My new article in Area discusses “professional authority” in the humanitarian field, and proposes a peculiar politics of knowledge in the case of Lebanon.
This article examines the epistemic politics of hegemonic humanitarianism by building on agnotology theories. I unpack the idea of ‘professional authority’ with the purpose of showing how the Global North’s humanitarian agencies thrive on both a technocratic and an unpredictability approach. This epistemic politics is used to absolve humanitarianism of its failures and blame ‘Southern’ politics and technical deficiencies in the Global South.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
While the “refugee crisis” in Europe and other western societies has often made the headlines, the vast majority of nearly seven million Syrian refugees still remain in neighboring countries including Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. The legal status and the diverse financial capacity of these refugees often determine and impacts the decision-making processes decisive of their faith. In this article, I will first discuss the living conditions of these refugees, still living in the countries neighboring Syria. I will then provide some thoughts about the legacies left by the Syrian conflict and the subsequent humanitarian crisis, now ten years old.
While refugee diversity is increasingly marked by gender, ethnicity, and religious belief, the professional, financial, and class differences of refugees still goes unheeded in humanitarian and media accounts. Due to economic, political, and legal constraints, internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees in the Middle East are those in the greatest need, having irregular access to basic services such as healthcare and education.
Approximately 30% of the refugees remaining in the Middle East still live in official or informal camps. Most refugees live in cities, where finding employment is generally easier. Nonetheless, refugee support systems, now increasingly faced with budget shortfalls due to the length of time since the crisis outbreak, have not been able to provide adequate shelters. Extensive flooding has damaged poor-quality tented shelters in camps, which refugees are likely to have made and maintained themselves throughout their years of residence. Even as the 2016 Global Compact on Refugees was aimed at prompting the formalization of refugee labor and, consequently, the end of refugee labor exploitation, working conditions are still very bad for the few capable of accessing regular salaries by working in the cleaning, agriculture, and construction sectors. Indeed, most of the refugees who presently live in the region are from working-class backgrounds and are either financially unable to access smuggling networks to illegally reach western shores or are unlikely to be prioritized in humanitarian corridors and global resettlement programs.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also raised the issue of inadequate healthcare given that humanitarian agencies only generally cover medications and healthcare up to 80% of expenses, and only in the case of non-chronic diseases. Refugees have therefore mobilized themselves to support each other and put in place safety measures to fight the pandemic across the region. The long-term timeframe of the crisis has also made the difficulty of access to education an important concern. Ten years on, providing Syrian refugees with formal, high-quality, and internationally recognized education is the focus of significant effort.
Moreover, while the spotlight has mainly been on refugees and on the daunting impact of the crisis on the infrastructure, social cohesion, and security of receiving countries, scarce attention has been paid to IDPs. Numbering more than six million, IDPs also live in poor conditions, suffering from food insecurity, unemployment, and lack of access to basic welfare, especially in the previously “liberated” areas, subsequently regained by the Syrian government. The depreciation of the Syrian pound and the current dramatic economic situation have worsened living conditions in a country devastated by a decade of war and destruction.
In this framework, the international humanitarian community has failed in providing effective protection to refugees by not preventing deportations and evictions, and return is not an acceptable scenario if minimum humane conditions are to be guaranteed: some people who did return were shortly afterwards reported detained or missing. International humanitarian agencies have too often shied away from providing advocacy since they either lack a suitable legal mandate or because they do not intend to endanger their relationship with the host government. What has gone unheeded in discussions around return to Syria is the issue of indirect forced returns. For instance, some refugees report threats to their families by the Syrian regime if they do not return and join the army. Many of the stories I have heard in Lebanon’s informal tented settlements have dangerously passed for “voluntary returns”.
It is noteworthy that Syria has been in and out of the news over the last decade, which has not enabled external spectators to grasp how things have changed on the ground during that time. The Syrian crisis, in this sense, is an example of how quickly humanitarian and forced migration history slips out of public memory. As a result, we have also lost track of other contemporary crises and how they relate to the Syrian.
The way in which media representation contributes to the sweeping away of historical information points to three main mistakes that continue to be perpetrated. First, a lack of respect for the diversity of refugees is indicated by the fact that aid, too often, is not accompanied by advocacy. Advocacy, however, cannot be enough if humanitarian assistance is not to be mistaken for a solution to politically grounded violence and injustice. Second, the lack of focus on advocacy constitutes a significant failure by international humanitarian agencies to provide refugee protection. Third, we need to shift the gaze from refugee victimhood to the civic responsibility of local citizens. Programs involving the inclusion and integration of refugees inadvertently remain politically conservative: there is an urgent need for local citizens to learn about forced migration and what refugee reception involves. Political conservativism thrives exactly on such partial views, which fail to understand human mobility as an everlasting process involving all social groups, with no need for the latter to physically move in order to learn, receive newcomers, and progress.
Sulla base di interviste condotte nel 2018, questo articolo analizza le somiglianze e le differenze che intercorrono tra le sfide che i “fautori della cultura” – artiste in primis – cittadine libanesi e rifugiate palestinesi e siriane devono affrontare nel contesto libanese. Dopo un’illustrazione dello scenario storico-politico libanese e di come in esso la “resistenza culturale” emerge in modo poliedrico, gli autori individuano aree d’incontro e di potenziale solidarietà tra gruppi. L’articolo discute la cosiddetta “umanitarizzazione” dei finanziamenti, attraverso la quale vengono sostenuti e potenziati soprattutto i progetti artistici che possono fungere da strumento di neutralità politica e di “medicalizzazione” dei traumi post-guerra. Tale fenomeno genera in parte una depoliticizzazione ed esteticizzazione dell’arte, “demobilitando” quindi la vervepolitica dietro al lavoro culturale e, allo stesso tempo, lega la sopravvivenza materiale di tali spazi culturali a cicliche crisi umanitarie.
Abstract in English
Based on interviews conducted during 2018, this article examines the challenges that Lebanese citizen, Palestinian and Syrian refugee “culture-makers” – primarily artists – need to face in the Lebanese context, and how such challenges differ from or overlap with one another. After providing an overview of Lebanese political history and how, within it, “cultural resistance” emerges in a multifaceted way, the authors identify areas of encounter and of potential solidarity between groups. The article discusses the so-called “humanitarianization” of funding, through which especially the artistic projects that can serve as instruments of political neutrality and of “medicalization” of post-war traumas are supported. This phenomenon generates in part a de-politicization and aestheticization of art, thus demobilizing the political verve behind cultural work and, at the same time, linking the material survival of such cultural spaces to cyclical humanitarian crises.
You can now read open access my article with Chiara Diana on the social impact of play and sport activities organised by INGOs and local NGOs in a Tripoli neighbourhood in northern Lebanon during 2015, 2016 and 2017. The humanitarian system has increasingly been investing in ludic activities during the Syrian humanitarian crisis; but what do local and refugee groups think?
Focusing on the 2011–2014 forced migration of Syrian refugee children into northern Lebanon, this article examines the child protection strategies of two international and one local NGOs (non-governmental organisations) in the Tripoli Governorate. It explores the psychosocial care programmes and play activities that are meant to heal and integrate the refugee children. It shows how programmes for crisis-affected childhood and the sport-for-development formula predominantly remain universalised models, failing to incorporate local specificities despite increasing campaigns to promote contextualisation approaches.
This article is my ethnographic self-critique, and it comes from my heart. But it also comes from a chronic stomachache. The ache of clashing with ‘epistemic powers’ in Dahiye’s Hezbollah-led municipalities and in Akkar’s humanitarian space. Anthropology has often responded to such issues of ‘research invalidation’ by inviting us to accept this unavoidable ‘tension’. I suggest that more efforts should be made towards the counter-epistemologies coming from the ‘field’. We cannot remain at the ‘centre’, and end of the story…
Fieldworkers in politically sensitive spaces traditionally need to negotiate their presence in the field with local (in)formal authorities and epistemic power-holders. I illustrate how attempts at both holistic politicisation and neutralisation of the research space can question ethnographic knowledge production. Drawing upon the anthropology of silence and agnotology, I interrogate the whats and hows of ethnographic authority and local validation of ethnographic research when political and epistemic powers complexly and discontinuously overlap. By examining how knowledge is boasted about, concealed or questioned by political and humanitarian actors, I examine the ways in which a lack of political protection, as well as overt advocacy, shape different modalities of access – or lack of access – to the field. Against the backdrop of a growing body of literature on the ethics of research in settings affected by political transformations and emergency crises (such as today’s Arab Levant), I try to upend ethnographic confidence as a self-centred process of knowledge production. I instead rethink it not only as an ethical but also an inter-subjective effort towards a more effective integration of the counter-epistemologies of field interlocutors into our own research.
The Refuge in a Moving World. Tracing Refugee and Migrant Journeys Across Disciplines edited volume is finally out! UCL Press is open access, you can access the whole book online.
My chapter “Different shades of neutrality” attempts to go beyond debates that discard or acknowledge neutrality as possible in aid provision. I show how humanitarian neutrality is not one, as many western organizations believe. Neutrality is culturally nuanced, and it’s also discursively embraced by Arab Gulf NGOs in northern Lebanon. By advancing the idea of political realism, I explain how these NGOs not only bring politics into humanitarianism – as it’s widely discussed already – but they also have peculiar ways of parading their humanization of politics.
While some may have initially underestimated the potentially disastrous effects of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, presuming that vulnerable people such as refugees would have more serious issues to deal with than a bad flu, the new coronavirus turns out to be an uncomfortable litmus test for the current state of aid in crisis-hit areas. There is no doubt that it is, however, premature to assess how the pandemic will affect the ways in which crises have been managed over the years to rehabilitate life and livelihoods in the Middle East and North Africa’s conflict-stricken settings, now home to internally displaced people (e.g. Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen) and refugees (e.g. Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan).
Although (un)forced migrants are often believed to be carriers of infectious diseases, today’s pandemic has actually been caused by the arrival of professional travelers or tourists in spaces inhabited by refugees. Echoing past concerns about the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and the 2012 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), the imminent outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in refugee camps worldwide is daunting because large numbers of refugees – who normally do not own equitable access to healthcare and reside in host countries where health infrastructures have been literally eroded by long-standing conflicts– may be particularly prone to respiratory infections. Refugee camps have become a matter of particular concern, as they tend to be crowded spaces across the Middle East region, where (mostly war-produced) refugees have been residing over decades and, at times, since birth.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, among other self-started measures in camps, Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees have begun fabricating masks to protect personal and collective health before the enactment of formal responses. In the framework of UNHCR’s Coronavirus Emergency Appeal, some international humanitarian agencies enforced prevention and protection measures (e.g. temperature screening at camp entrances). The formal COVID-19 response has primarily been coordinated with governments, even when refugees’ lives are endangered by the former. In Jordan’s Za‘tari and Azraq, mostly hosting thousands of refugees who fled conflict in neighboring Syria and are now in lockdown as per national policies, humanitarian workers have been providing guidelines in Arabic through SMS and street posters about how to preserve personal hygiene and health. However, protective material such as latex gloves, surgical masks and disinfectants – whose prices soared dramatically over the last few weeks due to their scarcity – has been distributed in only a small number of cases.
Also non-camp refugees, who actually make up the vast majority across the Middle East region and who are indiscriminately labeled as “urban refugees”, have become the object of great humanitarian concern. Although they are likely to be more exposed to an urban health system and to have easier access to information, many of them still lack potable water, remain unlikely to access healthcare facilities, and cannot afford quarantine arrangements and social distancingrestrictions.
After INGOs implemented anti-COVID-19 measures, some refugees voiced the need to be informed more broadly rather than simply being taught basic hygiene rules: “Aid providers promised Dettol and masks, but did not mention how we can learn what happens outside of here. No family in this camp owns a TV […] What are the most affected countries, and what are they doing to face all of this?”, as a Syrian refugee living in Bireh (northern Lebanon) put it in one of our recent conversations (March 31, 2020). Humanitarian agencies should therefore scale up simple aid and advice to include deeply informative sessions held in the languages of the camps. Mere guidelines like “washing hands with soap” limits aid to an instrument of biological survival and “human dignity’”. Thus far, humanitarian programs have seemingly approached the pandemic as an exclusively health matter that they can only provide technical advice for. Refugees have instead proven to be a key soft-power tool for global and regional power-holders who, in turn, adopt catastrophe as a back-route to convenient politics. For example, some municipalities in Lebanon have enforced extra curfews on Syrian refugees to reassert territorial sovereignty, parading such measures as needed to limit the spread of COVID-19 in a bid to take advantage of the political leverage that states of exception typically provide. Meanwhile, Syrian refugee families in the Greater Beirut area recently (April 2, 2020) told me that local municipalities highlighted the need for refugees to exclusively address their aid requests to UNHCR and UNRWA (respectively addressing non-Palestinian refugees and Palestinians in Lebanon) in order to deal with the current pandemic.
As today’s emergency crises are mostly of prolonged nature, the COVID-19 pandemic certainly amounts to a series of ageing crises, made up of high unemployment rates among older-date refugees, a chronic lack of available cash – mainly needed to cover the costs of home rent and medications – and, sometimes, even food scarcity. During the pandemic, refugee camps and high-density slums are faced with the challenge of rethinking coping mechanisms and rely on weak infrastructure, while global humanitarian actors historically tend to prioritise later emergencies and under-resource the earlier.
In a world of unequal political geographies, Western countries will possibly be prioritized in the future provision of a vaccine. Instead, the virus is likely to affect refugee camps and spaces for a long time. By then, host states may end up using social distancing as a way of further isolating and warehousing refugees while sugarcoating it as public health protection.