Call for papers for Humanitarian Alternatives ninth issue

In view of the publication of its ninth issue, to be released in November 2018, Humanitarian Alternatives is calling for papers under its next focus theme “1968-2018: Disruptions and continuities”. If you are an actor, a researcher or an observer of the international humanitarian community and wish to submit a proposal for an article, please send us a summary and the outline of the paper (2 pages maximum) before July 5th at the following address: We will respond within 15 days following the reception of your proposal.

The final deadline for submitting the article is September 21st. Please observe that the article must be around 15 000 characters, including spaces (approximately 2,400 words).

Humanitarian Alternatives

N°9 – November 2018

Statement of issues for the “Focus” theme

“1968-2018: Disruptions and continuities”

Fifty years after the Biafra war, which set the stage for the “without borders” movement, humanitarian aid has become a resolutely strategic sector, both in terms of action and of image, encompassing an increasing number of players with ever more diverse profiles and practices. In the face of this double movement of expansion and diversification, the aim of this issue is to shed light on the reconfigurations of humanitarian action over the last fifty years, and the momentum which 1968 represented. The issue will examine both the disruptions and the continuities between past and current humanitarian aid. The aim of this analysis is not to go back over the Biafra war, or its implications. Although historical, the issue will be essentially dynamic and critical, based around five terms which, without exhausting the range of humanitarian practices, enable a broad enough coverage of its developments and reflections: humanitarian aid, context, sovereignty, professionalisation, and politics. Each of these terms will be approached by way of the following questions: what is the history of the use of these terms and their associated practices? How have these uses and practices evolved over time? Which future(s) do they foretell for humanitarian action?

Humanitarian aid. Since its beginnings, the term has taken hold, to the point that everything now seems to come under the umbrella of humanitarian aid. The concept has therefore become broader and more diluted: a banner for some, and a deterrent for others. The without-borders movement certainly did not invent humanitarian aid, but 1968 marked the emergence of a movement that reinvented it, wishing to heal and freeing itself from the “pact of neutrality” sealed by the ICRC, in order to bridge borders and bear witness to what could be observed behind closed doors: what developments does this term, now used by MSF, Veolia, and Hamas, represent? What justification can there be for its continued use, given that it is increasingly called into question, a symbol, for some, of Western-centric thinking, or even of neo-colonialism, and manipulated by States and companies to the point of being rendered meaningless? The analysis will examine the way in which reconfigurations in the humanitarian field have redefined its fundamental values, distinguishing between universal ideals and culturally situated values.

The second term is that of context, in other words, the circumstances and spaces in which humanitarian action is deployed. The conflict in Biafra prefigured the conflicts that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years later: it opposed, within former colonies, State and non-State groups on political, economic, and increasingly identity-based issues. How do these logics, and the past experiences of humanitarian workers, enable us to grasp the contemporary conflicts in Syria or in Iraq? Reflecting on the concept of humanitarian context also invites us to think about the impact of climate change (on natural disasters and migrations), but also to question the extension of humanitarian workers’ fields of intervention.

A third angle for reflection concerns the term of sovereignty, central to the Biafran question. The nascent without-borders NGOs laid the foundations for the right to intervene. 50 years later, the acceleration of globalisation, reflections on the right to intervene and the adoption of the responsibility to protect have contributed to opening up borders. Yet we are witnessing a reaffirmation of sovereignty in a number of States, namely by way of the emergence of nationalist movements, or increasingly hostile legislation concerning the creation of national NGOs and foreign NGO activity within countries. The declaration of an agenda for aid localisation since 2016 certainly does point to the will of a large number of governments to independently organise humanitarian responses in their own countries, but also possibly to take back control over civil society.

The fourth term up for debate is that of professionalisation. The concept, which has a number of definitions, referring in turn to the professionalisation and skill of humanitarian workers, training for humanitarian careers, or the opposition between paid humanitarian work and activist engagement, must be clarified. Putting the concept into perspective invites us to go back over the lifespan of humanitarian workers’ professional practices, and their progressive implementation. It also invites us to think about the impact of the development of specialised university courses on these practices.

The final term structuring the reflections in this issue is that of politics. In response to the ICRC’s neutrality, the movement of “French doctors” affirmed a political humanitarian practice. In the name of activist engagement, it did, indeed, flirt with politics. The relationship between without-borders NGOs and the media stemmed from this engagement: it was a question of raising awareness amongst populations and mobilising them so that they would put pressure on their leaders to stop the massacres which were going on. State humanitarian aid, often developed with the help of former figures from the movement, has lastingly muddied the waters. Humanitarian action currently seems trapped between a rock and a hard place. The explicit development of “humanitarian policy” on the one hand, intended not only to defend the interests of populations affected by crises, but also and especially to make humanitarian aid a tool amongst others for governmental foreign policy. Depoliticisation, on the other hand, which sees NGOs relegated to the rank of efficient and mute State and business contractors, and contested by a growing number of social movements.

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