Q&A with Zeynep Sezgin & Dennis Dijkzeul, authors of The New Humanitarians in International Practice

Zeynep Sezgin and Dennis Dijkzeul, authors of The New Humanitarians in International Practice, discuss their newly published book.

Why did The New Humanitarians in International Practice need to be written?

When most people hear the word ‘humanitarian’, a series of slogans and attention-grabbing logos come to mind, generally those of the well-financed NGOs headquartered in Europe and North America, such as Care and World Vision. They may also recall the Red Cross or Red Crescent organizations as well as the white land cruisers and branded tarps of the larger UN agencies, such as the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Food Programme (WFP). Some might even know a few large donors represented in the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

However, as we discuss in our book, in the shadow of these well-established actors, other actors, often referred to as ‘non-traditional’, ‘new’ or ‘emerging’ humanitarians, play a variety of roles in humanitarian action. This book is written to capture the growing diversity of humanitarian actors and concomitant fragmentation of the humanitarian system, and its effects on both humanitarian crises and action. To which extent do these actors respect the humanitarian principles and where and how do they deviate? Or do they even formulate their own “alternative” principles?

How is it different from other books in the field?

Various studies mention the relevance of the so-called ‘new’ humanitarian actors in crises, but do not provide sufficient systematic analysis of their aims and activities. Hence, it is often not clear, why and how they engage in humanitarian action? Which factors, such as internal or external expectations, influence the aims, activities and roles of these actors in humanitarian crises?

This book addresses not only these questions but it also focuses on whether and how the ‘new’ humanitarians diverge from the traditional actors, and to what extent they follow the traditional humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality and neutrality. It turns out that many of the new actors do like to call themselves “humanitarian”. They use and abuse this term, often they add their own principles (sovereignty, for profit, etc.) to the principle of humanity, but do not follow the other three principles. However, there are also cases where traditional humanitarians remain in the driver seat and can cooperate with other actors on the basis of the humanitarian principles.

Are there any key messages you’d like to highlight?

The existence of the so-called ‘new’ humanitarians makes completely impartial, independent and neutral humanitarian action a virtual impossibility. Yet, the deontological commitment to those in need remains the heart and soul of the humanitarian tradition, and the normative ideal, as embedded in the concept of humanitarian space and the principle of humanity, serves as a bridge linking humanitarians together, even those who fervently disagree on what exactly this ‘space’ might look like. Most of the time, the diverse actors, traditional and new, work in humanitarian crises and achieve a modus vivendi or some form of benign neglect. However, when a humanitarian crisis really becomes worse, tensions among the different actors also come to the fore.

What got you interested in this? 

Zeynep: After completing my Ph.D. on “Umbrella Organizations of Turkish Migrants: A Comparative Analysis of Migrants’ Claims-Making in Austria and Germany” at the Sociology Department of the Leipzig University in 2007, I coordinated the Volkswagen Foundation Research Project “Diffusion and Contexts of Transnational Migrant Organizations in Europe (TRAMO)” at the Chair of Sociology/ Organization, Migration and Participation at Ruhr University Bochum. During these research projects, I became increasingly interested in migrant organizations’ engagement in humanitarian crises, and especially those of faith-based migrant organizations. During the Workshop “The Concept and Empirical Reality of Transnationalism”, organized in September 2009 by DFG & CONACYT in Mexico City, I met Dennis Dijkzeul, who shared my enthusiasm on this issue. Since then I study, among other issues, transnational migration, remittances, and migrant organizations’ in humanitarian crises. Especially since February 2013, as a Lise-Meitner Fellow of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF), my work at the Institute for International Development, University of Vienna, has mainly focused on faith-based humanitarian organizations in Austria, Germany and Pakistan.

Dennis: Having worked with NGOs in the eastern DRC, as well as with UN organizations around the world, I increasingly noticed other actors that not just became active in humanitarian crises, but also claimed to be active in humanitarian action. About some of them, such as PMSCs and rebel movements, I had great doubts. Still others, such as migrant organizations or business-humanitarian partnerships under control of traditional humanitarian agencies did seem to follow the traditional humanitarian principles to some extent. I wanted to know how they functioned. In the background is the question how normative claims, such as the humanitarian principles, actually work out in daily practice. Are alternative principles in the making? My work with Zeynep Sezgin and other colleagues at Ruhr University Bochum on migrant organizations provided a start for this line of work, which has now materialized into this edited volume. It was enjoyable to work with some many colleagues from around the world, and it really became clear that there are still so many other “new” or at least non-traditional actors to explore.