"Vulnerable people are hit much harder, which is also what we’re seeing during the current coronavirus crisis"

Interview met Thea Hilhorst

According to Thea Hilhorst, Professor of Humanitarian Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam, disasters don’t just happen completely out of the blue, and they are never equally distributed, either. Disasters only turn into disasters in places where people are vulnerable to their impact. And vulnerable people are hit much harder, which is also what we’re seeing happen during the current coronavirus crisis.

“Climate change, too, particularly hits the poorest people, who didn’t cause it themselves. The same thing is true for this virus. The people who will be hit the hardest will be the poorest or most vulnerable people. For instance, slums in countries where people live at very close range. Or places such as refugee camps. At present, very few people in Africa are infected, but it’s entirely possible that a lot of people will die there once the virus makes its way over there. And while our government says things like, ‘We’ll support self-employed people’, there’s no way the Kenyan government will say anything like that.”

Who is going to suffer the most?

“We might end up with a strange scenario whereby the officially recognised refugees living in a camp are slightly better off than the people living just outside the camp. That’s one of the themes I explore in my research: who is vulnerable in this world? You might think it’s people who have fled a war situation, but they are entitled to a small amount of help because they’ve been granted the ‘vulnerable’ label. People who haven’t been given that label, but find themselves in a comparable situation, are even more vulnerable. For instance, the coronavirus might hit the slums of Bangladesh much harder than the Rohingya refugee camps in the same country. There are facilities and healthcare providers in the camps. People are fed there.”

“We might end up with a strange scenario whereby the officially recognised refugees living in a camp are slightly better off than the people living just outside the camp."

What role can humanitarian aid play in this coronavirus crisis?

“Humanitarian aid is first and foremost an industry. Just like other industries, aid workers are having to make huge changes to adapt to their new situation. It’s hard for aid workers to work from home. They might want to go out there and help others, but is it a good idea to send aid workers into refugee camps that have already been struck by the coronavirus? How are we going to organise this? It’s a rather complicated issue. A second complicated question is: should humanitarian aid organisations be active in the slums of Nairobi once they get hit by the coronavirus? That’s a question involving such nightmare-ish consequences that it’s very difficult to comprehend. Where are these organisations going to get enough manpower? How can they provide aid when the scale of the problem is that vast? Some organisations have dealt with ebolavirus. One might say they’re equipped for this. But that happened in a small number of countries in West Africa. Now we’re dealing with a pandemic affecting the entire world. We’ll be hearing a lot about this in the coming period.”

We are talking to Thea Hilhorst because she has recently been awarded the European Research Council (ERC)’s prestigious Advanced Grant, which is worth €2.5 million, to be spent on a five-year research project of her own choosing. She will be conducting research on the subject that lies at the core of her field of study: the recent changes in the nature of humanitarian aid and their upsides and downsides.

"My objective is to take a look at what happens when we get rid of these prejudices precisely in places that need a lot of aid."

What kind of changes are we talking about?

“What has changed most is the way humanitarian aid organisations present themselves. Aid used to be organised centrally and internationally, along UN lines, and based on humanitarian principles. We are increasingly seeing a shift to aid organised by individual countries. In addition, we’re seeing that the focus is increasingly on the people who have been struck by a conflict or disaster, who are now given a voice in the matter. In the old days, we assumed that people fleeing from war zones needed everything: a camp, blankets, food, medical help. Now we look at what people are able to provide themselves, and we try to supplement that.”

Can you give us an example?

“Refugees are given an all-inclusive arrangement in refugee camps, partly because they are not allowed to take the local population’s jobs. Basically, they are kept alive by others, even though they might actually like to work. Now the international community is telling Uganda: if you give these refugees some land and allow them to work, the international community will compensate you for doing so. I thought it was very exciting to be conducting research on this subject at this particular time. I especially want to focus on the question as to how aid organisations account for what they are doing – to the locals, to their donors, et cetera. And vice versa: how the affected locals seek to be heard. In other words, I wish to examine what this transition looks like in the field. I might arrive at the conclusion that things haven’t actually changed all that much yet.

Another subject I’ll be looking into is the ‘decolonisation of humanitarian studies’. This is an ongoing discussion in development studies, where people are trying to establish greater equality in collaboration, with researchers from the South taking the lead. But countries that suffer genuinely serious crises are often excluded from this discussion. People like to say that participatory research doesn’t work in countries governed by conflict. My objective is to take a look at what happens when we get rid of these prejudices precisely in places that need a lot of aid. Why wouldn’t you ask refugees if they want to join a research group? They might want to.”

Do you think it’s likely that you might arrive at the conclusion that the former system involving internationally organised aid was more effective?

“It’s not a competition. But yes, I will be curious to see the downsides of the new system. Also, the outcomes – be they positive or negative – won’t be the same for all places. Once you let go of the uniform idea of aid, you’re guaranteed to find that what really matters is which country we’re dealing with. Is the country rich or poor? Does it have an authoritarian government or not? All those things have to be taken into account.”

In which countries will you be conducting your research?

“Among other countries, Colombia. It’s a good example of a country that has seen its share of conflict and is looking after many internally displaced persons, as well as a lot of people from Venezuela. But it’s also a reasonably developed medium-income country. My second case study will be Ethiopia, a poor country with many authoritarian tendencies and a powerful government. My third case study will be Congo. They have one disaster after another there. It’s a fragile country, the people are dirt poor, and the government is ineffective.”

Do you regard the study you are about to conduct as the conclusion to your work so far, so to speak? Do you consider the ERC grant your crowning achievement?
“Yes, it ties up a lot of loose ends. I embarked on my academic career with a PhD dissertation on social movements and how things can change from the bottom up. I’ve now been involved in humanitarian studies for twenty years, and all this time I’ve been wondering: why are we not seeing any bottom-up-type movements? Not a single protester showed up at the UN humanitarian aid summit in 2016. That’s extraordinary. Apparently, this was an area of policy that doesn’t generate public protests. But that has suddenly changed now, partly because of the enormous refugee crises in Europe and also in the United States. Now Amnesty International is taking a stand on humanitarian aid. So we’re seeing a very interesting momentum. This is a great time to try and determine: what’s working and what isn’t?”

I’ve now been involved in humanitarian studies for twenty years, and all this time I’ve been wondering: why are we not seeing any bottom-up-type movements?"

Your goal being to issue recommendations?

“Or to create room for and give a platform to different voices.”

Do you yourself believe that the bottom-up and locally organised approach is effective, or do you have your reservations about it?

“Both! I do really believe it works. But I also believe in being cautious. The social movements I discussed in my PhD dissertation were special movements that did important things for the indigenous population. But the organisations themselves suffered from internal power issues. These things tend to be nuanced. I do embrace these types of bottom-up approaches and social movements, but very cautiously so. I wish to examine them more thoroughly. Just having a participatory nature or approach is not enough and won’t get you there. One of the ERC judges said that my research is special because I’m willing to get up close and personal while at the same time being able to keep my distance. I think that’s the reason why I got the grant. I believe in it and I think it’s important, but I definitely have a few reservations.”

 Do you visit these countries yourself to conduct your research?

“Yes and no. I’m definitely going there. I don’t have much of a choice. But at the same time, one of my goals in life is to fly less frequently. I thought for the longest time that flying was part and parcel of my job. A few years ago I changed my mind. If anyone should make a conscious effort to fly less, it’s people like me. I don’t want to be part of that flying circus. I’d rather collaborate with people over there and try to reduce my flights there and back.”