I would like to discuss not following the rules. Also the collision and disconnect between the ideal—what we are supposed to do—and reality. Surely this applies to many others of us practicing anthropologists in some way.
I am a full-time humanitarian response practitioner, with 30 years experience working for large international organizations, designing and managing programs assisting victims of natural and man-made disaster and crisis, such as conflict in Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Sudan and Syria, earthquakes in Haiti and Indonesia, floods in Pakistan, drought in the horn of Africa, and many others. I do this as both an aid worker and an anthropologist.
I do not do research. I do not know which formal anthropological theories inform my work, though I am sure that my work could be linked to appropriate theories. I do not have the time, though I hesitate to admit this, since anthropologists are supposed to reference the theoretical basis for our work. There is even a growing, but insufficiently recognized, body of anthropological research and theoretical discussion on disasters, by anthropologists like Anthony Oliver-Smith, Susanna Hoffman, and a few others.
As anthropologists we know, maybe better than most, that any intervention or change to the status quo, even well meaning, is potentially interference that can have negative consequences. We are supposed to have better insights that will prevent unintended harm. Applied anthropology uses carefully honed theory and analysis to derive insights to help people, ranging from community projects to advocacy and policy reform.
As aid workers, our first priority is to quickly save and protect well-being that are threatened by emergencies. The work is intense, complicated and chaotic. To help us there are many carefully designed guidelines, protocols and policies, that are continually updated. They are realistic and practical since they are mostly developed by practitioners. Many are efforts to systematize relief so we need not reinvent strategies. Their goal is to provide a common framework for agreed physical, material, and humanistic targets and standard methods for assessment, design and implementation. They include such work as the “Rights-based Approach,” “Do No Harm,” and the UN Humanitarian Charter. Some provide precise guidance such as the Sphere Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response that recommend 15 liters of water per day per person, emergency food totaling 2100 calories per day, and other targets. Consequently we know what the objectives of emergency response should be. In short we must be protective, equitable, supportive, and helpful without accidently causing damage. We should aim to “build back better;” using the crisis to initiate long-term improvements beyond the (often dismal) pre-disaster status quo. We must reduce or eliminate suffering and restore wellbeing.
But a challenge inherent in such guidelines and policies is that they can only be generic. But disasters are not generic; each one is a convergence of multiple local factors. Appropriate strategies and action can only occur after matching the standards with the specific situation.
In a particular disaster we ask which guidelines and policies apply, which ones are feasible, and to what extent? Ideally one should know the entire toolkit of options in order to determine which ones might work or be adapted. So how can we know if they fit, and how to tailor them to fit the current situation?
Anthropologists know that every disaster is unique because each event occurs in a particular cultural, social, economic, physical material, and temporal context. And disaster victims often behave very differently than normal, making prior local familiarity and prediction inadequate. But the results of our actions and decisions, as aid workers will have lasting and real consequences for people. We cannot afford to make mistakes.
Applied anthropological practice would suggest that we align the guidelines with reality through careful research, analysis, and calculations to understand the intersection between humanitarian objectives and local circumstances, perceptions, needs, and desires. This is rarely possible. For reasons, including mortality and morbidity risk, insecurity, environmental danger, geopolitics, and resource competition, decisions must be made almost immediately and actions taken quickly. The time from disaster to assessment to design to funding a project can be days or weeks.
As an aid worker I must ignore the desire for anthropological thoroughness and dismiss the idea of in-depth understanding and comprehensive information, or holistic perspective. Obtaining crucial data is dramatically constrained. Field staff are not trained analysts. There may be no (pre-disaster) baseline information. Field access may be blocked physically or politically. Proxy information often comes from civil society groups, refugees, and volunteers, with poor observation and analysis skills. Sources may be deliberately, or innocently, biased. Information is often anecdotal and fragmented, is contradictory and conflicting. It is like scuba diving at night: you only see precisely what you shine your narrow beam on and do not see the shark behind you. And in dynamic situations, circumstances change rapidly and often.
Nonetheless, this information must lead to a real project design that significantly affects people’s lives. Decisions are made by extrapolation, best judgment, calculated risk and experience, but funding requests must be quantitative and create real expectations about tangible objectives and precise results. It is a necessarily flawed process. Resulting programs become real tangible, quantified activities and targets, that become obligations to funding agencies, though the original design information was incomplete. We must trust there will be minimal negative consequences. The decisions are stressful. However, this is not as discouraging as it may seem. Aid agencies save lives and assist many millions of people, and do it very well, in spite of the constraints.
Aid workers recognize these challenges and have sought better understanding of qualitative and inconsistent data. There are formal initiatives by the UN, INGOs and others to improve skills and better merge generic standards with local realities. I have been able to participate in many of these efforts. Importantly, there is increasing recognition that while principles and guidelines and standards keep us focused they cannot become prescriptive rules.
So where does being an anthropologist come in? At every turn. The ability to translate, collate, assess, comprehend and make sense of multiple data channels; ie, working with an informational mosaic. Comfort with new and very diverse and novel cultural and social contexts. The ability to place information into context, enhanced greatly by experience and knowledge of a very wide range of social and cultural circumstances—effectively comparing apples to oranges—and thus anticipating impacts, effectiveness and implications of a set of potential decisions. Anthropologists are certainly not the only ones who can do this, but sometimes it is comforting to know that at least some decisions are being informed by an anthropological lens.
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