LINGOs: Politics of Cultural and Language Knowledge in Post-Cold War Humanitarianism

LINGOs: Politics of Cultural and Language Knowledge in Post-Cold War Humanitarianism

Humanitarianism has been to core how the Global North has related to the Global South. The Live Aid response to the 1984-5 Ethiopian Famine anticipated how humanitarianism would become entrenched as the prism through which the Global South would be viewed after the Cold War. The humanitarian sector considerably expanded in the 1990s as part of global governance. Nevertheless, this expansion took place in a context when organisations were fundamentally questioning their traditional humanitarian mission. Humanitarian approaches modified under pressure from internal debates and external security concerns. Here I want to highlight the cultural and language knowledge implied by the changing humanitarian models.

One of the new humanitarian policy areas introduced in the early 1990s was psychosocial interventions, including trauma counselling. The introduction of refugee trauma counselling programmes is traceable to the recognition of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the US Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (third edition) in 1980, which spurred the spread of trauma counselling for victims of war and disaster. More broadly, psychosocial concerns, which inform trauma counselling, may be traced backed to interwar western social psychology, especially US social psychology and conflict studies. The spectacular rise of psychosocial programmes may be attributed to three key reasons a) projection of western therapeutic concerns onto humanitarian crises b) reaction against the bureaucratising of aid and attempt to reconnect to disaster-affected populations c) response against accusations of traditional aid feeding killers in war-related crises or undermining local economies. In essence, psychosocial models conceptualise conflicts as arising from dysfunctional social psychology, and see psychosocial work as breaking cycles of trauma and violence. Thus trauma counselling programmes aspired not just to treat present distress, but to prevent future psychosocial dysfunction and therefore future violence and trauma.

The 1990s’ talking cures obviously involved an important language dimension, whether the direct psychosocial inventions or ‘training the trainers’ programmes. Yet the rise of talking cures did not lead to language knowledge becoming treating as an important issue in the humanitarian sector. Implicitly there was a reliance on locals speaking English to mediate the implementation of international programmes. For few reports even mention, let alone discuss, language challenges, or the need for language policies or language training or even how these relations worked in practice. Retrospectively, it is striking how narrow any discussion of language and culture was. Culture was commonly raised in terms of the need to address cultures of violence and promote cultures of peace. While language knowledge as an aspect of humanitarian work is barely mentioned in the 1990s’ humanitarian literature. Only incidental reference to language matters can be found. Translation and interpretation matters were not treated as a standard item for review in internal or external evaluation reports.

Insofar as individual psychosocial programmes mentioned cultural and language knowledge, reference mainly related to the need to make cultural modifications to the training materials and diagnostic check lists, and to translate them into the local language. Effectively cultural adaptation represented a sub-category of the promoted western model. So while international psychosocial initiatives formally acknowledged the need for cultural adaptation, their rather indiscriminate projection of mass trauma and psychosocial dysfunction projected a specific set of western professional norms onto how individuals respond to distress. Conversely, it was the critical literature challenging the western psychological models, which explored questions of cultural knowledge. Psychiatrists such as Patrick Bracken and Derek Summerfield criticised the projection of western psychosocial models onto disaster-affected communities, for marginalising and disrupting local coping strategies.

The last decade has seen a shift from trauma models to resilience models. What is its significance for language and cultural knowledge? Or what understanding of language and culture is implied by the resilience models? Critics of western trauma models initially welcomed the shift to resilience as moving away from pessimistic views of the capacity of disaster-affected populations.

However, the resilience paradigm is distinct from the concept of fortitude and its emphasis on individual or communal moral strength. Essentially, resilience models are risk management models drawing on ecological systems thinking. They are premised on a sense of global connectedness, but interconnected in terms of risks and vulnerabilities, contamination or contagion.

The resilience paradigm of interconnectedness through risks and vulnerabilities is leading to what Professor Mark Duffield has called the ‘bunkerisation’ of aid work, and risk management codes of aid practice seeking to insulate international aid organisations from the insecurities of crisis situations. Duffield has explored the building of fortified aid compounds, whose barbed wire and secured connecting roads have uncanny echoes of Solzhenitsyn’s gulag archipelago, although their purpose is to secure internationals from locals, their erstwhile humanitarian concerns. Increasingly humanitarianism is deploying systems modelling and remote monitoring, eschewing direct relations with populations. At the same time, UN or INGO MOST compliance codes are requiring international staff to not live in the local community, and avoid informal interactions with local inhabitants. Meanwhile whole swathes of the world are becoming ethnographic voids under risk management concerns, according to Duffield. As such contemporary humanitarianism reinforces global hierarchies and divisions between cosmopolitan elites and excluded populations.

The resilience paradigm with its systems modelling and remote monitoring operates at the level of populations, rather than individuals. Implicitly, the resilience paradigm represents a post-human and post-linguistic naturalised modelling of human populations, which retreats from the ideal of developing a global civil society of speaking subjects, expanding their moral political community beyond the nation state. Professor Julian Reid refers to the ‘disastrous and politically debased subject of resilience’. Indicatively human beings are increasingly seen by experts in terms of the neurosciences, and neural networks, in which the distinctiveness of human individuality and human language is being lost, as Ray Tallis has explored.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism wrote of the dangers of naturalising humanity, treating humans as species, not individuals, and re-organising around the struggle for survival of competing races. The contemporary global governance models are not premised on racial frameworks. Nevertheless, the resilience paradigm with its naturalising of human populations and expert management has its own anti-political and anti-democratic implications. So while the 1990s’ psychosocial paradigm, with its assumptions of vulnerability and dysfunction, involved retreat from belief in individuals’ moral, political and social capacity, the resilience paradigm involve further retreat from belief in human individuality to treating humans as species. In short, contemporary humanitarianism embodies a hollowed out demoralised humanity in retreat.

Author: Vanessa Pupavac is author of Language Rights: From Free Speech to Global Governance, Palgrave, 2012




Duffield, Mark (2012) ‘Risk Management and the Bunkering of the Aid Industry.’ Development Dialogue, No. 58, 21-36.

Reid, Julian (2012) The Disastrous and Politically Debased Subject of Resilience.’ Development Dialogue, No. 58, 67-79.

Vanessa Pupavac (2004) ‘Psychosocial Interventions and the Demoralisation of Humanitarianism.’ Journal of Biosocial Science, Vol. 36 pp. 491-504.



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