About the World Conference on Humanitarian Studies

27-28 August 2018, The Hague, The Netherlands

(Re-) Shaping Boundaries in Crisis and Crisis Response

Crisis and humanitarianism has always been about boundaries. The classic view of a crisis is an exceptional moment, bounded in time and space. Humanitarian action was therefore seen as a necessarily limited endeavor which has a narrow but principled focus on saving lives and alleviating suffering. Setting clear boundaries around crisis were meant to distinguish crisis from normality and legitimate extraordinary measures to accommodate its effects.

Drawing boundaries has historically been associated with causing crisis. Boundaries are drawn to include and exclude and all too often drawn to destroy and discard cultures and societies. Today, in a rapidly changing world, humanitarian crisis response and humanitarianism is increasingly confronted with boundaries that are dissolving, displaced, or resurrecting. Refugees encounter increasing geopolitical boundaries. While countries close their borders, we also see movements where nation-states seek to extra-territorialize their boundaries aiming to control the movement of people from outside their designated territories. The European refugee crisis is undoubtedly one of the prime examples.  At the same time, developments in technology and communications are leading to an ever more inter-connected world.  There are many opportunities to transform a crisis into a ‘new’, peaceful and inclusive world. The movement of information and ideas has opened up as a result of increasing use of social media, but it has  also underlined increasing inequality between haves and have-nots. At the same time, we see trends of governments trying to control this social space. Anti-terrorist measures lead to increasingly restricted spaces to respond or resolve crises.

New forms of humanitarianism are evolving.  There are calls for the boundaries between humanitarian action and development assistance to be dissolved, and for a blurring of boundaries between humanitarian, security and development objectives. The boundaries between northern donors and humanitarian organisations responding to crises in the global south are also less clear with calls for more southern led responses (localization) and aid agencies responding to humanitarian crises in Europe, the US and Puerto Rico.  In Europe, a new generation of humanitarians is emerging from the volunteer response to refugees.

Humanitarianism finds itself challenged by dissipating boundaries due to the changing nature of crises. The iconic modernist site of humanitarian control, the refugee camp, may be turning into a relic of the past, with 90% of refugees emanating from the Syrian crisis staying outside of camps, where they lead lives that are hardly distinguishable from other people leading precarious lives. Camps, however, are not likely to disappear entirely, either because environments may be too remote or poor to sustain refugees or because states continue to want to control and inter people (for instance in the case of the Rohingya in Bangladesh, Australia, Greece, and Manus/Naura to name some areas). Socio-natural disasters used to be considered as bounded in time and space, yet are now seen to spill over into large-scale phenomena related to vulnerability to climate change. While the world is increasingly capable of saving lives during socio-natural disasters, the questions how affected populations can secure their livelihoods and habitat become more poignant. The protracted nature of many conflicts and international migration as an increasingly common response by those suffering protracted crisis makes service delivery against minimum standards a task beyond the remit of classic humanitarian assistance.

The World Humanitarian Summit called for stronger bridges between humanitarian aid and development, and urged a rethink of humanitarian governance and practice with much more space for authorities, service providers and populations of crisis affected settings. This leaves many questions open regarding the importance of humanitarian principles and the effectiveness of the humanitarian response.

This conference invites panels that examine boundaries from all different angles, ranging from the intentions and practices of government control, international law, the ways in which people organize themselves in the face of crisis and, the rapid transformation of technological limits and the boundaries of humanitarian action. What are the new factors that are influencing the dynamics of crisis response and the dilemmas of humanitarian action? How to understand and respond to attempts by the EU to control refugee flows in and from Libya, north Africa and the Sahel? Is it possible to think of humanitarian crises as a way to move towards a uniting world with fewer boundaries?

The main theme is divided into 4 sub-themes for the Call for Panels:

  1. The changing realities of crisis and responses to crises, including humanitarianism
  2. Changing Actors, views and challenges from below
  3. The impact of technology and innovation in coping with, responding to and transforming crisis
  4. Humanitarian studies and the WHS humanitarian scholar commitments