Reframing humanitarian protection

Introduction: protection through the lens of anthropology

In recent years, humanitarian scholarship has moved away from the definition of a neutral humanitarian space, with its clean boundaries and pre-ordained actors. Instead, Hilhorst (2010) and her followers have called for a broader definition that acknowledges that humanitarians occupy a complex political, military and legal arena where aid is negotiated and shaped by a range of actors. As Allie (2011) points out:

[Humanitarian space] is a space for negotiation, power games and interestseeking between aid actors and authorities.... It is the product of repeated transactions with local and international political and military forces. Its scope depends largely on the organisation’s ambitions, the diplomatic and political support it can rely on and the interest taken in its action by those in power.

(p. 3)

It is a somewhat unremarkable revelation that had previously been embraced by development scholarship, which sees international development as a complex set of local, national and cross-cultural social interactions. As two of the leaders in this field explain: “It is no longer possible to isolate interactions in the realm of development from those related to state apparatus, civil society, or wider national or international political, economic, and administrative practices” (Mosse & Lewis, 2005, p. 1). Instead, development involves a great number of interactions between actors of different status, with varying resources and dissimilar goals, “for whom development constitutes a resource, a profession, a market, a stake or a strategy” (de Sardan, 2005, p. 11).

Appreciating that these interactions exist is one thing; consciously building on this initial insight in order to reveal how these interactions work is another thing entirely. The multiplicity of interactions experienced in development have been revealed through anthropology, which has focused attention on the social processes and negotiations of meaning and identity in heterogeneous social arenas in a way that challenges narrow, instrumental approaches. As Lewis and Mosse

(2006) explain, anthropologists have engaged with development from multiple fronts. First, they have engaged with development instrumentally, examining these institutions as applied researchers, consultants, managers or bureaucrats. Similar to researchers of humanitarian protection, these development anthropologists-cum-consultants have often been compelled to adopt the instrumental “meansends” rationality that characterises these policy worlds, “paying their way with knowledge products that are normative/prescriptive and usable in enhancing development effectivness” (Lewis & Mosse, 2006, p. 3).

Some anthropologists have also adopted non-instrumental, non-normative perspectives, paying “equal attention to the social processes of policy and the informal relationships and real-life situations of development workers” (Lewis & Mosse, 2006, p. 3). This has included various participatory approaches, which first drew on the local and then have more recently extended to the macro level of research to develop more sophisticated conceptions of local-global relations (see, e.g., Lewis & Mosse, 2006). Through an insider’s perspective, these “new ethnographies of development” (Mosse, 2005, p. 11) have provided powerful commentary on hidden processes, multiple perspectives or regional interests behind official policy discourse. Through multi-positioned analyses, they have examined the relationship between the rhetoric of policy and politics, and the world as understood and experienced by development actors.

An emphasis on understanding personal, individual agency and relationships between multiple actors is also a strong feature of this research. Mosse (2005), a leading advocate of these new ethnographies, places the development actor at the centre of his seminal examination of policy and practice. The picture he paints in Cultivating Development is not the common image of the monolithic and all-powerful development industry, but rather a fragmented, complex affair in which actors at all levels are endowed with agency. Backstage, development staff and consultants play a central role in developing and sustaining a common narrative that mobilises support and maintains the networks that drive a project. Furthermore, this new ethnography does more than produce thick description and write detailed narratives, also substantively incorporating critical theory into the methodical approach. Combining critical theory analysis with ethnographic observations of development professionals, it has produced fine analyses of the actual practice of every' day aid work and the intended and unintended effects these have.

While development scholars have unpacked this complex network, their humanitarian counterparts have largely left the humanitarian arena in general, and humanitarian protection in particular, unexplored and ill defined. Instead -with some emerging exceptions (see, e.g., Fast, 2014; Smirl, 2015) - the focus has continued to be on examining the normative protection frameworks in purely instrumental terms.1 As a result, humanitarian researchers setting out to explore this complex network routinely begin their journey at a place dominated by the state-legal humanitarian discourse, often building their argument on little more than a collection of powerful quotes saying that a complex humanitarian network exists. This chapter takes the next step, moving beyond the established discourse to methodically build a new, three-tiered conceptualisation of humanitarian

Reframing humanitarian, protection 41 protection through which to guide further discussion and research. It does this by turning to the new ethnographies of development — in particular Mosse’s seminal study - for its theoretical and methodological foundations.

The first component of this conceptual triad, outlined in detail below, sees humanitarian protection shaped through the interaction of a complex group of actors. These humanitarian actors have varying resource, differing statuses and dissimilar, often competing, motivations. Second, the humanitarian norms and principles help build a level of consensus among these disparate actors, which facilitates the relationships that ultimately provide what we know as humanitarian protection to at-risk groups. As will be explained, those norms and principles are a unifying protection narrative. However, these actors do not display consistent behaviour in every situation, but act according to their own priorities at the time and the significance of their relationships with others, rather than in line with the unifying narrative. This then leads to the third conceptual component. Humanitarian field workers, positioned at the junctures between these different actors, work behind the scenes to counter these fractures, modifying the unifying narrative to suit the context.

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