Humanitarian leadership: developing social capital with affected populations

How can building friendships and social capital between humanitarian actors and local citizens and organisations (in particular, affected populations) help to break the ‘epistemic bubbles’ in which humanitarian actors often operate? Currently, social capital is readily built between humanitarian leaders and agency chiefs, country directors, cluster coordinators, key authorities, and donors. However, humanitarian organisations often adopt codes of conduct that warn their staff against developing friendships with ‘affected populations’ when it is precisely these close personal relationships, argues Zapater, which might improve humanitarian response.  Although current social capital networks and relationships help with the coordination of services and mutual understanding of mission and aims, these restricted networks can result in ‘narrow narratives’ and ‘epistemic bubbles’, impacting on the efficacy of humanitarian action. Building social capital with affected populations, argues Zapater, can help promote a ‘delicate tissue of mutual accountability and support whose nature is not merely institutional, but also social’ and can lead to greater and more equal participation within humanitarian response. 

Humanitarian leadership: developing social capital with affected populations

By Josep Zapater, UNHCR staff member, former Head of Suboffice for UNHCR in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon

“Affected populations are not your friends”. Humanitarian organizations often adopt codes of conduct warning their staff against developing close personal connections with affected populations. Among other concerns, conflict of interest and unequal power balances are mentioned.

Yet, humanitarians socialize intensely and develop social capital among themselves and with donors and authorities. In many of these cases, similar concerns are applicable. Thus, there is no obstacle in principle for humanitarians, and in particular humanitarian leaders, to also develop close connections with members of the affected population. What is more, these connections may prove vital in helping humanitarian leaders better understand the context, take more informed decisions, and break free from the epistemic bubbles in which we often operate.

Social capital and the humanitarian industry

The concept of social capital, described as features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate cooperation, gained prominence in sociology at the end of the 90s. Social capital helps the effective functioning of social groups through interpersonal relationships, a shared sense of identity, shared values, trust and cooperation. One tends to form social capital with people of similar background, ideas, and education.

The current humanitarian system already pre-identifies who will be the main persons with whom a humanitarian leader will develop social capital. Typically, they will be HCT (Humanitarian Country Team), agency chiefs, country directors, cluster coordinators, key authorities, donors. Many of them will be from the ‘global North,’ belonging to the educated classes. It is a tacitly accepted principle of humanitarian work that good, informal interpersonal relationships within that circle helps not only coordination but also the adoption of a shared vision of humanitarian priorities and strategies. Humanitarian expatriates also keep social capital formed among themselves and use it after their rotation to another mission. It has transnational value and can help later with friendship, support, and advice, as well as career advancement.

This reality may, obviously, create a few important distortions. One of them is the quick adoption of narrow narratives, within the restricted circle of humanitarian workers, of what the needs and the priorities are. Let us look at an example. In December 2013, upon the declaration of an L3 emergency in the Central African Republic, humanitarian organizations deployed a high number of new international staff. They landed suddenly in the midst of intense community violence, almost incomprehensible in its ferocity. Violence was quickly labelled, in some quarters, as interreligious. Christian and Muslim religious leaders were mobilized for mediation. The results were, obviously, scant.

Some of this was certainly linked to pressures by humanitarian HQs in New York and Geneva to produce quick-fix analyses and results in an extremely complex situation. It is also arguable that the small and well-interconnected humanitarian world in Bangui acted, with some honourable exceptions, as a knowledge bubble where existing narratives received amplification and confirmation. Reinforcing this view is the fact that it was intensely difficult to draw the attention of the humanitarian leadership, already overwhelmed by the situation in Bangui, to the situation in the regions.

Breaking the bubbles

Making localization a reality on the ground is of course one way for humanitarian leaders to break the epistemic bubble within which we often operate. Another, closely related one is to develop social capital with persons of concern. This operates much in the same way as humanitarian leaders developing trust and social capital among the usual partners – as actually called upon by received wisdom on humanitarian leadership. We look below at some of the most obvious benefits of this approach.

Natural, non-technical language expressed through direct human interaction is often the best way to express complexity – in this case, how a crisis affects people and what the gaps and capacities are in a given situation. Often, the most precise language describing humanitarian problems, priorities and solutions will only emerge during interactions with affected populations. The natural language of quality human interaction is also invaluable to mitigate the irritating tendency of standard humanitarian language to force human experience into pre-existing and abstract clusters or sectors, thereby obscuring rather than revealing its richness, nuances, complexity, and context.

More importantly, with social capital comes a delicate tissue of mutual accountability and support whose nature is not merely institutional, but also social. Seasoned humanitarians will certainly recognize that tacit expectations of mutual support and consensus, on occasion bordering group-think, also conditions decision-making at HCTs. Allowing or facilitating access for affected populations to that kind of social leverage, through the establishment of personal relations of trust, should be one of the main duties of humanitarian leaders. These relationships will improve, as seen above, the accuracy and attention to context of humanitarian decision-making. They will also provide checks and balances to the humanitarian machinery – helping to keep it from the curse of all complex organizations: over-complexity, bureaucracy and excessive focus on self-preservation and accountability to a few financial stakeholders.

Social capital and the participation revolution

The main obstacle to leaders developing social capital with affected populations is, obviously, the “Kissinger question”[1]: who do I talk to? There are diverse hurdles related to unequal power relationships, creating privilege, and reinforcing unjust leadership structures. A few principles are applicable here.

The Grand Bargain has launched a “participation revolution [2]” – calling for the integration of the meaningful participation of persons of concern in humanitarian practice. However, actual implementation of the principle on the ground remains unequal. What is more problematic, is that the emphasis currently seems to be more on information, accountability, and participation, focusing on individual persons, rather than on treating collectively organized persons of concern as equal (if not privileged) partners. The latter entails respecting, and even fostering, traditional, grassroots and civil society organizations related to persons of concern in their own efforts to influence the humanitarian industry by all legitimate means. Part and parcel of this will be the emergence or reinforcement of leadership and representative structures.

Thus, a system of participation that takes the above duly into consideration will certainly help humanitarian leaders identify key persons of concern with whom they can develop sustainable social capital. This means that it is in their own interest for humanitarian leaders, including Humanitarian Coordinators or UNHCR Representatives (for refugee situations) to make participation an institutional priority. It also means that more intense capacities and accountabilities to understand the networks and social and power structures of affected populations need to be part and parcel of the humanitarian machinery. We are here not talking only of crisis-specific grassroots organizations, such as refugee-led organizations. With the right research and will to know, pre-existing grassroots organizations can often be identified with the legitimacy to talk for affected populations [3]. Examples abound, from indigenous and black organizations in war-affected southern Colombia in 2004 to nomadic cattle-herding Mbororo NGOs and networks in the Central African Republic and neighbouring countries around 2014.

A recognized system of participation should also provide transparency to humanitarian leaders’ own efforts to create social capital with affected populations. It will help ensure that their relationship is, as far as possible, public, based on both persons’ legitimacy to represent, reinforcing – rather than undermining – working-level efforts to consult affected populations. In some cases, a humanitarian leader will even have privileged access to influencers or structures of power within the affected population. They can then make them available to existing and more formal information, accountability, and empowerment efforts.

As a conclusion, and coming back to the issue of participation, of course its Holy Grail is a seat at the HCT table for affected populations, as well as adequate support and finance to grassroots organizations representing affected populations. This remains, in most cases, a distant prospect. It is, however, arguable that openly recognizing the creation of social capital with affected populations as part and parcel of a humanitarian leader’s responsibilities would be a step in the right direction.


Carpi, E. (2020) No one wants to be the “Global North”?  On being a researcher across the North and the South.

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

Carpi, E. (2018) Empires of Inclusion?

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

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

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

[1] A question frequently attributed to Henry Kissinger is, who do I call if I want to call Europe? This was used to challenge the ability of the European Union to have a clear mechanism to represent itself in international relations.

[2] See

[3] Obviously, adequate research and analysis needs to be undertaken to ensure that a harmful “gatekeeper” effect is not enhanced, whereby additional layers of bureaucracy are just added. See for instance

Featured image: Cats in camouflage, Baddawi Camp, North Lebanon. (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2018


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