Bloomsbury Humanitarian Debates

This post was contributed by Anna Marry, Communications Manager, LIDC. It originally appeared on the LIDC blog.

Inter-collegiate, interdisciplinary events are always a pleasure to go to, and not only because of LIDC’s focus on interdisciplinary research in international development working with five Bloomsbury Colleges. That particular approach often unearths issues that would not have been unearthed otherwise, and bringing together academics with the NGO community and policy-makers makes such events even more stimulating.

The Bloomsbury Humanitarian Debate in June was no different. Organised for the fifth time by two LIDC member colleges: Birkbeck and London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and their partner Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), this series of events explores various issues in the humanitarian sector using a debate format with academic and non-academic experts.

The June event was on resilience in the humanitarian sector. The panel included speakers from MSF, Humanitarian Outcomes, University of Bristol and University of Cambridge. The audience was mostly composed of humanitarian experts themselves, including policy-makers and donors.

Sandrine Tiller from MSF argued that focusing on resilience undermines necessary short-term responses to humanitarian crises. She pointed out that merely surviving is not the same as coping – we often think that people in crisis, for example in Somalia, are resilient, while in fact they are just staying alive.

Paul Harvey from Humanitarian Outcomes disagreed with that view, claiming that resilience was in fact just a new repackaging of an old concept. Resilience is not necessarily anti-relief and can be very helpful. Instead of criticising resilience as a concept and hair-splitting over semantics, one should focus on specific things that work or do not work in short- and long-term responses to humanitarian crises.

akers at humanitarian debateProfessor Mark Duffield from Bristol University reiterated the view that resilience was not a new concept. According to the expert, the aid industry reinvents itself every few years and now the Holy Grail seems to be resilience. The speaker pointed out a dangerous trend in disaster relief, which he called ‘digital humanitarianism’ – private sector companies boiling down disaster responses to technical fixes. After all, buying an app that tells you how to avoid flooding or pollution, is not going to solve the fundamental issue of the risk of floods or polluted air and water.

The fourth speaker, Professor Virginia Murray from Cambridge University, defended the concept of resilience, drawing on her experience working with inter-governmental disaster risk reduction processes. She argued that resilience is crucial for those high-level international forums, as it resonates well and is easy to translate.

The discussion that followed raised interesting issues such as:

Is local civil society key to resilience?

While resilience seems to be a fairly clear concept when applied to natural disasters, what role does it have in conflict?

Does focus on resilience detract donor funding from humanitarian responses?

Saving lives today versus saving lives tomorrow – does one occur at the expense of the other?

Is it the role of NGOs to engage in state-building, or should they focus on short-term relief efforts?

It was fascinating to listen to the arguments both for and against. The debate made me wonder, however, if the contention is not in fact over definitions rather than the actual concept. After all, few would argue against humanitarian aid in crisis, where saving lives is an absolute priority, and few would completely rule out development efforts that have a chance of preventing crises in the long run. As with many things in life, it may be a question of balancing one with the other. Whether we use the term ‘resilience’ or not, is another matter. It may be safer to think of another term that stirs less controversy.

Either way, I will be watching this space and looking forward to the next Bloomsbury Humanitarian Debate. Earlier this spring LIDC launched its new Working Group on Humanitarian Crisis that brings together academics interested in conflict and natural disaster from across Bloomsbury Colleges. A few weeks ago LIDC awarded one of its annual Fellowship grants to Dr. Tejendra Pherali from the Institute of Education and  Dr. Karl Blanchet from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to explore the educational and health response to the Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan and Turkey.

Humanitarianism is certainly a very potent area for interdisciplinary, inter-institutional research to explore.

Share
. Reply . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , ,

Exploring race, racism and international development

This post was contributed by Anna Marry, Communications Manager, London International Development Centre (LIDC) .  

Race, Racism and Development book cover

Race, racism and development book cover

Contesting what is often taken for granted in international development is important, but rare. That’s why I found this book launch for Race, racism and development very refreshing and different.It was also a truly intercollegiate event on a truly interdisciplinary topic.

On 29 January 2013 the London International Development Centre (LIDC), a consortium of the five Bloomsbury Colleges, and Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies organised a book launch  for Race, racism and development: Interrogating history, discourse and practice (Zed Books) by Dr Kalpana Wilson, Visiting Lecturer at Birkbeck and LSE Fellow in Gender Theory, Globalisation and Development. The event was hosted by the Institute of Education (IOE) and chaired by Dr Parvathi Rahman from the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at SOAS, with Firoze Manji, CODESRIA(Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa), as discussant.

Kalpana Wilson’s motif for writing the book was a silence she observed about race in international development discourse, what she called ‘the whiteness of development’ – white experts talking about what should be done. Rather than simply advocating measures to change the personnel of development institutions, Kalpana set out to examine questions of structural racism in development. She was interested in how ideas of race legitimise certain power relations, looking both at history (e.g. the anti-colonial movement in India) and the present, for instance the war on terror. Kalpana’s focus in writing the book was on how ideas get incorporated and transformed in public narratives of race. Recently we can observe what she refers to as the ‘racialisation of hunger’ – poverty and hunger are essentially associated with Asia and Africa, both with respect to material relations and representation.

Gender is important too. Not so long ago ‘Third World’ women were pictured as helpless and needing to be saved. Now that image has changed, they are finally seen as agents, but to the other extreme, as  entrepreneurial, hard-working and altruistic to the point of being superhuman. And yet the idea of political agency is still associated with the global North.

Firoze Manji, in his discussant’s comments, described development as a sophisticated euphemism that Kaplana deconstructs and links to other ‘forbidden’ words like racism and liberalism. There is no such thing as poverty, claimed Manji, only impoverishment, and this is what we call ‘development’ . ‘Development’ is in fact about exploiting the South, with NGOs playing the role of new colonisers. Kalpana also takes apart what Manji referred to as ‘the pornography of development’, portraying the developing world in a pessimistic, exaggerated way that is meant to shock. Manji argued that in a post-colonial, globalised world we are now experiencing a shift in defining who we are and who the ‘other’ is, but it is nevertheless useful to keep the colonial past fresh in our minds.

The lively discussion that followed raised issues about Marxism; the idea of the innocent, unspoilt South that needs to be saved; gender; the deserving and undeserving poor; the racialisation of corruption,; and the need to delegitimise the NGOs.

This event was different in a very refreshing way. It provided an open platform for examining and contesting what is often taken for granted in international development. It allowed radical ideas to be expressed and engaged with. I was talking to a SOAS student of Development Studies over a drink after the presentations, who said: “At SOAS we learn how to be critical of governments and international organisations. But this is new – that NGOs can also be a destructive power in international development.”

Whether that statement is true or not depends on one’s perspective, but one thing is certain – the event revealed a new dimension and a new way of thinking about international development. And that’s always a good thing.

Share
. 1 comment . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , , ,