Cultures of humanitarianism Perspectives from the Asia-Pacific region

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The central theme of the workshop is the exploration of how various governmental and non-governmental actors in these countries (Australia, Japan, China and Indonesia) understand the nature of humanitarian obligations, and how they believe these obligations should be acted upon in responding to humanitarian emergencies. This entails comparing and contrasting of how these actors’ understandings of the humanitarian imperatives are expressed in responses to three key questions: Who acts in response to humanitarian crises? why do they act? and how do they act?

Rationale: importance to social science research and policy

The idea of humanitarianism is prominent and powerful in world politics today. The concept is increasingly used to legitimate a range of actions and actors in response to complex emergencies and natural disasters. Part of the power and appeal of humanitarianism is its universality; that is the idea that it is premised on cross-cultural moral truths and principles, and a concern for the alleviation of suffering in humankind, regardless of differences.

This concern for the suffering of others resonates across societies and cultures. But do all cultures understand humanitarianism in the same way? Do all attach equal value to the oft cited ‘core principles of humanitarianism’: humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence? Do different understandings of humanitarianism shape the way different societies and cultures respond to humanitarian imperatives and to humanitarian challenges? This workshop will explore synergies and differences across cultures and societies about the nature of the humanitarian enterprise and the principles that guide it. It will examine how different societies understand the nature of humanitarian obligations, and how they believe these obligations should be acted upon in responding to humanitarian emergencies.

In particular, the workshop discussion will focus on the Asia-Pacific region, an area which is of central importance to Australia and in which Australia is a key provider of humanitarian assistance. This is a dynamic and culturally diverse region and one which is not only a recipient but also increasingly an important provider of humanitarian assistance to crises both within and outside the Asia-Pacific region. Whilst some research has been conducted on alternative perspectives on humanitarianism, such as in the Islamic tradition, there is very little research on examining the conception of humanitarianism in and across the Asia Pacific, let alone comparative studies of different understandings across the region. This is a fundamental shortcoming in the field, given in particular the increasing importance of Japan and China as providers of humanitarian assistance. Establishing dialogue across different cultures and societies about how we understand and pursue humanitarianism is vital to its effectiveness and would help to further enhance cooperation in humanitarian assistance.

The objectives of this workshop are three-fold. The first is to advance inter-disciplinary knowledge of the regional conceptions of humanitarianism among scholars and practitioners, and to provide an opportunity to identify commonalities and differences in conceptions and practices of humanitarianism, focusing in particular on the degree to which the four key principles of humanitarianism retain validity across different societies. The second objective is to disseminate workshop outcomes through publications mentioned below, which encourage the application of the knowledge gained by the workshop discussion. The third objective is to provide an important opportunity for Australian-based scholars and practitioners to interact with a small number of key scholars and practitioners from Japan, China and Indonesia (who we will bring to Australia with the support of other funding sources such as AusAID and Australia-Japan Foundation). In so doing, the workshop will be highly relevant to policymakers, and will help to facilitate cross-cultural interaction and cooperation in the field.

Overview of main themes

The central theme of the workshop is the exploration of how various governmental and non-governmental actors in these countries (Australia, Japan, China and Indonesia) understand the nature of humanitarian obligations, and how they believe these obligations should be acted upon in responding to humanitarian emergencies. This entails comparing and contrasting of how these actors’ understandings of the humanitarian imperatives are expressed in responses to three key questions: Who acts in response to humanitarian crises? why do they act? and how do they act?

Related to this main theme is the examination of the implications of both the commonalities and differences for the way in which we envisage humanitarianism. Do we see it as a universal movement that has been produced by the diffusion of a core set of principles and practices from Western societies to non-Western societies? Or should we see it as encompassing a plurality of principles and practices? If the latter, what are the policy implications of this for cooperation and coordination in the field, both for the way in which external agencies interact with local populations and with agencies from other cultures and traditions?

The workshop further deepens the above discussion by dealing with two major ‘divides’ inherent in humanitarian efforts: a civil/military divide and a multilateral/national/local divide. How do these ‘divides’ hamper international humanitarian efforts? What should be done to overcome the ‘divides’? The workshop is designed to arrive at policy recommendations for various agencies across the region.

The workshop consists of two parts. The first is deliberately designed to have discussions with those beyond participants named below, including experts from academia, DFAT, AusAID, the military and NGOs. The aim is to seek views and experiences from a wide range of people, and identify issues of national concern in international humanitarian assistance. This is a necessary step, because of the policy-relevant nature of this theme, and the nascent stage of the study of comparative perspectives of humanitarianism. A wider discussion will provide a basis for the second part of this workshop, in which workshop invitees will have a more focused and interactive discussions and formulate policy recommendations.

Program

Date: 10-11 August 2011
Venue: The Australian National University
(Names are suggestions only)

Day 1 (10 August 2011)

Introduction and Keynote (09:00-10:30)
  • Introduction and rationale of the workshop (Jacinta O’Hagan and Miwa Hirono)
  • Rationale of the Project (Jacinta O’Hagan)
  • Keynote: The Universality of Humanitarianism: Questioned Concept? (William Maley)
SESSION 1: Why Do They Act? Exploring the Intersection between Universal Principles and Traditions of Humanitarianism in the Asia Pacific (11:00-12:30)

Following from the keynote discussion that questions the universality of humanitarianism, in this session we explore the principles and traditions of assistance and obligation that impel humanitarianism in different societies. The session draws on speakers from China and Japan specialists, Muslim and Western NGOs, and discusses the way in which humanitarian assistance is designed by each culture. The aim is to identify the commonality and difference in the conceptions of humanitarianism among these agencies.

  • Speakers:
  • China
  • Japan
  • Indonesia/Muslim Aid
SESSION 2: Who Acts for Whom? Exploring Diverse Agencies in Humanitarianism (14:00-15:30)

Who has the obligation to act? Who do they act for? What is the relationship among different agencies? And how do they communicate about who they are and why they are acting to other agencies and with recipients? In this session we provide an overview of diverse actors working in humanitarian crises in the Asia Pacific. This session discusses how diversified ‘humanitarians’ have become in the complex emergencies and natural disasters contexts and the impact this has on interaction and coordination. Specifically, it pays particular attention to the cultural interaction among diverse humanitarian actors, and addresses the role of policies and governments in coordinating these different agencies.

  • Speakers:
  • China (Braven Qiang Zhang)
  • Japan (Yukie Osa)
  • Indonesia (Sigit Riyanto)
SESSION 3: Break out session (15:45-17:00)

Reflecting on the discussions above, this session forms several small groups (each consisting of five people, and each with a balanced representation from each society and agency), in order to discuss policy recommendations for the four countries’ governmental and non-governmental sectors, as well as for multilateral institutions. This is followed by short presentations from each group, and synthesizes the policy recommendations.

Day 2 (11 August 2011)

SESSION 4: How Does Context Matter? Comparing Humanitarian Responses to Complex Emergencies and Natural Disasters across the Region (09:30-11:00)

How do different societies respond to these different forms of crises? Does the nature of the crisis influence who assists and how they assist? These questions are important because complex emergencies often create more politically-sensitive environments for various agencies working in humanitarian assistance. In this session we discuss how these different contexts (whether complex emergencies or natural disasters) shape humanitarian assistance. Many disaster-prone regions also experience conflicts, such as Aceh and Sri Lanka. How does the mixed nature of crises matter to humanitarian assistance by each?

  • Speakers:
  • China
  • Japan
  • Indonesia
SESSION 5: How do They Cooperate (11:30-13:00)

As humanitarian assistance increasingly involves a larger number of agencies, the importance of coordination among these different agencies is identified by a wide range of literature. However, each society has different policies and traditions about how to approach multilateral, national and local agencies, as well as military actors. This session is designed to discuss how globalisation enhances the importance of multi-faceted cooperation, followed by comparative discussion of each society’s tendency to cooperate with various actors.

  • Speakers:
  • China (Braven Qiang Zhang)
  • Japan (Yukie Osa)
  • Indonesia (Sigit Riyanto)
SESSION 6: Findings and Implications (14:00-15:30)

The three co-convenors will each present a short summary of the two-day workshop. This will be followed by a roundtable discussion among all participants. We will discuss policy implications of the two-day discussions, and identify future research agenda.

Event Schedule

Contact Information

Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia

    ABN: 59 957 839 703
  • Location: 26 Balmain Crescent, Acton, ACT 2601
  • Postal: GPO Box 1956, Canberra, ACT 2601
  • +61 .2 62491788
  • +61 .2 62474335
  • secretariat@assa.edu.au

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