What crisis? Taking time to reflect on humanitarianism between 'the global' and 'the local'

09 May 2014

Poor old humanitarianism. People are saying it's in crisis. Again.

It's been found to be instrumental to a Western-led project of capitalist global governance that looks anachronistic in the post-colonial, illiberal societies in which it goes about its business, and this is bound to cause its demise as global power splinters and the world order inexorably tends towards multipolarity. It's become overly concerned with the construction of international coordination architecture, universal rules, and global frameworks for action, and is unresponsive to the aspirations of 'local people' on the run from war or starving during a flood. Indeed, it has come to epitomise the gulf between 'the global' and 'the local' that is symptomatic of the unipolar moment.

Well, not quite…

As ideology and praxis, humanitarianism reflects the politics of its time. As such, in the post-Cold War era, it has been at the forefront of efforts to build the rules-based, liberal cosmopolitan international order that became the promise of Pax Americana. In this period, the structures of global governance have been expanded and formalised, and the idea of an international 'humanitarian system' has gained prevalence, very much alongside notions of 'international community'. International humanitarianism has grown rapidly and significant financial, human and political capital has been invested in the development of machinery to facilitate the activities of international organisations to respond to conflict and disaster. As universal rights discourse has gained political currency and the concept of state sovereignty has ceded ground to a 'sovereignty of the individual', greater emphasis has been placed on the legitimacy of 'the international' in servicing and regulating 'the local'.

However, in recent years, the norms, operational practices and governance mechanisms of the 'humanitarian system' have been more readily contested and even supplanted, in part because challenges have been posed to the permanence of Western power. In Sri Lanka and Myanmar, humanitarian agencies that have taken the decision to operate have had to come to terms with working in accordance with national government agendas that are in direct defiance of international legal frameworks from which international humanitarianism has conventionally derived legitimacy. In Syria, Somalia, and Afghanistan, international agencies have been perceived as a Trojan horse for Western state interests and have found it more difficult to negotiate spaces for their relief activities. And in Southeast Asia, with national governments and ASEAN taking on a more active role in managing and implementing activities to prevent, respond to and recover from disasters, existing international humanitarian coordination platforms are likely to be of decreasing relevance.

community meeting with local officer in Uganda

But rather than signalling a crisis and the demise of humanitarianism, these challenges are markers of the constant reconfiguration of mainstream humanitarian discourse and practice. Born of locally-constructed ideals, the humanitarianism that shapes the 'humanitarian system' and its institutional frameworks is always being redefined through the collision of different local interests (including those that assume the mantle of universality). This creative friction also provokes a continuous renegotiation of powers between sub-national, national, and supra-national humanitarian governance structures, and indeed, more generally, a reshaping of the recognised limits of 'the global' and 'the local'. In this way, humanitarianism is neither uniquely global nor local. Rather it mediates between that power which is local in its expression and that which approaches global reach.

To suggest that there is a crisis is to assume that humanitarianism is monolithic and has not been regularly redefined by political challenges in the past; it is to assume that there is one true humanitarianism. And to suggest that this crisis is the result of humanitarianism becoming too 'global' and detached from 'the local' is to assume that these are themselves homogenous, discrete, unchanging categories. What might be under threat as new challenges emerge are the boxes designed to capture humanitarianism for a particular time, politics and culture.

Instead of looking for humanitarianism's post-crisis steady state, those interested in the role of strangers (near and far) in providing organised support for people affected by conflict and disaster – the role of solidarity and internationalism – should channel any angst about the state of the humanitarian enterprise into considering a question about humanitarian governance and effectiveness that is of considerable moral and political import: at this moment of redefinition of mainstream humanitarianism, with whom should controls lie in the organisation and implementation of humanitarian action?

This is the question we posed as we welcomed 45 guests to the Save the Children UK office in London for a two-day conference entitled 'Between the global and the local in humanitarian action'. Born from a series of events organised by the Non-State Humanitarianism Network (NSHN) to facilitate dialogue between humanitarian workers and historians of humanitarianism, the conference was hosted by Save the Children's Humanitarian Affairs Team, in partnership with the NSHN, the Humanitarian Policy Group, UN OCHA, and the Saving Humans initiative. It provided a space for a critical, interdisciplinary conversation on humanitarian governance and effectiveness, with relevance to policy, practice and research; an opportunity to delve into a topical policy debate in a way that might generate new common understandings. There will be plenty of technical discussions on governance and effectiveness in the run up to the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 and we were keen to start a conversation that might complement these by drawing on a wide range of experiences and expertise, including, but not limited to, those of the humanitarian policy vieille garde. And so we brought together a diverse group of humanitarian workers and historians, policy-makers and political scientists, advocates and anthropologists, from El Salvador and Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Britain, Switzerland and Senegal, India and Ireland.

Two intense days of stimulating and challenging discussion are being condensed into a conference report that includes proposals made for collaborative research. This will be published on the conference website (betweenglobalandlocal.com), which will go live in a few weeks. The website will also host a blog with opinion pieces from conference participants and other guest writers. And there will be a collection of short essays from conference participants published by the end of the year. We hope that this initiative can provide a platform for continued interdisciplinary engagement on issues related to humanitarian governance and effectiveness. We aim to organise another event later in the year. If you would like to get involved with the initiative or find out more, please j [dot] fiori [at] savethechildren [dot] org [dot] uk (contact me).