You can access here my review of Lucy Mayblin’s book “Asylum after Empire. Colonial Legacies in the Politics of Asylum Seeking” on Refuge 34(2): 158-160.
Southern Responses at British Academy “Working Together: Human Rights, the Sustainable Development Goals and Gender Equality” Workshop
In November 2018, Dr Estella Carpi from the Southern Responses to Displacement research team took part in “Working Together: Human Rights, the Sustainable Development Goals and Gender Equality,” a workshop held at the British Academy to launch a report of the same title. In this post, Dr Estella Carpi reflects on the workshop and the report, which focuses on the need for the human rights and SDG frameworks to work together in a bid to take steps towards achieving substantive gender equality. In this regard, the Southern Responses project is examining how principles and motivations differ in various models of care, development, advocacy and protection across the global North and the global South, and how ‘northern’ approaches have historically overshadowed alternative frameworks to overcome diverse structural barriers and inequalities.
This blog was posted on the 27 November 2018.
Southern Responses at British Academy “Working Together: Human Rights, the Sustainable Development Goals…
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Specchi Scomodi. Etnografia delle Migrazioni Forzate nel Libano Contemporaneo (by Estella Carpi, November 2018)
E’ uscito il mio primo libro Specchi Scomodi il 13 novembre 2018!
Ho pensato a questo libro con un fine divulgativo, seppur si basi sul mio lavoro di dottorato (2010-2015).
Attraverso il racconto etnografico di quattro donne reduci da esperienze diverse di migrazione forzata – Souhà, Iman, ‘Alia e Amal – cerco di offrire un’approfondita lettura storica e sociologica dei flussi dei profughi verso il Libano contemporaneo e all’interno del paese stesso. Il fine è quello di offrire ai lettori le motivazioni e le implicazioni sociali e politiche dei fenomeni migratori dal Libano meridionale alla periferia di Beirut a causa dell’occupazione israeliana, e dalla Palestina, Iraq e Siria al Libano a causa di processi politici tuttora irrisolti. Con una particolare attenzione al fornimento dei servizi sociali, il libro enfatizza la continuità storica – per l’appunto, gli specchi scomodi – che lega indissolubilmente non solo questi quattro complessi processi storici, ma anche le vite individuali, le sensazioni, le tattiche quotidiane di sopravvivenza economica ed emotiva e le micro-politiche delle quattro donne protagoniste.
Lo potete prenotare online e in libreria. Nelle librerie italiane lo troverete invece in ampia distribuzione da gennaio 2019 in poi.
Intermediaries in humanitarian action: a questionable shortcut to the effective localisation of aid? (by Estella Carpi, November 2018)
Over the last decade, international humanitarian agencies have endeavoured to develop effective ways to localise their practices of intervention in areas receiving forced migrants or stricken by conflict or disasters. ‘Localisation’ is an umbrella term referring to all approaches to working with local actors, and includes ‘locally-led’ projects which refers specifically to “work that originates with local actors or is designed to support locally emerging initiatives” (Wall 2016).
Local-international partnerships have received much rhetorical attention as a more acceptable face of the humanitarian programming designed in the global North. Nonetheless, there is evidence that northern funding and organisational structures still give preference to implementers from the global north (Ramalingman, Gray and Cerruti 2012). In this framework, the middle space, spanning from international donors to local implementers, is of crucial importance in shaping decision-making processes related to humanitarian funding, practices and policies. In this framework, I would like to advance my considerations on the international humanitarian system that presently places special emphasis on the role of intermediaries in crisis-stricken settings, or contexts that are proxies to crisis.
On November 14 2018 I participated in a roundtable organised by the Overseas Development Institute which aimed to evaluate the role of intermediaries in humanitarianism. In this context, several London-based humanitarian professionals expressed the need to define the role of the intermediary figure in humanitarian action, and to rely on the latter’s support to access local and refugee communities in the targeted areas. By contrast, academic literature which seeks to map such a ‘middle space’ is scant (Kraft and Smith 2018). Based on these observations, what are humanitarian actors trying to bypass, remove, enhance or achieve by emphasising the importance of intermediaries in their sector? With the following considerations, I intend to shed light on how intermediaries may be problematically employed as a shortcut to localisation and as a logistic facilitation strategy to not further contextualise policies and practices which are often designed in the so-called global North.
The first observation I would like to make is related to the layered social identity of intermediaries. Indeed, it is a common belief that intermediaries are mostly local or regional residents with strong connections and networks in the areas targeted by humanitarian programmes. If the line of separation between the ‘international’ and the ‘local’ is unavoidably blurred, it is important to note that some segments of local middle classes – generally those employed in the humanitarian system to manage crisis – are as unfamiliar with other social strata of their own country as many international workers with whom they share common lifestyle standards. As a result, from a relational and emotional perspective, some local professionals may not necessarily be any closer to the people they address. At the same time, however, intermediaries are believed to be well placed to manage local politics, such as corruption, inefficiency or reluctance to comply with external norms and requests. Can such a social figure ever exist? In this respect, the research I conducted from 2011 to late 2013 in Lebanon (Carpi 2015) demonstrates a promiscuous intentionality of the international humanitarian apparatus: on the one hand, the desire to avoid local politics and its discontents, but, on the other, the need to rely on intermediary figures who are able to prepare beneficiary lists and can provide contextual knowledge to enable humanitarian actors to rapidly and safely access local and refugee groups. However, as my research has shown, by doing so international humanitarian agencies often end up recognising local authorities as key actors of the humanitarian machine. In my field experience, the moral impact of what I may call an ‘unintended alliance’ between humanitarian internationals and local gatekeepers was particularly relevant when local residents and refugees expressed their desire to get rid of intermediary figures operating between them, the humanitarian system and the central government. Intermediary roles were predominantly covered by local state officials and delegates (makhatir and mandubin respectively) and other local informal leaders (zu‘ama’). In sum, the necessary entrance of formal and informal local authorities into the international humanitarian labour chain produced a substantial impact on humanitarian workers who must deal with local politics and its contextual configuration.
The second issue that I would like to analyse is the excess of intermediaries in the contemporary humanitarian sphere. Looking at the intermediary role as a relational and performative process rather than a clear-cut sociological mission, it is possible to identify unorthodox configurations of “intermediariness”. Even though it is mainly conceived as local actors, –networks, individuals, diaspora groups or formal organisations that occupy the middle space between initial donors and final implementers, intermediaries can sometimes be epitomised by INGOs and UN agencies. For instance, the humanitarian corridors that currently take Syrian refugees from Lebanon to Italy and France across the Mediterranean are a suitable case in point. As a local aid worker recounted in an interview in Beirut in March 2017, in order to retrieve personal data and carry out an initial selection of the refugee groups who better suit the Italian and the French labour markets, the INGOs in charge of organising the humanitarian corridors rely, in turn, on other INGOs and UN agencies that can provide them with a contact database. This modality of selection is believed to avoid a costly and time-consuming door-to-door strategy. In this case, needs assessment is viewed as a bureaucratic hurdle rather than an effective way of identifying needs and protection and their changing nature. Likewise, another aid practitioner working for an INGO in a village of northern Lebanon affirmed that individual and family eligibility to cash transfers was determined through the UNHCR central database, rather than independent field visits and assessments (interview in Halba, February 2017). These two anecdotes show how intermediaries operating in the humanitarian middle space are at times excessive.
My third observation concerns bureaucracy. Enhancing and institutionalising the role of intermediaries may sort out the difficulty of pinning down sociological figures in changing contexts and of managing institutional trust versus informal society. By this token, we may think that the role of intermediaries should therefore be professionalised. However, the institutionalisation of the intermediary role might instead add complexity and slow down the already hyper-bureaucratised system of international humanitarianism and development. The same system has long been accused of being poorly responsive to context-sensitive needs (Belloni 2005) and de-humanising war and disaster victims (Pandolfi 2002). In this regard, Lebanon offers the meaningful example of the Municipal Support Assistant (MSA). This professional figure, appointed by local municipalities, has been created to work with local authorities and international humanitarian actors and acts as a local government administrative assistant. In the case of Lebanon, the MSA needs to be fluent in Arabic and English to be able to develop double communication strategies. As a municipality representative of Sahel az-Zahrani reported in a 2016 study conducted by UN-Habitat and the American University of Beirut, the MSA has presumably been created to enhance coordination between the local and the humanitarian systems of governance (Boustani, Carpi, Hayat and Moura 2016). However, considering the formal ways of working that the MSA needs to comply with, bureaucratic impediments are practically enhanced. In other words, if bureaucracy is enhanced to achieve greater coordination, I would be wary to believe that actual coordination can soon see the light.
The very aims of the ongoing efforts towards an “intermediary-sation” of humanitarian action need to be clearly motivated and contextualised. From a personal perspective, considering the provisional presence of many international humanitarians and researchers in the areas where crisis management is needed, we continue missing historical continuity. Short field visits are in fact unlikely to trace the local history of human relations, contextual power dynamics and assistance mechanisms. Should the international humanitarian system not find the radical determination to develop physical and moral proximity towards the populations it endeavours to serve, I hence envision intermediaries only as everyday researchers who conduct “reality checks” whenever accurate humanitarian assessments of outreach, programming, policies and local specificities are needed.
Belloni, Roberto (2005) Is Humanitarianism Part of the Problem? Nine Theses. John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Boston, MA.
Boustani, Marwa, Carpi, Estella, Hayat Gebara, and Mourad Yara (2016) Responding to the Syrian Crisis in Lebanon. Collaboration between Aid Agencies and Local Governance Structures. London: IIED Urban Crisis report.
Carpi, Estella (2015) Adhocratic Humanitarianisms and Ageing Emergencies in Lebanon. From the July 2006 War in Beirut’s Southern Suburbs to the Syrian Refugee Influx in the Akkar Villages. PhD dissertation, University of Sydney (Australia).
Kraft, Kathryn and Smith, Jonathan D. (2018) “Between International Donors and Local Faith Communities: Intermediaries in Humanitarian Assistance to Syrian Refugees in Jordan and Lebanon”, Disasters.
Pandolfi, Mariella (2002) “’Moral Entrepreneurs’, Souverenaités Mouvantes et Barbelés: le Bio-Politique dans le Balkans Postcommunistes”, in Politiques Jeux d’Espaces, ed. Pandolfi, M. and Abélès, M., special issue, Anthropologie et Sociétés, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 29-50.
Ramalingam, Ben, Gray, Bill, and Cerruti, Giorgia (2012) Missed Opportunities: The Case for Strengthening National and Local Partnership-Based Humanitarian Responses, Christian Aid, CAFOD, Oxfam, Tearfund, and Action Aid.
Wall, Imogen with Hedlund, Kerren (2016) Localisation and Locally-Led Crisis Response: A Literature Review, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.
“Sr. Jair Messias Bolsonaro:
Como cidadão defensor dos preceitos democráticos, reconheço o senhor como o cidadão escolhido para ser o presidente do meu País. E, como tal, espero que o senhor faça um governo que consiga minimamente avançar na resolução de alguns dos profundos problemas crônicos da nação. Afinal, ninguém em sã consciência quer o pior para si e para o seu povo. Para tanto, acredito que num primeiro gesto à nação, o sr. deveria seguir o exemplo do ex-presidente Fernando Henrique Cardoso (aquele que um dia o sr. desejou a morte) e dizer a todos para esquecerem tudo o que o sr. falou. Até agora o sr. tem sido um obscuro deputado de pouquíssima produtividade, porém de muita bravata, conhecido apenas por seu discurso divisionista de ódio e violência contra os seus opositores ideológicos, os defensores dos direitos do ser humano, às minorias compostas por negros, indígenas, LGBTs e por uma ampla parcela de mulheres que não aceitam sua visão de que têm um papel inferior na sociedade. Agora o sr. é presidente de todos os brasileiros e precisa ter a exata noção da grandeza que este cargo representa. Até agora não sei minimamente quais sãos os seus planos para o país, uma vez que, como político experiente e esperto, refugiou-se no pântano das redes sociais para se vender como algo novo, impulsionado por uma enxurrada de fake news que convencem e cegam os inocentes úteis, logrando êxito num fenômeno mundial já visto nos EUA, no Brexit e em outros cantos. Até agora o sr. não expôs o seu projeto para o Brasil, pois recusou-se ao debate democrático, provavelmente temendo que sua fragilidade argumentativa expusesse o seu despreparo e seu verdadeiro caráter, o que colocaria tudo a perder. De qualquer forma, sr. Bolsonaro, agora que o sr. sai desta pseudo realidade do mundo virtual e volta seus olhos para a realidade crua do país que vai governar, é bom saber que a “minoria” que o sr. despreza, na verdade compõe a maioria da base social. Assim, como se o sr. teve 57 milhões de brasileiros cravando seu número nas urnas, outros 47 milhões disseram não e, ao se somarem aos demais 42 milhões de votos brancos nulos e abstenções, na prática, de uma forma ou de outra, não comungam com as suas idéias. Lembro ainda que, no campo político, apesar do avanço das forças conservadoras que o colocaram no poder, há uma força progressista, que não foi eliminada como o sr. desejaria, mas ao contrário está viva e disposta a uma forte oposição na defesa do estado democrático de direito e dos reais interesses do povo brasileiro. Uma oposição, diga-se de passagem, que não surgiu do oportunismo de um movimento político pontual, mas que tem um longo histórico de lutas contra o autoritarismo, contra o secular modelo perverso de política (que o sr. representa) que mantém o país no atraso e por mais justiça social. Como disse, sr. Bolsonaro, espero que o sr. me surpreenda com um bom governo. A mim e a todos os brasileiros. Estamos conscientes, firmes, vigilantes e atuantes. Ah, e somos a maioria…”
In conversation with the Kahkaha project in Lebanon: an effective example of a Southern-led initiative.
‘One cannot come from outside and decide people’s needs on the basis of assumptions or experiences lived somewhere else.’
In this blog post Dr Estella Carpi interviews Lina Khoury, the founder of the Kahkaha project in Lebanon. The Kahkaha project aims to blur the boundaries between urban and Palestinian refugee camp spaces. To do this the project promotes infrastructure for sport and play within and outside refugee camps with the aim of achieving social participation and everyday security for Palestinian refugee children and youth. The initiative is an example of what some international scholars have named South-South or Southern-led humanitarianism. However, as emerges in the interview, Kahkaha’s work often departs from the mainstream humanitarian narrative and action.
This blog was posted on 9th October 2018
In conversation with the Kahkaha project in Lebanon: an effective example of a Southern-led initiative.
by Dr Estella Carpi, Research Associate, Southern Responses to Displacement Project.
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You can here listen to my interview with Habitat for Humanity-Great Britain (May, 2018), which summarises the report I published with the International Institute of Environment and Development in the framework of the Urban Crisis Learning Partnership project – including Habitat for Humanity-GB, Oxfam-GB, the Overseas Development Institute, and the Bartlett Development Planning Unit (University College London).
To access all outputs and the broader outline of the partnership:
To access my report:
What’s wrong with the ‘power of writing’? A reflection on language in academic research (September 2018)
I have recently shared my anger and my concerns on AllegraLaboratory.
In the following article I discuss how, on the one hand, academic jargon increasingly seems to conceal a daunting lack or weakness of fieldwork and of critical ideas. On the other, academic-NGO partnerships are not doing any better: while pretending to drag academia out of the ivory tower, they often deliver standardised contents and replace academicese with bureaucratese. Result? Progress remains a pipedream. Let’s start with a linguistic revolution. So, researchers of the world, unite and fight ‘grapho-kratia’!
The following anecdote is one of the many episodes which pushed me to understand what is meant by ‘neoliberal’ academia, and what strategies are used nowadays to compensate for the impossibility of conducting extensive field research in first person while working in academic institutions – even as a full-time researcher!
The anecdote exemplifies how today’s recipe for success seems to provide ample space for prioritising the literature, crafting papers nicely, using academic jargon, yet imagining the field. Some time ago, as a result of not myself having grown up in an environment using English academicese (academic jargon), I was unable to style my academic pieces in a manner that academicese-friendly research institutions generally require; however, I decided to explore the publications jungle dominated by the ‘power of writing’, and I submitted an article to an important academic journal. The latter rejected my piece, written after spending more than a year in northern Lebanon, arguing that it was ‘not nicely crafted, although it surely contains important fieldwork data’. What counted the most was that my account was not populated with Anglo-academic expressions, but rather with my own personal ways of voicing the forced Syrian migration towards Lebanon.
Instead, the review decided to publish a piece on the same Lebanese region written by a native English writer who, to my knowledge, could not speak any Arabic at all, and who had previously told me that he had conducted only a one-day trip to northern Lebanon. When I read the article, I personally found it misleading, not at all reflecting what was factually happening in the region, and providing incorrect information about local municipalities. The language and the tone, however, were strongly academic. At that point, a sense of frustration overwhelmed me. Even writing about this now makes me feel like I have not yet removed that painful old pebble from my shoe. It was not so much the frustration of not being published – an experience which is difficult for us academics to eschew when dealing with a sneer publication industry – but rather the frustration of seeing renowned journals welcoming ‘nicely crafted’ pieces written in academicese rather than demanding and ascertaining rigorous methods of data collection, or insisting on the verifiability of data. In other words, the journal was neither interested in the experience evidenced, nor in the way in which the setting narrated was approached and accessed, nor even in the duration of the researcher’s stay. Rather, what mattered most was that the piece was ‘nicely crafted’, ready to be delivered to a wide academic audience without much editing. Even though my positionality in this episode may be read as subjectively biased, my analytical Self still finds this anecdote relevant to raise the issue of how the power of English academicese can at times take priority over the importance of providing empirical evidence and historical awareness of the context in hand.
In hindsight, with a few more years of experience, I do not think this can be considered to be an isolated episode. Theoretical wrapping-up and a high command of English academicese problematically trump the importance of ensuring continuity of (both remote and in loco) forms of fieldwork. This article discusses how specialistic language is used and abused to cover up such contemporary weaknesses.
Numerous are by now the accounts that label international academia as ‘neoliberal’, that is, a system which, these days, almost functions like a firm aimed at increasing productivity and impact. However, hardly any attention has been paid to the language itself that we use to produce, disseminate, and, above all, fund academic research, especially that addressing development and humanitarianism. In this post I discuss how bureaucratic managerialism in academia is intertwined with the role of the ‘power of writing’ and the greedy hunt for funding, which, through partnerships with non-academic entities, counters academic complexity by imposing simplistic and standardised language.
I propose that these are some of the key issues that often underlie today’s discontent among academics, echoing the “bullshit job” syndrome, according to which we cease to believe in our own profession.
With this commentary, I aim to reflect on the peculiar dynamics that, to my mind, lead academic researchers to comply with the power of writing, and often lead research grant funders to prioritise quantity of outputs to the detriment of an in-depth understanding of the research context and its factual history. The so-called “Research Excellence Framework” (REF) in British academia, for instance, outlines the number, impact, quality, and type of outputs that a piece of research should have to be considered “world-leading”. Having policy relevance, showcasing a formal engagement with non-academic institutions, producing measurable impact, and homogenising cultural ways of writing are seemingly becoming far more important than verifying the data we collect in our areas of study, or feeling confident that our personal interpretations are based on a continual contact and empathic engagement with the field (even though there is nothing like rocket science, and objectivity is not even desirable).
Moreover, in the contemporary era, academic researchers working in institutions of the Global North often have to cope with a massive bureaucracy in order to obtain official ethical clearance to be able to travel to ‘the field’. Sociological and anthropological research, which are by definition primarily data-driven, have also been put under bureaucratic pressure by evaluation structures like the abovementioned REF. In the wake of these increasingly bureaucratic measures, if the country or subjects of study are not available to the researcher on a daily basis, international researchers (un)knowingly experience the phenomenon of professional ‘bunkerisation’. Implemented through a series of forms submitted to academic Ethics Committees, this ethics clearance is de facto aimed at protecting research institutions from reputation-related, financial, and physical risks by keeping fieldworkers distant from the countries they normally work on in times of instability. Against this backdrop, working on a country or a topic cannot be but correlated with the importance of working in that country, or working among the insights that the topic generates. I want to point out that this is not just a problem for academia: international non-governmental organisations similarly produce policy briefs and reports by paying only ad hoc, short-term visits to the field.
Against today’s difficulties surrounding academic jobs, I suggest that
academic managerialism increasingly relies on the ‘power of writing’, to the extent of making the latter a primary criterion for excellence.
Indeed, theoretical wrapping-up and a high command of English academicese problematically trump the importance of ensuring continuity of (both remote and in loco) forms of fieldwork and, therefore, the possibility to develop fine-grained knowledge of the places we study.
There is therefore a risk implied by the devaluation of extensive local knowledge: the major focus placed on language combined with the redundancy of new knowledge. This tendency is the reason why we witness such a massive proliferation of publications nowadays. In this regard, the abovementioned English academicese at times may ensure acceptance in the publication process by arbitrarily building intellectual authoritativeness, but it is not the language choice that can ensure the quality of field research behind outputs. Academicese, in fact, manages to exercise epistemic sovereignty over the researched ‘margins’ by claiming itself to be at the centre regardless of where it is produced, and therefore building a neo-colonial relationship within the realms of human thinking. To quote Mikhail Bakhtin in his Dialogic Imagination, “Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker’s intentions; it is populated – overpopulated – with the intentions of others”. In this sense,
the intentional power underlining our linguistic structures should however not prevail over contents.
The ‘power of writing’ is surely not only about academicese. The increasing number of partnerships that academic institutions develop with non-governmental organisations and UN agencies is resulting in a push for academics to embrace plain language. The latter still entails structural power, as it simplifies language in order to simplify facts and, in turn, make management successful. On the one hand, NGOs request the use of lay-language in academic outputs. On the other, academic researchers themselves simplify their writing in a way that at times looks like a paternalistic process. In fact, the presumption that non-academics will not be able to grasp complex language – which should not be confused with academicese, by any means – is double-edged. I personally interpret it as the emergence of a common knowledge-production culture, according to which academics, people who have seldom been involved in policy-making and practice, are expected to advance concrete recommendations. In short, when I happened to work in the framework of these hybrid partnerships, I realised how NGOs and other non-academic institutions expect me, with little experience of their everyday job, to tell them what to actually do in order to sort out deadlocks and discontents. The evident result is a proliferation of off-the-cuff ‘research’ which would better be defined as desk-work, from both academic outputs and professional consultancies (a massive financial industry nowadays, despite its discontents). Paradoxically, most of the research rationales underpinning such research consultancies actually aim to explore field-related people, attitudes, political and economic processes, and expectations.
In a nutshell, what seems to be happening in this joint writing culture is the replacement of English academicese with English bureaucratese (bureaucratic language), where fixed idioms populate reports produced by short-term field research (idioms such as ‘assistance and protection’, ‘the rights and needs of the refugees’, ‘best practices’, and other set-piece utterances).
Some scholars have called this phenomenon “politics of language use”, which is clearly imbricated with the political rule and its predominant ideology. As such, the rejection of the complexity in writing for development does not encourage a challenge to the emptiness of academicese, which indeed fails to bring much-needed complexity into non-academic debates. Similarly, academicese does not help us fight the simplistic technocracy of some non-academic systems, as seen in the development and humanitarian sectors. Academicese, by definition, does not manage to deliver the important message that, if people are not willing to accept complexity of meanings, they will be unlikely to accept complexity in their everyday work.
If the ‘ego-politics’ of academia have long since been characterised by snooty ivory towerism, the latest trend of resorting to bureaucratic plain language in various research environments unravels a (similarly problematic) paternalistic sovereignty, which will not rescue us from the unbearable lightness of academicese. That is to say, this shared writing culture, which devalues fieldwork and makes knowledge redundant, is already gatekeeping non-academic as well as academic research rationales, funding sources, and publication acceptances and rejections.
Linguistic poiesis serves as a healthy reminder here. From the ancient Greek poiéo (meaning ‘to do, to make’), poiesis indicates that language can do, create, modify, and destroy. As I have said above, academic and non-academic writing cultures increasingly build on topoi, sophistic idioms, fixed structures, and patterns of expression which silently lead us all towards the homologation of mindsets, and to repetitive knowledge production.
In the light of this, liberating knowledge production from academicese as much as from bureaucratese needs to be one of our major endeavours, while fighting tooth and nail to defend the empirical inevitability of complexity.
Contemporary academic managerialism, which does not allow researchers – especially seniors – to develop extensive first-hand experience in the field, may seriously impinge on the possibility to collect strong empirical evidence and pose the most relevant research questions, which should, in turn, instruct global research funders. Presently, it is the funders themselves who dictate research rationales, and reward grapho-kratia, or ‘the power of writing’. In this framework, empirical reality risks becoming of secondary importance in today’s academic and non-academic production, since wrapping theories or policies around quick field visits at high speed has become key to winning the game of obtaining financial resources. In this scenario, in-depth fieldwork and multilingual skills may at times be valued, but will not make a big difference in attracting sustainable funding. We’ll probably be fine as long as our writing complies with the dominant politics of language use: cryptically academic to be able to publish journal articles like hot cakes; or bureaucratic language, bereft of empirical complexity, to boast public engagement and impact. The space for new knowledge dauntingly becomes narrower and narrower.
We therefore need to challenge the problematic sociology of ‘neoliberal’ academia by resuscitating the primary importance of empirical depth and relevance. It is thus time to drop academicese without giving up complexity, and to drop bureaucratese without forgetting the fundamental role of research in producing socio-political change.
‘Southern’ and ‘Northern’ assistance provision beyond the grand narratives: Views from Lebanese and Syrian providers in Lebanon
Over the past few decades, scholars have increasingly employed the categories of ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’ to explore different political geographies and economies in development cooperation and humanitarian aid provision. Without doubt, whether and how these denominations make sense are not merely dilemmas of terminology. The Global South has been historically referred to in a number of ways: as the ‘Third World’, coming after the First World, including the US and its allies, and the Second World, including the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc partners; as ‘non-DIAC countries, i.e. not belonging to the Development Assistance Committee of Western donors; or as ‘postcolonial donors’, which, however, does not manage to capture the different positioning of Southern countries vis-à-vis donorship and aid reception.
Against this backdrop, the categorisation of the Global South has existed since the mid-1970s, effectively indicating the changing power relations of this groups of countries with the Global North. With respect to the ‘East’ – a notion tentatively incorporating diverse realities but nowadays embedding them in the Orientalistic discourse first advanced by Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said (1978) – the Global South better allows for multi-directional flows of economic, cultural, and political capital between different countries, and therefore anthropology is surely well placed to explore such multi-directional flows. However, the definition of the Global South has too often been misleadingly reduced to a marginal or anti-imperial positionality, independent from context. In particular, in a bid to learn about and consider different Souths (from an intentionally plural perspective), Global South should not be our episteme – the point of departure for enlarging our knowledge about such a concept. It is in this regard that some scholars have opted for a conception of the Global South as ‘not an exact geographical designation, but as an idea and a set of practices, attitudes, and relations’ (Grovogu, 2011) or ‘a linguistic family, a belief system and an epistemology’ (Mignolo, 2015).
It may be helpful to examine a world map and reflect on the very geographic characteristics of the countries that are included in the Global South category. For instance, given that Australia is a political pole of the Global North, just as China is for the Global South, physical geography cannot fully explain what North and South are, since these categories refer not only to places but also, more importantly, to different political projects related to development and humanitarian action.
As Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Daley highlight in their introduction to the Routledge Handbook of South-South Relations, the present South-South cooperation and its underlying principles are historically associated with anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles around the world: ‘The emergence of a South-South cooperation was originally conceptualized as a way to overcome the exploitative character of North-South relations through diverse models of transnational cooperation and solidarity developed since the 1950s and 1960s, including internationalist, socialist, and regional approaches and initiatives such as Pan-Arabism and Pan-Africanism’. Dahi and Velasco have recently pointed out that, in the decades following World War II, between the 1950s and the late-1980s, South-South trade represented roughly 5–10% of all global trade, but, by 2013, that share had risen to 54%. Over the same period, the direction of these exports shifted to other Southern countries, while global South-South financial flows also increased substantially. This shared interest in mutual collaboration in the Global South, presently championed by Northern actors (that purport to act as facilitators) is also reflected in the so-called ‘localisation agenda’ promoted by the international humanitarian apparatus, as endorsed during the 2016 Istanbul World Humanitarian Summit. At the ‘Africa Stories: Changing Perceptions’ workshop held at University College London in June 2018, Michael Amoah, from the London School of Economics, confirmed Dahi and Velasco’s findings by contending that, in its current form, regional solidarity ideologies like pan-Africanism imply a new material inter-relationality, namely a new shared political economy between African countries, rather than an exclusive political ideology.
Thinking of South-South Cooperation (SSC), which is today incorporated in the framework of the United Nations (UNOSSC), the member states own different levels of economic development (the so-called ‘Human Development Index’) and are viewed as being located at different stages of democratic transition. Many countries partaking in the SSC are, at the same time, both aid donors and aid recipients. Some of those that are also donors do not wish to be defined as such, since such terminology is loaded with negative connotations associated with the Northern aid industry. In this sense, grouping the different realities that form an imaginary South under the banner of ‘emerging’ or ‘non-traditional donors’ is anti-historical as it represents the Northern neglect of a Southern history of assistance, which has similarly been developing for a long time.
In the light of this, should we endeavour to modify the categories ‘South’ and ‘North’ and work towards new definitions that can still grasp power relations without dooming countries to essentialised geopolitical positions? Or, rather, should we liberate the ‘South’ from negative connotations and the ‘North’ from positive biases? North and South are very telling with regard to our mental and cultural maps, not always encompassing the different technical, economic, political, and cultural assets and deficiencies that these political geographies present.
The emergence of UNOSSC is only one symptom of the increasing claim to postcolonial solidarity within the South and between the North and the South. Similarly, it can partially indicate the difference of the South from the North in the way that development and humanitarian assistance are thought about and implemented. These debates go beyond the realms of global economy, international relations, and politics; instead, they relate to the way in which ordinary people conceive of, explain, and concretely manage ideas and issues related to development and crisis management. In March 2018, I had the opportunity to speak with Syrian and Lebanese aid and service providers in Lebanon, among whom were three religious authorities engaging in assistance to Syrian refugees, and meaningful ways of understanding the services funded or managed by countries in the Global North or Global South emerged.
For instance, for a Syrian Sunni sheikh from Homs (western Syria), now managing a school in Tripoli, governance and markets represent the substantial differences between aid actors. He asserted that, in the Global South, governments are more present, while, in the Global North, there are private assistance initiatives that have their own rules and independence. Assistance in the Global North therefore ends up being random (ashwa’iy), reflecting an unleashed labour market behind assistance provision: ‘paying rents, employees, careers, and so on’.
A Lebanese Greek-Orthodox priest who provides aid to refugees and vulnerable citizens on a discontinuous basis in the city of Halba (northern Lebanon) expressed his way of thinking about the South in relation to the aid he provides in terms of what is outside of the Global North. However, he pointed out that, to him, in the mind of the beneficiaries, there is no difference with regard to the source of help and they do not distinguish between actors: ‘If you do lots of sponsoring, eventually your name is going to stick in their minds, but people do not really separate out providers in terms of principles and motivations, only whether the political campaign is massive, e.g. services coming from Saudi Arabia […] in this case, the image easily sticks in their minds, but they don’t know the name of the organisations involved most of the time. I personally think that what differs for Southern and Northern providers is the funding: it is sustainable for UNHCR but certainly not for us. They have governments supporting them, [whereas] we just have the Lebanese government, which neglects us. In that sense, I would identify as a Southern provider’.
Another Lebanese Greek-Orthodox priest working for a branch of the Ministry of Social Affairs in Halba raised the issue of global power holders imagining one homogenous South while departing from the idea of several Northern perspectives: ‘The Global North is the macro-picture for the politics we mostly hear about. As Lebanese providers with few means and little funding, we’re just numbers to be taken care of: I’m a Muslim in the eyes of the West, even though I’m Greek-Orthodox, because we, Middle-Eastern people, are all Muslims in the eyes of outsiders. Instead, I don’t feel there’s a shared understanding or feeling of the East, of the South, as you prefer to put it: there’s no homogeneity outside of the North. I don’t feel any proximity to Asian or African countries, especially to the Arab Gulf, which has its own interests here. Moreover, as a Greek-Orthodox, I have little to do with Arabness’.
The Syrian director of a school in a Tripoli neighbourhood (northern Lebanon) similarly stated: ‘I don’t feel closer to the Arab states with respect to Canada just because we’re all Arabs. Arab states haven’t been supportive at all toward Syrian refugees. I think the real difference between assistance provided by Northern and Southern countries is our hijra [migration with spiritual connotations, related to the migration of the Prophet Mohammad from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD]. The South migrates, and the North doesn’t accept us, even if we are qualified and have culture’.
A Syrian service provider in Tripoli proposed that ‘Northern’ or ‘Southern’ mean something in relation to the social, political, and emotional positionality of the provider: ‘The real difference is not the country we talk about; it’s rather our human condition. It’s about sharing nationality and issues with the displaced you assist [and is] nothing to do with East and West, South and North […]. Beneficiaries identify with countries of reception primarily on the basis of their political position; for example, if I get stuff from Turkey, as a Syrian opponent, I feel closer to Turkey. If you get aid from Saudi Arabia or Qatar, you will prefer one of them if you are a salafi (a follower of Salafism) or ikhwenji (from the Muslim Brotherhood) respectively. So, there’s politics behind our proximity to a country. In this sense, I don’t think I have anything to share with the ‘other South’. As a Syrian, Syria is my Global South’.
Reflecting on the various understandings of ‘Southern-led provision’ is relevant insofar as it allows us to grasp the complex social and political positionalities of assistance providers in the global framework of development and humanitarian action. In this sense, some contemporary academic debates merely re-consign agency to the vulnerable and the disenfranchised, e.g. by seeing Southern actors and refugees as inherently ‘different aid providers’ or by aprioristically defining them as resilient. These debates are tiring at a time when ‘Southern agency’ is heralded as a human and an intellectual conquest of the Global North. Instead, a valuable point of departure may instead be acknowledging the existence of multiplicity and respecting what each side suggests – at times participating and at other times acting by oneself in the realm of development and humanitarian action.
Refugee Hosts local researcher, Leonie Harsch, has encountered an archive of photos during her extensive mapping of the Hamra neighbourhood in Beirut. In this piece, Leonie reflects on some of these photos, which form the archive of Mukhtar Michel Bekhazi, as a way of approaching questions of hospitality, refugee-host encounters and ‘the local’. In particular, these photos capture something of Hamra’s recent history – as both a place that has been shaped by conflict, but also by overlapping displacements: of Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis and Lebanese. The fact that these photos are themselves ‘hosted’ in a space where refugees and hosts can receive some form of support provides a poignant example of the role that heritage and archives can and often do play in framing refugee wellbeing. The Refugee Hosts project will be further exploring notions of ‘heritage’ in more detail through the ‘Moving Objects’ project, as well as…
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