Impact of Humanitarian Agencies in Shaping Politics: A reflection on humanitarian action and how it is perceived

December 14, 2011

Impact of Humanitarian Agencies in Shaping Politics: A reflection on humanitarian action and how it is perceived

Beirut, Humanitarian workers may find themselves accepted, tolerated or even rejected by the people they are there to help, for reasons that usually go unexplored. On Wednesday, 14 December, distinguished speakers from the American University of Beirut (AUB) and the international medical, humanitarian organisation, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), will debate the challenges of humanitarian action in different contexts, and the way aid is perceived, in an attempt to critically examine the role of humanitarian agencies in shaping global politics.

Caroline Abu-Sada, PhD, Head of MSF’s research unit in Geneva, has spent the past three years carrying out an in-depth study of the complex contexts in which humanitarian action takes place. Her team of researchers met with beneficiaries, local authorities and aid workers in ten countries, interviewing more than 7,000 people, to understand how MSF is perceived by those to whom it provides medical and humanitarian assistance. The resulting analysis has been compiled into a book, entitled, In the Eyes of Others: How People Perceive Humanitarian Aid, published this month to mark 40 years since MSF was founded.

“Understanding perceptions is especially important in a changing world where power relations and social policies are being redefined, where the line between military and humanitarian operations is deliberately blurred, and where emerging stakeholders are challenging the very purpose of humanitarian action. Perception is linked to the geopolitical landscape,” says Abu-Sada. She believes that the way humanitarian actors are perceived has recently attracted increased attention, mainly because of the emergence of new actors and growing difficulties in accessing populations in conflict zones.


At the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI) at AUB, one of the main themes addressed in the research project “The UN in the Arab Region” is “to untangle and contextualise the military, civilian and humanitarian stands that are often blurred in conflict and post-conflict zones that the UN--and an assortment of other state and non-state actors such as MSF--operates in,” says Karim Makdisi, IFI’s Associate Director.

Makdisi states, “we have realized that research focusing on the perceptions, and needs of people who are living in states that are targets of international intervention have been scarce, and as such this MSF study is indeed welcome. Humanitarian intervention, it is clear, is both essential and deeply contested given the power imbalances that exist between and within states.”

Professor of Anthropology and Public Health at AUB, Omar Al-Dewachi, believes that the role of humanitarian organisations has become more pronounced in the context of global warfare, increasing economic inequalities and the failure of states in delivering care to their own citizens.

“While it is imperative to understand the conditions and politics of life under such regimes of power, it is crucial to highlight the complex role of humanitarian actors in both politicising and depoliticising the experiences of populations seeking care.


Going beyond the politics of ‘bare survival’ is fundamental in imagining a changing world and in restoring dignity, solidarity and resilience to individuals and communities”, says Al-Dewachi.

A proponent of understanding perceptions as a method of self-evaluation and criticism, Bruno Jochum, General Director of MSF, firmly believes in the necessity of reflection upon how humanitarian action is viewed by those it serves.

"In the end, the lessons learnt from these studies and other observations are shamefully obvious, but this in itself tells a lot. They should inspire both a greater degree of humbleness in our relation with the environment and a greater sense of responsibility when it comes to delivering what we claim", Bruno Jochum, MSF General Director says.

MSF and the American University of Beirut invite the public and the media to join them in discussing and reflecting on the challenges of medical humanitarian action in different contexts, with particular reference to the Middle East.

Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is a non-profit, non-governmental organisation founded in 1971 in France by a group of doctors and journalists. It provides independent, impartial assistance in more than 60 countries to people whose survival is threatened by violence, neglect or catastrophe, primarily due to armed conflict, epidemics, malnutrition, exclusion from healthcare and natural disasters.

The Arabic version of the book will be in Virgin and Malik’s bookstores starting tomorrow.

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