From a focus on humanity to care

Historically, humanitarian issues have been intimately connected with natural hazard related disasters. Increasingly, humanitarianism is intertwined with human induced crises that are often temporally protracted and physically based in cities, without an immediate implementable solution. We appear to be moving from thinking about our common humanity and safeguarding people’s human rights to just caring for certain people in certain shrinking spaces of support.


In this blog, I reflect on Professor Dorothea Hilhorst’s keynote presentation at the UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction’s Humanitarian Summit held on zoom, 16 June 2021. Thea Hilhorst* has been researching with empathy and wisdom for over two decades disasters, humanitarian issues, and their implications for affected people. Her writing is thoughtful, considered, insightful. Hilhorst’s keynote focused on four key points related to current interpretations of who is the humanitarian subject and who is eligible for shrinking forms of care. These four points were centred on: exceptionalism, the promotion of resilience and self-care’; the humanitarian-development nexus; and localisation.


1 Exceptionalism

The humanitarian system, its different actors in different locations, is considering who is eligible for support in an increasingly constricted funnel. At the same time the various actors are deciding who to support rather than pushing for an understanding of the full spectrum of needs of people being displaced. The humanitarian system’s emphasis appears to be on bringing definitions of categories of refugees and asylum seekers to fit into doable proportions of care. Restrictions on who is eligible for assistance has led to a constriction of categories, who is extra vulnerable or super vulnerable. Because of the increasing protracted and urban setting of displacement, there is an increased international focus on “durable solutions”.


For example, Hilhorst said the UNHCR in Lebanon recently had to stop registering new refugees because government had said “enough”. International and national political whims, resources, capacities and some nation states determine how much and who gets help. In Lesbos, one of the key islands in Greece thousands of refugees/asylum seekers are temporarily but, in reality, long term located. The primary selection for possible asylum is based on nationality rather than the situation of the particular individual. I question whether who is “deserving” of support and who is not “deserving” is being decided somewhat arbitrarily?



Image: Photo by Julie Richard on Unsplash. Refugee camp tents in Greece, 2020.



2 Promotion of resilience and celebration of self-care

Hilhorst argues that ‘Resilience’ is an old discourse from the development field and is now entering the humanitarian field. ‘Resilience’ leads to a self-reliance discourse with a decrease in financial and in-kind support given to people, since they should be able to support themselves in their new environments. Most refugees and asylum seekers, settling in neighbouring countries (rather than Europe) are not confined to camps, often preferring to be in urban contexts.


UNHCR statistics show that for example, in Lebanon, 80% of Syrian refugees are in urban settings. Identifying who is an urban based refugee is often indistinguishable from other local precarious residents. Issues of resources, housing and livelihood strategies being informal, undocumented and precarious for the refugees are tremendous. People may want to take care of themselves and be resilient, but it is not straightforward in my opinion. National regulations related to work permits, and access to any forms of aid if people are working, all influence the likelihood of people working in urban settings. Gender implications of being based in the urban context and coping strategies are not clear.


3 Nexus of development and humanitarian action

Hilhorst gave an example of the tension between development and humanitarian systems. Humanitarian finances are tracked by OCHA, but development assistance is not (nor should it be). I ask who should be managing this blurred space of protracted displaced refugees in urban settings? Is it the humanitarian sector historically focused on short term relief, or the development sector who has experience in developing capacity of national and local governments to support the education and livelihoods areas?


I am not sure what the difference is between doable and durable solutions in the context of international humanitarian assistance. This signposting of doable/durable solutions seems to be suggesting that international aid actors have, in a way, given up hope and humanity in regards to refugees and asylum seekers. The historically siloed sectors of development and humanitarian action no longer have tight boundaries, rather the siloes are porous and blend into each other. The issue of competition for funding from donors, the relationships between UN agencies and also with INGOs, and who has control over this blurred space is becoming contentious.


4 Localisation

Hilhorst suggested that localisation is a ridiculous term. I agree with her. There is an attempt from the international humanitarian arena to suggest they will localise their ways of working i.e. decentralise resources, including staffing, power and money, to the local level. This is not being implemented to any noticeable extent since 2016, when the localisation agenda had centre stage at the World Humanitarian Summit. International humanitarian actors are introducing a new discourse but not following up on the ground with new practices.


I suggest that the question of who “is the local” needs signposting as well. Is the local the state authorities, host country nationals of the international NGOs, national NGOs, or – even more unlikely – is it the people who have been displaced and or are crisis-affected people? Again, this framing of discourse is from the international level where the donors set the framing for the discussion, rather than actually taking noticeable action of on the ground actors. In reality, what is occurring is that support (in its multiplicity of forms) is already being provided by the host country, civil society, national NGOs and individual members of society. The political will and capabilities of the “host” country should be more fully acknowledged and lauded by the international aid community.


Politics of abandonment and shrinking spaces

Thea Hilhorst’s final, key take home argument was around what she termed ‘the politics of abandonment’. She highlighted that accountability is increasingly being discussed, but in an opaque manner in the humanitarian sector. What is unclear is “Accountability to whom?” Accountability to affected populations or accountability to donors / funders and their nation states? The voices and opinions of people being impacted by crises are being drowned out. Their voices are being abandoned and not heard. Collectively, we need to do better and not allow the shrinking of spaces of support and solidarity.


*Professor Dorothea Hilhorst is at the Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam and Thea is also the president of the international humanitarian studies association. She has a new project called “Humanitarian governance: Accountability, Advocacy, Alternatives”.


Author bio

Dr Hanna Ruszczyk is an urban geographer at Durham University’s Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience and the Department of Geography. Hanna is Co-Investigator and ‘Infrastructures’ Thematic Lead for GRRIPP, and a Research Associate on GLiTCH (Governing Life through Technology, Connectivity and Humanitarianism). Both projects are distinct but have people at their centre.