AUB City Debates: From Humanitarian Global Strategy to Engaging the Local Context

This is a synthesis of the panel “From Humanitarian Global Strategy to Engaging the Local Context” given by at the AUB City Debates 2016 (other reports are listed here). The panel was composed of Pr Cathrine Brun (Oxford Brookes University, United Kingdom), and Pr Mona Fawaz (American University of Beirut, Lebanon).

The City Rises, Umberto Boccioni

The City Rises, Umberto Boccioni

1. Cathrine Brun, “There is no future in Humanitarianism. Crisis, Ethics, and Temporality in Protracted Displacement

When looking at the functioning of humanitarian systems, the general feeling is that they are in a situation of being stuck. What the “stuck” covers here is of course not all the practices: an organisation can never be entirely stuck. What is “stuck” is at the same time the people in situation of protracted refuge, who are placed in a state of constant displacement, and the humanitarian systems and workers. This presentation will focus on the latter.

a. Humanitarian reason and biological life

There is a form of humanitarian reason at play in the work of organisations. This reason relies on institutions, languages, principles and notions which are embedded within the organisations but do not necessarily require to be grasped by the people who enact them. The humanitarian workers very often struggle to make sense of these concepts in their daily work. This is partly due to the fact that these concepts do not serve in the space of their daily life but aims at being acceptable in another space, which is the space of funders in particular.

One of the main effects of that reason is to prefer a specific type of life – biological life – over another – biographical life. In other words, human lives are perceived and worked upon as lists of biological needs rather than social phenomena. One of the causes of that is the need to appear apolitical for humanitarianism.

Yet, this definition of life is particularly a-futuristic. As shown by De Beauvoir, who develops the concept, aspects of biological life are strictly reproducing and not producing. They aim at nothing save their own reenactment (cooking or cleaning for instance serves nothing but the maintainment of a situation until the next time cooking or cleaning will be required). This relation of humanitarianism to life and to politics is part of the cause of the protracted situation of refugees.

b. Case study: the “Vulnerability Assessment Framework” in Jordan

The goal of the VAF policy was to apprehend vulnerability in refugee communities in Jordan. This assessment was essentially a “picture of the present needs” of the refugees, it did not rely on any biographical information or for that matter the concrete life of refugees. As a consequence, relying only on a representation of the refugees’ situations as a situation of emergency and catastrophe, failed to grasp the ways in which they had effectively reproduced life in displacement, thus pushing for less structuration in their lives and more emergency, rendering them “stuck” on the long term. As a consequence, the workers could do very little with the VAF and had to develop another one, anchored locally and making sense of the effective needs of refugees rather than rationalised needs set in advance, which allowed them to work and make sense of their work much more.

Conclusion: Shifting spatial-temporal scales

The treatment of protracted refugee crises need another type of treatment than the one deployed so far: new ethics and practices based on experience on the ground must be promoted, in particular in going against that absence of temporality in the way humanitarian organisations think of their work:

  1. The long-term relationship with the target audience must be used as a tool for defining actions, which includes knowing the people and being concerned by them, which means a long-term presence of humanitarian workers.
  2. Therefore, the situation of workers is central and they must be locally present longer than they are.
  3. Finally, unbounding the relationship between the workers’ and refugees’ futures, linking them, seems a necessary undertaking. In other words, it is important to consider that there is a “right to the future” for refugees.

2. Mona Fawaz, “Learning from informal Settlements: Relief Strategies and Urban Resiliency”

The author highlights that, contrarily to most of the speakers of the day, she does not come from refugee studies but from urban planning. This different origins, she argues, brings a different perspective on refugee questions. Indeed, as she has noticed, a lot of workers specialised in refugee issues had a lot of difficulties adapting to the Lebanese situation because it was impossible to build camps and, therefore, to access the target populations. But studies in urban planning, when they are not North-led and uninterested in informal urbanism – inform us that this is scarcely a new thing in Beirut, which was built partly by the succession of shanties or informal settlements of displaced populations.

We notice that a small number of refugees, out of the many present in the capital, sleep in the street. Therefore taking a top-down perspective and starting the work from where these people are sleeping seems the best approach. Currently refugees are everywhere in Lebanon, and most of them are living in “regular” housing, that is buildings and apartments, the rest being settled in tents or settlements. From a planning perspective this is a normal way for a city to grow: there is a market of housing for these people and we can work on that basis.

After a short assessment made in some of the most widely acknowledged informal neighbourhoods of the capital, it is clear that we do have refugee camps here, that is gatherings of refugees in a very poor urban outset. The conditions of the urban are very bad, rooms are crowded, infrastructure is insufficient and worsening. Which are big sources of suffering for the dwellers. This market is at the same time more and more managed by realtors, with a growing monopoly, which is an issue because it indicates that problems of eviction are likely to happen, compared to when the market was mastered by the owners. Therefore planners have to consider engaging with refugee questions, because they do have experience. These are phenomena they know, and therefore can act upon.

Cite this blog post
Alex Mahoudeau (2016, March 15). AUB City Debates: From Humanitarian Global Strategy to Engaging the Local Context. The Cobble And The Frame. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from

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