What does 'shelterless' mean? Ask the humanitarian encyclopedia

By Burton Bollag 19 June 2017

Photo by: Kevin Doncaster / CC BY

Soon after a devastating earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, international aid began pouring in — but observers noted a degree of confusion and a lack of coordination among the many groups trying to help.

One sign of this was that “local organizations were often not invited to the cluster meetings, even though they were doing a lot of the work,” said Doris Schopper, a public health professor specializing in humanitarian action at the University of Geneva. “To push aside local organizations when international groups come in makes aid delivery much less efficient.”

Schopper felt that part of the problem was a lack of proper knowledge and reflection on the crucial role of local groups. The remedy for this — and for a host of other problems commonly experienced in humanitarian settings, she thought — could be an online reference work presenting the results of field research, scholarly analysis and informed debate for the NGO community: A humanitarian encyclopedia.

After two years of preparatory work, including interviews with more than 100 humanitarian leaders from around the world, the initiative was launched in Geneva last week, with the first meetings of the project’s advisory board and scientific committee.

The encyclopedia aims to clarify key concepts used in humanitarian work, with particular attention to ensuring the inclusion of local perspectives. But its creators also want to use the opportunity to break down the divide between humanitarian and development actors.

“Since the 1990s, the number of humanitarian actors has increased tremendously,” said Schopper. “But people are in their own silos. They have to speak together and [learn to] work together,” she said.

The hope is that the encyclopedia can act as a guide for conversations between different groups.

Multiple meanings

The project is expected to take five years to complete, with the first parts due to be published online by the end of 2018. It will be free to access by all.

It is being led by the Centre for Education and Research in Humanitarian Action, a Geneva-based NGO of which Schopper — a former president of the Swiss branch of Médecins Sans Frontières — is now director.

According to a 28-page project proposal, the goal is to create “a clear and comprehensive reference framework, influenced by local and contextualised knowledge … [including] analyses of lessons learned and best practices, as well as … insights for evidence-based decision and policy-making.”

A central part of that will be defining — or at least clarifying different understandings of — key concepts such as “resilience” or “humanitarian space.”

“A term like ‘protection’ can mean different things for different people,” said Simon Hug, a professor of political science at the University of Geneva, and a member of the project’s scientific committee. “If there is no agreement, this could lead to misunderstandings” that could undermine relief efforts, he suggested.

Mihir Bhatt, director of the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute and a member of the encyclopedia’s advisory board, suggests a local example. When disaster hits communities in India, he said, the term “shelterless” can have various meanings — and corresponding policy implications — depending on whether those affected owned their homes, had a traditional claim to their land but no deed, were renters or were squatting. Such distinctions may be overlooked by Western relief organizations.

Although the project aims to clarify terminology, Schopper highlighted that — unlike other encyclopedias — “we do not aim to provide a single and prescriptive definition of concepts.” The exercise “will rather respect divergences and create a space for dialogue.”

Local perspectives

Bhatt’s example points to a key concern for the project: The sometimes problematic relationship between international humanitarian actors and local contexts.

“During the Ebola crisis, health workers were not allowed into certain areas” in West Africa, said Naser Haghamed, CEO of Islamic Relief Worldwide and a member of the encyclopedia’s advisory board. Local people blocked them, horrified at the idea that the Western-led health teams would burn the bodies of Ebola victims, violating strict local customs that require the bodies to be lovingly washed and buried.

The situation was only defused when international officials turned to respected local figures, said Haghamed. “When faith leaders were brought in, there was a big change,” he said. With their help, compromises were found permitting the safe handling of corpses in a way that locals could accept.

With a conscious effort to include scholars and leaders of humanitarian organizations in developing countries, the initiative seeks to “overcome the Western bias in the current humanitarian discourse,” according to the project proposal.

“The encyclopedia will strongly encourage engagement and contribution of community leaders, facilitated by civil society groups associated to the project,” it says. “In field research cycles in particular, the perception of affected communities will help support a self-critical approach among humanitarian actors and be integral to the localization of knowledge.”

That is important, said Bhatt, as “many types of local knowledge have not been adequately acknowledged” in the past.

Collaborative effort

The inclusion of local voices from affected populations is part of a broader collaborative approach, according to the project’s creators, which will bring together contributions and perspectives from humanitarian organizations, academic institutions, think tanks and other actors involved in humanitarian work across the world.

That includes those working in the development space. A central theme of the project is exploring ways to remove or reduce what many are beginning to see as an unjustified separation between humanitarian relief and longer-term development aid. With the rise of intractable crises in the Middle East and parts of Africa, humanitarian leaders are increasingly questioning the tendency to provide food and medicines without taking steps to fashion more permanent solutions for vulnerable populations.

The project’s creators believe it could promote discussion about how the two sectors affect each other, and help them explore new ways in which their work could become better integrated.

While entries will be written by officials of humanitarian organizations and scholars, practitioners and others will be brought into the process of creating the encyclopedia through regional hubs and workshops that will allow them to play a role in mapping out the range of issues and perspectives to be included, and to bring practical experience to bear.

Organizations are invited to join the discussion — in particular “to challenge the conceptual analysis and confront it with your operational realities.” Visit the website to find out more.

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About the author

Burton Bollag

Burton Bollag is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C. He was based for a number of years in Europe (Geneva, Prague and Bratislava) and as chief international reporter for Chronicle of Higher Education reported widely from Europe, Africa and the Middle East. He has also done radio reporting (for NPR from Geneva) and TV reporting from various locations.

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