Round Table: Is the international humanitarian system ‘Gaslighting’ the global south?

The 2016 World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), and associated Grand Bargain, ‘hardwired’ the concept of localization into humanitarian discourse (Alexander, 2021).  However, there is little disagreement that post WHS localization efforts have fallen short in so many ways. The five-year review of the Grand Bargain (Metcalf-Hough, 2021) positions localization as a series of successes, and failures, namely that localization is accepted as the ‘norm of international humanitarian action’ (p.18), but that ‘a systemic shift in practice is still far off’ (p. 13). The failures are linked to insufficient incentives, ‘practical’ issues in providing funding directly to local actors, including donor limitations and institutional ‘capacity’ of local humanitarian actors.  There appears to be a significant disconnect between notions of success embedded in what is presented as a ‘system-wide normative shift, with the concept of and rationale for localisation no longer in question (Metcalf-Hough, 2021, p.46)’ and a rationale that looks to explain why localisation is so problematic, including how ‘dogged adherence’ (p58) of presumably southern humanitarians  to direct funding ignores reality and is an actual cause of failure to reach a compromise.  Further discussions on the importance of intermediaries to overcome these issues seems to completely undermine the demands for change that emerged from the WHS, and in redefining reality as the rationale northern view is deeply unsettling.


‘Gaslighting’ is a term that has become popularised in recent discourse surrounding the global Black Lives Matter movement and has been recognised as an explicitly political charge (Brockes, 2018, Spary, 2018). Gaslighting attempts to sew doubt in another’s mind about their own capabilities or mental faculties. ‘Gaslighting occurs when one agent [A] induces another agent [B] to doubt B’s ability to respond rationally to evidence, characteristically by providing higher-order defeating considerations about B’s reasoning capacities (Beerbohm, B and Davis, R, 2018, p.4).’ Given the extensive, multi-year global consultations that resulted in the Grand Bargain Commitments and the Charter for Change, calls for further listening and negotiation of what needs to change, surrounding the five-year anniversary of the WHS ring hollow. This roundtable discussion will speak to leaders and changemakers still calling for accountability toward the Grand Bargain commitments, and explore this potential ‘gaslighting’ of global south humanitarians through analysis of two key questions.

  • What is the problem? Is the global north gaslighting the global south?  We hear your demands but you are lacking capacity, we hear your demands but we need intermediaries (INGOs?) to make you reliable and relatable? We hear your demands but the people with the money don’t or are not permitted to trust you?
  • What initiatives/examples demonstrate progress from the perspective of humanitarians from the global southPotential participants and panellists may include:


Max Kelly, Maree Pardy, Mary Ana McGlasson; Deakin University and the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership

References on the description:

Metcalfe-Hough, V., Fenton, W., Willitts-King, B. and Spencer, A. (2021) The Grand Bargain at five years: an independent review. HPG commissioned report. London: ODI (

Alexander, J. 2021. Renewing the Grand Bargain, Old goals, a new path, The New Humanitarian, 10/11th June, 2021.

Brockes, E. “From gaslighting to gammon, 2018’s buzzwords reflect our toxic times,” The Guardian, 18 November 2018.

Spary, S. “What You Need to Know about the Words of the Year 2018,” Huffington Post 11 July 2018.

Beerbohm, E and Davis, R. (2018). Gaslighting Citizens. Harvard University. Found at

Date and Time

5 November 2021
09.00 – 10.30 CET
Amphithéâtre Leroy-Beaulieu