Written by Hannah Zoe Schütt


In 2022, 1% of the world’s population was displaced either within or outside their homelands (UNHCR, 2022). Life in displacement is therefore nothing extraordinary anymore but a part of many people’s lives. At the same time, displacement is becoming more and more protracted. Currently, 76% of the world’s displaced population lives in protracted situations, meaning that they are displaced for a minimum of five years, but sometimes for generations, in refugee camps or urban areas (World Bank, 2022). 

Humanitarian action has a long history in responding to displacement. In the early and mid-twentieth century, the massive displacement associated with World War II was met with large-scale responses from national and international organisations (Paulmann, 2013; Wilson, 1947). The necessity for humanitarian responses does not seem to be decreasing anytime soon. In 2015, a vast number of non-governmental and charitable organisations rushed to the external borders of the European Union to support those arriving after fleeing the war in Syria in what has become known as the ‘long summer of migration’. Still, humanitarian action has suffered substantial critiques of promoting ‘voluntourism’ and focussing only on short-term relief as well as creating dependencies (Cabot, 2019). Calls that emphasise the need for more equitable and inclusive approaches to humanitarian responses are not novel. ‘Empowerment’ and ‘participation’ have become buzzwords in the design of humanitarian programmes. However, they often remain empty phrases, repeated in evaluations or donor reports, and seldomly tap the transformative potential that these concepts aim for, pointing at a significant divergence between the language and practice of humanitarian aid (Alexander, 2022). 

This paper sets out to contribute to the debate on the future of humanitarianism. First, it offers a set of critiques of humanitarian responses. This is not meant to undermine the credibility and necessity for care and disaster response structures, but rather to acknowledge the weight of these actions and to point at possibilities and alternatives to the current system that still leaves thousands of people without sustainable protection (for a discussion of the value of critique in humanitarian settings see Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2021). As a response, it sketches what is needed to understand the plurality of humanitarian responses with a particular focus on local knowledge. On that basis, it offers three recommendations to enable a more sustainable and equitable approach to displacement in the future. 


The imperative to ‘do good’ can be understood as one of the key features (if not the key feature) of humanitarian responses. The mission to alleviate suffering is at the core of the self-understanding of international humanitarian organisations (which also sets the tone for its communication work). In their calls for donations or programme reports, organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), CARE International or the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) highlight the individual suffering of the people they support. Refugees’ trauma, injuries, and scars are put at the centre of attention (Harrell-Bond, 1986; Ticktin, 2014). With this individual adversity being hypervisible, refugees’ complex biographies (as farmers, sisters, intellectuals, revolutionaries, friends etc.) are being glossed over. Instead, a more compelling image is portrayed: the refugee as the passive victim. A victim who is being cared for by humanitarian workers. This essentialised figure of the refugee does not offer the space for processes of victimisation and how they are made vulnerable by socio-political and historical factors, such as conflicts around arbitrarily drawn borders, ongoing inter-tribal violence, or patriarchal violence (Malkki 1996). Instead,the ‘refugee as victim’ frame paints a universal figure and a universal experience in which the particular life histories, trajectories, identities, and their overlaps are being erased (Malkki, 1996; see also Abu-Lughod, 2002).  

Through its emphasis on morality, humanitarianism demarcates its own work from the world of politics. Moral codes of saving mute victims have increasingly been used to justify Western military interventions after the Cold War, such as the US invasion in Afghanistan in 2001 and the narrative of ‘saving Afghan women’, or in Iraq in 2003 (Abu-Lughood, 2002; Heck and Schlag, 2013). The distinction between humanitarian and state programmes becomes more and more blurry (Fassin, 2007a, 2007b). As a response, organisations such as MSF emphasised the non-political nature of humanitarianism. In the late 20th century, international NGOs invoked the principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence as the main standards of humanitarian response. Defined by the ICRC, they soon became the standard understanding of humanitarian action (Barnett and Weiss, 2011; Fassin, 2007b). Rony Brauman, former president of MSF, stated that “[h]umanitarianism is not a political issue and it should remain separate from political manoeuvring“ (Brauman, 2000, quoted in Fassin, 2007b, 509). In this assertion, humanitarian action is firmly and decisively removed from the field of politics that is seen as messy and immoral and instead moves into the realm of morality. One issue with this delineation is that it suggests that there is a mode of dealing with human issues that is not political. However, moral and political questions are deeply interlinked, and the political implications of purportedly moral humanitarian actions reach far. 

Albeit claiming to be in an ‘extra-political’ sphere or not acting based on political agendas, humanitarian responses reproduce hegemonic forms of exclusion. The Global North disproportionately influences the increasingly globalised humanitarian regime through the allocation of funds, deployment of staff and the political profile they represent (Egeland, 2011). ‘Universality’, as one of the core humanitarian principles, rather than being a neutral tool for moral action, has been criticised as a “veil for neo-colonial power” (Bitter, 1994:  100-1, in Benthall and Bellion-Jourdan, 2003, 58) and humanitarianism as functioning as the “left hand of empire” (Agier, 2010). This speaks to how humanitarianism works in ways that extend the interests and ways of working of (former) colonial states and impose their interests onto the populations they claim to work for. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh (2011) points out how programmes in Sahrawi refugee camp, that saw education as the key to (global) equality, aimed to eradicate the existing tribal system which was seen as backward and counterproductive to equality. They employed Western standards of linguistic homogeneity and a common education system whereby little to no attention was paid to cultural and care practices of displaced communities. In such structures and practices, too often are refugees’ histories and politics glossed over as too messy outside of the administration of the camp (Malkki, 1996). Instead of working towards levelling the playing field and decreasing power imbalances, the binary between providers and recipients of aid continues to uphold the asymmetrical relationship of humanitarian aid. Far from being apolitical, humanitarian interventions occupy and reinforce a power hierarchy between those understood as providing and those receiving aid (Fassin, 2007b). In this, Western ideals of liberty, equality and empowerment are reproduced, and the hegemonic violence of the Western world is reinforced.  

Such critiques of the neo-colonial architecture of humanitarian responses focus on humanitarianism as a project of the Global North and footnote practices by Southern or displaced actors which in turn reproduces a narrow sense of what humanitarian action can imply. When proceeding from the assumption that humanitarianism, with its history, politics, and morals, is built on Western ideas, a vast array of care structures and agents of aid are being silenced. While the role of ‘local actors’ has been recognised as an important pillar in the future of humanitarianism, the assumptions about what humanitarianism is and how it is meant to operate are not challenged (in a meaningful way). Revisiting what humanitarianism means should therefore be understood as an integral part of the future of humanitarianism.  


A more inclusive and open understanding of the concept of humanitarianism and its politics requires us to trace the boundaries of the concept to recognise what actors and practices are being excluded from its history. The aforementioned critiques of contemporary humanitarian interventions commonly trace the history of humanitarianism back to Western Enlightenment as well as the ‘civilising mission’ (Davies, 2012; Stamatov, 2013). This is an important analytical strand that sheds light on some of the power disparities, their histories and impact on contemporary forms of aid between Western and non-Western actors. The role of non-Western actors here remains one of the passive recipients of aid. This raises the question of how we can think about this imbalance. Are the problems of humanitarianism inherent to it or do they stem from the way we look at humanitarianism? The latter question asks us to re-evaluate how we understand the concept of humanitarianism and what we can learn when opening our understanding of it. Conceptual work like this has played and continues to play a large role in the work of postcolonial and Black scholars and activists such as Sylvia Wynter, Katherine McKittrick, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, or Saidiya Hartman. Building on this work, this paper offers a way to rework how we can understand the practices of humanitarian action to include southern and local practices. 

Moving away from the main road of humanitarianism as a Northern project opens our understanding to all the minor and othered forms of humanitarianism that interrupt the assertion that there is only one humanitarianism (Kennedy, 2005). Instead of viewing the Northern model as a given, it is important to understand it as a focus that is historically and politically created. Responses to displacement are carried out by a multitude of actors and stakeholders. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Julia Pacitto (2015) highlight the role of communities that are excluded from the internationalised Western model. In 2006, the Syrian Women’s Organization grouped together in Amman, Jordan. Being the children of the previous displacement in 1982 from Syria, they assisted Syrians who were crossing the border in response to the current civil war and provided necessary supplies. Further east, in Myanmar, where international humanitarian organisations look back on a history of tense relations and difficult access, local responses formed to the protracted refugee situation around the Thai-Myanmar border (Horstmann, 2011; Pacitto and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2013). In providing aid for members of their community and other refugees, Karen refugees break with the assumption that aid is distributed by Western ‘international’ humanitarians to passive displaced communities (Ferris, 2011; Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Pacitto, 2015). This conglomerate of actors creates a messy system of knowledge in which different understandings of aid, community, and agency  meet. 

A plural understanding of humanitarianism offers a glimpse into the different forms of knowledge that exist in this knowledge ecosystem. Rather than proceeding from the assumption of a single aim, fixed identities and a one-way system of aid, a plural humanitarianism revolves around negotiations and contextual identities. The shift from a singular, hierarchical (between aid providers and receivers) and Western-centric understanding of humanitarianism towards a plural form also requires a shift towards an open approach to the production of knowledge. For this, Donna Haraway’s (1988) concept of ‘situated knowledge’ offers an opening to understand how the creation of knowledge happens through practice and bodies that are always entangled with specific cultural, political, historical, linguistic, and religious contexts. The situated knowledge of the ICRC worker, the child of Syrian refugees in Amman, or the Karen refugee in Myanmar all build on different knowledge and create different strategies for members of their community and others. This is a crucial part in thinking about the different practices, communities, and aims that exist in the context of humanitarian action as it enables us to move away from concentric ideas circling around Western universalism.  


This raises the question of what a plural humanitarianism would look like in practice. For this, the following three recommendations are meant to provide an opening to the practical value of this exercise and for how the architecture of humanitarianism must be changed:  

Adopt a transformative approach: An unreflected and ‘apolitical’ approach to displacement, as outlined above, does not exist but rather upholds existing injustices and hierarchies of power. Dismantling these is the basis of the transformative approach that needs to be employed for a plural humanitarianism. In practice, this means asking how humanitarian programmes not only create short-term relief but uplift the communities they work with, disassemble the structures that enable the execution of power through humanitarian workers, and thereby level the field of humanitarian work for more equal partnership.

Strengthen capacities among displaced communities: As one way of strengthening the capacities of displaced communities, peer-support offers a sustainable mode of aid that simultaneously challenges the hierarchies between the providers and receivers of aid and one that is not bound to the funding cycle which is subject to international attention and media interest. The support network this approach creates is also more secure and less susceptible to repressive policies.

Establish an inclusive mechanism for the allocation of funds: While the importance and power of budget allocations is a subject of conversations held at the international level, too often does the allocation of funds come down to a handful of well-meaning actors in the Global North that decide on the morality and merit of efforts. Continuously asking whose vision is privileged in the allocation of capacities (including personnel, material or financial resources, attention in awareness raising campaigns etc.) is necessary to avoid the reproduction of a singular vision of relief. 


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