Author Archives: Estella Carpi

Educating the host: It’s not just refugees who need ‘integration’ programmes

‘Teaching local hosts the experience of war and forced displacement would help to publicly challenge hate speech and inform compassion,’ argue Southern Responses to Displacement’s researchers, Dr Estella Carpi, Amal Shaiah Istanbouli and Sara Al Helali. Drawing on research conducted during Southern Responses to Displacement’s fieldwork in Turkey, this blog notes the lack of a systematic approach to educating refugee host communities, despite evidence to suggest that it is an effective tool to reduce anti-refugee sentiment and increase understanding and empathy towards the experiences of refugees. This post presents key evidence contributing to our aims of ‘examining refugees’ experiences, perceptions and conceptualisations of Southern-led responses’ and of ‘tracing the implications of Southern-led initiatives for humanitarian theory and practice.’

If you enjoy reading this piece you can access the recommended reading list at the end of this post. 

This piece was originally published by Open Democracy here

Educating the host: It’s not just refugees who need ‘integration’ programmes. 

by Dr Estella Carpi, Amal Shaiah Istanbouli and Sara Al Helali 

All over the world ‘inclusion’ and ‘integration’ programmes for refugees affected by displacement proliferate. But they often remain ineffective in catalysing social cohesion. This is unsurprising when local hosts who receive refugees are not equally instructed and informed about including and integrating migrants.

In fact, inclusion and integration programmes – far from being radical in any way – are not merely ineffective, they are also politically conservative. This is because they fail to capture human mobility as an everlasting process that cuts across all social groups.

In the contemporary history of forced migration, most development and humanitarian programmes have revolved around assistance to refugees and asylum-seekers, emphasising their needs and rights. Civil society associations and activist groups, who, in general, overtly engage in political mobilisation, often end up adopting a similar strategy, focusing only on one side of the coin in advocacy campaigns and assistance programmes.

That being said, informal small-scale information sessions on forced migration and integration activities that require the involvement of local hosts can, at times, be found in cities and towns, but are not incorporated in official education programmes from early years. This lack of a systematic approach to ‘educating the host’ means information is not delivered cogently. Teaching empathy to those social groups who feel aloof from societal issues such as forced migration and from all of what refugee reception involves should be promoted.

Based on data we collected in Lebanon and Turkey over the past four years, as part of the Southern-led Responses to Displacement from Syria project led by Professor Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh at University College London, we found that many of the refugees from Syria we interviewed highlighted the need for local ‘hosts’ to learn the experience of war and forced displacement in order to understand the reasons behind their arrival and to learn how to accept and support refugee newcomers within their societies.

“In the media, the government and local municipalities should work on delivering messages that encourage local people to support Syrians or, at least, prevent them from engaging in different forms of racism. Such messages should particularly target local students,” a Syrian refugee woman we spoke to in Hatay, Turkey, explained.

Indeed, the suicide of a nine-year-old refugee student in Turkey in October 2019 as a result of extreme racism at school was reported, while local and national media were fueling waves of xenophobia across Turkey since the beginning of the Syrian humanitarian crisis.

Likewise, a large number of refugees from Syria pointed to the misleading belief that they merely constitute a burden on ‘host economies’.

A Syrian refugee man in Gaziantep, a city in Turkey, suggested that “the governments of Arab countries should contribute to educating their people so that refugees are accepted on their lands and integration is facilitated: governments must clarify that refugees do not receive aid at the expense of the host economy”.

Another contended that his cash vouchers are not a gift from host governments, and that conveying this message publicly would ease local tensions. Educating the hosts is often mentioned as an effective tool to reduce anti-refugee resentment and stimulate informed empathy within local society.

A Lebanese student in a northern Lebanese village, confirmed this: “I don’t know much about what happened in Syria in 2011. I only see lots of Syrians here. How will I learn this history if they don’t teach these things at school?” they asked.

In our interviews and experiences in Turkey and Lebanon, international NGOs were especially mentioned as holding a potentially influential role in educating the locals on what it means to actively host refugees, since some large humanitarian and development actors have the capacity to pressure the international media and, sometimes, governments.

The considerations above, coming from refugees, raise the fundamental question of what sort of venues would be safe and suitable for the endeavour of educating the host. In most cities, refugee reception is highly politicised and regularly used as a way for local power holders to create constituencies.

One question is whether human empathy can really be ‘taught’. However, even though the response to such a question is complex, accepting the status quo is not an option.

For instance, the presence of official education programmes on forced migration for the local hosts would help to publicly challenge hate speech and inform people’s compassion with legal and historical frameworks on refugee reception.

Informal activities and events are often organised in cities that receive large numbers of forced migrants, both in the Global North and the Global South.

In Europe, some cities and towns host municipality-led events or initiatives run by collectives aimed at promoting integration through cultural activities or inter-religious dialogue.

In cities like Beirut and Istanbul, film screenings and roundtable discussions on Syria have been organised widely by local activists, with the purpose of sensitising the civil society. Yet, these initiatives quite often do not manage to become visible to all social groups and, importantly, are still missing in the official discourse on forced migration.

Instead, the responsibility and capacity to integrate and be included are exclusively ascribed to the refugees themselves. Paradoxically, the members of the societies that receive refugees are officially defined as ‘hosts’ without actively hosting.

This is not to discard the importance of ‘integration’ and ‘inclusion’ in contemporary societies, but rather to advocate for the healthy coexistence and mutual knowledge between the long-standing and new members of those societies.

The international community must shift the ‘capacity to integrate’ formula from the refugees to the local ‘hosts’, and acknowledge the need for a real plan with long-term, mandatory educational programmes.

Some might see this call for educating the host as an ideological and, thus, questionable move, but the truth is that whether we want it or not, people will keep moving, and the sustainability of everyone’s welfare cannot be but a common affair.

**

*This research has been conducted in the framework of the project “Analysing South-South Humanitarian Responses to Displacement from Syria: Views from Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey,” funded by the European Research Council under the Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation agreement no. 715582.

If you enjoyed this piece you can access the recommended reading below: 

Cantor, D.J. (2021) Cooperation on refugees in Latin America and the Caribbean – The ‘Cartagena process’ and South–South approaches

Asai, N. (2019) Soka Gakkai International – Faith-Based Humanitarian Action During Large Scale Disaster

Carpi, E. (2019) Local Faith Actors in Disaster Response and Risk Reduction – ALNAP Webinar

Carpi E. (2018) ‘Southern’ and ‘Northern’ assistance provision beyond the grand narratives: Views from Lebanese and Syrian providers in Lebanon

Carpi, E.  (2018) Does Faith-Based Aid Provision Always Localise Aid?

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019) Looking Forward: Disasters at 40

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019) Exploring refugees’ conceptualisations of Southern-led humanitarianism

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019) Histories and spaces of Southern-led responses to displacement

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Faith-Based Humanitarianism

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) Refugee-Refugee Humanitarianism

Olliff, L. (2019) Refugee diaspora humanitarianism and the value of North/South distinctions in research on responses to forced displacement.

Omata, N. (2019) South-South Cooperation in International Organizations: Its Conceptualization and Implementation within UNDP and UNHCR

Ozturk, M. (2019) Municipal-level responses to Syrian refugees in Turkey: The case of Bursa

Wagner, A. C. (2019) “There are no missionaries here!” – How a local church took the lead in the refugee response in northern Jordan

Featured image: Syrian and Turkish community members play in the park, Gaziantep, Turkey.  © Muhannad Saab, 2016

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The Role of Brazil in the North and South: Discussing Refugee Reception with Dr Mirian Alves de Souza — Southern Responses to Displacement

In contrast to the ‘hyper-visibility’ of humanitarian aid designed and delivered by countries of the global North, humanitarian aid provided by countries of the Global South remains mostly unseen. In this interview, Dr Estella Carpi and Dr Mirian Alves de Souza, discuss how countries in the Global South, with a particular focus on Brazil, have […]

The Role of Brazil in the North and South: Discussing Refugee Reception with Dr Mirian Alves de Souza — Southern Responses to Displacement
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Ten years on, Syrian lives changed beyond measure (Fiona Mitchell, March 2021)

It has been a pleasure to contribute to Fiona Mitchell’s article on the Syrian crisis 10 years after.

Civilians in Al Bab after the town was freed from Daesh terrorists by Free Syrian Army (FSA) February 2017
Civilians in Al Bab after the town was freed from Daesh terrorists by Free Syrian Army (FSA) February 2017

By Fiona Mitchell

Correspondent

Ten years on and the Syrian war remains one of the defining conflicts of our time. 

Its impact has been most acutely felt by the Syrian people whose lives have been changed beyond measure. 

But the events of the last decade have also had a huge effect on neighbouring countries and far beyond the Middle East.

March 15th 2011 is generally acknowledged as the date on which the war began, though of course at the time no one could have anticipated the events that lay ahead. 

Destruction in Jouret al-Shayah, in Homs. The city of Homs was under rebel hands from 2011 until 2014

Syria was watching as its neighbours underwent rapid change in the form of the Arab Spring. Beginning in Tunisia and spreading to countries like Libya and Egypt, there was a series of anti-government demonstrations and protests.

One of the early slogans of the movement was “the people want to bring down the regime”. 

It was a message that spread fast, and one that was soon scrawled on a wall in the southern Syrian city of Daraa by a group of 15 young people.

Leaders across the region eyed the events of the Arab Spring with increasing alarm, witnessing men like Muammar Gadaffi and Hosni Mubarak fall from power under the force of a public opposition that was taking to the streets. In Syria, President Bashar Al-Assad was also watching.

His family had ruled the country for almost five decades and when the revolution reached Daraa the reaction was swift. The teenagers who had written those words were detained and tortured. 

The brutal way in which they were treated led even more people onto the streets in protest. If Daraa had lit a spark, the flames spread quickly, with protests soon taking place in cities across the country resulting in a rapid descent into civil war as hundreds of factions with an array of motivations became involved in armed conflict. 


Read more:
One woman’s campaign for Syria’s disappeared people

Ten years on: Syria’s war in numbers


Current situation

So what of the situation now in Syria? Who controls what parts of the country?

Nada Homsi is a freelance journalist and producer with NPR based in Beirut who covers the Syrian war.

As Nada Homsi points out, while the level of violence in Syria may have fallen in the past year, conditions have worsened considerably.

“Less people are dying, but less people can afford to live also,” she says. In the government held part of the country, the effect of international sanctions and the economic crisis in nearby Lebanon has severely impacted the economy. 

People struggle to make ends meet, with severe shortages of basics such as bread and fuel. UNICEF says that in the last year the price of the average basket of food has risen by over 230%, highlighting the impact this has had on Syria’s children.

Over half a million children in Syria under the age of five now suffer from chronic malnutrition. Last month the World Food Programme said the situation had never been worse.

WFP Country Director in Syria Sean O’Brien said that “after ten years of conflict, Syrian families have exhausted their savings as they face a spiralling economic crisis” in a country where basic foods now cost far more than the average salary. 

With an estimated 83% of the population now living under the poverty line in Syria, the economic crisis also means that funds are not available to rebuild the infrastructure damaged in the war. 

It’s estimated that Syria’s per capita budget has declined by 70% in the last decade. It is a situation described by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as “a living nightmare”.

Displacement and the refugee crisis

Adding to the humanitarian crisis is the displacement of people in Syria that has happened over the last ten years. Many families have been forced to flee their homes not just once, but several times, in order to avoid violence. Will Turner is the Médecins Sans Frontières Operational Manager in North East Syria.

Since the war began an estimated 13 million people, which is more than half of Syria’s pre-war population, has been displaced. Over 5.5 million Syrian refugees have registered in neighbouring countries as people leave a country ravaged by a war with no end in sight. Aid agencies working in Syria have called the protracted displacement crisis the worst since World War II. 

And it has impacted the entire region. Estella Carpi is a Research Associate at University College London. As a social anthropologist her work focuses on the forced migration that has occurred in Syria, and the impact that it has on host countries across the region.

Estella Carpi says the impact on neighbouring countries that have seen a substantial influx of Syrians in the last decade is complex and layered. Local infrastructures in many are put under added strain. 

This is particularly acute in countries like Lebanon where public infrastructure was already in difficulty. It is also important to remember the diversity of refugees, something that Estella Carpi says can often be forgotten in the media portrayal of the crisis.

Gender, class, ethnicity – there are a wide range of people from a wide range of circumstances who have been adversely affected by the Syrian war and have been forced to leave their homes as a result. Many have gone to cities in neighbouring countries in the hope of finding work but with severe economic crises in countries like Lebanon this has not always been easy.

For those who are living in refugee camps aid agencies like Médecins Sans Frontières say the situation is incredibly fragile. 

Will Turner says the human toll of the war has been appalling, but now there is an added factor – Covid.

As the biggest global news story of the past year, the pandemic is cited by many as a reason that news from Syria has slipped from the headlines. But it is an issue with which Syrians are ill-equipped to deal. Will Turner points out that refugee camps are already incredibly difficult places to live, with overcrowded, unsanitary conditions. 

Eight or nine people living in a tent are completely removed from any ability to socially distance. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, who recently tested positive for Covid-19, has implemented coronavirus measures in government-controlled areas of the country, including travel restrictions and a curfew.

Official numbers suggest that Syria has had far fewer Covid cases and Covid deaths than other countries in the Middle East, leading to a lot of scepticism about the accuracy of the official statistics.

As the world battles Covid, Syria battles both Covid and a decade-long war that shows little sign of coming to an end.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last week that the path to a resolution of the conflict remained open. Security Council Resolution 2254 endorses a “road map towards a Syrian-led political transition”. 

Mr Guterres was asked if the UN and the Security Council had failed the Syrian people. 

“It is clear”, he said “that if a war lasts ten years the international …. governance system we have is not effective. And that is something that should be a source of reflection for everybody involved.”

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Motherhood in Science. How Children Change Our Academic Careers, by Global Young Academy 2021

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Trust in Science around the World, by the Global Young Academy, 2021

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Humanitarianism and Ethnocracies of Care in Lebanon

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In support of LGBTQ people and gender self-determination

I am sharing here a video the Global Young Academy I am a member of prepared to support LGBTQ rights on its international day. I support gender self-determination.

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ANIMAL DISPLACEMENT FROM SYRIA: A STORY YET TO BE WRITTEN

Image by Bernard Gagnon (via Wikimedia Commons)

Animal Displacement from Syria: A Story Yet to be Written

During the Syrian war, which has now raged for a decade, the attention of scholars, media commentators and activists has primarily focused on human displacement. More than 60% of the world’s refugee population – over 30% of which are victims of internal displacement – reside in the Middle East, mainly due to large-scale armed conflicts. The Syrian war, which began following a popular uprising in spring 2011, has led to half a million deaths (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), nearly seven million displaced people – 70% of whom still live in the Middle East – and 14 million in need of assistance.

Due to the tragically large scale of human loss, the destiny of fauna during the war in Syria has been under-explored, and any emphasis on it has often been frowned upon in informal conversations I had throughout the years with international researchers and opinion-makers working on this geographic area. With this post, I encourage readers to reason beyond inter-species hierarchies, which instil unproductive ways of thinking, such as that a species per se is more or less important than another. The haste to set up such existential hierarchies between animals and human beings derives from a human-focused understanding of animals that share our natural habitat as well as our built environment. In this sense, animal care becomes either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in response to our personal habits, our everyday culture and, importantly, our social and economic capacity of care. Indeed, in Western societies, the care for animals – especially pets – has widely been associated with the lifestyle of global middle and upper classes, who are able and keen to feed, care and cater for animals. So to speak, the “bourgeoisization” of animal care – where the latter is frequently viewed as the care provided by wealthy people equipped with time and resources that enable them to think beyond human survival – and the critical reactions to it have ended up influencing our external gaze on human conflict and migration and have dangerously legitimated the exclusivity of human care. To look at the entirety of this multi-species ecosystem of war and forced migration reveals a complexity that goes unheeded as a result of an anthropocentric gaze.

I encourage readers to reason beyond inter-species hierarchies, which instil unproductive ways of thinking.

Animals affected by war have mainly been discussed in terms of human survival and sustainability, but with pointed exceptions. For example, in 2012, Reuters news agency dedicated a photo galleryto animals, such as turtles and cats, that were trying to survive bombings, seeking food in almost depopulated areas and, sometimes, receiving it from armed groups who lived, occupied or briefly stopped in these neighbourhoods destroyed by war. To expand on such snippet views, I focus on the animals’ fate during the Syrian conflict and the discursive and logistic use of animal-fare in war narratives.

The omission of animals’ fate in today’s journalism and academic scholarship on armed conflict has led to ignoring a fundamental element in the lives of refugees who had to leave Syria: the incurable existential harm caused by the need to abandon their pets or, for those who had a rural lifestyle, their livestock, as it has been noted in forced migration history. In many cases that I have witnessed throughout years of research on Syrian displacement in the Levantine region, the abandonment of their animals – even a cow kept for milk or poultry kept for eggs – has generated pain and emotional disorientation in the lives of the displaced. Such abandonments are experienced as an inevitable sacrifice when leaving the war-torn country and building a life elsewhere. Indeed, most of the Syrian refugees I have met in northern Lebanon’s villages – and who often work in Lebanese farms – have a rural background. They often remember the cattle they owned and how they looked after them when they lived in Syria. Many of them say they regularly ask their neighbours about the fate of these abandoned animals; most of those who were not resold died of dehydration, starvation and disease.

The abandonment of their animals has generated pain and emotional disorientation in the lives of the displaced.

Despite this, animal displacement has been approached from the angle of the survival and proliferation of humans and the importance of exhuming Syrian agricultural production, which used to rely on the export of livestock before the conflict, making up 15% of the internal agricultural workforce. But what was the fate of these animals? Domestic, pack and farm animals alike were often killed as spoils of war, smuggled into the neighbouring countries, or were stolen, displaced, bombed or sold. As a consequence, the rate of private ownership of livestock within the country has dropped to 60% since the beginning of the conflict. Many breeders have had to abandon their profession and lifestyle and leave the country or migrate to other locations in Syria in search of new livelihoods.

Animals and animal violence have been widely discussed as a soft power strategy for shaping relations between political actors, and as a tool for gaining credibility in local and international communities while morally discrediting political enemies. For example, there is some Arabic media material illustrating this trend, with videos showing the leaders of the shabbiha – thugs loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – throw a ‘thoroughbred’ Arab horse to their lions for food, as written in the Tweet of a Syrian political opponent included in an al-Quds article. Many of these videos, accessible on YouTube, show the killing of livestock by armed groups or the theft of livestock in some Syrian regions. Some accusations are not expressly aimed at either government militias or opposition groups, but they are used as such for political propaganda. Beyond the authenticity of this type of media material, which is continually the subject of journalistic debate, the treatment of animals plays a fundamental role in shaping the political rhetoric of each of the parties in conflict. The same happens with the recent government decree, No. 221, through which Bashar al-Assad assigns the Ministry of Education to the directorship of the ‘Animal Protection in Syria’ project.

Animals and animal violence have been widely discussed as a soft power strategy for shaping relations between political actors, and as a tool for gaining credibility while morally discrediting political enemies.

As I wrote with Samira Usman in the past, the humanitarian mantra of ‘human dignity’, according to which every human life must be respected and protected, has indeed shed light on the importance of ensuring legal and social protection for refugees. However slow this has been to materialise on a global level, it has emphasized the importance for refugees to have their dignity recognized. In this vein, the rhetoric of human dignity, over-used by the international community as well as by activist groups, ended up ignoring the historical fact that war causes dramatic consequences to other species too. It is emblematic that only a small number of humanitarian projects (for example, Animals Lebanon) approach human beings as part of an entire ecosystem that is being destroyed by conflict, therefore actively subverting anthropocentrism.

Animals have also long been an object of debates among Muslim communities worldwide. There is a longstanding belief that Muslim-majority societies have little respect for animals, which has led scholars to speak of Islamic environmentalism only in countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, namely, in the so-called ‘Global North’. In this regard, some fatawa (plural of fatwa) in the Sunni Muslim world have warned Syrian internally displaced people and refugees not to kill or eat cats, donkeys and dogs, even in situations of famine and hardship. Such fatawa generate extensive internet discussions focussing on the precepts of Islam and serve as a spiritual, legal and social consultation space for believers. Some religious authorities have denounced the act of killing and eating animals without a valid reason, while others have allowed the act of eating them provided that these animals have already been killed by bombing. Yet, this has at times become a practice in today’s Syria, owing to the famines and hardships that the conflict itself has caused. At the same time, the care and provision of food to animals, such as cats, is indeed praised and appreciated by God. The topic remains an element of animated discussion within the Muslim world.

Only a small number of humanitarian projects approach human beings as part of an entire ecosystem that is being destroyed by conflict.

The animals that have accompanied human beings during their flight and that have shared their conditions of forced migration are often unspoken; for instance, many refugees crossing the Syrian–Lebanese border brought along sheep, goats and cows, which had not been vaccinated due to their sudden departure to flee war, violence and the resulting poverty. Since 2011, some Syrian refugees in Wadi Khaled (north-east Lebanon) have told me that they crossed the al-Kabeer river connecting the two borders on the back of a donkey. They later had to abandon the animal because it fell ill and they did not have the means to maintain it, having paid a large amount of money to smugglers.

However, the ethical discourse underlying human displacement has sometimes been at odds with environmental and animal ethics. The areas where refugees are resettling are taken from the local fauna; human settlement and methods of mass-producing food often lead to deforestation and erosion of the surrounding habitat. As in such paradoxical situations, only either of the two vulnerable conditions can be protected within the ecosystem, the defenders of environmental and animal rights find themselves in tension with those who advocate for human rights. This was the case of one million Rwandan Hutu refugees, who, in 1994, relocated to the Virunga National Park of neighbouring Congo, where ten gorillas were killed after the territory was plundered. Similar to what is happening in Syria, in the case of Virunga National Park, the refugees who went to live in the protected area, considered a heritage site of humanity, were accused of committing violence against the territory. It is instead the refugees’ presence that becomes a favourable source of chaos, and some people take advantage of such chaos to carry out raids, using the refugees’ presence for dissimulation.*

The defenders of environmental and animal rights find themselves in tension with those who advocate for human rights.

In the context of the Syrian conflict, animal displacement is still a history yet to be written. I consider it important to highlight not only the anthropocentric and violent use of animals in conditions of forced migration but also the emotional bond that some refugees had with the animals they had to abandon, due to protracted political, economic, social and political instability. Remembering animals is often part of the stories told by refugees themselves; in some cases, animals explain refugee and internally displaced people’s attachment to their home back in Syria. In order to fully understand the effects of conflict, violence and deprivation on mobile ecosystems, it is indeed inevitable to unravel these important inter-species relationships.

Crisis discourse traditionally omits the relational history with animals in forced migration narratives, while human beings – both refugees and political actors, as mentioned above – often remember, thrive on, or instrumentalize animals in the real world. As long as the biodiversity of crisis goes unheeded, our knowledge of the ‘politics of living’ in displacement also remains maimed. In this sense, disrupting anthropocentric understandings of human-made crisis is not only an ethical issue, as animal-rights activists remind us through campaigns, but also an intellectual and epistemological one.

Remembering animals is often part of the stories told by refugees themselves.

Notes

This research has been conducted in the framework of the project “Analysing South-South Humanitarian Responses to Displacement from Syria: Views from Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey,” funded by the European Research Council under the Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation agreement no. 715582.

*Others use the presence of refugees in these territories as an instrument for political negotiation. This is also the case for some Syrian archaeological sites; the ruins of Idlib, a cultural heritage site, have become temporary shelters for local displaced people, who could not find alternative places for protection and survival. The Antiquities Center of Idlib is in charge of this issue.

Featured image by Bernard GagnonCC BY-SA 3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

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The damage aid workers can do – with just their words (by Tammam Aloudat)

The damage aid workers can do – with just their words

Through its language and psychology, the aid sector has divided the world into saviours and ‘beneficiaries’

Tammam AloudatTammam Aloudat

March 26, 2021

Try getting through this paragraph without becoming bored or confused:

“Our humanitarian field operations have focused on high-impact, cost-effective implementation of activities through local partners. We have provided the target population with platforms to empower our beneficiaries – particularly women, children, and other vulnerable groups – and provide them with sustainable and scalable solutions to build resilience and preserve dignity. Through the deployment of teams of expatriate staff to the front lines, our humanitarian operation allowed us to effectively address the needs and raise awareness, giving voice to the voiceless victims while building the capacity of local actors.”

If you work in the humanitarian sector, you could read through it without batting an eyelid. At first glance, it might sound like something (not particularly well-written) one finds in a report posted on a humanitarian or development organisation’s website. In this case, I invented it to illustrate a point.

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The problem is not just the displeasure you experience trying to wade through the syntax. It’s what lies beyond the words – what they tell us both about humanitarians and, ultimately, the current state of humanitarian aid.

The obvious disclaimer here is that this view is neither a judgement on the character of any given humanitarian worker – I am one of them – nor a cliched “call to action” about humanitarian language (though by all means, feel free to act). It is, rather, an interrogation of the way humanitarianism teaches us to think, and what lurks beneath its surface.

The mid-20th century Martinique political philosopher Frantz Fanon once wrote about the effect of language: “To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilisation.”

Like every discipline, humanitarianism has developed its own language and imagery that reflects not only the means to communicate among its practitioners, but also its conception of the world and how it understands, and hence behaves, in it.

This language of humanitarianism is hardly static. It evolves with the changing contexts in which humanitarian action takes place, the pressures of donors and benefactors and the social and cultural norms of the societies – usually in the West – where those organisations are based and where western narratives are most important.

Despite the evolution, however, the abstractions, jargon, and acronyms so common to humanitarian-speak still aim for, and manage to achieve, several things.

First, it defines the field of action, humanitarianism, and draws its parameters, principles, and tactics; second, it justifies and moralises the act itself and asserts the legitimacy of its existence and consequences; and third, it sustains the power, worldview, and future of those who control the narrative.

Those goals are not explicit, that is to say they are not written in formal documents or articulated in strategic plans. They, however, can be discerned from the use of the language itself.

In my own attempt to resolve my long-standing discomfort with the language I was using every day, I posted a Tweet last month asking for words or expressions that we humanitarians use regularly but are inappropriate.

To my surprise, many answers came, and the objectionable words and phrases spanned beyond the obvious. The full list is too long to include here. However, some of them remain, and are difficult to excise from our daily professional lives. Others are widely agreed to be unacceptable now or because they are emerging as such influenced with a renewed debate about the asymmetries of power in the humanitarian sector.https://d-10335907221585136272.ampproject.net/2103240330001/frame.html

Those include “beneficiaries” to describe people who receive aid in emergencies, “capacity building” as a main NGO activity, “target population”, “speaking out on behalf of…”, “vulnerability” (especially in formulations like “women, children, and other vulnerable groups”), “resilience” as something that can be built in communities by external actors. It even includes some of what are considered fundamental principles, such as “neutrality” or the word “humanitarian” itself.

And yet, all of these words linger.

While it is optimistic to see the changes that are gradually happening to humanitarian language and the way this has been raised into collective awareness, the road to moving humanitarian action away from its still-dominant Eurocentric view of the world is just beginning. Writing glossaries of more appropriate terms to use in communication is one step. But what language tells us about power hierarchies is far more interesting because it gives a window to the current state of humanitarian action, as well as its possible futures.

A Palestinian walks past a ceramic sign of a USAID project in Hebron in the West Bank in 2019. Reuters
A Palestinian walks past a ceramic sign of a USAID project in Hebron in the West Bank in 2019. Reuters

For a humanitarian to exist and to be justified, his or her opposite – a beneficiary – is necessary. As the French philosopher Jacques Derrida once wrote, a concept is implicit in its opposite, and one cannot exist without the other.

For the humanitarian – a person defined by their highest moral impulse being to help others – the beneficiary has to exist as a helpless person with little agency, who is defined not by their communal or individual attributes, but rather their benefit from the moral action of the humanitarian.

There are plenty of other problematic oppositions: developing/developed, resilient/vulnerable, donor/recipient, and international/local. None of those is neutral or free from value judgement. They are based on generalisations and stereotypes, and all of them, as they are used today, assert the existing powers and their resistance to change.

Glossaries and style guides are unlikely in themselves to ever change the culture and power hierarchies that hide behind the language. But they are still a necessary step in going forward.

Edward Said once argued that the orientalist invents an oriental that only exists in their mind

As we have seen in growing social justice and solidarity movements concerned with racial and gender-based discrimination, the change of terms by those they dehumanise or oppress is being accepted as a necessary step in allowing people to assert their own self-perception. It also sets a threshold for response, by daring everyone else to recognise the imbalance and correct it.

Moreover, just like the Palestinian scholar Edward Said once argued that the orientalist invents an oriental that only exists in their mind rather than in reality, the humanitarian who accepts the narrative of a beneficiary without a say or agency, without knowledge or will, is prone to go to the “field” and act as if they are the only one with knowledge, will, or benevolence. In doing so, they further disempowering the very people they are meant to aid.

Forty years ago, the African-American writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde, in talking about the lack of representation of people like her in society’s wider conversations reminded us that “the master’s tool will never dismantle the master’s house”. We need to find a new language, a world view and the tools to create the words that talk about the poor, the sick and crisis survivors as the owners of their fate, rather than an inconvenience that has to be overcome in the grand humanitarian narrative. It will not be simple to achieve, but then, no one should expect humanitarianism to be a simple matter.

Dr Tammam Aloudat is a Syrian physician and a senior strategic adviser to MSF in Geneva

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A Sociology of Knowledge on Displacement and Humanitarianism

In this post, Dr Estella Carpi identifies the main points she and Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh raise in their contribution to the recently published Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of the Middle East, where they focus on the commonalities and dissimilarities across the academic literature relating to war-induced displacement and humanitarianism in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Egypt.

If you find this post of interest, please visit our Thinking through the Global South series and the recommended reading and listening at the end of this post. 

A Sociology of Knowledge on Displacement and Humanitarianism

by Dr Estella Carpi, Research Associate, Southern Responses to Displacement Project, UCL

The Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of the Middle East, edited by Armando Salvatore, Kieko Obuse, and Sari Hanafi, contains my and Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh’s contribution, a chapter on the sociology of knowledge of studies on war-induced displacement and humanitarianism in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Egypt. Our comparative analysis of academic literature on this topic suggests that similarities and differences across the academic literature are not always motivated by specific forms of state governmentality. Importantly, in the framework of how academic knowledge production relates to political order, we show how postcolonial his­tory seems to only provide partial explanations.

Our chapter, ‘A Sociology of Knowledge on Displacement and Humanitarianism’  primarily emerges from the need to decentralize mainstream knowledge by shedding light on responses to dis­placement led by organizations, governments, informal groups, and individuals from across the Global South, including refugees themselves. It also emerges from our experience with teaching displacement and humani­tarianism in several international institutions and the responses received from different cohorts of students.

In our chapter, we depart from the Syrian “refugee crisis”, started by a popular uprising in March 2011, as it has now become a crucial watershed in international scholarly literature concerned with the Middle East. Indeed, the Syrian crisis has paved the way for a large number of studies focused on humanitarian governance, forced migrations, security and borders, migrant labour, and social integration in receiving coun­tries. In countries where the central state tends to emerge as authoritarian in the organization of society (e.g., Turkey and Egypt), such themes have been addressed differently from po­litical environments where the state has been considered absent and fragile and where political power is fragmented (e.g., Lebanon and the Occupied Palestinian Territories). For instance, some forced migrants living in states where the “catastrophization” discourse is unlikely, have not always appeared in academic texts under the label of “refugees” but have instead been categorized as “migrants” since economic and climate-related migrations are both unlikely to be classified as “forced” in the global political arena. Indeed, in Egypt and Turkey, humanitarianism is not a usual analytical framework for the explana­tion of refugee governance and refugee experience.

Our chapter shows that postcoloniality does not explain such peculiar sociologies of knowledge. States like Lebanon have proved that, al­though domestic sovereignty is seemingly fragmented and delegated to more than one ac­tor, they can still curb or hold sway on assistance provision and its layered politics, for ex­ample, forbidding marches in support of refugee employment and living conditions. However, postcoloniality is a key variable in carving out a transnational sociology of knowl­edge of these localities. Identifying this sociology means meditating on the ways in which crisis is defined and understood in different political histories. In this respect, Lebanon is over-characterized by the catastrophe discourse, having a wavering political past and present during which governmental mandates have never lasted long, unlike many other states in the region. Nonetheless, we conclude that it would be incorrect to argue that Lebanon has historical­ly been more exposed to crisis than countries like Jordan, Egypt, or Turkey (also charac­terized by outbreaks of nonstate political violence and coups d’état), because “crisis” per se should have contextual and relativistic meanings and, at times, resides in the ordinary details of everyday life.

Against this backdrop, we define the “sociology of knowledge” as the relationship between the production of knowl­edge and the social context in which it develops and examine how knowledge is con­structed socially and what factors mainly influence such a construction. Since knowledge is contextual, it is shaped as much by the social and political positioning of knowledge producers as by their local, regional, and international environments. Academic cultures —not always overlapping with official “national cultures,” which are defined by the boundaries of the nation-state—frame such topics in a peculiar manner. In the effort to build a sociology of knowledge, we seek to identify the political and social factors that have been moulding international scholarship in the field of displacement and crisis man­agement. The need for a common language and to somehow embrace functional monolingualism has subtly justified the implicit demand to think and present ideas monoculturally. Such an Anglocentric mono­-culture risks emerging as the only valuable and acceptable one in defining “global knowledge” and concepts such as “humanitarianism”. As Fiddian-Qasmiyeh has argued, “exploring the principles and modalities of South–South cooperation, rather than promoting the incorporation of Southern actors into the ‘international humanitarian system’ via the localization agenda, presents a critical opportunity for studies of displace­ment and humanitarianism in the Middle East region”. As a result, the displacement and humanitari­anism literature need to transcend the state paradigm and focus on a larger variety of so­cial and political factors.

Here comes the endeavour of the Southern Responses to Displacement project: while most scholars have examined the work of the United Na­tions and of international institutions in the region, in our chapter for the Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of the Middle East, we instead highlight the need to learn from multilingual literature, especially that produced in the Global South, and from a deeper investigation of the principles and modalities of crisis management as developed by actors from the Global South. From our perspective, such con­siderations, while overcoming the nation-state paradigm, could also drive us toward an actual global sociology of knowledge.

If you find this post of interest, please visit our Thinking through the Global South series and the recommended reading below:

Carpi, E. (2021) Slavery, Lived Realities and Decolonising Forced Migration Histories: A transcript of an interview with Prof. Portia Owusu – Interview with Dr Estella Carpi and Dr Portia Owusu

Carpi, E. (2021) Slavery, Lived Realities and Decolonising Forced Migration Histories: An interview with Prof Portia Owusu (Podcast)

Carpi, E. (2019) Thinking Power Relations across Humanitarian Geographies: Southism as a Mode of Analysis

Carpi, E. (2018) Humanitarianism and Postcoloniality:  A Look at Academic Texts

Carpi, E. (2018) Teaching Humanitarianism:  The Need for a More Responsive Framework:

Carpi, E. (2018) Empires of Inclusion?[FE1] 

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2020) Migration, Humanitarianism, and the Politics of Knowledge – An Interview with Juliano Fiori

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2020) Introduction: Recentering the South in Studies of Migration

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019) Exploring refugees’ conceptualisations of Southern-led humanitarianism

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019) Histories and spaces of Southern-led responses to displacement

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Thinking through ‘the global South’ and ‘Southern-responses to displacement’: An introduction.

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) The Localisation of Aid and Southern-led Responses to Displacement: Beyond instrumentalising local actors

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Southern Responses to Displacement: Background and introduction to our mini blog series. 

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Daley, P. (2018) Conceptualising the global South and South–South encounters[FE2] 

Nimer, M. (2019) Reflections on the Political Economy in Forced Migration Research from a ‘Global South’ Perspective


Featured image: (c) El Maks, Boustashy Art photograph, Autumn 2004

Categories: Middle East | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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