by Rebecca Mantel PhD, Sociocultural Anthropology and Julia Hanby MA, Humanitarian Assistance Specialist, emBOLDen Alliances

As we write this, nearly 65.3 million individuals are forcibly displaced worldwide. Thirty-four thousand people are displaced every single day. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), these are the highest levels of displacement in human history, and these numbers have been increasingly exponentially.[1] In 2008, the number stood at 45 million individuals. Current levels of humanitarian need and complexities of response are at an unprecedented high, necessitating more informed, efficient, resourceful, and durable responses to crises.

The World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) 2016 in Turkey was certainly unprecedented in its scope and intention, and yet the outcomes and agreements from the WHS are not the endpoints, but rather a turning point for deliberately improved and profoundly revamped humanitarian work.  In order for the reforms and progress to become reality and in order to rise to meet current challenges, we must collaborate across institutions and organizations as never before and embody change at every level of our behavior, approach, and methodology.


One major takeaway from the consultations in advance of the WHS was a common recognition of the importance of putting crisis-affected persons at the center of the humanitarian response, recognizing them as “the primary agents” and “driving force” of humanitarian response.”[2] Stakeholders broadly agreed that international humanitarian organizations must recognize and support the development of national and local capacity, reinforcing the existing coping strategies of affected populations rather than replacing them. Despite its emphasis in the WHS consultations, many attendees were concerned that the WHS fell short in directly addressing the question of how to actually place affected communities at the center of humanitarian action. As discussed by Heba Aly with IRIN, questions of promoting organizational accountability and concrete approaches and commitments to receiving feedback from affected communities were largely overlooked during the Summit.[3]

How will stakeholders ensure that affected communities’ voices and local organizations are at the core of humanitarian response?

In this article, we discuss the role of anthropologists in collaborating with humanitarian assistance organizations in immediate response as well as throughout the emergency cycle. By recognizing the forms of collaboration between anthropologists and humanitarian organizations, we explore avenues for strengthening our commitment to ensure that affected populations stand solidly at the core of humanitarian response. In addition, it is incumbent on each of us as citizens, humanitarian professionals, students of international development, and practitioners of any globally-related field to understand and analyze the realities, lessons learned, and recommendations in order to truly enact more lasting good, contribute less harm, and maximally assist any vulnerable community.


As stated in the Secretary General’s Report for the WHS, humanitarian reform requires turning away from traditional practices, breaking down the silos created by organizational mandates, leveraging our comparative advantages, and “bringing together expertise to deliver more strategic outcomes.”[4] When considering comparative advantages and expertise in understanding the viewpoints and experiences of affected populations, anthropologists integrated with other fields hold unique and critical roles that merit further exploration. First, supporting local capacity and collaborating with local organizations (governments, civil society organizations, and NGOs) requires cultural competency and the reinforcement of local knowledge. Second, ensuring accountability to affected populations requires listening to individuals and communities and acting upon this information and insights.

Given their expertise, how could anthropologists contribute to these processes? How have they done so already?

Anthropologist Doug Henry (2005) demonstrates the valuable contributions of anthropology within the field of disaster studies and emergency management. According to Henry, “anthropology’s concern with the holistic study of humanity in relation to social, political, cultural, and economic contexts, as well as the breadth of its studies done internationally, seem to make it well-positioned to answer calls from within the field of disaster studies for an ‘expanded horizon.’”[5]

The response to outbreaks are a strong example of aid groups acknowledging the critical role that anthropology can play in increasing the effectiveness of humanitarian response, reducing community fears, and ensuring inclusion amongst marginalized community members.   For example, Oxfam collaborated with an anthropologist as part of its response to cholera in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and again sought the expertise of an anthropologist to support the Public Health Promotion (PHP) strategy in Liberia. In Liberia, anthropologist Olive Melissa Minor studied the social organizations that inhibited compliance with Ebola prevention and treatment methods in order to determine how Oxfam could more effectively overcome the identified challenges.[6] Minor illuminated a variety of issues that affected the communities’ response to prevention and treatment methods. She suggested that, while proven to be valuable in responding to epidemics, anthropology could also make significant contributions to humanitarian work in other contexts as well.

The Ebola Emergency Anthropology Initiative is another example of the utility of anthropology in humanitarian response, not on the ground, but instead through a platform that allowed anthropologists to share their expertise remotely. The aim of this Initiative was to ”build a more locally appropriate and socially informed outbreak response by providing clear, practical, real-time advice that engages with crucial socio-cultural and political dimensions of the outbreak.”[7] Funded by the Research for Health in Humanitarian Crises (R2HC) Programme, the project was comprised of over 200 anthropologists, social scientists, and regional area experts who served as a “virtual think tank” to provide guidance to NGOs and government and international agencies via email and conference calls.[8] The platform published its own anthropology-based policy briefings as well as submissions from others who wanted to share their work on its publicly-accessible website.



It seems, however, that such intimate collaboration between large-scale humanitarian interventions and anthropologists with expertise in the affected regions or on the contagion (or crisis or disaster) itself is rare. A key obstacle to implementing such networks is the temporality of crises compared to the typical methodical pace of anthropologic study and practice. As stated by Saez, Kelly, and Brown, “As in other emergency settings, the urgency for immediate action to control Ebola often runs counter to the demands of a time-consuming and slow-paced research methodology.”[9] In the confusion and immediacy of a post-disaster situation, the development of local networks, the identification of community leaders, and the collection of in-depth cultural knowledge that would greatly help the quick and efficient delivery of aid are daunting. Certainly, the art of humanitarian response is quick, thoughtful, responsive action while thoroughly assessing and understanding communities’ needs directly. Adding to that are many challenges including chaotic contexts, various organizations with differing priorities, and multiple time-sensitive pressures to reduce suffering and save lives.

In addition, a characteristically high turnover of on-ground aid workers in high-stress disaster zones – as documented by Jonathan Katz[10] and others – exacerbates what can become a mounting inability to establish a clear and ongoing line of communication between aid organizations and recipient communities. Given that, trust in the intervention weakens, further hindering rapid and meaningful communication. Anthropologist Mark Schuller, who has studied local and foreign NGOs in Haiti since 2001, demonstrates in his 2011 book that with or without an official crisis, NGOs’ differing understandings of community participation can make or break their effective and enduring progress. “While there are many ways to classify NGOs, one rubric distinguishes between service or membership organizations,” he writes. “The relevant different involves the relationships between the service population and the NGO: are the aid recipients ‘clients’ or are they ‘members’?”[11]

The international community must listen to local organizations to support them in expanding their own capacities, rather than overshadowing their work and creating inefficient parallel systems.  

As stated in Time to Listen, “what people want is an international assistance system that integrates the resources and experiences of outsiders with the assets and capacities of insiders to develop contextually appropriate strategies for pursuing positive change.”[12] ODI’s “Time to Let Go” prompts us to redefine success in humanitarian action, let go of power and control, and change our mindsets in a way that supports greater local autonomy. [13] All of these reevaluations and changes in perspective require that we truly listen to communities in order to understand their capacities, concerns, definitions of success, and their ways of achieving it. The international community must listen to local organizations to support them in expanding their own capacities, rather than overshadowing their work and creating inefficient parallel systems.

These changes in humanitarian action also require empathy to understand and identify with the thoughts and experiences of local communities. According to anthropologist, Olive Melissa Minor, “anthropology is simply about understanding local ways of seeing things,” and when put into practice, it is “an exercise in using empathy as a research tool.”[14]

Watermarked Photo-8


The time is now to move through to the HOW and to act. We can collaboratively build and implement methodologies to ensure the consistent and ethical cooperation of cultural experts with humanitarian organizations to fully represent community voices. Recognizing that there are a multitude of ethical considerations that should be considered in further detail, we propose the following recommendations as avenues for increased collaboration among anthropologists and humanitarian organizations:

  1. Connecting multi-disciplinary expertise across Communities of Practice. One such example of an actively engaged Community of Practice, the American Anthropological Association’s largest interest group centers on NGOs and Nonprofits. Members of this group have discussed the possibility of creating a database open to all registered anthropologists and aid organizations that lists anthropologists currently in the field, their region, and their area of expertise. Anthropologists in this database could choose to make themselves available to the broader aid network in the event of a disaster, providing their contact information and where they can be reached on the ground.
  2. Employing remote consultations: One potentially useful method of incorporating anthropological knowledge into the fast-paced activities of a humanitarian response is to employ remote consulting, whereby aid workers and anthropologists can virtually collaborate and discuss the cultural context and various aspects of the humanitarian interventions. Remote consultations – whether in-country but in a differing location, from a neighboring country, or across the globe – are not only cost-effective but are also time-sensitive, requiring little more than an internet connection to function. As discussed above, some Ebola interventions incorporated the expertise of regional experts in the field of anthropology to create culturally aware – and, as such, more effective – methods of curtailing the spread of the virus. The Ebola Emergency Anthropology Initiative could serve as an example of an effective channel for remote consultations. All organizations deploying personnel in a humanitarian response should consider integrating this type of consultation as a component of their mandatory pre-departure briefings and preparations.
  3. Enhancing communication with affected populations: Anthropologists often have a unique access to communities who become affected by an outbreak, crisis or natural disaster. A useful function for anthropologists located nearby when a disaster strikes could be as backup mediators for focus groups and other community-based communications with affected populations. Anthropologists would not override or replace community leaders in their communications with aid organizations, but listen to conversations in meetings with aid organizations, as well as out-of-sight conversations, to assist in ensuring that the needs and concerns of the local community are represented and integrated.

Promoting two-way communication between anthropologists and aid organizations will improve programming, monitoring and evaluation, and the direction of funding in a humanitarian response. Anthropologists should not be relied upon as the sole arbiters between communities and foreign aid groups. However, they do have an ability to interpret social and cultural meaning behind requests and experiences that may seem obvious to local communities, but not necessarily to aid workers who have extensive aid experience but may have limited experience with local customs. In this way, insight into typical customs, rituals, and practices would assist organizations in the efficient creation and implementation of effective programs to reduce suffering and improve health and well-being.

  1. Funding for “Early Listening: Integrating the expertise of anthropologists in humanitarian assistance also requires that we consider the role of donors in supporting this collaborative approach. Here, we echo the recommendations made by Anderson, Brown and Jean concerning “Early Listening Funding” and Regine A. Webster and William Paton in “The World Humanitarian Summit: A Pivot Point in Philanthropy’s Contribution to Addressing Humanitarian Crises.”[15],[16] Recognizing that all aid providers must engage with affected populations and a variety of local stakeholders before designing an adequate response, donors must provide the adequate funds to do so effectively. Therefore “early listening funding” means that aid providers can draw upon a pool of funds that would “cover costs of an exploratory visit and conversations with many people in and around the area (with a lot of listening) to identify local priorities and options for pursuing them that would benefit from external assistance.”[17] A two-way conversation between anthropologists and humanitarian organizations is just one element of the “early listening” phase that requires timely and easily accessible donor support. In addition, funders and the sector as a whole can move away from charity model toward effective philanthropy that allies with and supports local organizations effectively.

We advocate for a growing relationship of mutual responsibility between cultural experts such as anthropologists and aid organizations in order to uphold the mission and ethics. 

There is no doubt that it is time for us to dedicate ourselves to truly placing affected populations at the center of humanitarian response. Doing so will require us to challenge assumptions, break down silos, and make concrete commitments. We advocate for a growing relationship of mutual responsibility between cultural experts such as anthropologists and aid organizations in order to uphold the mission and ethics. It’s time that we truly collaborate in humanitarian contexts and create channels to develop substantive forms of communication that improve the effectiveness of humanitarian aid. This collaboration cannot and should not be only anecdotal, but consistent, ubiquitous, and global.

Do you have an experience that you would like to share? Please comment here or contact us at info[at]emboldenalliances.org.

Would you like to be a part of a new database being constructed to facilitate collaboration between anthropologists and aid workers in crises? Please email rebecca.m.mantel[at]gmail.com for more information this project and on the Anthropology Interest Group on NGOs and Nonprofits.


[1] “Global Trends – Forced Displacement in 2015.” UNHCR. 20 June 2016. https://s3.amazonaws.com/unhcrsharedmedia/2016/2016-06-20-global-trends/2016-06-14-Global-Trends-2015.pdf

[2]“Special Session – People at the Centre.” World Humanitarian Summit.


[3] Aly, Heba. “The World Humanitarian Summit: Winners and Losers.” IRIN, 26 May 2016. http://www.irinnews.org/analysis/2016/05/26/world-humanitarian-summit-winners-and-losers

[4] “One Humanity: Shared Responsibility, Report of the Secretary-General for the World Humanitarian Summit.” United Nations General Assembly, 2 February 2016. http://sgreport.worldhumanitariansummit.org/

[5] Henry, Doug. 2005. Anthropological Contributions to the Study of Disasters. In Disciplines, Disasters

and Emergency Management: The Convergence and Divergence of Concepts, Issues

and Trends From the Research Literature. D. McEntire and W. Blanchard, eds.

Emittsburg, Maryland: Federal Emergency Management Agency.

[6] Peters, Melissa Minor. “Using empathy as a research tool: anthropology and Ebola.” Oxfam Policy and Practice Blog, 14 April 2015. http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/blog/2015/04/using-empathy-as-a-research-tool

[7] “About the Network.” Ebola Response Anthropology Platform. http://www.ebola-anthropology.net/about-the-network/

[8] Ravelo, Jenny. “Post-Ebola, what work awaits anthropologists?” Devex, 15 September 2015. https://www.devex.com/news/post-ebola-what-work-awaits-anthropologists-86876

[9] Saez, Almudena Mari, Ann Kelly, and Hannah Brown. “Notes from Case Zero: Anthropology in the time of Ebola.” Somatosphere, 16 September 2014. http://somatosphere.net/2014/09/notes-from-case-zero-anthropology-in-the-time-of-ebola.html

[10] Katz, Jonathan. The Big Truck that Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. Palgrave MacMillan, New York: 2013.

[11] Schuller, Mark. Killing With Kindness: Haiti, International Aid, and NGOs. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick: 2012.

[12] Anderson, Mary B., Dayna Brown, and Jean Isabella. Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid. Cambridge, MA: CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, 2012, p. 137.

[13] Bennet, Christina and Matthew Foley. “Time to Let Go.” ODI, April 2016.

[14] Peters, Melissa Minor. “Using empathy as a research tool: anthropology and Ebola.” Oxfam Policy and Practice Blog, 14 April 2015. http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/blog/2015/04/using-empathy-as-a-research-tool

[15] Anderson, Mary B., Dayna Brown, and Jean Isabella. Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid. Cambridge, MA: CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, 2012.

[16]Webster, Regine and Paton, William. “The World Humanitarian Summit: A Pivot Point in Philanthropy’s Contribution to Addressing Humanitarian Crises.” 2016.

[17] Anderson, Mary B., Dayna Brown, and Jean Isabella. p 142.