BLOGS

Same Dogs, Same Tricks:
The Need to Examine the Humanitarian Discourse
The current global humanitarian system continues to be dominated by European and North
American philosophies and knowledge structures. And over the decades, there are
emerging evidence that the system is failing: from inadequate responses in Haiti to
ineffective international aid in Nepal to health catastrophe in northwest Syria has
established that the malfunctioning approaches are not necessarily serving the affected
populations. Even some of the humanitarian leaders are acknowledging that the
humanitarian aid is failing to keep phase with crises. Even the inability to manage COVID-19
in the United Kingdom and United States are examples that the current foundations of
knowledge that govern responses are flawed.
Growing-up in conflict and disaster affected Sri Lanka, as well as engaging with various
humanitarian responses and research projects over the last 26-years, I consider that a
critical examination of current philosophies and knowledge systems are crucial to drive
inclusion, so that the humanitarian responses become effective and relevant.
Philosophical and Knowledge Supremacy
While acknowledging the social, political, cultural, economic and environmental challenges
in the Global South has to be owned by the political leadership and societies, I argue that
there is a huge importance of understanding some of the significant root causes of these
within colonial legacies. The colonisers went onto “discover’ new lands did not do so for
monetary reasons alone. They came with their own ideologies of philosophical and
knowledge, which they tried to “instil’. The following statement by T. B. Macaulay – the
British politician and historian, dated the 2 nd. February 1835, sums-up this attempt:

“I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a
good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and
Arabia. … neither as the languages of law nor as the languages of religion
have the Sanscrit and Arabic any peculiar claim to our encouragement. We
must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between
us and the millions whom we govern, — a class of persons Indian in blood and
colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”

Some of the colonisers went even further, for example, in 1561 Diego de Landa – the
Spanish Bishop and Inquisitor, ordered that all Mayan books are collected and burned. At a
very personal level, my late father who grew-up in the British colony of “Ceylon” (now Sri
Lanka), remembered the corporal punishment he received for speaking his native language
Sinhala at school, and being required to sing ‘God Save the King’ every morning before the

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start of school. The destruction of social, political, cultural and economic systems as well as
underdevelopment of colonies and attempts to instil Western knowledge systems in the
Global South are continuing to influence the philosophical thinking in the contemporary
world. These annihilations not only prevented the advancement of local philosophies and
knowledge systems but also the natural evolutionary processes of social, political,
economic, cultural and environmental structures of the colonies.
Responding Today
It is ironic that the same philosophies and knowledge systems that are responsible for some
of the worst crises today, are attempting to solve them and provide humanitarian
responses. I am of course not talking about the good intentions of individual humanitarian
workers or commitments to Do No Harm. This is about the failure of foundational
philosophies and knowledge systems that are aiming to deliver the Grand Bargain or Charter
for Change. The current power structure of the global humanitarian system allows certain
global actors to control the resources, communication and delivery mechanisms used in
humanitarian response. This process fundamentally dominates, disregarding the views,
expertise and capabilities of affected populations. In many ways, this is a relationship more
resonant of a coloniser and the colonised, than the equal partnership the humanitarian
system expects to deliver. Such a power dynamic underperforms because it underestimates
and under-utilises the expertise and methodologies, developed through different
worldviews and lived experiences. Instead of continuing with the business as usual, the
global humanitarian system needs to facilitate the capabilities of affected populations and
societies.
Building Relevant Partnerships
One of the huge challenges for the global humanitarian system is that due to the fast-paced,
top-down and resource-heavy nature of the responses, it is often claimed that there is
limited space to understand the affected population. However, what is missed here is that
affected people have the capacity to be active and employ various strategies to deal with
crises. These may not necessarily fit into international policies and frameworks. What looks
wrong from the outside view may not be considered as wrong from inside. In many crisis-
affected communities, these strategies have been successful for generations. The following
dialogue with a facilitator in the Bhoomi Sena Social Movement, Maharashtra, India
1978/79 explains what the affected communities are generally expecting from outside
agencies 1 :

1 De Silva, G.V.S., Haque, W., Mehta, N., Rahman, A. and Wignaraja, P. (1988), Towards a Theory of Rural
Development, Lahore: Progressive Publishers.

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“We need outside help for analysis and understanding of our
situation and experience, but not for telling us what we should
do. An outsider who comes with readymade solutions and
advice is worse than useless. He must first understand from us
what our questions are, and help us articulate the questions
better, and then help us find solutions. Outsiders also have to
change. He alone is a friend who helps us to think about our
problems on our own.”

After about 40-years of the above statement, populations are not only expecting equal
partnerships and respect, but they are also demanding change to the global humanitarian
system. Further, some of the governments are willing to take ownership and responsibility
of their own crisis responses. These demands and situations have to be understood within
contexts and responses has to be delivered with respect to affected populations and their
societies. This indeed require a deeper and carefully thought through “capacity building” of
the global humanitarian system.
Unfortunately, the global humanitarian system is busy raising funds, analysing policy
mechanisms, implementing capacity building projects and strategising on how to
collaborate with affected populations. In this, they completely ignore that affected
populations have their own expertise, knowledge and capabilities. Partnerships and
collaborations are about establishing transparent and accountable processes where the
internal local communities and external humanitarian agencies shift their power dynamics
so that they can become equal partners capable of learning from each other.
To operationalise this approach, I suggest that the global humanitarian system needs to
acknowledge that the current philosophical and knowledge foundations have failed the
world. Then to establish an inclusive process to learn from everyone, including non-
European and non-North American knowledge systems. This would be the development of a
mutually beneficial process where affected populations are enabled to overcome their
suffering while humanitarian agencies learn how to be effective and relevant.

Janaka Jayawickrama, 24 December 2020

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