Humanitarian Institute


Event Report: SDG Evening Conference on South South Humanitarianism

31 July 2018

Event Report by Sorcha Daly and Estella Carpi

South: South Humanitarianism intro from Dr Estella Carpi

On May 31st the Southern Responses to Displacement team, in collaboration with the Humanitarian Institute, convened an evening conference at University College London, as part of the Humanitarian Institute Evening Conference on the UN Sustainable Development Goals.  Debating different perspectives on UNDP's Sustainable Development Goals and the South-South Cooperation framework, the event examined how these two frameworks can uphold and actively promote the wellbeing and dignity of people affected by conflict and displacement across the global South.

39 participants representing a range of sectors, including international development, humanitarian aid, academia, and social policy, attended the event. Dr Naohiko Omata and Professor Patricia Daley from the University of Oxford, and Jahal de Méritens from UNDP-Geneva presented papers and Dr Emma Mawdsley from the University of Cambridge summarised and provided her own reflections on the topics presented.  

A brief introduction to the event was presented by Dr Carpi, Research Associate on the Southern Responses to Displacement project.  Dr Carpi highlighted the important opportunity provided by a focus on South-South humanitarianism in the framework of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. This opportunity enables us to both acknowledge, and potentially address, northern-centric approaches to studying and practicing humanitarianism.  However, Dr Carpi argued that this cannot be achieved without first developing and valuing a 'politics of public failure' in which the challenges of humanitarian programming and research are discussed openly without risk to funding opportunities.   

Dr Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Principal Investigator on the Southern Responses to Displacement project, also highlighted risks to funding when discussing the present focus on the localisation of aid.  Although Southern actors have acknowledged a need to allocate direct funds to local actors for humanitarian action there is a risk that the localisation agenda can be used as a means to withdraw from funding responsibilities, as well as the ethical and political responsibilities brought about by colonial and new-colonial conflicts, interventions and subsequent displacement.  More information about the localisation of aid can be found in the Southern Responses to Displacement blog posts: 'Before defining what is local let's build the capacities of humanitarian agencies', 'Localising our response to humanitarian need', 'The Localisation of Aid and Southern-led responses to displacement: Beyond instrumentalising local actors', and  'Histories and spaces of Southern-led responses to displacement'.  

All three guest speakers presented different perspectives on South-South Cooperation and humanitarian action.  Dr Omata drew on his primary research in Uganda, often represented as an 'ideal refugee host' country.  The protracted nature of some displacement means that it can be difficult to maintain interest and funding in humanitarian aid and assistance of displaced people.  In the face of these challenges Uganda has recognised and acted upon the premise that refugees, when assisted to assist themselves, can become assets to their host countries.  However, although the Ugandan government promotes refugee self-reliance, it is important to question how the narrative of self-reliance has, and continues to be, incorporated into other mainstream Northern narratives of refugee containment and the need to keep Southern refugees away from secure Northern borders.  Nevertheless, Southern-led humanitarian action continues to promote self sufficiency on individual, family and community-levels, with the aim of reducing the dependence of protracted displaced Southern communities on Northern-led interventions and it is important to continue to map the ways in which Southern actors respond to the needs of new and protracted refugees.  More information on Southern-led humanitarian action can be found in the following blog post: 'Southern responses to displacement research at GCRF Conference on Protracted Conflict, Aid and Development.'

Jahal de Méritens from UNDP-Geneva also discussed issues of protracted displacement and UNDP's efforts to find durable solutions to ensuring the respect and wellbeing of refugees within these situations.  The new Sustainable Development Goal's agenda places a special emphasis on protracted displacement and the long-term welfare of refugees.  However, South-South humanitarianism has rarely been considered within the development of long term solutions to protracted displacement. Both local and global actors need to be involved in the development of humanitarian policy and action.   

Clear barriers to a more equal approach to developing humanitarian policy and action were presented by Professor Daley.  Colonial history has ensured the persistence of inequalities in power between the global North and South and the dismissal of longstanding humanitarian expertise held by Southern actors. There is a need for a 'decolonial humanitarianism' that re-centres and prioritises Southern humanitarian expertise.  

As a longstanding expert in the field of South-South Cooperation (SSC) in international development, Dr Mawdsley was the event's final speaker.  Dr Mawdsley noted that participating in the event had provided insight into the extent to which she has not considered the role of SSC in humanitarian situations.  Additionally, she raised concerns regarding how South-South cooperation may not fully transform the imbalance of power experienced between the global North and South.  This point highlights the importance for horizontal learning across humanitarian responders situated across the global South.    

The event culminated in a lively Q&A session in which the panel answered questions from the audience regarding South-South cooperation in the context of the World Health Organisation and Southern economies and 83% of participants scored the event 7 or above out of 10 on 'gaining insights into different perspectives, challenges and opportunities of South-South humanitarian responses to conflict and displacement.'  

For more information on South-South Humanitarianism please visit the Southern Responses to Displacement mini blog series, detailed below:  

Internationalism and solidarity - How does 'solidarity based' humanitarianism influence Southern led responses to displacement? In the first of our introductory mini blog series Dr Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh presents a brief reflection on the history of internationalism and solidarity based initiatives.

Faith based humanitarianism -  Our second introductory mini blog provides a brief overview of how local faith communities are often the first responders to communities affected by conflict and displacement.

Refugee-refugee humanitarianism -  First responders in contexts of displacement are themselves often refugees. Our third introductory mini blog examines how a focus on refugee-refugee humanitarianism requires us to recognise and meaningfully engage with the agency of displaced populations.

Pan-Arabism - Our fourth and final introductory mini blog by Dr Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh discusses how Pan-Arabist approaches to displacement - while often contested - can present an alternative to dominant discourse that situate Northern humanitarian providers as saviours of displaced Southern populations.