Highlights from the World Conference on Humanitarian Studies

Toronto — Wanted to share a few of my favourite moments from the 2011 World Conference on Humanitarian Studies (WCHS2011), held June 2-5 at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.

This is the first in a series of three quick posts about the conference, covering:

  1. My personal highlights of the event
  2. A short summary of my presentation as part of the Media and Information Technology in Humanitarian Action panel
  3. What I’d like to see at the next WCHS, to be held in 2013 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

WCHS 2011 Highlights

I told my friends at home I felt like I had arrived in “nerd heaven” in Boston, surrounded by engaging academics and practitioners, big ideas, and the city’s superabundance of sunny, tree-lined campuses.

Below are some of my favourite moments from the conference.  Take these with a grain of salt, however, as I was only able to attend a tiny fraction of the 80+ panels presented over four days – and missed the opening keynote and first morning because I was working on my own slides; alas.

“Art of Darkness” Panel

Avril Benoit, Director of Communications of MSF Canada, speaking (in an individual capacity) about a media that’s become “drunk on accountability” in its ongoing search for the next “Three Cups of Tea” scandal, as well as the coming technology-driven increase in exposure and transparency for humanitarian organizations — whether they’re ready for it or not.  This entire panel was excellent, actually.

“Solutions in search of a problem”

Nathaniel Raymond of the Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) taking a subtle but useful dig at fellow disaster & development technologists on his panel, arguing that too many humanitarian tech projects are “a solution in search of a problem”, rather than the other way around.

Something about this rings very true to me — how many of these new tools, which generate so much media attention (including from my own project) are genuinely changing workflows and outcomes for humanitarians in the field?

The George Clooney-backed SSP, conversely, has a tightly-defined mission: using satellite imagery to create evidence of impending atrocity — including troop and munition built-ups, and newly-built military roads — and then publicizing the evidence to prevent the event from happening.

We all know how well this kind of “early warning” worked out for Romeo Dallaire in Rwanda — but the hope is that today there’s greater awareness and political will to prevent (visible) atrocity.

That being said, in April the SSP did publish evidence of upcoming attacks on Abyei, Sudan — but ultimately weren’t able to prevent the event from occurring.  At the end of the day, is it evidence, or political calculations, that really makes the difference in how these events play out?

Responding to Protracted Crisis

This was an exceptionally thoughtful and well-run panel, chaired by my friend and colleague Mareike Schomerus of the London School of Economics, and featuring:

  • Bram Jansen discussing how in South Sudan, the power and numbers of humanitarian organizations have made them a de-facto surrogate state, “challenging the authority, and legitimacy of the official government” — but that humanitarian ideology doesn’t allow them to admit that this is so.
  • Michael Mahrt of Save the Children Denmark using examples from his field work to show how protracted wars destroy existing social institutions (age relations, family structures) and create new ones in their stead.
  • Jogien Bakker of Oxfam Novib arguing that gender-targeted programs to counter sexual violence in conflict empower women at the expense of men, which could actually exacerbate the problem it was meant to solve.  As you can guess, this led to some fascinating debate and discussion. [On a different note, I admire her photos from the field, found here, as well].

As well as a critical analysis from Ronald A. Atkinson on recent developments on the conflict in Northern Uganda and surrounding countries.

One of the many good things about this panel was that speakers respected their time limits, eliminating the zero-sum time game that usually leaves the final speaker rushing through their presentation; this setup also allowed time for a good discussion with a very knowledgeable audience.  These are nerdy details perhaps, but ones that make a big difference in the atmosphere of a panel (and by extension, the conference as a whole).

Altruism vs Humanitarianism

“That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it […] By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him …” – Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)

The Altruism vs Humanitarianism panel, with Ali Arbia and Gilles Carbonnier, ended my conference experience on a reflective and philosophical note.  Carbonnier used the above quote from Adam Smith as part of a larger discussion on different explanations for humans’ altruistic behaviour, and their relationship to the humanitarian ethic.

One thing that stuck with me from this panel was Carbonnier’s suggestion that a lack of reciprocity in aid relationships weakens social bonds, and increases tension with beneficiaries.  The most glaring example is in Afghanistan, where the “bunkerization” of aid work and “pump and dump”  delivery strategies have degraded the humanitarian environment to an all-time low.  In short, we humans are sensitive to “exchanges that create ties,” and need to have the chance to reciprocate them — and having that denied fuels resentment.

“Altruism is human nature,” Carbonnier concluded, “but it needs nurturing”.

Next up

So there you have it.  My favorite moments from the approximately 5 of 80 panels (!) I was able to attend at the conference.  Have any fellow attendees done public write-ups of their experience?  If so I’d love to read them.

Next up: a short summary of my presentation, a case study of Inside Disaster Haiti, which asked, “How can a new media project help donors and stakeholders deepen their understanding of humanitarian relief in disaster zones?”.

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