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The critical role of humanitarian critique

Bertrand Taithe Juliano Fiori Michaël Neuman

By Bertrand Taithe, Juliano Fiori and Michaël Neuman on 14 April 2015.

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In November 2014, the Guardian published an article which considered the role played by Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) in response to the spread of Ebola in West Africa. Although complimentary of MSF’s reflective approach in response to a ‘new’ medical event, the article quotes a Reuters interview with Dr Jean-Hervé Bradol, in which the former president of the French section of the medical NGO bemoans his organisation’s delayed and inappropriate response.


A number of publications, in the scientific press in particular, had already presented criticisms of the treatment of patients affected by the virus but the naming of MSF by one of its own members caused consternation within the organisation. A fiery debate ensued. That this debate was taking place hardly filtered into the public domain until January 2015, when the French newspaper Libération published an interview with Rony Brauman, who spoke about it openly. Like Bradol, Brauman is both a former MSF-France president and a member of MSF-CRASH – a unit dedicated to promoting critical reflection on the practices of MSF in order to improve them.


Also in November, another humanitarian non-governmental organisation (NGO), Save the Children, gave a ‘Global Legacy Award’ to Tony Blair. Within a week, over 500 members of Save the Children staff had signed a letter referring to the decision to honour the former British Prime Minister as ‘morally reprehensible’ and calling for the award to be revoked. The letter was leaked to the press, along with an email from one of the organisation’s communications staff that referred to the ‘high volume of complaints’ the organisation had received from supporters. Although it was the US branch of Save the Children that had given the award, the CEOs of Save the Children International and Save the Children UK subsequently said they were ‘disappointed’ and ‘sorry’ respectively.


These two examples illustrate how critique can be articulated within humanitarian NGOs – as a contestation of symbolic practices or of aspects of the delivery of humanitarian aid – and how it can break out into the public domain. They are instances of the use of voice within humanitarian NGOs, when staff were sufficiently mobilised by dissatisfaction to seek to change the course of their organisation through protest.


Critique is a discursive and constructive engagement based on reflection. Such reflection is arguably the foundation for institutional learning and progress, and is conducive to innovation. However, critique is also often presented as undermining – lending support to opponents of humanitarian aid in general and offering salacious quotations to journalists and hacks. It therefore remains challenged within the humanitarian sector as a potential threat to modernisation and professionalisation.


As they have grown in size, humanitarian NGOs have redefined their notions of risk. Business models underpinned by brand value have intensified fear of reputational risk as a primary threat to organisational survival and this has created institutional barriers to critique. But underlying the brand marketing strategy of NGOs dwells a deep-rooted insecurity, fuelled by a neoliberal managerial culture and what LSE professor Michael Power refers to as the 'risk management of everything'. This has reinforced a tendency among humanitarian NGOs to ‘dumb down’ public communications and focus on the easy sell of ‘victims and saviours’.


Despite institutional aversion to dissent, there is a certain attraction within the humanitarian sector to the idea of critique, born of the desire of humanitarians to do more in the face of crises. A feeling of inadequacy that is often articulated in hubristic terms that overplay the relevance and influence of humanitarian agencies has given rise to a reformist disposition. Indeed, this has inspired an ongoing reform of humanitarian norms and architecture in the last two and a half decades.


But in addressing challenges related to the functional mechanics of the humanitarian system and the operational practices of its members, those calling for reform have adopted a technocratic language drawn from corporate capitalism, giving continuation to a long history of exchanges and communities of practice involving the commercial and legal sectors and humanitarians. As humanitarian critique has taken technical form, it has narrowed in scope and ambition, and has often been ‘short-sighted and historically disconnected’; a point made by Professor Bertrand Taithe in the blog post ‘The Poverty of Humanitarian Critique’ in which he cites the MSF report ‘Where is Everyone?’ as an example of historically and politically decontextualised critique.


So what kind of critique is critical for humanitarian NGOs? It must be constructive and allow for the correction or moderation of the criticised tendency, or at least compensation for it. It must be grounded in experience and based on some form of evidence (with the acknowledgement that evidence is not positive or incontrovertible). Its methodology must be explicit and it must also be set in political and historical context. This does not mean it should overlook specific technical challenges. But rather than being used to simplify and narrow debate, critique should add new layers and dimensions to debate, while offering greater insight into complex issues.


Whether it comes from a semi-independent research unit, like MSF-CRASH, from within Save the Children’s programmes section, from the practice-oriented academics of HCRI, or from some other site of dissent, critical reflection should be seen as essential to improving the provision of humanitarian aid. It is the surest antidote to the pervasive hubristic desire to fix complex situations that cannot be resolved using technical toolkits.

The opinions expressed here are exclusively those of the authors.

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2 comments

monica de castellarnau cirera

monica de castellarnau cirera (medecins sans frontières) 15 April 2015, 07:48

I most definitely agree with the statement that critique fuels growth and maturity. What the article leaves out is that this can happen in a constructive or in a destructive way. To mention the reaction of the system without analysing how the "system was played" is a flat reading.
Yes, the system naturally will resist change and challenge, this is a fact, it will happen in most systems, be them humanitarian, corporate of family structures. Knowing this, the interesting analysis in my view is how was critique conducted? How much was anticipated beyond the content of the critique to enable the system to receive it and grow from it?

Marion Péchayre

Marion Péchayre (School of Oriental and African Studies) 15 April 2015, 15:27

Thanks for this blogpost, which opens a discussion that is much needed in the humanitarian sector and links up to some already existing academic debates. I find very encouraging that this advocacy for critical reflection comes from individuals working for three different institutions (Save the Children, Médecins Sans Frontières and the Humanitarian Conflict Response Institute) - both NGOs having rather different historical trajectories and management styles, and the HCRI bridging the practitioner-academic gap: well done! I would love to read some comments from people working for other organisations to see how critique is expressed (or not) elsewhere and how it is used or denied.
From my modest PhD candidate position I would like to share a highly insightful piece of writing written by Prof. David Mosse (currently head of the department of anthropology and sociology at the School of Oriental and African Studies): Antisocial anthropology? Objectivity, objection and the ethnography of public policy and professional communities. This article is an analysis of what happened to him when he shared the manuscript of his ethnography of a DFID project implemented in India over a ten-year period with people from DFID (the book was eventually published as 'Cultivating Development: an ethnography of aid policy and practice"). Mosse describes the intense "objections" coming from those who discovered themselves as objects of study in the framework of Mosse's ethnography. Some of these people were Mosse’s former colleagues and that is where this becomes interesting for practitioners too: he is an anthropologist, writes as an academic but was involved as a consultant. He was therefore one of the key actors of the project he describes. In the book his descriptions are thorough, his analyses never cynical, and his positioning always transparent and self-critical. As a former practitioner I find the book (1) illuminating thanks to its critical distance, and (2) credible thanks to its understanding of the situations from the practitioners' point of view. Let’s insert a critique here: it is an academic work and it is ideal for an apprentice anthropologist like myself; however, I would not bet on it as reader-friendly book for professionals (who are busy doing another job than reading, writing and teaching!), it is indeed quite a difficult reading. The article however is a shorter piece of writing and focuses precisely on the status and the politics of “objection” coming from a powerful institution. I trust this article can be helpful (or at least comforting) to those who impulse critical reflection of their own institution and face objections coming from people who attempt to silence their comments instead of using them as a way to change and improve things.

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