This issue of the Journal of Humanitarian Affairs forms a second general issue in 2022, and marks the first time we have published two general issues in one volume. The papers included in this issue ask us to consider the assumptions and relations that are produced in and through humanitarian response. This reflects debates over humanitarian and academic knowledge, how it is produced, and what relations and hierarchies are reified, or potentially challenged, in this production. Taken together, the papers in this issue emphasise the dialogue between academic and practice-based knowledge production.
The first research article, by Hugo Carnell, offers a historical analysis of three specific cases of plague epidemic to inform a discussion of the potential threat of a fourth plague pandemic, which he particularly locates in humanitarian and displacement contexts. In his periodic selection of the Marseille (1720–22), San Francisco (1900–04) and Madagascar (2017) epidemics, he emphasises the role of ongoing knowledge production in biomedical and public health fields as defining features of the pandemic response. However, his analysis highlights the importance of social factors, notably ‘the intersections of questions of race, class and power with public health interventions’ as key mediators in the success of health responses. Questions of biopolitics and power loom over the discussions of public health interventions, especially in the call to consider the possibility of a plague outbreak in refugee and displacement settings. COVID-19 has illustrated the risk posed by pandemics in close-confine settings, but decades of analysis and introspection have mainly identified, rather than addressed, the racial and power hierarchies in aid work. If addressing plague requires trust and cooperation, experiences with Ebola response demonstrates that this is in short supply in areas with generational memories of colonial medicine and exploitations.
Questions of trust and relationships are picked up in the second research article, by Lisette Robles, on the help-seeking behaviour of refugee and gender-based violence (GBV) survivors. Robles draws on interviews with refugee leaders and service providers to unpack why GBV support services are so often underutilised. Drawing on a social capital framework, she highlights the importance of trust and social networks which refugee survivors use to access and navigate different forms of assistance. Her work demonstrates an important connection between trust and humanitarian knowledge production, in the form of the testimonies and evidence which underpin responses to GBV.
The third research article, from Michelle Lokot, critically picks up the thread of humanitarian knowledge and intervention through an analysis of gender norm change as understood by humanitarian agencies and refugee recipients. Lokot challenges narratives of ‘change’ as driven by ‘colonial and neoliberal imperatives’, and considers ‘resistance’ to assumed gender norms as a more productive lens. Her work emphasises the short-term temporality of humanitarian knowledge, which frames displacement as a moment of extreme disruption and therefore fails to consider evolution of social and gender norms in broader contexts. She opposes her feminist ethnographic approach to that of rapid needs assessments taken by humanitarian actors, and calls into question the utility and intentions of interventions which claim to evaluate ‘change’.
The field report submitted by Sara Wong on the artist-academic collaborative project PostiveNegatives and the Drugs & (dis)order project foregrounds the questions of authorship, knowledge production and power relations suggested in the research articles. The report reflects critically on one of the group’s creative collaborations – part of the Drugs and (dis)order project in Colombia – and particularly on the interpersonal relations and questions of capacity building and learning which form part of artist–academic projects. In doing so, this methodologically innovative approach offers a reflexive and reflective way of analysing impact in creative projects which goes beyond purely questions of output and publication. In producing both a comic and an animated film, the project also comments on hierarchies of voice and authenticity in knowledge production from conflict-affected areas, and this paper continues to reflect on the challenges of addressing these hierarchies through artistic North-South collaboration.
Two roundtable discussions between academics and practitioners conclude this issue and reflect further on situating the production of knowledge in humanitarian work. The first reflects a forum around the monograph devoted to the politics of celebrity humanitarianism: Batman Saves the Congo: How Celebrities Disrupt the Politics of Development, co-authored by Lisa Ann Richey and Alexandra Budabin. The forum brings together five contributors – Miriam Bradley, Polly Pallister-Wilkins, Joel R. Pruce, Róisín Read, and Samentha Goethals – from a range of disciplines and critical stances, who have participated in various panels and reviews organised by the authors since the book’s publication as well as a response to their reflections from Richey and Budabin. The papers respond critically to the book project, but are also stand-alone contributions addressing the politics of aid, gendered narratives and American masculinity, spatial imaginaries, ‘positive’ corporate social responsibility, and innovative turns in celebrity humanitarianism. As such, in addition to offering an introduction to debates around development, conflict and celebrity humanitarianism in the Congo, the paper also illustrates the function of debate and response in academic knowledge production. Bringing together such diverse disciplinary and political perspectives on the topic highlights some of the tensions, but also the gaps and assumptions which lubricate research in our field.
The second roundtable closes this issue with Bertrand Taithe, Mickaël le Paih and Fabrice Weissman reflecting on archiving and knowledge production in humanitarian missions. This roundtable takes two instances from Médecins Sans Frontières’ (MSF) operational contexts in Cambodia and Malawi to inform a discussion on the role of history in rethinking humanitarian aid. Facilitated by long-standing research collaborations, the participants discuss attempts to prevent institutional amnesia in MSF’s operational practice and what constitutes an archive. This discussion brings practitioners and historians to engage on the nature of the dialogue between historical and humanitarian ways of thinking. They debate the role of historical perspectives in strategically significant ‘proof of concept’ humanitarian missions. In reflecting on the archiving projects in which they have each recently engaged, the authors bring a different angle to the discussion of humanitarian knowledge and knowledge production. In doing so, it also echoes the contribution from Hugo Carnell on public health responses to plague for its historical perspectives and emphasis on a centralised and efficient health response – which relies on significant and accurate medical and institutional memory. At a time of fragile digital archives, this roundtable makes a case for an ethical approach to historical memory in humanitarian work.
The articles in this general issue reflect diverse geographic and temporal frames, and their contexts intersect differently, and at times challengingly, with the label ‘humanitarian’. In doing so, they encourage us to take a broad approach to conceptualising humanitarian contexts, practice and actors – including their relation to resistances and alternatives. While the contributions to this issue stand on their own terms, taken together these articles form a sequence of critical contributions to the contemporary debates on epistemic contests in humanitarian practice. They offer accessible entry points to some key debates on trust, gender, authority, history, knowledge production and reflections on what academic-practitioner partnerships may offer an evolving field of study.