Migration, Humanitarianism, and the Politics of Knowledge – An Interview with Juliano Fiori

This piece reflects on Eurocentrism and coloniality in studies of and responses to migration. Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh interviews Juliano Fiori, Head of Studies (Humanitarian Affairs) at Save the Children, about debates relating to the politics of knowledge and the urgency of anti-colonial action. Fiori discusses the ideological and epistemological bases of responses to migration, why he considers it important to explore the ‘Western’ character of humanitarianism, the “localization of aid” agenda, and the political implications of new populisms of the Right. These are themes that we continue to explore in the Southern Responses to Displacement research project. You can read more on this topic in our ‘Thinking through the Global South’ blog series and read an abridged version of Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh’s Introduction: Recentering the South in Studies of Migration in the Journal of Migration and Society (open access here).

If you find this piece of interest you can access the recommended reading list at the end of this piece.

Migration, Humanitarianism, and the Politics of Knowledge – An Interview with Juliano Fiori

by Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, PI, Southern Responses to Displacement Research Project with Juliano Fiori, Head of Studies (Humanitarian Affairs) at Save the Children.

Elena FiddianQasmiyeh (EFQ): It is increasingly acknowledged that studies of and policy responses to migration and displacement often have a strong Northern bias. What is your position with regard to claims of Eurocentrism in studies of and responses to migration?

Juliano Fiori (JF): To the extent that they emerge from critiques of colonialism and liberal capitalism, I am sympathetic toward them. Decentering (or provincializing) Europe is necessarily an epistemological project of deconstruction. But to contribute to a counterhegemonic politics, this project must challenge the particular substance of European thought that has produced systems of oppression.

Eurocentrism in the study of human migration is perhaps particularly problematic on account of the transnational and transcultural histories that migrants produce. Migrants redefine the social meaning of physical frontiers, and they blur the cultural frontier between Self and Other. They contribute to an intellectual miscegenation that undermines essentialist explanations of cultural and philosophical heritage. As Tendayi Achiume argues, migration itself is decentering.

However, migration studies has risen from European foundations. Its social scientific references, its lexicon, its institutional frameworks and policy priorities, and its social psychological conceptions of identity all privilege the Western gaze upon the hordes invading from the barrens. That this gaze might be cast empathetically does nothing to challenge epistemic reproduction that confirms the centrality of Europe. Although Western scholars focus on South-South migration, the policy relevance of their research is typically defined by its implications for flows from South to North.

The Eurocentrism of responses to forced migration by multinational charities, UN agencies, and the World Bank reflects the political interests of their principal donors: Western governments. Aid to refugees in countries neighboring Syria, who might otherwise travel to Europe, has been amply funded. Meanwhile, countries like India, South Africa, and Ivory Coast, which host significant numbers of regional migrants and refugees, receive proportionally little attention and support. It is an irony of European containment policies that, while adopted as a measure against supposed threats to Europeanness, they undermine the moral superiority that Eurocentrism presupposes.

EFQ: How, if at all, do you engage with constructs such as “the global North,” “the global South,” and “the West” in your own work?

JF: All these terms are problematic in a way, so I just choose the one that I think best conveys my intended meaning in each given context. I try to stick to three principles when using these terms. The first is to avoid the sort of negative framing that invariably describes that which is not of the West or of the North, to which your work on South-South encounters has helpfully drawn attention (i.e., Fiddian-Qasmiyeh 2015, 2018; Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Daley 2018). It opens up an analytical terrain on which those residing beyond the imagined cultural bounds of these regions tend to be exoticized. When I need to frame something negatively, I try to do so directly, using the appropriate prefix.

Second, I try to avoid setting up dichotomies and continuities. Placing East and West or North and South in opposition implies entirely dissimilar bodies, separated by a definite, undeviating frontier. But these terms are mutually constitutive, and it is rarely clear where, or even if, a frontier can be drawn. Such dichotomies also imply a conceptual equilibrium. South, West, North, and East might be constructed dialectically, but their imagined opposites are not necessarily their antitheses. Each arguably has more than one counterpoint.

Similarly, I generally don’t use terms that associate countries or regions with stages of development—most obviously, least developed, developing, and developed. They point toward a progressivist and teleological theory of history and an inexorable march toward capitalist modernity, which tends to be founded on a Eurocentric and theological economism that mistakenly subordinates the political.

Third, I try to use these terms conceptually, without presenting them as fixed unities that can obscure the heterogeneity and flux they encompass. Attempts to define them too tightly can give the impression that they are ahistorical. In Boaventura de Sousa Santos’s definition, the South is not a geographical concept: he contends that it also exists in the geographical North (2014, 2016), a metaphor for the human suffering caused by capitalism and colonialism. According to this definition, the South becomes representative of a particular left-wing politics (and it is negative). It thus loses its utility as a category of macrosociological analysis.

Ultimately, all these terms are problematic because they are sweeping. But it is also for this reason that they can be useful for certain kinds of systemic analysis. 

EFQ: You have written on the history of “Western humanitarianism” (i.e., Fiori 2013; Baughan and Fiori 2015). Why do you focus on the “Western” character of humanitarianism?

JF: I refer to “Western humanitarianism” as a rejoinder to the fashionable notion that there is a universal humanitarian ethic. Within both the Anglophone academy and the aid sector, it has become a commonplace that humanitarianism needs to be decolonized, and that the way to do this is to recognize and nurture “local” humanitarianisms around the world. But it has also arguably contributed to the “humanitarianization” of different altruistic impulses, expressions of solidarity, and charitable endeavors across cultures. To cast modern humanitarian reason as a universal is to deny the specificity of ethical dispositions born of other conceptions of humanity. Claiming practices that are comparable to those of Western humanitarian agencies across different cultures for humanitarianism sets them on European foundations, reproducing the minimalist politics of survival, regardless of their author’s inspiration.

As a set of evolving ethical practices, humanitarianism does not have a linear intellectual genealogy. Additionally, reference to the West usefully points to the application of humanitarian ideas through systems of power. I refer to the West as something approaching a sociopolitical entity—a power bloc—that starts to take form in the early nineteenth century as Western European intellectuals and military planners conceive of Russia as a strategic threat in the East. This bloc is consolidated under the leadership of the United States, which, as net creditor to Europe, shapes, and then attempts to maintain and renew, a new liberal international order. Contemporary humanitarianism is a product of this West—and a pillar of liberal order.

EFQ: One critique of “engaging” with “the global South” is that this risks instrumentalizing and co-opting modes of so-called South-South cooperation and “hence depoliticising potential sources of resistance to the North’s neoliberal hegemony”. What, if any, are the dangers of enhancing “policy engagement” with “the South”? To what extent do you think that such instrumentalization and co-option can be avoided?

JF: The term “instrumentalization” gives the impression that there are circumstances under which policy engagement can be objectively just and disinterested. Policy engagement involves an encounter of interests and a renegotiation of power relations; for each agent, all others are instruments in its political strategy. Co-option is just a symptom of negotiation between unequal agents with conflicting interests. It is the means through which the powerful disarm and transform agendas they cannot suppress. The “localization agenda” is a good example; an opportunity to increase “value for money,”reduce aid expenditure and expand development agendas and markets.

Western humanitarian agencies have also presented localization as a moral imperative: a means of “shifting power” to the South, thus supposing that their own technocratic concessions can reorder the aid industry and the geostrategic matrix from which it takes form. Localization becomes a pretext for Western governments and humanitarian agencies to outsource risk. Equally, it sustains a humanitarian imaginary that associates Westerners with “the international”— from which authority is born—and “the local”—the space of the romanticized vulnerable Other. There are Southern charities and civil society networks that develop similar narratives on localization; by associating themselves with a neomanagerial humanitarianism, they too embrace a politics incapable of producing a systemic critique of the coloniality of aid.

Demands for local ownership of disaster responses should also be situated within histories of the subaltern. It is the structural critique implicit in such responses that is sterilized by the localization agenda. Instead of real discussion about power and inequalities, then, we get a set of policy prescriptions aimed at the production of self-sufficient neoliberal subjects, empowered to save themselves through access to markets. However, it is important to recognize that co-option occurs in South-South encounters too, and that political affinities and solidarity can and do exist across frontiers. 

EFQ: Can decolonial and anticolonial thinking provide a basis for responses to displacement and migration that do more than resist?

JF: Any cosmopolitan response to migration is an act of resistance to the political organization of the interstate system. As blood-and-soil politicians now threaten to erect walls around the nation-state, the political meaning and relevance of cosmopolitan resistance changes. But if this resistance limits itself to protecting the order that appears to be under threat, it is likely to be ineffective. Moreover, an opportunity to articulate internationalisms in pursuit of a more just order will be lost.

In recent years, liberal commentators have given a great deal of attention to leading figures of the so-called populist Right. Once they are removed from office, the wave that brought them to power will eventually subside; but the structures (normative, institutional, epistemological) that have stood in its way are unlikely to be left intact. Whether the intention is to rebuild these structures or to build new ones, it is necessary to consider the winds that produced the wave. If a cosmopolitan disposition is to play a role in defining the new during the current interregnum, resistance must be inscribed into strategies that take account of the organic processes that have produced Trumpism and Salvinism.

Since the crisis of capitalist democracy in the 1970s, the internationalization of capital and the financialization of economies have had a polarizing effect on society. Guilluy (2016, 2018) argues that there are now two social groupings: the upper classes, who have either profited or are protected from neoliberal globalization; and the lower classes, who have been forced into precarious labor and who have had to manage the multicultural integration promoted by progressive neoliberals of the center-left and center-right. This social polarization would appear to be of significant consequence for humanitarian and human rights endeavors, since their social base has traditionally been the Western middle class. The social institutions that once mobilized multiclass coalitions in the name of progressive causes have long since been dismantled.

And yet, challenges to liberal order articulated through a Far Right politics create a moment of repoliticization; exposing the contradictions of globalization in an interstate system, without undermining the reality of, or the demand for, connectivity. As such, they seem to open space for the formulation of radical internationalisms with a basis in the reconstruction of migrant rights and a politics of transnational solidarity through mutual aid and horizontalism. Indeed, there are movements led by migrants in Turkey, in Germany, in Greece, and elsewhere. They construct social commons with a basis in difference, forming “chains of equivalence.”

Beyond the political inspiration that horizontalism often draws from anticolonial struggles, decolonial and postcolonial theories offer a method of deconstructing hierarchy from the inside that can transform resistance into the basis for a pluralist politics built from the bottom up. But for this sort of internationalism to reshape democratic politics, the movements promoting it would need to build bridges into political institutions and incorporate it into political strategies that redress social polarization. To the extent that this might be possible, it will surely dilute their more radical propositions.

You can read the full interview here, and the entire Open Access Special Issue here.


You can read more on this topic in our ‘Thinking through the Global South’ blog series and read an abridged version of Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh’s Introduction: Recentering the South in Studies of Migration in the Journal of Migration and Society, (open access here).

If you found this piece of interest you can access the recommended readings below:

Carpi, E. (2018) Empires of Inclusion?

Carpi, E. (2018) In conversation with the Kahkaha project in Lebanon: an effective example of a Southern-led initiative

Carpi, E. (2019) Thinking Power Relations across Humanitarian Geographies: Southism as a Mode of Analysis

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2020) Introduction: Recentering the South in Studies of Migration

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019) Exploring Refugees’ Conceptualisations of Southern-Led Humanitarianism

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Thinking through ‘the global South’ and ‘Southern-responses to displacement’: An introduction

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Histories and spaces of Southern-led responses to displacement

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) The Localisation of Aid and Southern-led Responses to Displacement: Beyond instrumentalising local actors

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Daley, P. (2018) Conceptualising the global South and South–South encounters

Nimer, M. (2019) Reflections on the Political Economy in Forced Migration Research from a ‘Global South’ Perspective

Olliff, L. (2019) Refugee diaspora humanitarianism and the value of North/South distinctions in research on responses to forced displacement.

Omata, N (2018) South-South Cooperation in International Organizations: Its Conceptualization and Implementation within UNDP and UNHCR



Achiume, E. Tendayi. 2019. “Migration as Decolonisation.” Stanford Law Review 71 (6): 1509–1574.

Baughan, Emily, and Juliano Fiori. 2015. “Save the Children, the Humanitarian Project, and the Politics of Solidarity: Reviving Dorothy Buxton’s Vision.” Disasters 39 (S2): 129−145.

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Elena. 2015. South-South Educational Migration, Humanitarianism and Development: Views from the Caribbean, North Africa and the Middle East. Oxford: Routledge.

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Elena. 2018. “Southern-Led Responses to Displacement: Modes of South-South Cooperation?” In The Handbook of South-South Relations, ed. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Patricia Daley, 239–255. Oxford: Routledge.

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Elena, and Patricia Daley. 2018. “Conceptualising the Global South and South-South Encounters.” In Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Daley, The Handbook of South-South Relations, 1–28.

Fiori, Juliano. 2013. “The Discourse of Western Humanitarianism.” Observatoire des Questions Humanitaires.

Fiori, Juliano. 2019. “Introduction: Humanitarianism and the End of Liberal Order.” The Journal of Humanitarian Affairs 1 (1): 1–3.

Fiori, Juliano, Rafia Zakaria, Bertrand Taithe, Andrea Rigon and Fernando Espada. Eds.  Amidst the Debris: Humanitarianism and the End of Liberal Order. London: Hurst.

Guilluy, Christophe. 2016. Le crépuscule de la France d’en haut. Paris: Flammarion.

Guilluy, Christophe. 2018. No society: La fin de la classe moyenne occidentale. Paris: Flammarion.

Santos, Boaventura de Sousa. 2014. Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide. Oxford: Routledge.

Santos, Boaventura de Sousa. 2016. “Epistemologies of the South and the Future.” From the European South 1: 17–29.

Featured image:  “In construction” (c) E Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2017, Baddawi camp, Lebanon


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