Inside the 2019 first issue of the Migration and Society Journal you can find my review of Naohiko Omata’s book The Myth of Self-Reliance: Economic Lives inside a Liberian Refugee Camp, published with Berghahn Books in 2017.
Book Review of Naohiko Omata’s “The Myth of Self-Reliance: Economic Lives inside a Liberian Refugee Camp” (June, 2019)
In this blog post I would like to share my personal experiences of carrying out qualitative research in what contemporary scholars call the “Global South” (Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt) and the “Global North” (Australia and the United Kingdom). To convey my message clearly, I adopt the classical political geography of “South” and “North” with the intention of neither confirming these narrow categories nor of universalizing my personal experiences but in order to work towards an honest sociology of knowledge through such peculiar experiences.
In particular, I discuss what I think are some of the emerging behavioral and ethical tendencies in today’s research economy and its main methodologies. On the one hand, the reluctance in the “Southern” environments in recognizing their own tendency to embrace predominant ways of producing knowledge. On the other, the reluctance of “Northern” research entities to acknowledge their own positionality within the global scenario – that is, accepting the fact of conducting research as outsiders and, above all, the sociological harm of pretending localism. The result of these two tendencies is, from my perspective, a globalized impoverished attention to factual awareness, which depends on the personal involvement of researchers in the context they study and the cultivation of the capability to build and rebuild a continual relationship with the subjects and the places studied beyond the duration of fieldwork research.
The “Southern” tendency to perceive the practice of producing research as antithetical or substantially different to the North consistently builds on the universal romanticization of the research produced in the Global South, cutting across the North and the South. Indeed, while the research and academic institutions that I worked for in the Global South tended to believe that their fieldwork quality standards were inherently higher, the fact of being at the mercy of external – and unstable – sources of funding often endangered their existence and alternative ways of working. In these circumstances, fieldwork mostly took place in relatively small timeframes and, likewise, theories needed to be quickly wrapped up, making it difficult to identify any effective counter-culture of knowledge production. Studies on publishing locally and perishing globally have importantly highlighted the material constraints of localizing research. While “Southern” knowledge is barely known and mentioned by North-produced researchers (although it often marks significantly several fields of studies), it is also important to add that, in my own experiences across the Arab world, large segments of upper and middle classes tend to receive their postgraduate education and establish their scholarship in Northern institutions, thereby being trained according to Northern criteria while trying to preserve their reputation of being local researchers. In similar ways, Southern institutions often delegate fieldwork to research assistants who struggle to receive intellectual acknowledgment. (The same acknowledgment that many “Southern” research institutions have been looking for in the international arena, still dominated by Global North’s epistemologies and funding sources). In this regard, I have seen no co-authorships offered to research assistants, who undergo processes of alienation similar to those recently discussed in the context of the institutions of the Global North. Likewise, I have witnessed similarly exploitative relationships which seek to build knowledge upon the anonymity and the belittling of an underpaid workforce, whatever the latter’s passport is.
Despite acknowledging the partially ethnic character of some of these power dynamics – such as European academics versus local researchers in the Arab Levant, mostly when the former lack the necessary linguistic skills and in-depth knowledge of the research settings – I would like to emphasize some nuances. While the global archetype of neoliberal academia certainly does not stem from Southern institutions, largely due to colonial legacies, in my experience I have identified hierarchical and alienating structures of research-making across different cultural patterns of knowledge production.
Dauntingly, ethical research and decolonial methodologies are becoming tokenistic worldwide, turning into a further disenfranchisement of diversely vulnerable researched subjects, such as refugees. In this scenario, the Global North currently promotes itself as a pioneer advocate of ethical research – a phenomenon which has led to a proliferation of publications on the topic, rather than finally aiming for a radical transformation of research and for the uprooting of the vulnerabilities of the researched.
With no intention to bury unequal historical relationships, the intrinsic “non-ethicness” of such structural deficiencies needs to be observed across Norths and Souths. To ethnographers, if quality fieldwork means collecting relevant data, it also needs to mean collecting what matters at a local level and in an appropriate way. Contextual relevance and cultural appropriateness inevitably require generous timeframes. Doing less but long-term research and paying under-explored forms of respect to the researched may be the way to go.
Moreover, a pressing question may center on the tyranny of grants and funding, which is said to dictate the design of today’s projects. To what extent is this the cause of such an unacknowledged sociology of failure in academic research? The present tendency is to design methods that involve an extremely large number of interviews and what I would call the “participatory approach fever”. The result of a misinterpretation of what “participation” should mean is subcontracting scientific evidence to researched subjects overburdened with theoretical expectations and over-theorizations, a tendency which seldom turns out to provide sound empirical evidence. In this vein, Northern-led research not only tends to romanticize the South, which would not be new in postcolonial scholarship, but increasingly invites the South to actively participate in its own romanticization. Affected by “participatory approach fever”, many scholars in the Global North feel urged to depict their work as local, while also missing the fact that sharing their own conscious positionality vis-à-vis the researched would instead be an invaluable point of departure in the effort to avoid ethical and scientific failure. Indeed, such a self-acknowledgment would finally contribute to nuancing the multiple cultures in which research design, data collection, writing, and knowledge production are embedded – cultures that are hardly definable within the categories of “North” and “South”.
In light of these considerations, I ask myself how ethnographic studies can survive without being sociologically relevant and, at times, even culturally appropriate. Subcontracting the production of knowledge either to local researchers or to the researched themselves is certainly not a one-size-fits-all answer. Yet it looks unfeasible for many researchers across the globe to dispose of proper time and funding to conduct research over a longer timeframe and develop a localized understanding of the contexts they wish to study. I identified a similar issue when I realized that some researchers who have a poor command of the local language shy away from hiring an interpreter due to a lack of material means or because they are in an environment that frowns upon social science researchers who lack contextual skills. While peacefully sharing one’s own limits and assets would potentiate empirical analysis overall, everyone wants to be the “voice of the Global South”. Instead, no one wants to be the Global North, impeding a honest sociology of knowledge. Thus, how do we decolonize sociological and anthropological knowledge and, at the same time, the sociology of knowledge, if the drivers of epistemological coloniality, across Norths and Souths, have managed to make themselves invisible?
The ‘Need to Be There’: North-South Encounters and Imaginations in the Humanitarian Economy (December, 2018)
I have contributed to the Routledge Handbook of South-South Relations, edited by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Patricia Daley (2018), which has just been published!
The edited volume collects an important number of critical contributions which question contemporary political geographies of Global North and Global South. Here below you can read the abstract of my chapter which focuses on my work on humanitarianism in Lebanon.
Based on ethnographic research conducted in Beirut’s southern suburbs (Dahiye) and northern Lebanon (Akkar) between 2011 and 2013, this chapter advances a critical reflection on humanitarian lifeworlds in Lebanon and their encounters with war-stricken local citizens and refugees. Defining Southism as a structural relationship that cements the ‘global South’ as the key symbolic capital of Northern empowerment, accountability and capability, the chapter discusses the attitudes and thinking that have characterised the Lebanese humanitarian economy during the Israel–Lebanon July 2006 war and the Syrian refugee influx into Lebanon from 2011. While it defines ‘epistemic failure’ and ‘material discrimination’ as the actual encounters between humanitarian providers and their beneficiaries, this chapter proposes that ‘humanitarian tourism’, ‘politics of blame’, and the ‘betrayal of the international community’ represent the local and refugee imaginary encounters with global humanitarian lifeworlds. With the purpose of problematising ethnic and political geographies in provider–recipient power relations, it finally theorises a de-geographicised notion of Southism that can better capture the complex role of international and local humanitarian workers in crisis settings, as well as the ad hoc relevance of nationality within humanitarian economies.
‘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.
I have contributed to this research in brief with my study on Halba in northern Lebanon. You can download the whole paper here: https://www.rsc.ox.ac.uk/publications/refugee-self-reliance-moving-beyond-the-marketplace.
The issue of how to promote refugee self-reliance has become of heightened importance as the number of forcibly displaced people in the world rises and budgets for refugees in long-term situations of displacement shrink. Self-reliance for refugees is commonly discussed as the ability for refugees to live independently from humanitarian assistance. Many humanitarian organisations perceive refugee livelihoods creation, often through entrepreneurship, as the main way to foster refugee self-reliance. Yet focusing on a purely economic definition of refugee self-reliance is problematic as it does not capture the diversity of personal circumstances or the multifarious ways that refugees live without international assistance.
Refugee self-reliance, livelihoods, and entrepreneurship have considerable salience – yet there remain notable gaps in understanding and supporting non-economic dimensions of refugee self-reliance. Academic and policy literature often focuses on technical economic outcomes at the expense of social and political dimensions and the use of holistic measurements. This latest RSC Research in Brief, titled Refugee Self-Reliance: Moving Beyond the Marketplace, presents new research on refugee self-reliance and addresses areas not commonly included in current discussions. In particular, it focuses on social and cultural, practical, and programmatic aspects of refugee self-reliance. In so doing, it rethinks the concept of refugee self-reliance and aims to contribute recommendations to help achieve positive outcomes in policy and practice.
This brief arose out of a two-day workshop at the Refugee Studies Centre on rethinking refugee self-reliance, convened by Evan Easton-Calabria and Claudena Skran (Lawrence University) in June 2017.
CERTIFICAZIONE ILA: STUDIO DELLA LINGUA E DELLA CULTURA ARABA
Una scelta che abbatte le distanze per un progresso umano e sociale
E’ nel concreto del quotidiano che proviamo a costruire belle relazioni e pratiche di vita comune plurale: nel dialogo a tu per tu, nella comunicazione possibile, nel gusto della reciproca conoscenza e collaborazione.
Per questo offriamo ILA.
ILA è l’esame per certificare la lingua araba, canale privilegiato di riconoscimento di identità e di culture.
ILA è ‘verso’, una chiave di accesso all’incontro, allo scambio, a sinergie e progetti condivisi per contribuire a disegnare una realtà cosmopolita come spazio abitabile.
Sr. Sara Brenda
per l’Istituto di Cultura e di Lingue Marcelline
Flussi migratori e compassione europea: a quando informazione e sostenibilità? (by Estella Carpi, October 2015)
Sembra esser stata soprattutto la foto di Aylan, il bimbo siriano di origini curde affogato nelle acque turche sulla spiaggia di Bodrum il 2 settembre, insieme alle ondate di profughi che tentano il passaggio dall’Europa orientale – provenienti soprattutto da Siria, Iraq e Afghanistan – ad avere finalmente ridestato il pubblico occidentale dal suo torpore rendendo spaventosamente tangibile il limite umano al quale ci hanno condotti le crisi politiche transnazionali e le controversie dell’assistenza umanitaria “nord-sud”.
Sull’onda degli studi di Lili Chouliaraki, il fenomeno che abbiamo di fronte è quello che potrebbe essere definito come l’emergere di un nuovo “spettatore ironico” della sofferenza altrui; l’utente del vocabolario compassionevole del “Facebook like”, che auto-celebra e pubblicizza i propri atti di carità, e scambia il consumo etico per solidarietà informata e sostenibile. Ancora una volta, la solidarietà effimera coltivata nell’ambiente mediatico, e la compassione di massa verso l’astratta moltitudine dei “disperati”, troppo raramente reclama la storicità degli eventi, e racconta le loro tristi storie per attivare le nostre intenzioni e difenderle.
Ancora una volta, la solidarietà che poco s’interroga sul perché del rapido passaggio dall’indifferenza alla compassione pubblica è promossa in termini di stile di vita, e non di una mentalità civico-politica davvero informata e reattiva.
Dopo la diffusione dell’immagine del corpo esanime del piccolo Aylan, i media europei hanno dato maggior spazio alla discussione degli aiuti informali e formali che le popolazioni forniscono ai profughi, e le proteste civili organizzate per esprimere lo spirito di solidarietà e accoglienza presenti nell’Unione europea. Iniziative che, finché l’emergenza colpiva soltanto il panorama mediorientale, non erano state attuate a pari livello.
La compassione pubblica suscitata dalla “crisi dei profughi” – un appellativo,peraltro, capace di coprire insieme cause politiche e responsabilità esterne alla radice di tale crisi – si è ora per fortuna trasformata in motore di assistenza transnazionale, oltrepassando la mera compassione da spettatori in poltrona.
Un’educazione “sentimentale”, come la chiamava Richard Rorty, sarebbe forse utile nelle scuole europee per coltivare un sentire condiviso nelle nuove generazioni e offrire un terreno comune di condivisione ed empatia. Se da un lato, infatti, è indispensabile che la sensibilità verso la differenza non sia data per scontata e che ci venga dunque insegnata, dall’altro lato, come si può evitare che la cultura dei diritti umani, di cui il cosiddetto “nord globale” si fa paladino, resti effimera tanto quanto l’interesse pubblico verso il disperato fenomeno di esodi e dispersioni? La sponsorizzazione dei diritti umani, che ha già da tempo assunto la fisionomia del liberalismo di stampo occidentale e paternalismo terzomondista, stenta ad offrire una migliore spiegazione delle ragioni alla radice di tali crisi nel marasma mediatico odierno.
Il cittadino europeo medio ha dimostrato ancora una volta di mobilitarsi e affrontare il proprio incontro con i profughi/migranti in termini squisitamente umanitari e in relazione a uno stato di eccezione ritenuto temporaneo, restando tra l’altro restio ad affrontare la fase successiva fatta di richiesta di diritti.
Nel caos dei mesi di agosto e settembre, il temporaneo ripristino dei controlli di frontiera in Germania e Austria, la costruzione del muro al confine serbo–ungherese, e lo sgambetto teso a un profugo siriano dalla giornalista ungherese Petra Laszlo, sono segnali evidenti di un rafforzamento delle frontiere non solo materiali, ma anche morali nei paesi più toccati dalle ondate migratorie. Tali episodi sembrano significare ben più che un’ingente “crisi di profughi”: sembra trattarsi piuttosto di una vera e propria crisi delle interazioni e degli incontri umani.
Inoltre, i recenti sviluppi hanno dimostrato che i paesi Ue non possono far fronte da soli a tali flussi migratori, e l’impegno da parte dell’Onu diventa quindi sempre più radicato al loro interno. La sfida maggiore consiste nella necessità improvvisa di integrare la convenzionale risposta umanitaria, offerta all’interno di strutture di accoglienza popolate da residenti intenzionati a divenire stanziali, con percorsi per l’accoglienza di quei migranti che a volte restano per pochi giorni, o addirittura per poche ore, prima di proseguire verso la destinazione desiderata. La gestione di quello che potremmo chiamare un “transito d’emergenza”, specialmente in Italia, Grecia, Serbia, e Ungheria, è ancora un ambito ignoto alle organizzazioni umanitarie europee, e ha richiesto l’apertura di nuove sedi locali di alcune grandi organizzazioni non governative internazionali come World Vision, Islamic Relief e Action Aid.
La vera sfida in ambito europeo è riconsiderare radicalmente l’approccio verticale nord-sud e comunque ‘occidente-centrico’ perpetrato nel nome degli storici stendardi della responsabilità internazionale morale, che ha gradualmente ridotto le politiche umanitarie e di cooperazione allo sviluppo a meri strumenti di sicurezza internazionale. L’altra sfida è quella di capire di essere tutti quanti soggetti e attori di uno stesso ordine geopolitico integrato. Prendere atto di tutto questo non solo risparmierebbe molte vite, ma potrebbe probabilmente evitare molti degli “effetti collaterali” dei ciclici conflitti internazionali.
La realizzazione dei diritti di asilo e protezione in materia d’immigrazione, in quanto diritti umani convenzionalmente riconosciuti, non dovrebbe dipendere dal carattere effimero di sfuggenti e non sempre pienamente informate solidarietà sociali. La vera scommessa sarà continuare a sostenere e implementare tali diritti quando l’attuale compassione di massa verrà meno dopo la foga ‘emergenziale’ di questi mesi.
Security and Development: Questioning ‘Righting Wrongs’ Strategies and the Role of the International Community (by Estella Carpi, March 2015)
Security and Development: Questioning ‘righting wrongs’ strategies and the role of the international community
Last March 8, David Malone, a Canadian career diplomat and an international development and security scholar, gave a talk at the New York University of Abu Dhabi to discuss the changing role of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in conflicts and new possibilities for development assistance in the contemporary era.
Indeed, whereas the Council is supposed to be the main transnational entity approving or rejecting requests of intervention in conflict-ridden areas, and tackling various inter-state decisional matters, it seems to have partially lost its executive force on the ground. Similar weakness points can be discussed for development assistance, towards which generalised scepticism is increasing as much as the nihilism of the aid and development workers themselves.
Thus, the broadly explored connections between security and development need to be further investigated.
Can development assistance make any difference?
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are the traditional way societies express the desire of and plan betterments, and seek to achieve them through the use of a common international code. The MDGs, however, are inherently incomplete in that they are expressed in quantitative indicators and normally address general targets: factors which are unsuitable per se to changeability. The MDGs are therefore subject to reiterated failures.
Nevertheless, according to Malone, pessimism is not necessarily the moral approach that the international community should adopt in order to respond appropriately to crises and conflicts. For instance, history has shown thus far how in small countries development assistance does make a difference, however changing the goals that it used to entail at the beginning of the development path. Lebanon is a perfect case in point, illustrating how, on the one hand, emergency relief cannot be sufficient or successfully needs-focused. On the other, development assistance can still play a role in the reinforcement of local welfare in the contexts where the latter has historically been lacking. In big countries, by contrast, development assistance has not certainly led to economic growth, departing from the stable point that the so-called “Global South” will probably never develop big economies, despite the increasing competence of some developing countries’ governments (i.e. African governments and India), and in spite of the absence of democratic structures within a specific country (unlike China which witnessed economic growth with no democracy).
In line with his scepticism about the efficiency and the appropriateness of the MDGs, which necessarily involve predictions, Malone foregrounded the definitive defeat of one winning democratic and economic model to be followed. The multiple successful models that we witness can actually show how new waves of human optimism can be identified in a major diffusion of information, a consequently far more demanding public, and the urbanisation process, which has been able, to Malone’s mind, to mobilise resources more rapidly and raising important social issues that were previously concealed (e.g. family patterns, the social role of women, the labour force’s rights).
A winning strategy for each country is picking up those of the MDGs which are the most important to it. The involvement of the World Bank (WB) and the United Nations (UN) should rather be limited to the functionality of these organisations in specific domestic issues. This would invert the conceptual North-South unilateral power flow, in which the WB and other large international organisations are the ones that dictate pre-established programmes and approaches to developing countries regardless of local specificities.
In this polarised scenario between the “Global North” – bountiful enough to offer resources – and the “Global South” – chronically needy enough to receive them – the West is known to request respect of human rights, justice and development in exchange for its financial resources, which only constitute, in any case, a small funding portion to pursue development; moreover, once a country finds itself in deficit, development assistance is the first expense that is usually cut down. In this framework, élite powers are a social obstacle to development in developing countries, but, from Malone’s perspective, the fact that they gain their benefits from imported assistance does not render assistance itself unworthy for the poorer categories.
In these circumstances, Malone unexpectedly calls for a “data revolution” in development projects, where qualitative research needs to be prioritised over quantitative research. This data revolution would shed light on the qualitative deadlocks that development implies, such as the issue of political impartiality and its empirical feasibility. UNSC, for example, is believed super partes but its role is actually that of taking sides in crises, being formed itself by the most powerful states.
The UNSC and the present challenges
Even in apparent deadlocks such as Libya, Syria and Ukraine nowadays, the UNSC has reached points of agreement despite multiple confrontations. It is the case of Syria and the evacuation of the Asad regime’s chemical weapons in the wake of the August 2013 chemical attack on the Ghouta population in East Damascus.
In spite of the increasing unpopularity of the UNSC within the international community and “conflicts spectators”, the unresolved cases of the UNSC, apparently, make up only 10%. Nevertheless, Malone underlines the controversial aspects of such a percentage, especially in the case of NATO, whenever it allegedly intervenes to protect civilians and eventually contributes to regime changes like in Libya.
The historical cases of the UN failure still resonate today in the international community’s consciousness, like the 1995 massacre of Srebrenica, in which we witnessed a soft response of the UN that were largely represented in the media and in people’s accounts as shrugging off the genocide of Bosnians. Malone also provides the example of France in the 1994 Rwanda conflict, which did not know in depth the fighting parts and that, therefore, did not take a clear stance within the UNSC at that time. The effects of “state behaviours” within international entities are still hunting governments and are easily identifiable today: for example, France pulled out of the 20th anniversary commemoration of the Rwandan genocide last year, in that it was accused by the President Paul Kagame of having contributed to the large-scale 1994 massacre.
Diversely, inter-African protection has often been obfuscated by western saviours who have more powerful means of self-propaganda. Malone highlights how it was actually the Ghanaians to rescue many Tutsis and Hutu moderates in Rwanda in the 1990s by sheltering them, while the UN ordered the withdrawal of their peacekeeping forces.
The UNSC is arbitrarily defined as weak, according to Malone. What is interpreted as an increasingly big loss of efficaciousness is actually the co-presence of new factors in the international scenario. The major changes that occurred within the UNSC are the emerged influence of the non-governmental organisations (NGOs), like the abovementioned case of France in Rwanda, where the medical NGO Médecins Sans Frontières got separated from Médecins Du Monde by rejecting a politically neutral approach to humanitarian assistance.
A further change is constituted by the 2002-created International Criminal Court (ICC), which took over a part of the UNSC tasks, after being formed in quite a short time and being in charge of prosecuting international criminals. Such changes have often been undercut or ignored tout court in evaluating the action and the efficaciousness of the international actors.
In light of Malone’s considerations, the “Global North” feels threatened in terms of security and adopts defense mechanisms like asking the “Global South” to uphold human rights and democratic standards. In dealing with the global danger of having a larger number of insecure regions, poverty reduction and the development of unstable regions have become a moral as well as a political imperative, in that development contributes to guarantee worldwide security.
As English scholar Mark Duffield extensively showed in his research studies, development has become a security technology related to promoting the life of populations that are essentially non-insured in their states. Hence, development becomes a state strategy purporting to protect people while practically prioritising geopolitics over biopolitics, or, otherwise said, state security over human security. In brief, regions need to be developed in that they present a constant risk to homeland security. In turn, security has become an integral component of development discourse.
Needless to say that even too many projects have been implemented so far to develop the imaginary Global South, to the extent of reifying it in a chronic “receiving” position and turning it into an ironically “project-affected” area. Rather, much more efforts should be done to improve domestic and inter-state security within the Global South, the alleged major source of global threats. When such threats will be perceived and dealt with as such within the threatening countries rather than with respect to “the West” – the donor, the saviour, and the security-regulator par excellence – maybe, only then, we will see better days.