Do we all speak and practice “humanitarian” in the same way?

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Authors: Clara Egger  and Doris Schopper

Earlier this year, more than 1000 people from humanitarian organisations and networks responded to our online survey exploring how meanings and uses of concepts central to the humanitarian field are perceived by practitioners. 766 respondents answered all the questions, revealing reasonable consistency in the definition of concepts but a lot of variation in practices.

To explore issues around multiple definitions of concepts, we chose two that are commonly used: “humanity” and “crisis”. We provided respondents with a variety of divergent definitions that came from our review of existing literature, glossaries and websites. We asked people to indicate which definition of a concept most closely reflects what they use in their daily work.

Two results stand out for Humanity. Nearly everyone selected one of the five proposed definitions, showing that the list we proposed provided good coverage of the range of definitions in use, but also that there is variety in how people think of this term. The most selected definition was that from Wikipedia, chosen by about a third of respondents, and consistent with the fact that most respondents named either Google or Wikipedia as the online resource they use to clarify the meaning of some terms. The Relief Web definition was second commonest, with that from the Red Cross/ Red Crescent movement third.

Turning to Crisis, only about a dozen of the more than 800 respondents felt that none of the three definitions we offered fit their use of the concept but one definition was overwhelmingly favoured, that from UN-ISDR  and OCHA. This was chosen by three quarters of the respondents, but we also noticed something interesting about respondents who opted for the definition from OECD. They were more likely to have a background in economics or to work for governmental entities, perhaps confirming the role played by the OECD as a forum of policy dialogue and definition between government agencies.

To assess how the operationalization of concepts by humanitarian organizations varies, we selected two concepts likely to be familiar to most humanitarian actors and which have been previously shown to map to diverse practices: “protection” and “capacity-building”. We asked respondents to select up to two answers for each, investigating their reaction to our lists of pre-identified practices.

For Protection, one of the seven practises clearly stood out, being selected by more than 40% of respondents: “Alleviating victims’ immediate suffering through the provision of emergency material, medical assistance and psychosocial care in affected areas”. The next most common options were chosen by 28% of respondents. However, each of the options was chosen by at least 10% of respondents, confirming that practices associated with this concept are very diverse.

We found something similar for Capacity-building, but none of the six options clearly predominates. Three were chosen by 35% to 42% of respondents: “helping affected states to develop institutional mechanisms for crisis response and preparedness”, “providing international and local humanitarian staff with adequate training” and “developing learning resources, best practices and standardization of common tools and processes”

These initial results suggest that practices vary more than the definition of the concepts. We will be looking into this more deeply to examine relationships with the organisational and disciplinary background of respondents and to assess the importance of factors such as funding sources and collaboration in shaping uses of concepts. In this way, we hope to shed more light on the diversity of meanings and practices in the language of the humanitarian.

Further information on this survey and the Humanitarian Encyclopedia can be found by clicking here.

For more on how concepts central to humanitarian practice have evolved since 1968 and the birth of sans-frontiérisme, please watch the video here

About the authors:

Clara Egger holds an MA degree in Political Science (2010) from Sciences Po Grenoble and a PhD in political science from the University Grenoble Alpes. Her PhD thesis analyses States’ control strategies of humanitarian NGOs at the unilateral and multilateral level, focusing on the cases of France, United Kingdom and the United States of America. Clara is a member of the Teaching and Research Group on Science and Critical Thinking (CorteX) and an associate researcher of the Raoul Dandurand Chair in strategic and diplomatic studies of the University of Québec in Montréal (UQAM) and has been invited at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (Belgium) and at the Friedrich Schiller Universität of Jena (Germany). Before her PhD she has worked for several French and European NGOs such as Handicap international, VOICE and Caritas France.

Doris Schopper is Professor at the medical faculty of the University of Geneva and Director of CERAH since July 2011. She obtained a medical degree at the University of Geneva (1978), trained as a specialist in Internal Medicine (1986) and completed a Doctor in Public Health at the Harvard School of Public Health (1992). Between 1982 and 1990 Doris Schopper spent several years with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the field. She was president of the Swiss branch of MSF (1991–1998) and twice president of the MSF International Council during this period. In 2001 Doris Schopper was asked to constitute an Ethics Review Board for MSF International. Since then and until end 2016 she has chaired the Board coordinating the ethical review of MSF research proposals and providing advice on ethical matters to the organisation. Currently she acts as Senior adviser. In 2012, Doris Schopper was appointed member of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

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