Rodrigo Mena, Assistant Professor of Disasters and Humanitarian Studies, International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University Rotterdam
Juan Ricardo Aparicio, Associate professor, Universidad de los Andes
Gabriela Villacis, PhD researcher, International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University Rotterdam
During the last decade Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) have witnessed different crises, from Venezuelans’ (forced) migration to the so-called caravan of migrants crossing Central America to the north. To address these crises, what is commonly called humanitarian aid has been needed. Yet, paradoxically, this concept is not explicitly used in the Latin American context or in an elusive way and strategically in particular contexts. In many ways, humanitarian aid in LAC is similar to what can be seen in other contexts -Asian or African countries- but, at the same time, it seems to be very different. A constant question boggles our mind: is humanitarian aid in Latin America and the Caribbean ‘same, same but different’ from aid in other latitudes of the planet?
To begin to understand what humanitarian aid is in the region, a group of academics and practitioners established a reading group on humanitarian aid in LAC. We have met monthly for over a year to discuss a particular reading, which has led to many fascinating discussions about humanitarianism in the region. In this blog post we share some of the main reflections that emerged from our readings and conversations, with the dual purpose of beginning to document these discussions and hear what others think about them and humanitarianism in LAC.
The latter is vital because the reading group is today part of the LAC Humanitarian Observatory, a space in which we seek to explore more formally, but also organically and with the participation of various actors (practitioners, academics, affected people, private sector, governments), what is humanitarian action in the region.
During our first year of readings and discussions four main topics stood out:
1. Migration and displacement seem to be the first thing that people talk about when it comes to humanitarian crises in LAC. In this regard, we spoke on the intrinsic relation between forced displacement, both internal and between borders, and the history of the region. From the transatlantic slave trade, to the appropiation of regions and populations during the Spanish conquests and the connection between internal armed conflict, development, extractivism and disaster-induced displacement, the forced removal of people and its humanitarian responses seems to be a central face of what it seems and labels as the humanitarian in the region. Colombia is of particular interest, as humanitarian responses have been shaped around the increasing needs of internally displaced populations. In this case, as it may replicate in other contexts, humanitarian aid, development, and peacebuilding seem to be closely connected and difficult to separate. Another important question about people on the move and humanitarian aid is the close relationship between human rights and humanitarian action, an aspect that becomes blurry when organisations working on these issues have a single mandate.
2. In relation to the above, we also discussed and read a lot about protection. We discussed about the Temporary Protected Status (TSP) in Colombia for Venezuelans, about the protection of internally displaced persons, and less articulated ways of protecting migrants, for example, voluntary humanitarian aid systems or the growth of local NGOs along the walker route, all the way from Cucuta in Colombia, Panama, all the way up to Honduras. In terms of protection, we also discussed mental wellbeing and happiness based on research carried out in LAC, and how these so-called soft approaches to protection and aid play an important role in the provision of aid. We witness strong and robust legal protection frameworks coming from Constitutional Courts that have even tailored the State responses to marginalised populations, but their implementation is still a challenge across the region. We also have philanthropic initiatives from the private sectors and alternative and grassroots practices and discourses of protection deployed by victims and their histories. What exactly we mean by humanitarian protection is an overarching contentious debate in the region.
3. As the conversations progressed we saw that in LAC as elsewhere there is a great diversity of actors involved in the humanitarian system, but what matters in LAC is the role that the States have. The United Nations and large international NGOs seem to have a more secondary role and recognize the states’ authority to guide humanitarian action. They also recognize and criticise that the majority of states do not know how humanitarianism should be done. Even so, the state seems to keep a central role for deciding about humanitarian aid provision, but again this needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Stronger state capacities can be better for the coordination of the humanitarian responses; however, other aspects such as the space given to civil society also play a role. This is certainly an arena of debate and struggle with actors such as local NGOs, social movements, victims movements and grassroots organisations who are precisely posing other and alternative responses and practices. Here it became the institutional capacity of the states to respond to emergencies and disasters (a very important and developed issue in LAC), but less so in response to major humanitarian crises. The strength that local governments (e.g., municipalities) have in the region was also discussed, as well as their relevance to giving continuity to humanitarian action, which is presented as a continuum with development-related strategies.
4. Although less directly related to humanitarian aid, and probably well influenced by the interests of the group members, aspects of transitional and legal justice were also discussed. What was interesting was that we discovered that these issues in LAC are discussed in relation to the humanitarian and how the humanitarian has to do with what is fair, a sense of justice, and how the reconstruction processes in the traditional humanitarian in LAC are also addressed from a reparación (reparations) point of view. In relation to this, discussions on human rights, fairness, and solidarity commonly take part in conversations on humanitarianism in LAC. Important to the discussion were feminist and decolonial approaches to existing mechanisms of justice and truth, especially in contexts where conflict, war and violence have been predominant.
The previous points only show what we have discussed so far, but they do not answer one of the most relevant questions that arise in our conversations: What is Humanitarian aid or humanitarianism in LAC?
Asking ourselves this question is not innocent, and invites us to recognize its limits. LAC is a large region, with more than 30 countries and great diversity, so finding a single answer can be a lost cause. Also, the historical specificities of the region and of each country make it difficult to assess a single and homogeneous picture of humanitarian action in the region. However, we have learned this year that there are common elements between countries. Our discussions included people from or working in Colombia, Chile, Honduras, Haiti, Panama, Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil, Costa Rica and El Salvador. In all these cases the topics discussed above seem to be present, but without a doubt, more contextual and comparative research and discussions are necessary.
Another point in most of our discussions is how the legacy of colonization and interventionist policies in LAC have influenced how humanitarian aid is seen in the region. Humanitarianism is recognized as political and as a space for possible intervention, leading to a cautious approach to the subject.
The strength (or at least development) of the emergency and disaster response systems in many countries in the region often invited us to ask about the limits of humanitarian aid and how blurred its borders are in terms of actors and associated actions.
All of the above shows us that there is much still to be explored about the humanitarian in the region, and how different or how similar it is to the humanitarian in other parts. For now, we continue with the reading group and the development of our humanitarian observatory, a space to which everyone is invited.
Acknowledgment: We thank everyone you have participated in the reading group and the larger discussion on the topics (alphabetical order): Ana Paula Espinosa, Benjamin Jara, Cristobal Mena, Diana Gomez, Diego Otegui, Dorothea Hilhorst, Gloria Restrepo, Gustavo Ahumada, Juliana Poveda, Mariela Miranda, Oscar Gomez, Saskia Carusi, Tomas Paez
This blog post and the reading group were supported by the European Research Council (ERC) Horizon 2020 programme [Advance grant number 884139].