In October 2017 the Southern Responses to Displacement team participated in a Global Challenges Research Fund Conference entitled ‘Protracted Conflict, Aid and Development: Research, Policy and Practice’. The conference aimed to examine ways in which Southern led responses complement and, at times, challenge Northern led responses. Dr Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Dr Estella Carpi attended the conference at the British Academy in London. Here Dr Carpi reflects on her experience as part of a panel exploring South-South humanitarianism and self-reliance amongst conflict-affected populations.
Southern Responses to Displacement Research at GCRF Conference on Protracted Conflict, Aid and Development.
By Dr Estella Carpi, Southern Responses to Displacement project
The panel – formed by Dr Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh (PI of the Southern Responses to Displacement project, UCL), myself (Dr Estella Carpi, Southern Responses to Displacement Research Associate, UCL), Eva Svoboda (Overseas Development Institute), Dr Rumana Hashem (University of East London), and chaired by Boitshoko Mokgatlhe (African Union) – aimed to explore the extent to which NGOs, governments, municipal authorities, civil society organisations and local communities from across the global South have long been key responders in conflict and human displacement. Their importance in identifying and meeting local needs and rights has particularly been foregrounded in the 2016 Istanbul World Humanitarian Summit, which reasserted the necessity to directly provide funding and partner with local actors as part of the “Localisation of Aid” agenda. Discussions on the humanitarian language of self-reliance, protection and resilience in contexts of protracted displacement are more than timely in an era when refugee protection and the international understanding of changing needs in crisis settings seem to be failing.
The panel examined ways in which Southern states, civil society actors and displaced people have developed responses that at times complement and at times challenge Northern-led humanitarian and development responses. In this vein, the panel discussed the long history and longevity – rather than the emergence – of alternative models of care and protection in the global South, as well as the adaptation capacities of the humanitarian system and of crisis-affected communities. Rumana Hashem – who had participated in an international workshop on South-South Humanitarian Responses to Forced Displacement convened by Dr. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh at the University of Oxford in 2012 – highlighted the limitations of protection in humanitarian crises and the layered process of including local communities in ensuring protection, foregrounding the role of local populations in providing protection to their peers, and highlighting the question of which actors are supported, and which continue to remain on the margins. She discussed these challenges through particular reference to the Rohingya refugee crisis in Southeast Asia, with a particular focus on Bangladesh, where even local activists and providers, at times, struggle to gain access to crisis-affected people and protect them.
In the framework of protracted crises, Northern-led responses, which still hold the spotlight in humanitarian and development accounts, have proved inadequate in understanding and addressing local needs and claims. In this regard, Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh drew on her long-standing research on this topic (including 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016) to discuss how Middle Eastern and North African refugees’ experiences from the 1970s to the present of diverse Southern states’ educational migration programmes and medical internationalist initiatives (including those developed by the Cuban state for Palestinian and Sahrawi refugees) have contributed to the development of different forms of self-sufficiency mechanisms. Elena noted that, while their outcomes have at times been paradoxical in nature, the official aims of these Southern-led programmes and initiatives have included the promotion of self-sufficiency on individual, family and community-levels to reduce refugee communities’ dependence upon Northern-led interventions. Building on her research to date, she argues that it remains essential to continue mapping the diverse ways in which different Southern actors have responded to new and protracted displacement situations, and to examine the ways in which these reponses have been conceptualised, negotiated and/or resisted by past, current and prospective ‘beneficiaries’ themselves. This is important, not least because in a wide range of settings, Northern-led responses have often misrepresented the needs and self-perceptions of displaced populations, creating structures and providing services which have not only ignored previous Southern models of care, protection and capacity building, but have failed to examine their relative (in)efficiency from the perspective of beneficiaries.
In light of this need to enhance knowledge of Southern-led responses to displacement to eschew redundancy and even misunderstandings, I discussed how humanitarian actors have used the notion of “capacity to adapt” as a synonym with “humanitarian effectiveness” and “innovation” in emergency and protracted displacement settings. Yet, on the ground, refugee community members are often better able to address actual needs either to fill a gap when little or no assistance is being provided by external actors, or to compensate for the sometimes inadequate forms of support coming from Northern providers. This primarily happens when humanitarian practices mainly focus on ‘renormalising’ the lives of beneficiaries and shaping their expectations, rather than catering to actual needs on the ground and therefore transforming material circumstances. As a result, beneficiaries are implicitly expected to adapt more so than providers in order to be able to access the only assistance regime available to them. In this context, the panel members pointed out that the temporal dimension of crisis should not dictate a priori the type of services which are provided to recent or longstanding displaced people and forced migrants, and should not dismiss the understanding of needs and protection that crisis-affected people have been developing over time and space.
As well as recognising that various actors understand ‘needs,’ ‘protection’ and ‘response’ differently, humanitarian actors often lack a detailed understanding of what protection means to crisis-affected communities themselves. In this regard, Eva Svoboda emphasised that, in cases like the Syrian crisis, civilians affected by conflicts are rarely involved in the design and implementation of protection strategies which do not build on pre-existing community strategies – and yet these community strategies are often the first and only line of defence. While “localisation” has become the new buzzword to enhance organisational accountability within the international philanthropic scene, the panel therefore called for greater efforts to contextualise humanitarian action and further question what “localisation” has practically entailed thus far.
Despite the great relevance and complexity of Southern-led responses to human displacement highlighted by the panel members, major knowledge gaps remain regarding the social, political, economic, and cultural implications of such responses. In this framework, the Southern Responses to Displacement project is particularly timely given its aim to critically examine Southern-led responses at a time when UN and Northern states are growing increasingly interested in actively supporting Southern state and non-state humanitarian initiatives. The Southern Responses to Displacement project will map such diverse responses to displacement from Syria within the context of the Middle East and aims to enhance our understanding of conflict-affected people’s perceptions, conceptualisations, and representations of these responses. With its primary focus being on responses developed within and across the global South, this research project will contribute critical insights into key issues, processes and dynamics discussed throughout the panel, including self-reliance and self-sufficiency, donor-recipient relationships, refugee-refugee relationality, protection and the very concepts of ‘local actors’, ‘localisation’ and ‘Southern-led responses’ themselves.
Featured Photo Credit: E. Carpi, 2017