Writing the ‘Other’ into humanitarian discourse: framing theory and practice in South–South humanitarian responses to forced displacement

Julia Pacitto, Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh


Although Southern-led development initiatives have enjoyed increasing attention by academics in recent years, there remains a relative paucity of research on South-South humanitarian responses. This paper investigates South-South humanitarian action because of the potential it has to demand a radical reconceptualization of dominant humanitarian theory.

A preliminary mapping exercise was undertaken as part of a broader research project investigating South-South humanitarian responses in contexts of forced displacement, which resulted in the identification of the case studies explored in this paper. The study is comprised of a selective review and analysis of existing theories on humanitarian action, as well as detailing a number of emergency humanitarian assistance efforts emanating from the South at a multitude of levels, from the household upwards.

Key findings:

  • There is a need for a horizontal and vertical expansion of the field of inquiry in humanitarian studies, seeking to engage in a substantive manner with Barnett’s contention that “we live in a world of humanitarianisms, not humanitarianism” (op cit) and to illustrate the ways in which writing the “Other” into humanitarian studies has the potential to both challenge and enrich our understandings of the multiple and overlapping modes through which different actors respond to those affected by contexts of forced displacement.
  • If humanitarianism is said to be birthed from cosmopolitanism, and if we can conceive of a cosmopolitanism which sees citizenship as multiple and layered, and which balances a liberal idea of rights with a stronger conception of the realities of solidarity and community, then academic legitimacy demands a reconceptualization of the term. Within the cosmopolitan ideal is respect for cultural diversity and the idea of multiple and overlapping solidarities, including, but by no means restricted to the idea of a global solidarity.
  • Promoting an understanding of “Other” forms of humanitarianism is not, therefore, to reject the existence or indeed the legitimacy of humanitarianism based upon the notion of global citizenship. However it is to reject the contention that this is the only legitimate form of humanitarianism. The concepts of solidarity and community that resonate throughout the case studies explored in this paper echo the ideas of Southern, critical scholars who seek to reaffirm the importance of local communal obligations in opposition to a Northern-conceived universality.
  • Engagement with the “local” is something which is espoused by many critical Southern scholars who consider a state- and institution-centric approach to reproduce Northern biases and modes of thought. Highlighting humanitarian efforts taking place at the local community and household level, such as the aforementioned hosting of Libyan refugees by Tunisian families, therefore redresses these biases by broadening the scope of inquiry, and by demanding that local “humanitarian” efforts be considered to have the same legitimacy as other modes of humanitarian action.
  • However, these “alternative” humanitarian perspectives or models should not be unequivocally idealized – they must themselves be critically assessed and the complex power dynamics that may be intrinsic to them must be exposed. Rather than offering a critique of the Northern humanitarian regime, this paper critiques the assumption that a limited and historically-specific institutional definition of what constitutes humanitarian should be mirrored at the theoretical level.
  • To restrict the area of research in humanitarian studies to organizations purporting to be working under the strict principles laid out by the ICRC is not just fraught with Northern bias, but it also fails to recognize that claims of impartial, apolitical universality can equally be interpreted and understood to be partial, politicized neo-imperialism. The example of Myanmar, given above, clearly demonstrates this.
  • Politics pervades humanitarianism, and not just humanitarianism in the sense of the practices carried out by “humanitarian” organizations; it is interwoven within the fibers of the epithet itself. It is this lexical politics that has for so long footnoted “Other” actors and “Other” modes of action in the study of humanitarianism.
  • A holistic understanding of the complex heterogeneity of humanitarianisms, in the plural, as they are conceptualized across the South, as well as the North, may help us to transcend the institutional and academic privileging of a specific, Northern understanding of the term. Through expanding the use of the humanitarian label we promote a lexical counter-politics that unravels the very fibers of the epithet and what it represents. Broadening the field in this way therefore opens the possibility for new and exciting research trajectories in humanitarian studies, forced migration studies, and beyond.


Pacitto, J and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E (2013). Writing the ‘Other’ into humanitarian discourse: framing theory and practice in South–South humanitarian responses to forced displacement. RSC working paper series no. 93. Refugee Studies Centre, Oxford Department of International Development, University of Oxford.