A colonial past and humanitarian present.

Despite continued calls for the decolonisation of humanitarian research and practice, many argue that action to dismantle the colonial legacy of the ‘global North’ in the ‘global South’ is having little impact. In this two part blog piece, Sorcha Daly, Southern Responses to Displacement’s Project and Communications Coordinator, draws largely on Prof. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh’s and Dr Estella Carpi’s work and research conducted within the framework of the Southern Responses to Displacement project to trace the history and impact of colonial concepts and structures and propose some practical ways in which researchers can begin to change their own ways of working and challenge the structures that they work within. 

If you find this piece interesting please see Part Two of this series here and access the recommended reading at the bottom of this piece. 

Part 1.  A colonial past and humanitarian present

by Sorcha Daly, Southern Responses to Displacement Project and Communications Co-ordinator

Understanding History

Ideologies, concepts, political structures and humanitarian systems that benefit the ‘global North’ whilst maintaining inequalities and processes of extraction in and from the ‘global South’ continue to prevail, despite continued calls to challenge the Eurocentric foundations and nature of research and humanitarian policy and practice. It is clear, particularly within migration, displacement and refugee research and humanitarian action, that the colonial legacy that built and maintains these systems and structures are hard to dismantle, particularly when they often remain unseen within continued crisis response. You can read more on how scholars have tried to redress Eurocentrism in migration studies here and how ‘Southern’ humanitarian response can work alongside and challenge Northern-led responses to displacement here.

Examining this colonial legacy, Patricia Daley maps here how concepts developed in the 19th and 20th century to justify colonialism and forced displacement still exist today. Humanity in the 19th and 20th century, Daley argues, as conceptualised by European men, was a bounded concept. The discourse of civilisation that was associated with humanitarianism at this time was predicated on the assumed superiority of countries and people of the ‘global North.’ This Western superiority still exists at an epistemic level, argues Daley, significantly influencing where and how humanitarian scholarship is completed, with the bulk of decisions about what is to be studied remaining in the ‘global North.’ 

Understanding the conceptual and philosophical history that continues to influence today’s humanitarianism, as Juliano Fiori of Save the Children discusses here, helps us to understand how academic and humanitarian institutions from the global North and global South are conceptualised and represented. As Fiddian-Qasmiyeh argues, Western academic and humanitarian institutions, their structures and systems of practice are ‘reified’ as the standard to either work with or towards and it is these conceptualisations that help to maintain global geopolitical unequal power structures. Contrary to this, we have been exploring how terms such as ‘Southern’ or ‘Northern response’ have been conceptualised by refugee and host communities and you can read more about this here.  

Colonial Impact

Julia Sauma and Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh further discuss the impacts of these conceptualisations and representations of Western or ‘global North’ institutions here, influencing the type of knowledge that continues to be produced and consumed as fact, leading to discriminatory practices by Governments or humanitarian actors. Academic researchers often have the power to demarcate geographies and people as they interpret them, presenting as fact who belongs and who doesn’t and, subsequently, what types of knowledge and knowledge production is included and excluded (for more on this see Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2020). Certain voices are heard while others are silenced and this includes humanitarian responses of the ‘global South’, (itself a debated term that the Southern Responses to Displacement has been exploring here) or ‘local responses’ as they are often termed, justifying their incorporation into ‘Western,’  neo-liberal, standards and practices under the ‘worthy’ agenda of ‘localisation’ (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2021).   

The research and humanitarian funding environment also significantly influences who, what and where is seen, heard and included in the dominant humanitarian and research landscape and this includes the messy failures of humanitarian action and research in practice.  Estella Carpi discusses the ‘tyranny of grants and funding’ which dictate the design of current research practice and asks to what extent it causes an ‘unacknowledged sociology of failure in academic research.’ Carpi maintains here that ‘ethical research and decolonial methodologies are becoming tokenistic worldwide, turning into a further disenfranchisement of diversely vulnerable researched subjects, such as refugees.’ In the competitive environment of funding applications, no-one wants to highlight their failures or the detrimental impact of their research. 

Additionally, the funding environment of both academia and humanitarianism also facilitates a ‘presentist bias’ argues Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, in addition to, particularly in migration studies, an emphasis on South-North migration, rather than South-South migration.  Humanitarians and academics chase funding for the current emergency that needs to be addressed or studied. History and historical places of what Fiddian-Qasmiyeh refers to as ‘overlapping displacement’, significant processes of South-South migration and the voices of the migrants and refugees themselves are overlooked. To read more on the impact of conceptualising migration as a purely crisis driven contemporary phenomenon and the conceptualisation of refugees as solely responsible for their own integration and inclusion, see here).

Relationships and Positionality

Within these unequal geopolitical power structures relationships between the researcher and researched are formed.  However, these relationships can become exploitative, dependent not only on uneven risk burdens, but on the anonymity and underpayment of an, often invisible, workforce (Carpi, 2021). The racialisation of these exploitative relationships, echoing Patricia Daley’s arguments at the start of this blog, are further evidenced in the writing of Guathier Marchais and Dieudonné:

 ‘The very fact that I, as a white European researcher, can carry out research in regions like Tanganyika rests on a complex racial infrastructure that allows me to access these areas while guaranteeing that the brunt of risk is borne by other (non-white) researchers.’ Guathier Marchais

‘it seems that for many people, for UNHCR, for NGOs, for immigration officials, and many foreign researchers too, we don’t really exist. Our contributions are not acknowledged. If they were, my visa would not have been denied. Foreign researchers always reach different areas for their research and do not get their visas denied. That is their privilege, to be found credible and their contributions to research are recognized. But they need us, and we need them to acknowledge this.’ Dieudonné

When we acknowledge these practices within the context of the linked colonial history of humanitarianism and research and present day practices, as argued by Daley above and here, unpacking this history and its links to the present and the researcher’s or humanitarian actor’s own positionality are essential to move forward in redressing the Eurocentric nature of humanitarianism and research in the ‘global South.’  Without unpacking these structures, the positionality of the researcher, or, indeed, as Carpi explores here and Nasser-Eddin and Abu-Assab here, the reluctance in Southern environments to acknowledge their own tendency to embrace dominant ‘Northern’ ways of practicing and producing humanitarianism, no radical change can take place.

Part 2 of this two-part series will draw largely on Fiddian-Qasmiyeh’s and Carpi’s work on reflecting, changing and challenging accepted practices in research, providing insight into how researchers can begin to work differently within the colonial legacies and unequal power structures noted above. 

You can read Part 2 of this blog here. 

If you found this piece of interest, please access the recommended readings and materials below:

Carpi, E. (2021) Slavery, Lived Realities and Decolonising Forced Migration Histories: A transcript of an interview with Prof. Portia Owusu – Interview with Dr Estella Carpi and Dr Portia Owusu

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

Carpi, E. (2018) Humanitarianism and Postcoloniality:  A Look at Academic Texts

Carpi, E. (2018) Empires of Inclusion?

Carpi, E. and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2021) A Sociology of Knowledge on Displacement and Humanitarianism

Nasser Eddin, N. & Abu-Assad, N. (2021) Decolonial approaches to refugee migration: Nof Nasser Eddin and Nour Abu-Assab in conversation

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. (2019) Histories and spaces of Southern-led responses to displacement

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. (2018) Southern Responses to Displacement: Background and introduction to our mini blog series. 

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

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. & Carella, F. (2021) The Position of “the South” and “South-South Migration” in Policy and Programmatic Responses to Different Forms of Migration: An Interview with Francesco Carella

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. & Fiori, J. (2020) Migration, Humanitarianism, and the Politics of Knowledge – An Interview with Juliano Fiori

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

Featured image: Balconies overlook the roof tops of Baddawi camp, Lebanon. (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2018

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