UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction


Clone of IRDR Humanitarian Summit 2021: Interrogating changing risks

The UCL Humanitarian Summit 2021 debated how climate change, conflict and other global phenomena shape both the humanitarian sector and humanitarian studies as a field of research and teaching, and vice versa. Coming a few months ahead of COP26, the Humanitarian Summit also discussed how feminist perspectives in particular might contribute to a better understanding of challenges and solutions.

Photo: Kalobeyei Refugee Camp, DRC. Supporting survivors of SGBV to heal and work again. 2018 European Union (Photographer- Barbara Minishi). (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Keynote : Who is the humanitarian subject today?

This question is central to Professor Thea Hilhorst’s new project on Humanitarian Governance. Here we have summarised three interconnected threads that capture her arguments on the theme. 

  1. The broadening and boundary blurring of who is eligible for care

Thea pointed out that the range of people eligible for humanitarian care is broadening and transforming, from those affected by disasters, to conflict, and refugees of all natures. However, there are other groups who experience levels of crisis that the removal of such care would result in higher morbidity and mortality. Part of the challenge is that humanitarianism has been built on exceptionalism – caring for those in exceptional circumstances – but the humanitarian care landscape is more complex than this. Boundaries have become increasingly blurry – for example, between refugees and survival migrants.

In response to the blurring boundaries, definitions are being shaped by a need to fit “doable proportions”. What this means is that a crisis-affected person’s eligibility for humanitarian assistance becomes not so much about whether they actually need help, but about what is feasible for a system that has a limited capacity to help. These restrictions necessitate added layers of definition in order to delineate a hierarchy of needs for prioritisation. So, for example, a refugee must now be a vulnerable refugee to warrant assistance. Distinctions are made between vulnerable and super vulnerable, and politics and algorithms become the determinants of where assistance goes as a result.

  1. Possibilities (or not) of self-care in the development—security—migration—humanitarianism nexus

Thea next picked up the theme of self-care. She argued that the promotion of resilience and self-care assumes that self-care is possible. If it is not, people are missing out on critical support and more vulnerability is created. This raises the question of who decides who is vulnerable, or most vulnerable? What happens when definitions vary and resources for assistance are few? Related to these issues is the challenge of funding and the management and accountability of resources. Thea highlighted that development actors focus heavily on education, livelihoods and employment, but when sectors are sharing the responsibility for care and support, tracking where donor money goes can be very difficult. This is also the case when programmes have mixed objectives, when humanitarian care and assistance is combined with border control and management, for example, which are often intertwined.

  1. Humanitarian governance and the politics of abandonment

Thea then brought these threads together into a wider discussion on humanitarian governance. Localisation, she pointed out, is a big topic at the moment, but who and what is local? Civil society is operating in an ever-shrinking space, and authentic localised action can often be marginalised, unsupported and ignored. As such, we must ensure that localisation does not become the politics of abandonment, where building resilience and the deferment of care to local actors leads to a sense that all is being taken care of and no support or involvement from elsewhere is necessary.

Advocacy is a key part of this and can take many forms. It must be employed on the ground, in formal and informal ways, and is vital in contexts, such as European international borders, where humanitarian spaces and crisis affected populations have become criminalised. Thea also issued words of caution. Accountability measures can be subject to political influence and manipulation, they can take the form of simple box ticking, and can support discrimination in formal and informal ways, in invited and uninvited spaces. A lack of flexibility in programming often means that the need for change and flexible adaptation is not accounted for, making rigid structures unsuitable and unresponsive to realities on the ground.

Panel discussion 1: Humanitarian work and research at risk

For this panel, guest speakers were invited to reflect on the risks humanitarian workers/researchers face in the contexts they work on/in, and how these are changing? Below is a summary of the rich discussion, with some responses to the Q&A interwoven in the main text.


Dr Larissa Fast opened the panel discussion. Larissa noted that there are many dimensions of risk that can affect how the humanitarian sector operates into the future; risks can offer positive opportunities to change practices, partnerships and to adapt to new ways of living and working. Larissa continued by highlighting three key areas of risk she examines in her own work: violence, data and information.

Violence against aid and healthcare workers is a long-standing issue. The numbers of attacks are increasing but the number of aid workers is also increasing, as well as our ability to report them in the media. As a result, security risk management has become more effective and sophisticated. But, the cumulative effects of non-lethal violence can be as profound as fatal attacks, but do not get the same attention, if any at all. Little is still known about who carries out outbreaks of violence. Aid is often highly politicised and militarised, and during the recent Covid-19 pandemic, the world witnessed rising attacks carried out by civilians, which was also seen during Ebola. Within the humanitarian sector itself, hidden forms of violence among aid workers can manifest as a result of working culture. These forms of violence can be protracted and can have a cumulatively profound effect, especially where structures of care do not always exist.

With data and information, risks centre around access, and affect operations in collection, storage, use, transfer and deletion. Data management is an arena of great responsibility, ensuring that we only collect what we need and that we use what we collect. Critical care is required when working with vulnerable and/or disempowered populations, and risks need to be considered around processes such as informed consent with people who may not have choice to opt out.

North Kivu, DRC, April 2015 - Biometric fingerprinting for food distributions. Photo- OCHA/Nadia Berger. CC License

Belen Desmaison followed on by talking about the challenges of top-down aid approaches, and opportunities for change through social and digital infrastructure.  Belen argued that complex identities are often ignored in attempts to provide assistance that takes a one-size-fits-all approach. Protocols for displaced populations often do not account for diversity, such as in diets and cultural practices. This disregard of local idiosyncrasies can in themselves be seen as violent.

Mass displacement present numerous challenges, but systems must be able to accommodate adaptation to changing needs, participation, and flexibility. Humanitarian work should respect community spaces – especially shared responsibilities, citizenship, and the use and meaning of these spaces to the people that use them. Built into this should be infrastructure that supports women and recognises their role in society. Rehumanising those receiving aid and bringing people into the decision-making processes will avoid situations where, for example, housing provisions are abandoned because they are too far from livelihoods or unsuitable for customary living conditions.

Harnessing the potential of social media can also help with inclusivity. Merging digital and social infrastructures via WhatsApp in Peru has increased community participation in projects, giving voices to people that may not be represented in face-to-face workshops, and allows greater flexibility for participation in terms of time and location. Leveraging social media in this way does require trust and care but can lead to significantly increased equity and participation.

Protocols for displaced people need to account for diversity, in diet for example. Photo: WFP Warehouse storing rice, cereals, pulses and cooking oils. Destined for refugee camps in southwest Algeria. 2018 European Union (photographer- Louiza Ammi). CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Mihir Bhatt spoke next about the challenges of the humanitarian industrial complex as well as the impacts of COVID-19 – particularly in enhancing digitalisation. Mihir argued that neoliberal economics have long been misguiding humanitarian work. Neoliberalism has generated a humanitarian industrial complex where research and programming are carried out through bidding, contracts, feedback loops, and resemble more closely commercial operations. A streamlined approach to processes has emerged, with only one way of monitoring, one set of standards, one method of evaluation and learning, and a short-termism that does not allow for latent manifestations of suffering. What about alternative Western and non-Western approaches to humanitarianism that are overlooked as a result?

Sectoral change is already underway. No one entity has changed humanitarian research and work as much as Covid in recent times. Face to face fieldwork and knowledge co-creation have given way to more distant and remote methods, driven by digital technology. Digitisation can bring people together for meaningful exchanges, but can also preclude authentic participatory work and introduce other risks – such as surveillance over where people are operating and what they are doing. We need to look back at the human values of the past, and build a future in gift economies, care economies and economies of nurture. We should tax the risk producers and regenerate a healthy ecological footprint together. We need a de-growth concept that will encourage care and change the way we live our lives and interact with each other.


Keynote: New risks and old approaches, or vice versa? Interrogating gender and climate security rhetoric

Climate change is not really a new risk however, it is framed in mainstream development discourses as The new global threat. And to deal with this threat, different communities of practice advocate their own approach from disaster risk reduction to climate change adaptation or climate security. Climate security is an opportunity to consider the risks at the intersection of climate change and conflicts, particularly in politically and environmentally volatile settings. In humanitarian contexts, it makes sense to consider climate change as an amplifier of existing risks or crises that pose immediate security issues to human societies.  However, the language around climate security seems to bring, or bring back, dominant discourses on ways to secure populations and doing so by better controlling risks, predicting hazards, predicting future threats, so that societies can better prepare and better protect themselves. The problematic focus on the threat, and not so much on the causes of environmental degradation, is a central argument in the work of gender and feminist scholars who conduct research on disasters or on climate change.


Is the discourse on science and security undermining development approaches that aim to address the underlying causes of climate change and environmental degradation, for instance fossil fuel based-economies or gender and race inequalities? Is the securitising discourse yet another distraction to avoid challenging dominant discourses on controlling (and destroying) the environment and controlling populations? These questions have been informed and inspired by the work of Dr. Sherilyn MacGregor, who 11 years ago, wrote: “As in most crisis situations (such as in times of war), critical reflection on the unjust human relationships that may have led to the crisis is dismissed as a luxury we cannot afford. Understanding the gender politics of climate change is clearly not an urgent enough priority for it to be on the agenda.”

The afternoon session discussed whether current discourses around risks, climate change adaptation, mitigation, and security have come some way (if at all) in integrating alternative, often more feminist, perspectives to frame the problems and solutions. 

In the second keynote of the day, Dr. Sherilyn MacGregor of the University of Manchester revisited her previous work on gender and climate change to reflect on how the literature and discourses have changed in the present day. Sherilyn also the discussion on the climate and security nexus through a critical ecofeminist lens. 

Tackling climate change without a gender analysis is insufficient, unjust, and therefore unsustainable

Sherilyn began by reflecting on her earliest publication which highlighted the historical lack of gender analysis within climate change academia and policy work. Quoting her paper, Sherilyn argued that social and gender inequality shapes socio-political responses to a changing climate and affects everyone of us, therefore excluding a gender analysis from risk assessments would be “insufficient, unjust and unsustainable”.

Previously, much of the focus on gender and climate change often framed women as being hurt and more vulnerable to climate changes, and predominantly focused on the Global South. Much of the work was also in relation to women and therefore excluded men from the analysis. While much has been done in the Global South to address this, Sherilyn argued that conflating gender with women has become a prevailing tendency, portraying women as victims with no agency. This framing unintentionally affirms negative stereotypes of women in the Global South. This needed challenging, and calls were made for more feminist academic research in so-called rich country contexts to focus on gender relations and the operation of hegemonic masculinities. The discursive narrative on climate change is as gendered as are our responses to it.

There has been success in ending the silence around gender

So, what has changed? Sherilyn next picked up on the progress made on considerations to gender in the context of climate change. Since her 2010 publication, there has been a significant increase of scholarship on gender and climate change across a range of disciplines, with more research focusing on men and masculinities, and more studies documenting the Global North. At policy level, gender features now prominently in high-level action plans including in the Paris Agreement and the UNFCCC’s Lima Action Plan, or the Sustainable Development Goal #5 dedicated to achieve gender equality.

The slow but increasing shift from gender blind-projects to gender-responsive ones has incurred many positives such as more women in leadership positions. However, Sherilyn emphasised some  negative aspects of gender mainstreaming, particularly when it leads to a single, homogenous approach which overlooks the intersectionality of gender, race, and socioeconomic complexities etc. Feminists continue to champion an intersectional framework, as using the word ‘gender’ is simply not enough.

Gender and climate security; how can the security framing in climate politics impact gender relations and politics?

Since the 1980s and 90s, the recognition that resource scarcity would lead to conflict and instability led to further attention to the linkages between climate politics and environmental security. However, from an ecofeminist perspective, Sherilyn explained that climate security discourse is largely gendered and has been shaped by hegemonic masculinity. Terms such as resilience and vulnerability often emulate military and diplomatic denotations. This has led to the masculinisation of environmentalism, with concerns around health, protection, ecosystems, and future generations side-lined by conflict, war, geo-engineering, and the competitive race for control of borders. The shift in environmentalism to a more masculinised space is extremely problematic and excludes women who had traditionally engaged with environmentalism.

At present, there is a mixed picture. On one hand, there has been a noticeable shift in discourse away from security in many circles. The global climate justice movement with feminists at the forefront continue to fight for placing well-being and livelihoods at the heart of the agenda. On the other hand, the persistence of populist discourses continues to pave the way for draconian and misanthropic measures. For Sherylin, we should be mindful of our language and the unintended consequences of words such as climate ‘emergency’, ‘extinction’, and ‘existential threat’, and instead maintain more consideration of care when it comes to the climate and protecting the planet. Moving away from ecofascist discourse should be a shift that forms a fundamental part of our examination of climate change, as should integrating more feminist and alternative views that prioritise care and just transitions to climate conscious practices. This will also ensure that the deliberate alleviation of women’s burden will be central to all progress, where care work is reduced, redistributed, rewarded and represented.

Panel discussion 2: New risks and old approaches, or vice versa? Interrogating gender and climate security rhetoric

For this panel, guest speakers were invited to deconstruct what we mean by global risks, climate security, and perspectives. Below summarises this rich and engaging discussion, with responses to the Q&A session included.

Climate security with a gender lens: For Hannah Elisabeth Kurnoth, “Climate security means change induced by the impacts of the climate crisis that converge other global pressures and stresses including population growth, uncontrolled urbanisation, increased demand for resources etc”. Using the example of agrarian populations in Northern Nigeria, Hannah discussed the importance of an intersectional approach in climate security analysis. As the climate changes, crop productivity has dramatically decrease which has had consequential impacts on livelihoods; this in turn has resulted in intercommunal conflicts. The conflict has also impacted migration modalities, with young men increasingly moving alone with their cattle to protect their family’s safety. Hannah raised attention to the role masculinities play in this example, by explaining that the desire for men to protect their families alongside the intensifying stress of the conflict often results in violence against women. The high rates of rape and sexual violence against women demonstrates that the notion of masculinity is a key intersecting factor which is often overlooked. Ethnographic work is therefore essential to understand this intersection of climate security and gender relations, and how masculinity connects with femininity as neither are divorced from each other and other gender groups. Without a gender lens in both climate and conflict analysis, we are not able to see the whole picture which impedes on our ability in achieving sustainable peace.

Connecting agendas and encouraging collaboration and knowledge sharing: Both the climate security agenda and the women, peace and security agenda must engage, learn and promote each other to strengthen inclusivity at the core. National action plans on climate security, just like they exist for woman, peace and security, could increase the coherence and coordination between government agencies and advance cross-sectoral approaches to multi-dimensional problems which could be tied to the goals of the Paris Agreement. Ultimately, gender equality must be mainstreamed into everything related to climate, and climate must be mainstreamed in everything related to gender; only this will allow us to see the complete picture.

More reflexivity and better representation within the climate security nexus: Dr. Amiera Sawas raised the dire need to push back against the domination of the rich, particularly in the Global North where universities, organisations and consultancies continue to monopolise power and decision-making regarding funding and research opportunities, thus continuing to exclude those who are better suited to the position in the Global South. Many think tanks still lack the correct representation as often, representation is in the form of white, middle-class men from the Global North. We must ask ourselves, who do we speak for? And who are we to speak for them? Viewing climate security through multiple lenses is vital if we are to decolonise it.

In terms of research, cutting out the “middlemen” and decolonising the process must be fundamental elements of enabling core funding to go to southern research organisations. Enabling more equitable access to knowledge contribution should allow organisations to develop their own theory of change, to not require tiresome reporting frameworks (another form of neo-colonialism) and to allow organisations to specify what external expertise would be helpful from their perspective. This also includes engaging and collaborating with women-led organisations as women should be leading other areas of change beyond those focussed only on women. To enhance the decolonial agenda, challenging our own privileges and understanding our place is a must.

Climate security is ultimately a question of justice: as posed by Dr. Lisa Schipper : ”who is part of climate resilient development and who is likely to be left behind”? Not everyone has the ‘right’ kind of agency to be heard and considered, and there is still not enough emphasis on vulnerability in the context of programmes that genuinely help people to adapt. The physical effects of climate change can also distract from the focus on vulnerability. The impacts go way beyond extreme weather events, so the framing of climate security must re-emphasise the underlying drivers of crises to truly understand how climate change interact with people. Greater awareness is also essential around what the linkages are, for example, violence against women and gender minorities weakens resilience and creates exclusion. If directed by patriarchal powers, solutions do not necessarily account for women’s experiences, needs and voices. Many solutions to climate security often take a technocratic approach, however it is an intersectional approach that will aid the understanding of maladaptation more deeply.  

The obsession for indicators: The emphasis on (numerical) indicators for monitoring and evaluation within the research community and donors, combined with frameworks that determine and evaluate success, often means that quantitative information is collected in isolation and does not represent the complexity of day-to-day realities. The corporate language of funding and the intolerance of failure that fuels results-based payments for NGOs are all structural issues that do not encourage learning, adaptability, and non-competitive programming.