to see the backlash.

For those of you who do not know what is going on, the video produced by Invisible Children discusses the conflict in Uganda with the Lord’s Resistance Army and in particular the crimes of the movement’s leader Joseph Kony – calling upon the world (particularly the United States) to act by signing a petition and, apparently, buying bracelets.

There is no doubt that Kony is – to put it mildly – a gigantic AAA asshole of the highest order, responsible for crimes that would make anyone’s stomach sick. And it is great that this video is spreading awareness of these crimes.

However, the solutions that Invisible Children (and other organisations, such as Human Rights Watch – now getting in on the #KONY2012 action) advocates are problematic. Others (see this article in Foreign Affairs) have pointed out that military humanitarian intervention in Uganda has been tried and tried again – always ultimately failing and managing to make matters a lot worse for civilians on the ground. Worse, in advocating for these policies, organisations such as Invisible Children, are giving a misleading and simplistic impression of what is actually happening on the ground:

In their campaigns, such organizations have manipulated facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony — a brutal man, to be sure — as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil. They rarely refer to the Ugandan atrocities or those of Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army, such as attacks against civilians or looting of civilian homes and businesses, or the complicated regional politics fueling the conflict.

 Mark Kersten at Justice in Conflict writes along similar lines:

It is hard to respect any documentary on northern Uganda where a five year-old white boy features more prominently than any northern Ugandan victim or survivor. Incredibly, with the exception of the adolescent northern Ugandan victim, Jacob, the voices of northern Ugandans go almost completely unheard.
It isn’t hard to imagine why the views of northern Ugandans wouldn’t be considered: they don’t fit with the narrative produced and reproduced in the insulated echo chamber that produced the ‘Kony 2012′ film.
‘Kony 2012′, quite dubiously, avoids stepping into the ‘peace-justice’ question in northern Uganda precisely because it is a world of contesting and plural views, eloquently expressed by the northern Ugandans themselves. Some reports suggest that the majority of Acholi people continue to support the amnesty process whereby LRA combatants – including senior officials – return to the country in exchange for amnesty and entering a process of ‘traditional justice’. Many continue to support the Ugandan Amnesty law because of the reality that it is their own children who constitute the LRA. Once again, this issue is barely touched upon in the film. Yet the LRA poses a stark dilemma to the people of northern Uganda: it is now composed primarily of child soldiers, most of whom were abducted and forced to join the rebel ranks and commit atrocities. Labeling them “victims” or “perpetrators” becomes particularly problematic as they are often both.
Furthermore, the crisis in northern Ugandan is not seen by its citizens as one that is the result of the LRA. Yes, you read that right. The conflict in the region is viewed as one wherein both the Government of Uganda and the LRA, as well as their regional supporters (primarily South Sudan and Khartoum, respectively) have perpetrated and benefited from nearly twenty-five years of systemic and structural violence and displacement. This pattern is what Chris Dolan has eloquently and persuasively termed ‘social torture‘ wherein both the Ugandan Government and the LRA’s treatment of the population has resulted in symptoms of collective torture and the blurring of the perpetrator-victim binary.

Beyond this, I find the entire nature of the campaign to be problematic. As this excellent post at King’s of War argues:

Will simplistic explanations of long-running wars, delivered in a Facebook-friendly manner become the future of foreign policy? If the opinion of Rihanna and George Clooney is going to dislodge ‘technocrats’ who do things like read the Military Balance, then what’s to stop intervention in Syria? Pretty much everyone with a passing interest in military affairs says “that is a very bad idea and lots of people will die” but I’m pretty sure that a bright person with access to youtube can come up with a better argument for a brighter world in which taking Assad down is an expression of democratic empowerment. The point about war and military affairs is that at some point, it requires restraint. That restraint is entirely arbitrary (and unfair) but it stops people getting killed. If Angelina Jolie in combination with Condoleeza Rice are to dictate American strategy, then restraints to force will disappear into a blur of “Let’s go get the bad guy” activism that is almost entirely ignorant of the second and third order effects of those decisions.

Last year I wrote a post that was critical of those who are concerned about the use of media which re-emphasizes the idea of “Africans as victims”. I argued that in times of famine, pictures of said famine are useful for generating much needed donations for use by reputable organisations who are combating famine in, say, the Horn of Africa. But this is something altogether different. Invisible Children has been accused of manipulating numbers in order to generate money for its cause. Worse, the vast majority of the money is not actually put towards victims of the conflict, but for advocating military intervention in Western countries. This is basically Save Darfur 2.0.

To put it simply, the situation on the ground in Uganda is complex. Military humanitarian intervention has serious consequences. Ham-fistedly intervening in a conflict of which few have a nuanced understanding of the conditions on the ground, where local actors are already engaged in trying to bring about a peaceful resolution, is not going to help and may in fact serve to make a difficult situation worse. Buying a bracelet from an American run NGO will not change this.

I am increasingly getting the feeling that if this is the future of international politics and humanitarian intervention, there are high-definition troubled waters ahead.

Other interesting  posts on Invisible Children from around the web:


How Matters


Unmuted 


Visible Children – a no doubt hastily constructed Tumblr, but one that effectively critiques the Invisible Children video.


Washington Post’s slightly less critical take of the issue that highlights the different sides of the debate.


Edit: The very darkly humoured Kony 2012 drinking game! (via Alana Tiemessen)

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Is there a time and place for (humanitarian) shock and awe?

Don’t feel bad though. It’s disempowering.

Look. I get the whole ‘stop the portrayal of Africans as victims’ debate. I really do. Empowerment and portrays of empowerment are important.

But I can’t help but be slightly frustrated with this entry at UN Dispatch which discusses the “shock and awe” approach to fundraising for disasters.

Penelope Chester (apparently a professional Canadian humanitarian) quotes Peter Gill (who has written on the Ethiopian Famine) stating that the West :

certainly has no proper answers to the conflicts and dislocation that lead to starvation and deathIn northern Kenya, to which so many thousands of Somali pastoralists have fled in recent months, the West does have an answer of sorts – it can feed people in the world’s largest refugee camp, in the thin expectation of better times back across the border.

And that:

Ethiopia must keep addressing the image of destitution and the reality that too often underpins it, but it needs to promote other images as well. Instead of the risk of starvation, it also needs to be able to draw attention to impressive annual economic growth figures. Instead of food hand-outs, it also needs to be able to emphasise its big drive for inward investment.

She then comments:

In highlighting Gill’s argument, I’m not suggesting that the international community should eschew necessary emergency aid and interventions to help protect vulnerable populations. Instead, I think there is an important truth in the notion that images of Africa as a continent full of powerless victims are part of a vicious cycle of irresponsibility.
Aid and international organizations, western donors (governments and individuals) and African governments are caught in a western-centric approach to humanitarian relief, where the effective mobilization of funds and good will seems to be proportionate to the inevitability of a crisis. In other words, there is still a lot to be done to appropriately deal with threats and improve local capacity to prevent famines – whether it be through the development of strong early prevention systems, improved strategic food reserves or improving access to agricultural and pastoral technology. The Guardian’s concluding paragraph in an editorial on this issue captures the sentiment: “As it is, aid agencies race from one drought to another. And the fact that the shortfall in WFP funding is 42% in Somalia, and 67% in Ethiopia and Kenya, speaks volumes about the mentality of donors who are only moved to act when it is too late.”

I suppose my biggest frustrations with the argument are twofold.

First, I can’t figure out who this is aimed at. The West? The media? Aid agencies? Donors? Who? Who is supposed to change this? And how and when?

Second, the “world weary” humanitarian lecturing tone to people that I can only assume are actually trying to feed some starving people. Yes, you think you’re doing a good thing, but really you’re not. You’re perpetuating an evil stereotype when you feel bad for those people on television.

It’s true – the West has a very strange view of Africa and famine. I need only look at my family, the people around me and my own memories to see this. Noting someone’s thinness, my Grandmother comments that they look like a “Biafran”. Some of my first memories are listening to “The Tears are Not Enough” on the radio to raise funds for the Ethiopian Famine in the 1980s. (It was Canada’s “We are the World”. It’s terrible, but had the cast of Les Miserables!). And one of my students made a comment about someone looking like a starving Darfurian a few months back. It’s like we can trace generations via the famines that have been marketed to them by aid agencies.

I also accept, that as Alana Tiemessen blogged here earlier this year that photos without context and understanding can strip individuals of their dignity. As she points out, the pictures (like the one used in this post) do not help us “understand the causes and conditions of state failure and nor do they prescribe solutions. They simply invite shock and awe.”

So I’m not saying this isn’t an issue. But as these aid agencies trying to raise funds in an emergency situation/impending famine, is it really the time to start explaining to my parents the dynamics of African development? Or give narratives of empowerment? Would these same narratives have raised £6 million in a few days? I’m all for re-thinking our portrayal of Africa, but I don’t think Chester’s arguments really answers these questions.

Is this a simplification of her argument? Possibly. In defence of Chester I suspect that she is thinking in the mid-to-long term rather than the immediate present. But there is also a real note of hypocrisy in the air: Oxfam’s internal reports may say: “The world is moving away from a western-inspired, UN-centric model of humanitarian action to one which is much more diverse and localised, and sustainable. This is both a trend and a desirable outcome.” But a visit to its website today said in gigantic red banner: “The worst food crisis of the century has left more than 12 million people in East Africa in desperate need of food and water. Support our biggest ever emergency appeal for Africa”. Not so much empowerment then, just trying to feed people.

Which is probably what they should be doing.

PS: I’m not a famine/African expert so happy to hear why I’m very, very wrong on this by Duck readers. 

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Getting Slizzerd with the Red Cross: Disasters and/in Social Networking

This is not my usual forte – Charli is much better on NGOs, networks and social things. (I just like tweeting.) However, last night when I checked my twitter, a fairly odd message came up from the American Red Cross:

Slightly different from their usual “please donate blood” or “how are you preparing for the blizzard?” kind of emails.

Within an hour, the tweet was withdrawn and replaced with this:

Colour me impressed. A 130 year old humanitarian agency with a sense of humour.

However, I’m drawing attention to the story because yesterday was also the day the ARC released research it has done (in infographic form!) as to how social networking might be used in an emergency. 28% of respondents noted that they would use social networking to let people know they were safe.

It might sound laughable, but after having gone through 7/7 and 21/7 – when mobile networks were completely down, I had to rely on email to find out what had happened to friends and family. I have to say that I would certainly have used facebook and twitter in that situation. And I would have preferred to follow the situation on twitter rather than waiting for press conferences. (Although that just might be me.) So the question is should humanitarian organizations do the same? Should they both gather information from social networks and disseminate it this way as well?

I’m not entirely sure what the risks are – is it that getting a clear picture would be difficult? How to tell the real tweets from the fake ones? What about people (like my parents) who don’t know what a “twitter” is? Would they be disadvantaged by such a turn? Without much background on the subject, I’m going to work with the idea that for now the use of social networking in disasters/crises would be best understood as complementary rather than replacing other services.

However, the infographic provides a really interesting collection of facts and figures related to how social networking has been used in the past and gives us an indication as to how it might be used in the future, other than the promotion of #gettngslizzerd. It also notes the number of emergency response organizations that have twitter accounts.

As for the unfortunate tweet, the Red Cross has given its side of the story here – noting that its members are only human. This is true; however I would add that after working with them recently on a project, they are some really good humans who do an impressive array of work.

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