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Humanitarian Disruption in Conflict Settings
Maelle L’Homme

In March 2022, intercommunal fighting forced Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to suspend its activities after nearly fourteen years of operating in Agok, a small town located in the disputed Abyei Special Administrative Area (ASAA) on the border between Sudan and South Sudan. After the shock of having to close a 185-bed hospital unexpectedly came questions about the unintentional consequences of MSF’s presence. With the benefit of hindsight, the organisation deemed it important to examine the potentially destabilising influence it might have had on the local environment. This article builds on an internal capitalisation exercise conducted with the aim of documenting MSF’s experience and critically reflecting on the potential of aid being a factor in disrupting local balances, or worse, a factor in fuelling violence. By exploring the premises that MSF was an anchor factor for the population and that the economic fallouts made Agok a place worth fighting for, the author investigates the long-term, unintended impact of MSF’s presence on the local political economy of conflict, as well as the organisation’s possible share of responsibility for aggravating intercommunal grievances. Based on the observation that aid inevitably benefits some more than others, the author also asks to what extent MSF was aware of the adverse consequences of its presence and whether more awareness would have led to different operational choices and mitigating measures. This questioning does not detract in any way from the project’s achievements in terms of providing high-quality secondary healthcare in a context where there was none, in one of the poorest countries in the world.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs
Open Access (free)
Duncan McLean
Journal of Humanitarian Affairs
What the COVID-19 Pandemic Has Shown Us about the Humanitarian Sphere’s Approach to Local Faith Engagement
Ellen Goodwin

The COVID-19 pandemic has proved to be much more than a health emergency, with serious social, political and economic consequences. The diverse challenges for people and communities, specifically in low- and middle-income and fragile contexts, have necessitated multi-sectoral responses from international humanitarian and development actors. For many international faith-inspired organisations (IFIOs), these responses included a faith dimension. Drawing on interviews with staff working in IFIOs during the pandemic, this paper will argue that the COVID-19 pandemic saw many, although not all, IFIOs engage with local faith actors and local communities of faith more quickly, and in increasingly diverse and meaningful ways, than during previous comparable public health crises. This shift in willingness to engage with faith and religion at the local level has been reflected, to some extent, by the broader humanitarian sphere. The COVID-19 pandemic therefore marks an important step towards more faith-literate humanitarian responses, with many IFIOs at the forefront of this progress.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs
Lessons from the MSF Listen Experience
Jake Leyland
Sandrine Tiller
, and
Budhaditya Bhattacharya

While health misinformation is important to address in humanitarian settings, over-focusing on it can obfuscate a more holistic understanding of a community’s needs in a crisis. Through Médecins Sans Frontières’ experience of deploying a platform to tackle health misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic, this field report argues that, while important, health misinformation became a diversionary topic during COVID-19, which represented a lack of trust between communities, humanitarian organisations and health institutions, rather a fundamental obstacle to effective humanitarian interventions.

From our practitioners’ viewpoint, we reflect on the deployment of the ‘MSF Listen’ platform in our programmes and how it evolved from a purely misinformation-focused digital tool to a broader workflow and approach to understanding community needs in crises through accountable management of community feedback.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs
Emma Tomalin
Olivia Wilkinson

This paper explores findings from research carried out alongside a humanitarian project called ‘Bridging the Gap (BtG): The Role of Local Faith Actors in Humanitarian Response in South Sudan’. BtG aimed to better understand the barriers that stand in the way of engagement between local faith actors (LFAs) and international humanitarians (IHs) and to introduce learning opportunities (e.g. training and workshops) to address these. We share perspectives from the LFAs who participated in this ‘localisation’ project about what it means to become ‘legitimate’ humanitarian actors that are recognised and trusted by the international system and why this is important for them, as well as what BtG tells us about the legitimacy of the international humanitarian system from the point of view of LFAs and LFAs’ legitimacy in the eyes of their local communities. We also reflect upon the ways in which the processes of NGO-isation and professionalisation that accompany this journey to become ‘legitimate’, can compromise and undervalue the very qualities that local actors are presumed to possess. This does not indicate the failure of the localisation agenda, but that bold action is needed to make localisation more inclusive in ways that might challenge some areas of humanitarian orthodoxy.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs
Darryl Stellmach
Margaux Pinaud
Margot Tudor
, and
Larissa Fast

This paper assesses the influence of the humanitarian innovation agenda on the aid sector, particularly medical humanitarian actors’ increasing reliance on digital technologies. Pressure to innovate arises from the belief that technological advancements can save lives, leading to the exploration of new technologies in humanitarian contexts. However, the rapid, often uncritical, adoption of new technologies and data practices has raised ethical, political and institutional concerns. To this end, the paper surveys key debates and ethical challenges arising from the deployment of biometric and medical data technologies in humanitarian and disaster settings. To achieve this aim, it gathers issues into three major categories of enquiry: governance, power and control; justice and equity; and trust. These categories assist in conceptualising the moral and ethical tensions between technologies, data and actors in humanitarian spaces. The ongoing deployment of biometric and medical data technologies in humanitarian and disaster contexts raises significant ethical challenges that can only be addressed by practitioners and researchers together. The paper concludes with a call to jointly assess the broader implications of medical data innovations in humanitarianism, emphasising the need for further research and collaboration among different disciplines.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs
Matthew Hunt
Isabel Muñoz Beaulieu
, and
Handreen Mohammed Saeed

Humanitarian health projects generate extensive amounts of data as part of their activities. In many situations, this data will endure long after the projects have ended. Careful attention is needed within project closure planning and implementation to decisions of when and how to share, store, return to the individuals from whom it was collected, or destroy data. Drawing on a review of the literature and guidelines related to data responsibility and project closure, we propose seven questions that can help orient reflection and deliberation around data management from the perspective of an ethics of project closure. The questions foreground considerations related to purpose limitation and data minimisation, respect for data rights, upholding duties of care, clarifying expectations, commitments and agreements, minimisation and mitigation of risk, and alignment of policy and regulatory frameworks for data responsibility. We illustrate the application of the questions to a case study of the handover of a healthcare project in a refugee camp where project activities were transferred from an international humanitarian organisation to local authorities. This analysis reinforces the importance of understanding data responsibility as an essential component of ‘closing well’.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs
Louise Beaumais

Do humanitarian workers really trust numbers? In the realm of the DATAWAR research project, this article aims to investigate the interest that humanitarian workers have developed towards quantitative data in the last two decades. The ‘needology’ approach (Glasman, 2020), growing expectations of donors since the 2000s, and the professionalisation and rationalisation of the humanitarian field are all factors that have contributed to the massive use of quantitative data. Discourses promoting ‘evidence-based humanitarianism’ have fostered massive hope in the humanitarian community: a good use of quantitative data could enhance contextual analyses, intervention monitoring or even the safety and security of humanitarian workers. However, this study has discovered that these narratives overestimate the ease with which humanitarian workers deal with numbers. In fact, it shows that the use of quantitative data is mainly determined by a specific, restrictive, hierarchically oriented evidence-based system which nurtures bottom-up accountability rather than day-to-day project management. As a result, the datafication of the humanitarian field does not seem to have been accompanied by an improvement of the data literacy of humanitarian workers.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs
How IPC Data is Communicated through the Media to Trigger Emergency Responses
François Enten

The article shows how the data of the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) remain ‘poor numbers’. First, because of the intrinsic uncertainty that presides over their production, but above all because of their necessary translation into the media system to trigger responses to crises. Drawing on Boltanski’s thesis on the politics of pity, it emphasises how figures are seen as a partial element of media rhetoric. The figures becomes a performative number when combined with registers of emotion and collective representations of famine. Two examples are developed through interviews with humanitarian practitioners: the crisis in Yemen (2018) as an ‘overexposed crisis’ and the crisis in Madagascar (2021) as a ‘silent crisis’.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs
An Interview with Irina Mützelburg (October 2022)
Brendan Lawson
Joël Glasman
, and
Irina Mützelburg

In this interview, Irina Mützelburg discusses the production and spreading of humanitarian numbers in the on-going Russian–Ukrainian war since February 2022. She traces the emergence of the announced number of Ukrainian refugees several months before the beginning of the full-scale invasion and analyses the ways in which the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) compile statistics respectively on Ukrainian refugees abroad and internally displaced persons (IDPs). Numbers are produced to be coherent and higher, to illustrate the need for attention and funding. Furthermore, the debated issue of Ukrainians who (were) moved to Russia since the invasion is reviewed, discussing not only the numbers, but also the ways the Ukrainian and the Russian states frame the ways and reasons for which Ukrainians came to Russia. Finally, the interview covers the term ‘evacuee’ and ‘evacuation’ that both Russian and Ukrainian politicians and media use in unusual ways and which have been taken up by international media outlets.

Irina Mützelburg is a post-doctoral researcher at the Centre for East European and International Studies in Berlin and a co-coordinator of the German-French ANR-DFG project, Limspaces, researching everyday life in Moldova and Ukraine. Currently she studies the educational situation of displaced pupils from Ukraine in Germany. She holds a PhD from Sciences Po Paris and has published on Ukraine, migration policies, norm transfer and public policy analysis in the Journal of Intercultural Studies, European Journal of Migration, Revue française de science politique, Revue d’études comparatives Est-Ouest, Revue Gouvernance and Trajectoires. Her book Transferring Asylum Norms to EU Neighbours: Multi-Scalar Policies and Practices in Ukraine has been published with Palgrave Macmillan (London) in 2022.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs