Category Archives: Books

40 years of Médecins du Monde

La belle histoire
Boris Martin
Éditions Médecins du Monde, 2020
[Published in French]

Publisher’s note

2020 marks Médecins du Monde’s 40th anniversary. The age of maturity, perhaps, and above all the occasion to go back to the founding principles of the association, to review the memorable episodes of its history and to highlight the key elements of its action, which were stated four decades ago.

“To go where others will not, to testify to the intolerable, and to volunteer”. Such was the declaration of faith contained in the “oath of equals”, signed by forty-three people one day in 1980 in an amphitheatre in the Broussais hospital in Paris. The assembly, which included Biafran veterans, disillusioned members of Médecins Sans Frontières, the young guard from the Île de lumière operation in the South China Sea, doctors, journalists and photographers, gave rise to a newcomer in the little family of French humanitarian aid. A mix of militant determinism, triumphant enthusiasm and good-natured improvisation: Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) was born.

The author is the Editor-in-Chief of the Humanitarian Alternatives review.

Translated from the French by Juliet Powys

40 years of Solidarités International

Aider plus loin. 40 ans de crises, 40 ans d’actions
Pierre Brunet and Tugdual de Dieuleveult
Éditions Autrement, 2020
[Published in French]

Publisher’s note

Afghanistan, 1980. Faced with the war imposed by the Soviet invasion, a group of young French people set off to help the population. Crossing the border illegally, on foot or on horseback, they brought aid to the remotest regions. This unprecedented humanitarian engagement gave rise to Solidarités International. Forty years later, the NGO is active is eighteen countries, wherever there is need. It also helps more than 4 million beneficiaries every year, victims of wars, epidemics or natural disasters. This book is an account of these forty years of actions, including texts by its founder Alain Boinet and his travelling companions – Gérard d’Aboville, Patrice Franceschi, Bernard Kouchner, Bernard Pivot –, but also by those in danger and by field teams. It also sheds light on new challenges linked to the future of humanitarian aid. It is the story of an exceptional human adventure, a daring response to the numerous crises that are shaking up the world.

Translated from the French by Juliet Powys

History against the grain

Décolonisations
Pierre Singaravélou, Karim Miské and Marc Ball
Éditions du Seuil, 2020
[Published in French]

Publisher’s note

Decolonisation began on the first day of colonisation. From the arrival of the first Europeans, the people of Africa and Asia rose up. No one accepts domination lightly. But in order to win one’s freedom back one day, one first had to stay alive. Faced with the Europeans’ machine guns, the struggle of the colonised people took on other forms: from civil disobedience to the Communist Revolution, by way of football and literature. The combat was characterised by infinite patience and a determination without bounds. This long struggle is the subject of this book, which, giving an account of the proliferation of university research, foremost offers a new and engaging narrative. It is an unforgettable saga that reveals the unknown or forgotten heroes and heroines of this painful story: Manikarnika Tambe, the queen of Jhansi who led her troops into battle against the British in India; Mary Nyanjiru, the insurgent from Nairobi; Lamine Senghor, the Senegalese infantryman turned anticolonial militant in Paris. Throughout the pages, we meet more familiar characters too: the Algerian Kateb Yacine, the Indian Gandhi, the Vietnamese Giap and Ho Chi Minh. Thanks to them, a wind of resistance swept across the world and resulted in the independence of nearly all of the colonies in the 1960s. But at what cost? In Indira Gandhi’s atomic India, in the Congo subjected to the dictatorship of Mobutu; or in London shaken by riots amongst young immigrants, this history of decolonisation demonstrates how important it is to tell this story today.

Translated from the French by Juliet Powys

Alternative approach of change

Development, Humanitarian Aid, and Social Welfare. Social Change from the Inside Out
Cornelia Walther
Palgrave Pivot, 2020

Humanitarian Work, Social Change, and Human Behavior. Compassion for Change
Cornelia Walther
Palgrave Pivot, 2020

Publisher’s note

The first book examines how human behaviour is shaped by our aspirations, emotions, thoughts and sensations, and conversely, how the experiences that result from our behaviour impact ourselves, others and the planet. Based on an analysis of the constant interplay between these four layers, it offers practical solutions to systematically induce sustainable social change dynamics. It shows why change, in addition to economic and political transformation at the macro level, begins with mind-shifts at the micro level. Hereby it establishes the missing link between investments in personal empowerment and collective welfare. A novel theoretical paradigm is the foundation of this book, which is anchored in the perspective of an ongoing “body-mind-heart-soul connection”. Based on the premise that an equitable society is to the benefit of everyone, it is argued that efforts made for others have benefits at three levels – for the individual who acts, the one who has been acted for and for society.

The second book is based on the view that human existence results from the interplay of four dimensions: mind, heart, body and soul, which find their expression in thoughts, emotions, sensations and aspirations. By combining theory and praxis, including personal lessons learned during the author’s two decades of humanitarian work in emergency areas, the book’s goal is to make the reader understand (thought), feel (emotion), experience (sensation) and want to be part of a paradigm shift that is geared toward local and global change (aspiration). It introduces a methodology to optimise the interplay between individuals and the institutions and societies in which they work, raise families and pursue their dreams. Further, it seeks to reposition purpose at the centre of both everyday life as well as humanitarian institutions. The book’s central message is that a better world is not, and should not be, abstract and abstruse, but something that lies in everyone’s hands.

A lasting spring

La face cachée des sociétés civiles au Maghreb
Emmanuel Matteudi, Fatima Chahid-lapeze and Martin Pericard
Prefaces by Tahar Ben Jelloun and Benjamin Stora
Éditions de l’Aube, 2020
[Published in French]

Publisher’s note

The world is perpetually being shaken up by the rise of civil societies revolting against injustice, power, and ways of governing, but also in favour of increased freedoms, democracy, and greater consideration for our planet. The authors invite us to revisit the uprisings in Tunisia, Morocco, and more recently in Algeria, observing and calling into question the “hidden” faces of citizen expression.

Translated from the French by Juliet Powys

The sinews of war

0,03 % ! Pour une transformation du mouvement humanitaire international
Pierre Micheletti, preface by Xavier Emmanuelli
Éditions Parole, 2020
[Published in French]

Publisher’s note

A very large proportion of humanitarian action takes place in conflict zones. Every year, between 100 and 200 million people throughout the world depend on vital external aid in order to survive.

International emergency solidarity actions are deployed in the name of the fundamental principle of a shared humanity between the actors of aid and its beneficiaries. Nevertheless, these actions are confronted with difficulties that threaten to paralyse them. They are unable to raise the annual financial resources that they need. Teams are faced with suspicion and sometimes violence on behalf of warring parties. Antiterrorism laws do not take into account the realities which humanitarian actors are confronted with, that feed their insecurity.

Having untangled the complex skein of different actors and analysed the ambiguities that currently compromise humanitarian action, Pierre Micheletti draws up a list of ten recommendations in order to preserve the ability to act and to avoid the risk of being instrumentalised by major powers.

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and its serious impact on the global economy, the first of these proposals concerns a radical change in terms of emergency funding. One figure sums it up, giving this essay its title: 0.03%…

Translated from the French by Juliet Powys

Humanitarian statistics

Humanitarianism and the Quantification of Human Needs: Minimal Humanity
Joël Glasman
Routledge, Humanitarian Studies
Series 2020, London/New York

Joël Glasman is a historian and professor at the University of Bayreuth (Germany). Here, the author discusses his book with Vincent Hiribarren, Senior Lecturer in Modern African History, World History and Environmental History at King’s College London.

What prompted you to write a book on humanitarian statistics?

Statistics have become central to humanitarian decision-making. The omnipresence of numbers and graphics in the ongoing response to Covid-19 makes this very clear. Yet, numbers – such as mortality rates, malnutrition prevalence and refugee numbers – are ubiquitous in all major humanitarian crises. Today, all critical humanitarian battles are fought wielding numerical data and mathematical models. However, historical re- search has shown little interest in such numbers, until now. There has been significant research into the imagery of humanitarian action, its narratives, legal codification, and the ways in which it galvanises moral sentiment, inspired by the writings of authors such as Didier Fassin and Luc Boltanski. But strangely enough, there has been minimal research into the history of numbers. It is curious indeed that numerical data contin- ues to be perceived as rational, objective and dispassionate. In reality, a heavy moral responsibility is conferred upon numerical data, as it is used to answer questions such as: when should the United Nations intervene? Which organisation has legitimacy on the ground? Which populations should be the first to receive aid? Humanitarian data triggers emotions and informs decision-making, and has impacts that reach far beyond the humanitarian sector.

As an example, let’s look at the “crude death rate”, a widely used emergency threshold. For the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), a humanitarian crisis is considered to be occurring in a given region if the crude death rate exceeds 1 death per 10,000 inhabitants per day. However, this threshold is arbi- trary. Indeed, the significance of any given indicator varies greatly from one context to another. In some poor countries, crude death rates are particularly high, even under “normal” circumstances. While in rich countries, such as France, the 1 death per 10,000 inhabitants per day threshold is not exceeded, even in times of crisis. This variability has prompted a number of organisations to propose the use of thresholds adapted to the different regions of the world. Thus, in order to qualify as a crisis, a disaster would need to cause at least 1.07 deaths per 10,000 inhabitants per day in sub-Saharan Africa, while 0.46 deaths would suffice in South Asia and 0.03 deaths in rich countries. How- ever, this new definition would require that, before it could be recognised as such, ahumanitarian crisis would have to claim 35 times more lives in Africa than in Europe. It is clearly impossible to define a humanitarian crisis in neutral terms. Defining a crisis statistically does not resolve the tension between abstract universalism and unaccept- able relativism.

All organisations rely on numbers. How are humanitarian organisations specific in this regard?

There are two main points of view regarding humanitarian statistics today. For some, statistics guarantee integrity, transparency and effectiveness. The United Nations itself is calling for a “data revolution” and “statistical evidence-based” humanitarian aid. Many authors ardently argue this point of view: they see the growing use of statistics, technological tools and mobile technologies as a natural corollary to increasing spe- cialisation and professionalisation in the humanitarian sector.

Other more critical authors see the use of numerical data as a consequence of neoliberal governmentality. For French political scientist Béatrice Hibou, for example, translating circumstances into numbers is a means of exporting market logic. As NGOs adopt busi- ness practices under the pressure of donors, practices such as accounting, management and benchmarking are gaining ground throughout the world.

There is, of course, a measure of truth in both these points of view on humanitarianism. On the one hand, a process of specialisation is undeniably underway. And on the oth- er, neoliberal principles are in effect being applied, causing widespread competition between individuals, in ways that sometimes tend towards the absurd. Competition is increasing between affected populations competing for aid, between NGOs competing for funding, and between donors.

However, though the critique of neoliberalism is necessary, it must not blind us to the fact that humanitarian organisations have a measure of independence, and therefore a responsibility in the development of humanitarian statistics. In my book, I consid- er a third perspective. I believe that contemporary humanitarianism’s “quantification fervour” is not solely attributable to external pressure. It is also a natural by-product of humanitarianism’s own self-determined trajectory, as can be seen by examining the concept of “basic human need”. Humanitarian organisations have themselves re- peatedly made decisions that lend altogether excessive – and sometimes irrational – weight to statistics. Yet, humanitarian statistics are often quite poor in quality. This is not because those who produce statistics are inept, but because disasters are by their very nature difficult to comprehend statistically. Models are useful, but crises do not fit neatly into models. When a crisis first occurs, nobody knows what parameters to measure, how to measure those parameters, what to compare them with, etc. We are inevitably in the dark. What is more, humanitarian organisations often operate in regions where the institutions that are responsible for producing numerical data and documents have been destroyed or considerably weakened. Caution would therefore require that humanitarian organisations rely upon a diversity of expertise. However, the data generation imperative tends to end dialogue, attributing disproportionate im- portance to “statistical evidence” that curtails debate. The faith placed in humanitarian indicators today is excessive.

What is the significance of the concept of “basic human need”? How are humanitarian organisations quantifying these needs in Central Africa?

The concept of “needs” is central to the humanitarian narrative. Despite competing in other arenas, all major humanitarian aid actors agree when it comes to the crucial importance of “basic needs”. This consensus is expressed in the Core Principles signed by humanitarian organisations. At the beginning of the 20th century, helping people “impartially” meant helping everyone without discrimination (based on nationality, religion, etc.). Today (since the 1960s), the concept of impartiality has evolved con- siderably. Indeed, impartiality has come to signify the allocation of resources “based

on humanitarian needs” (as specified by the Humanitarian NGO Code of Conduct: “aid priorities are calculated on the basis of needs alone”). In order to be considered fair, aid must be proportional to need. However, this new definition has, in essence, replaced a moral principle with a mathematical rule. Nowadays, humanitarian doctrine requires, almost by definition, that humanitarian organisations are able to define, measure and compare the needs of populations. Humanitarian organisations define minimum thresh- olds, standards and lists of conditions required for survival (e.g. 2,100 kilocalories and 15 litres of water per person per day, 250 grams of soap for bathing per person per month, etc.). The problem lies in the inevitable arbitrariness of these universal stand- ards. In reality, different societies have very different outlooks on what people need. Yet, humanitarian organisations define the needs of populations based on their own concerns – their own limited resources, their own power struggles on the ground, their own need for good relations with their partners, etc.

Let’s take the example of Cameroon. In recent years, Cameroon has been qualified as a country “undergoing a humanitarian crisis”. With the influx of Nigerian and Central African refugees between 2014 and 2015, a host of international emergency aid or- ganisations intervened on the ground: NGOs such as Médecins sans Frontières, Première Urgence, etc. along with United Nations agencies such as the United Nations Children’s Fund, (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). All these organisations produce numerical data: UNHCR on the number of refugees, UNICEF on child malnutrition, WFP on food security, etc., but ultimately, the question of how to allocate resources remains. Should priority be given to the refugees defended by the UNHCR, the displaced persons docu- mented by the International Organization for Migration, or the malnourished children identified by UNICEF? How should the needs of different groups be compared? And how should these needs be prioritised? As the central office of the United Nations, it is OCHA’s duty to carry out this coordination work. Yet, in order to avoid the wrath of com- peting humanitarian organisations, OCHA employs algorithms to produce health-sec- tor-specific arithmetic averages. In other words, OCHA produces somewhat arbitrary “vulnerability” ratings, the ambition of which is simply to achieve consensus among aid operators. Thus, the calculation of “needs” is determined as much by the power struggles between humanitarian organisations as it is by the requests of populations.

We would like to thank Vincent Hiribarren for allowing us to reproduce his interview with Joël Glasman, originally published on the Africa4 Blog (http://libeafrica4.blogs.liberation.fr) that he hosts alongside Jean-Pierre Bat.

Translated from the French by Naomi Walker

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Images of exile

A Century of refugees. Photographing exile Bruno Cabanes
Le Seuil, 2019 (published in French)

Publisher’s note

The 20th century was the century of displacement and exodus. Since the end of the cold war and to this day, the refugee crisis has been a worldwide reality. In fact, following the recent conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and Central America refugee numbers have been steadily increasing. During the first decades of the 20th century, the First World War and the years following it saw a dramatic expansion in the dissemination of images of the various humanitarian tragedies, produced and distributed by individuals and organisations dedicated to providing relief and aid to endangered populations. Major NGOs engaged photographers to document the violence of war and life in the refugee camps. The legendary photographers of the 20th century such as Robert Capa or Margaret Bourke-White, ensured that a visual record was kept of conflicts such as the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War and the war in Vietnam.  

This book uses iconic photographs to chart the history of refugees from the beginning of the First World War to the current refugee crises in Syria, the Balkans, the Mediterranean and on the United States-Mexico border. It also challenges the concept of using photography for humanitarian ends. The public’s perception of refugees is fashioned by the way they are most often presented: as the victims of tragedy and disaster. Boats, camps and crowds dominate the landscape. Some photographers working currently have started to widen this narrow view by giving the refugees a decisive role in the way they are represented, by focusing on the dignity of their subjects or by exploring more creative visual approaches. This book is a testament to their work. 

Translated from the French by Fay Guerry

The Humanitarian “Corticated”

Profession – Aid Worker. Chronicles of reception
Jean-François Corty, with the participation of Jérémie Dres (storyline) and Marie-Ange Rousseau (illustrations) Éditions Les escales/Steinkis, 2020 (published in French)

Publisher’s note

Jean-François Corty, doctor and aid worker, gives us a free and honest account of the arrival of migrants in France and of the drama unfolding before our eyes. 

The issue of migration is at the heart of political and media discourse in France and in Europe, and it is often addressed from a security perspective with a mixture of fantasy, fear and spurious data. Through his experience with various NGOs, Jean-François Corty has travelled throughout the world, and in France, today also the theatre of humanitarian action. Often asked for his views as an expert on this question, his graphic novel gives him the opportunity of sharing his experience in a different way. He can speak more freely than in a television studio… and so dismantle stereotypes that much more effectively!

Translated from the French by Fay Guerry

The moral of “extreme urgency” in question

Droit et stratégies de l’action humanitaire Patrick Aeberhard et Pierre-Olivier Chaumet (dir.) Éditions Mare & Martin, 2019

Publisher’s note

This book is the result of the meeting between humanitarian field actors and legal practitioners from the Law Faculty at Paris 8 University. Physicians, journalists, lawyers, politicians and soldiers met at this university, which has the reputation of being very “avant-garde”, in order to debate the concept of access to victims, here and abroad. Their original goal was to contribute to the development of key points begun by French and international medical NGOs. These new rights, recognised over the course of several years, enabled the transition from the right to intervene to the right of access to victims (1988), ultimately resulting in the United Nations’ Responsibility to Protect (2005). Nevertheless, this international humanitarian law must continue to evolve in order to become more efficient. NGOs are largely responsible for this evolution.

Translated from the French by Juliet Powys