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Doing Good, But Looking Bad? Two Humanitarian NGOs in the Eastern DRC
Unformatted Document Text:  that they differ considerably from those of the humanitarian organisations themselves. Next, this paper summarizes the main factors determining local perceptions, and asks how research on local perception can be further improved. It also will study whether or to what extent the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence can be maintained. Ultimately, this paper contributes to greater awareness within humanitarian organisations of local perceptions and ways to understand and address negative perceptions. 2. The Relevance of Perceptions in Humanitarian Studies At first glance, it is actually quite surprising that the study of local perceptions took so long to receive regular attention. 3 Humanitarian organisations are non-profit organisations. Hence, they lack the consumer feedback that sales figures and, ultimately, the bottom-line provide to commercial enterprises (Nienhaus, 1998). In fact, most enterprises usually consider profit numbers too limited and slow as feedback for competitive purposes, so that the field of marketing has arisen to help improve or modify a company’s products and services, as well as its behavior toward its customers and other stakeholders. Lacking a clear bottom line, it would be ideal if non-profit organisations could regularly check their legitimacy and effectiveness; humanitarian organisations could carefully track perceptions of their activities in the field. Paradoxically, many humanitarian organisations are familiar with modern marketing techniques, but use them far more in their fundraising and/or advocacy campaigns than in the field (compare Dijkzeul, Moke, 2005). Schloms (2003: 50) and Walkup (1997: 51) even argue that humanitarian organisations actually seek to discourage consumer feedback. According to Schloms (2003: 50), “in the first place humanitarian organisations see their responsibility as accountability to the donors.” He further argues “accountability and transparency are undermined by the perception [in the eyes of the humanitarian agencies, DD] of aid as a self-justifying cause” (ibid, 51). The traditional argument of many humanitarian organisations is that addressing urgent needs takes priority in crisis situations. In addition to these tendencies to become donor- and crisis-driven, many other factors may help explain the traditional lack of attention to local perceptions. Language barriers, cultural differences, population movements, and difficult or dangerous access also hamper communication with local population groups. Within the organisations, fear of large overhead costs, an action-oriented attitude, short funding cycles, a desire to hide dirty laundry, and other pressures from working in crises, conspire against the regular use of perception studies. A conscious or subconscious northern “expert” bias to “know what’s best” may also play a role (see Hanlon, 2005: 9). Moreover, traditionally humanitarian organisations did not see themselves as actors that would be around for a long period of time. Yet, the idea of coming in, saving lives and leaving shortly afterwards has become a fiction in most chronic crises – for example, refugee camps exist for decades and periods of high excess mortality recur in (parts of) the Great Lakes region and the Horn of Africa. 4 The study of perceptions also has a broader relevance than just gaining a better understanding of “what local people think.” Scientific attention to the implementation and evaluation of humanitarian action has not kept pace with the rapid growth in number and roles of humanitarian organisations since the end of the Cold War. In general, most studies on humanitarian action focus on humanitarian policy and politics; implementation and interaction with the local populations have not been examined in equal measure. For example, Barnett (2005: 726) argues “[a]lthough humanitarianism is now firmly on the global agenda, 2

Authors: Dijkzeul, Dennis.
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that they differ considerably from those of the humanitarian organisations themselves. Next,
this paper summarizes the main factors determining local perceptions, and asks how research
on local perception can be further improved. It also will study whether or to what extent the
humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence can be
maintained. Ultimately, this paper contributes to greater awareness within humanitarian
organisations of local perceptions and ways to understand and address negative perceptions.
2.
The Relevance of Perceptions in Humanitarian Studies
At first glance, it is actually quite surprising that the study of local perceptions took so long to
receive regular attention.
Humanitarian organisations are non-profit organisations. Hence,
they lack the consumer feedback that sales figures and, ultimately, the bottom-line provide to
commercial enterprises (Nienhaus, 1998). In fact, most enterprises usually consider profit
numbers too limited and slow as feedback for competitive purposes, so that the field of
marketing has arisen to help improve or modify a company’s products and services, as well as
its behavior toward its customers and other stakeholders. Lacking a clear bottom line, it would
be ideal if non-profit organisations could regularly check their legitimacy and effectiveness;
humanitarian organisations could carefully track perceptions of their activities in the field.
Paradoxically, many humanitarian organisations are familiar with modern marketing
techniques, but use them far more in their fundraising and/or advocacy campaigns than in the
field (compare Dijkzeul, Moke, 2005).
Schloms (2003: 50) and Walkup (1997: 51) even argue that humanitarian organisations
actually seek to discourage consumer feedback. According to Schloms (2003: 50), “in the first
place humanitarian organisations see their responsibility as accountability to the donors.” He
further argues “accountability and transparency are undermined by the perception [in the eyes
of the humanitarian agencies, DD] of aid as a self-justifying cause” (ibid, 51). The traditional
argument of many humanitarian organisations is that addressing urgent needs takes priority in
crisis situations.
In addition to these tendencies to become donor- and crisis-driven, many other factors may
help explain the traditional lack of attention to local perceptions. Language barriers, cultural
differences, population movements, and difficult or dangerous access also hamper
communication with local population groups. Within the organisations, fear of large overhead
costs, an action-oriented attitude, short funding cycles, a desire to hide dirty laundry, and
other pressures from working in crises, conspire against the regular use of perception studies.
A conscious or subconscious northern “expert” bias to “know what’s best” may also play a
role (see Hanlon, 2005: 9). Moreover, traditionally humanitarian organisations did not see
themselves as actors that would be around for a long period of time. Yet, the idea of coming
in, saving lives and leaving shortly afterwards has become a fiction in most chronic crises –
for example, refugee camps exist for decades and periods of high excess mortality recur in
(parts of) the Great Lakes region and the Horn of Africa.
The study of perceptions also has a broader relevance than just gaining a better understanding
of “what local people think.” Scientific attention to the implementation and evaluation of
humanitarian action has not kept pace with the rapid growth in number and roles of
humanitarian organisations since the end of the Cold War. In general, most studies on
humanitarian action focus on humanitarian policy and politics; implementation and
interaction with the local populations have not been examined in equal measure. For example,
Barnett (2005: 726) argues “[a]lthough humanitarianism is now firmly on the global agenda,
2


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