Whose Words, Whose Voices? Humanitarian Agency Representations of Refugees

By Michelle Lokot

The lives of refugees are often presented by humanitarian agencies in ways that draw attention to their suffering, their ‘lack’. This is perhaps unsurprising. The work of humanitarian agencies depends on them knowing the most pressing issues faced by displaced populations. The pressure to identify needs and deliver programs that demonstrate impact as well as ‘value for money’, alongside the imperative to obtain funding, can compromise how research is conducted with refugees and how their experiences are represented. 

As a humanitarian worker for over eight years before I began my PhD research among Syrian refugees in Jordan, I grappled with these questions of representation within my work. My research grew out of my concern with the narratives that dominate humanitarian agency reports about gender and Syrian refugees. These are narratives that fixate on the ‘changes’ that occur in people’s lives as a result of displacement. Many of these narratives focus on what Jennifer Fluri (p. 45) calls the ‘dark side’ of human experience: rampant gender-based violence, rapidly-increasing early marriage cases and men who are apparently so emasculated by lack of work that they use violence against their wives. These narratives also suggest that displacement offers opportunities for positive ‘change’. Neoliberal logic informs this narrative: during displacement, Syrian women are suddenly emancipated from the home and can now (apparently for the first time, and with the help of humanitarian agencies) participate in economic activity in host countries. 

Narrowly framing the experiences of refugees can result in refugees being positioned as always needing assistance or external intervention. They also flatten the experiences of people and present their lives outside of historical context. Generalisations about refugees during displacement neglects crucial context about their pre-displacement experiences. For example, for some Syrian women, it is not the first time they have been running households or worked outside the home. Nor has displacement been the first time many women have experienced violence from their husbands. 

At times, reports from international humanitarian agencies make vague references to Syrian ‘culture’ or ‘tradition’, however analysis does not go further, giving the appearance that these concepts are static, homogenous forces. For example, one report references how ‘cultural beliefs’ limit Syrian women’s mobility while men have greater access to resources (p. 14). This narrative positions culture as negative while creating the impression that women are not able to leave their homes for cultural reasons. My research, however, showed that there are multiple narratives around mobility. Some women felt that living in countries like Jordan gave them greater independence and freedom, especially from their in-laws. Others felt their movements were more limited in Jordan, but referenced reasons that are not necessarily about culture. Some women (and men) felt they didn’t have anywhere to go due to not having friends in Jordan, while others did not leave the home due to lack of money for transportation costs. Other women decided to remain at home even when their husbands urged them to leave the house – it was their decision. 

Referring to ‘culture’ as an overarching reason for something can be problematic because it misses the complexity in human behaviour. Invoking culture may, however, be a by-product of working within an emergency context, where donors often require humanitarian agencies to implement activities quickly. Formative research to understand underlying socio-historical issues may not always be a priority, resulting in assumptions being made or in contextual information being obtained solely through ‘rapid’ needs assessments, which are not always detailed or qualitative. When problems become attributed to culture, it perpetuates generalisations about communities, flattening their experiences into one, tidy whole. 

Humanitarian workers interviewed as part of my research shared their frustrations around the problem-focused nature of research conducted with refugees. They discussed their own assumptions about the key issues that refugees face, and how this can influence how research is designed and how data is analysed. The types of questions asked and the meaning made of data can perpetuate Orientalist stereotypes, reinforcing ideas around oppressive male decision-makers always limiting women’s activities or resulting in vague allusions to ‘culture’ as the cause for all problems. This misses the intersectional and historical aspects of people’s lives and decision-making. It misses the complexities in their stories and represents the experiences of only some people – experiences that depend on a range of factors including economic status, education level, age and geographical location. This means that interventions that are designed may not be as effective or may only respond to issues facing a subset of the population.

Towards the end of my fieldwork in Jordan, I recall a conversation with a Syrian woman named Dina. Dina understood English, however we always did the interviews in Arabic. While my research assistant was translating, Dina suddenly burst into tears. She said to my research assistant, ‘I want to thank you… Because you are really translating word for word’. She explained that a few weeks ago, while at a European embassy applying for reunification with her husband, she was giving an account of her experiences to the embassy officials during an interview. The translator, however, was only partially communicating what Dina said. Dina understood English enough to know her story was not being fully translated. For her, the fact that my research assistant carefully translated every word meant something to her. It meant her story was fully communicated, not partially. It meant the representation I received in English was not a summarised, simplified version, but her actual words – something closer to the full picture. 

Within humanitarian agencies, there can often be a strong imperative to find a compelling story or a simple, catchy summary of problems. This justifies why humanitarian activities are needed. Within this process, the voices of refugees may be softened, simplified and generalised. The complexities surrounding people’s lives may be seen as tangential – not relevant to the main mandate of humanitarian agencies. 

The act of representation is itself political. When refugees are perpetually presented as vulnerable, suffering, and somehow lacking, it reinforces the hierarchies between humanitarian agencies and the communities (or ‘beneficiaries’) they serve. My research experience caused me to reflect on my role as a researcher. How aware am I of power hierarchies during the research process? How well do I listen? What assumptions do I make about people’s lives? Whose voices do I present – and whose are excluded in the process? 

Representations are merely partial – a snapshot into a bigger, more complicated narrative. For me, a researcher’s role is to unravel the common narratives, to interrogate how representations are perceived, and to understand what occurs beneath the stereotypes. This may help, as much as possible, in representing people’s lives in a way that captures more of the full story.

Michelle Lokot is a humanitarian and development practitioner with longer field postings in Burundi, Nigeria and Jordan. Her doctoral research focuses on gender, forced migration and humanitarian assistance. Michelle is currently a Research Fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, where she works on translating social norms theory to practice. Michelle tweets @michellelokot

This blog is part of The Politics of Representation special collection. Read other contributions here.

One thought on “Whose Words, Whose Voices? Humanitarian Agency Representations of Refugees”

  1. The problem focused nature of research conducted by NGOs you mention is typically driven by demands for reporting and accountability by donors. The donors are a catch-all term for the UN agencies, and wealthy country relief and development agencies, church agenices, and others that typically fund NGOs. Their world-view and the need for NGOst to justify the next grant ends to structure “research” to the exclusion of the more independent research academics hopefully do. Good luck trying to cross the divide!

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