Sovereignty, Globalization, and the Future of Humanitarian Action

In this component of our program on Crisis and Social Transformation in Nepal, we seek to answer the following questions: What will be the impact of sovereignty/nationalism-based critiques on the future of humanitarian action and in particular on the humanitarian system’s ability to reach the most vulnerable? What is the future of the time-tested universalist principles around which humanitarian action is organized (neutrality, impartiality, independence) in a more complex, globalized but also potentially more polarized world?

Recent research at the Feinstein International Center (FIC) has focused on local perceptions of the work of humanitarian agencies and the interactions between humanitarian action and politics. This involved a number of briefing notes on current crises in Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan as well as a the preparation of an edited volume on the instrumentalization of humanitarian action (The Golden Fleece: Manipulation and Independence in Humanitarian Action, A. Donini (ed) forthcoming 2012).

Building on this research, we are adding a component that looks at the future of humanitarian action in a globalized world. While the “instrumentalization” of humanitarian action in the service of political or military agendas is nothing new, there is a need to explore how changes in the external environment are likely to affect humanitarianism and the future of the humanitarian endeavour.

We see two, potentially contradictory, trends emerging. As our earlier research has shown, humanitarian action seems to be increasingly embedded into processes of globalization. It is seen by many as “of the North”, growing (and thriving) in parallel to the expansion of the market to the remotest borderlands. As such, humanitarian action appears as a dominant discourse whereby standards and power relations are reinterpreted and re-arranged in parallel to (if not in the service of) northern liberal peace and globalization agendas.

However, experience from recent crises – Sudan, Sri Lanka in the first instance but also Pakistan, Nepal and perhaps soon Afghanistan as well – shows that the agency and independence with which humanitarian actors operated in the past is becoming more problematic. The purported universality of the humanitarians is colliding with sovereignty-based and nationalistic discourses. In several countries there is a backlash against humanitarian action and its proponents both by government officials, the media, religious groups and portions of civil society. This process seems to be reinforced by the emergence of non-western responses to disasters (Islamic NGOs, new donors from the Gulf, etc.) and by the geopolitical posturing of the BRICs, especially China (and to a lesser extent India) in Asia.

In our research, we focus on two countries recovering from violent conflict, Nepal and Sri Lanka and one – Pakistan – which is experiencing a complex crisis linked to conflict, displacement and natural hazard events (earthquake and floods). In all three the twin processes of globalization and nationalism are emerging as increasingly important variables that aid actors need to consider.

We expect our case studies to enable a better understanding of new processes affecting international aid. Visits to the three countries were undertaken in April/May 2011. In each, the prevailing narratives on sovereignty/nationalism and how these affect the provision of humanitarian and other forms of aid were assessed. In addition an analysis of the rhetoric in the local media was undertaken. A report summarizing the findings will be issued in early 2012.