The damage aid workers can do – with just their words
Try getting through this paragraph without becoming bored or confused:
“Our humanitarian field operations have focused on high-impact, cost-effective implementation of activities through local partners. We have provided the target population with platforms to empower our beneficiaries – particularly women, children, and other vulnerable groups – and provide them with sustainable and scalable solutions to build resilience and preserve dignity. Through the deployment of teams of expatriate staff to the front lines, our humanitarian operation allowed us to effectively address the needs and raise awareness, giving voice to the voiceless victims while building the capacity of local actors.”
If you work in the humanitarian sector, you could read through it without batting an eyelid. At first glance, it might sound like something (not particularly well-written) one finds in a report posted on a humanitarian or development organisation’s website. In this case, I invented it to illustrate a point.
Emmanuelle Privat: How do you solve East Africa's huge refugee crisis?
Colette Badjo and Dorian Job: Covid-19 hasn't trampled Africa, but other threats remain
Thierry Allafort-Duverger: After the Afghan maternity ward attack, MSF has no choice but to close it
The problem is not just the displeasure you experience trying to wade through the syntax. It’s what lies beyond the words – what they tell us both about humanitarians and, ultimately, the current state of humanitarian aid.
The obvious disclaimer here is that this view is neither a judgement on the character of any given humanitarian worker – I am one of them – nor a cliched “call to action” about humanitarian language (though by all means, feel free to act). It is, rather, an interrogation of the way humanitarianism teaches us to think, and what lurks beneath its surface.
The mid-20th century Martinique political philosopher Frantz Fanon once wrote about the effect of language: “To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilisation.”
Like every discipline, humanitarianism has developed its own language and imagery that reflects not only the means to communicate among its practitioners, but also its conception of the world and how it understands, and hence behaves, in it.
This language of humanitarianism is hardly static. It evolves with the changing contexts in which humanitarian action takes place, the pressures of donors and benefactors and the social and cultural norms of the societies – usually in the West – where those organisations are based and where western narratives are most important.
Despite the evolution, however, the abstractions, jargon, and acronyms so common to humanitarian-speak still aim for, and manage to achieve, several things.
First, it defines the field of action, humanitarianism, and draws its parameters, principles, and tactics; second, it justifies and moralises the act itself and asserts the legitimacy of its existence and consequences; and third, it sustains the power, worldview, and future of those who control the narrative.
Those goals are not explicit, that is to say they are not written in formal documents or articulated in strategic plans. They, however, can be discerned from the use of the language itself.
In my own attempt to resolve my long-standing discomfort with the language I was using every day, I posted a Tweet last month asking for words or expressions that we humanitarians use regularly but are inappropriate.
To my surprise, many answers came, and the objectionable words and phrases spanned beyond the obvious. The full list is too long to include here. However, some of them remain, and are difficult to excise from our daily professional lives. Others are widely agreed to be unacceptable now or because they are emerging as such influenced with a renewed debate about the asymmetries of power in the humanitarian sector.
Those include "beneficiaries" to describe people who receive aid in emergencies, "capacity building" as a main NGO activity, "target population", "speaking out on behalf of...", "vulnerability" (especially in formulations like "women, children, and other vulnerable groups"), "resilience" as something that can be built in communities by external actors. It even includes some of what are considered fundamental principles, such as “neutrality” or the word “humanitarian” itself.
And yet, all of these words linger.
While it is optimistic to see the changes that are gradually happening to humanitarian language and the way this has been raised into collective awareness, the road to moving humanitarian action away from its still-dominant Eurocentric view of the world is just beginning. Writing glossaries of more appropriate terms to use in communication is one step. But what language tells us about power hierarchies is far more interesting because it gives a window to the current state of humanitarian action, as well as its possible futures.
For a humanitarian to exist and to be justified, his or her opposite – a beneficiary – is necessary. As the French philosopher Jacques Derrida once wrote, a concept is implicit in its opposite, and one cannot exist without the other.
For the humanitarian – a person defined by their highest moral impulse being to help others – the beneficiary has to exist as a helpless person with little agency, who is defined not by their communal or individual attributes, but rather their benefit from the moral action of the humanitarian.
There are plenty of other problematic oppositions: developing/developed, resilient/vulnerable, donor/recipient, and international/local. None of those is neutral or free from value judgement. They are based on generalisations and stereotypes, and all of them, as they are used today, assert the existing powers and their resistance to change.
Glossaries and style guides are unlikely in themselves to ever change the culture and power hierarchies that hide behind the language. But they are still a necessary step in going forward.
Edward Said once argued that the orientalist invents an oriental that only exists in their mind
As we have seen in growing social justice and solidarity movements concerned with racial and gender-based discrimination, the change of terms by those they dehumanise or oppress is being accepted as a necessary step in allowing people to assert their own self-perception. It also sets a threshold for response, by daring everyone else to recognise the imbalance and correct it.
Moreover, just like the Palestinian scholar Edward Said once argued that the orientalist invents an oriental that only exists in their mind rather than in reality, the humanitarian who accepts the narrative of a beneficiary without a say or agency, without knowledge or will, is prone to go to the "field" and act as if they are the only one with knowledge, will, or benevolence. In doing so, they further disempowering the very people they are meant to aid.
Forty years ago, the African-American writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde, in talking about the lack of representation of people like her in society’s wider conversations reminded us that “the master’s tool will never dismantle the master’s house”. We need to find a new language, a world view and the tools to create the words that talk about the poor, the sick and crisis survivors as the owners of their fate, rather than an inconvenience that has to be overcome in the grand humanitarian narrative. It will not be simple to achieve, but then, no one should expect humanitarianism to be a simple matter.
Dr Tammam Aloudat is a Syrian physician and a senior strategic adviser to MSF in Geneva
Updated: March 27, 2021 11:48 AM