Category Archives: Books

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 ( 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

Science to the rescue of universal coverage

Évaluation des interventions de santé mondiale – Méthodes avancées Valéry Ridde et Christian Dagenais (dir.) Éditions science et bien commun et Éditions IRD, 2019

Publisher’s note

Universal health coverage by 2030 for every human being, from the West to the Global South? Achieving this sustainable development goal, which is as ambitious as it is necessary, will require exceptional political will, but also solid and convincing data on how to accomplish it, especially in terms of the most effective global health interventions. Proper evaluation of these interventions is therefore a key challenge. It will not be enough to simply measure their efficiency: we need to understand why they work (or don’t), how, and in what conditions. This collective publication, which brings together contributions from 39 authors from different countries and disciplines, aims to present a clear, accessible, French-language compendium of approaches and advanced evaluation methods for interventions (qualitative, quantitative, and mixed), in order to study the evaluability, durability, processes, fidelity, efficiency, fairness and effectiveness of complex interventions. Each method is presented in a chapter by means of a real-life case study in order to facilitate the transmission of this precious knowledge.

The book is available to read at the following address:

Translated from the French by Juliet Powys

Everything you ever wanted to know about humanitarianism, but were afraid to ask…

Droit et pratique de l’action humanitaire Marina Eudes, Philippe Ryfman, Sandra Szurek (dir.) L.G.D.J, Collection Traités, octobre 2019 (published in French)

Publisher’s note
Humanitarian action, as one of the main international public policies deployed permanently on all continents, is currently providing aid to some 200  million beneficiaries.

The first UN-led World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 highlighted the challenges it now faces, as evidenced by the dimension taken with the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, the spread of NGOs’ humanitarian aid, the affirmation of State humanitarianism and the involvement of international organisations.

Humanitarian action is characterised by plurality, diversity and the dispersion of the norms on which it is based, or which it itself produces, notably as a specific professional and social order, with its own ethics, its own language, and as a genuine globalised economy.

Thus, scientific interest justifies apprehending humanitarian action as an autonomous object of analysis, based on a global vision that factors in all circumstances in which it unfolds.

The aim of this book unique amongst French scientific and academic literature is to present the widest and most complete panorama by combining – also uniquely the resources of the law with those of other disciplines, and by bringing together academics, researchers and renowned practitioners. The book hopes to offer food for thought on what the “humanitarian ecosystem” is, the questions raised by its choices and aims between emergency relief and sustainable development.

Students and researchers will appreciate this book, with its scope and insight into practices that had been lacking in their specialty. Practitioners will recognise this in-depth analysis as a useful tool for contemporary humanitarian action.

Edited by Sandra Szurek, Professor Emeritus of the University of Paris Nanterre, Associate Professor at the Institute of Higher International Studies (IHEI) of the University of Paris II Pantheon-Assas, Marina Eudes, Master HDR lecturer at the University of Paris Nanterre, member of CEDIN, Director of the International Criminal Organisations and Courts Diploma, Philippe Ryfman, Professor and Honorary Associate Researcher in the Department of Political Science at the Sorbonne, Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne, lawyer and consultant.

Two brothers in pictures, a country’s heritage

Iran, rêves et dérives Reza et Manoocher Deghati Hoëbeke, octobre 2019 (published in French)

Publisher’s note

Reza and Manoocher Deghati, brothers and photojournalists who grew up in Iran in the 1950s and were forced into exile in the early 1980s, present their exclusive period archives for the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution. In 1978, Reza and Manoocher Deghati covered the Islamic Revolution from its beginnings, and subsequently the hostage-taking at the American Embassy in Tehran. Their images were used extensively at the time in the international press: Newsweek, the Times, Lifeand Paris Match. The brothers were privileged witnesses to these events, ceaselessly documenting the riots, the violent repressions, but also the hopes of a changing Iranian society.

Their work gives a face to the Iranian people damaged by an Islamic Republic that has not kept the promise of much-anticipated peace.

Reza, a famous photojournalist, has travelled the world since leaving Iran in 1981. His images have been broadcast in the international media (National Geographic, Time Magazine, Newsweek, El País, Paris Match, Geo…), but also in the form of books, exhibitions and documentaries. He has been a photographer since his teens and was marked by his experience as a political prisoner when he was a student. The Iranian revolution revealed his skills as a photojournalist. From 1983, alongside this work, he began devoting himself to the informal visual education of young people and women around the world and created various associations. As a regular contributor to the National Geographic Society since 1991, and a senior fellow of the Ashoka Foundation, he has received numerous awards, including the World Press Photo, the Infinity Award, and the Knight’s Medal of the National Order of Merit.

A citizen of the world, Manoocher Deghatihas lived in more than 12 countries on 4 continents. He has been a photojournalist for international photo agencies and magazines such as Agence France Presse, Sipa, Black Star, Times, Newsweek. After studying film in Rome, he returned to Iran to witness the revolution. From 1987 to 1990, he was the head of the photo department for Agence France Presse in Central America. Returning to the Middle East in 1990, he covered similar political and social issues. Injured by an Israeli sniper in Ramallah, he was transferred to Paris where he remained for 18 months at the Invalides military hospital. In 2011, he created the new Middle East photography department for the Associated Press. He has received a number of awards including the World Press Photo award, and now works for major magazines such as National Geographic. He lives in Italy, where he also runs workshops.

Reza illustrated the 8thissue of the Humanitarian Alternatives magazine, and gave us an exclusive interview: