Same Dogs, Same Tricks:

The Need to Examine the Humanitarian Discourse

Janaka Jayawickrama, PhD

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 2nd. 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 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]:


“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.



[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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