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Brendan T. Lawson

Over the past 25 years, the humanitarian sector has become increasingly dominated by numbers. This has been reflected in the growth of academic work that explores this relationship between humanitarianism and quantification. The most recent contribution to this literature is Joël Glasman’s Humanitarianism and the Quantification of Humanitarian Needs. Through his empirical and theoretical contributions, Glasman draws our attention to the different ways that academics approach this topic. These four strands structure the literature review: knowledge – the technical difficulties in quantifying phenomena; governance – how numbers help humanitarian organisations manage the sector; effects – the impact that quantification has had on the sector as a whole; meaning – the importance of rhetoric, discourse, representation and communication when it comes to understanding the quantitative. As part of the review, the essay also identifies how academics can better engage with each of the four strands.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs
Joël Glasman
and
Brendan Lawson

The modern humanitarian sector is gripped by a data frenzy. How can we take a step back and critically engage with what datafication means? This introduction to the special section begins by outlining three broad theoretical positions within the literature: positivist, constructivist, and reflexivity of actors. To dive deeper, and to tie together the four pieces in this special section, we point to ‘ten things we know about humanitarian numbers’. The ten points cover issues of epistemology, institutionalisation, linguistics, social justice, technology, theorisation and power. Taken together, they offer different springboards from which academics can launch into critiques of data in the humanitarian sector.

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