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Exploring Southern-led models of humanitarian action

European and North-American led humanitarian responses to contexts of forced displacement are increasingly being paralleled and at times overtly challenged by an ever-expanding array of 'alternative' models of humanitarian intervention. However, while extensive research has been conducted on South-Southdevelopment programmes (ie Chinese development funding in sub-Saharan Africa), and 'alternatives to development' (ie post-development studies), there remains a need to comparatively examine South-South humanitarian partnerships. 

This project has critically explored the various histories, modes of operation and implications of diverse 'alternative' models of humanitarian action; such critical analysis is particularly important given increasing governmental and UN interest in Southern-led humanitarianism for a variety of financial and political reasons.This research project builds upon extensive fieldwork conducted between 2001 and 2009 in Southern states including Algeria, Cuba, South Africa and Syria which have provided different forms of humanitarian assistance to Middle Eastern and North African refugee populations. It also draws upon insights from a parallel project regarding Faith Based Humanitarianism in Contexts of Forced Migration, highlighting the wide range of initiatives which have been developed by diverse secular and faith-based Southern state and non-state actors around the world. 

Through an explicitly comparative framework, the project has aimed to answer the following questions:

  • What is the history of different models of state and non-state South-South humanitarianism?
  • Given the heterogeneity which exists between and amongst Northern and Southern state and non-state actors, what, if any, are the similarities and differences which exist between Northern-led and Southern-led humanitarian initiatives?
  • What are the motivations underpinning diverse Southern state, civil-society, collective and individual responses to contexts of displacement?
  • How are South-South humanitarian programmes and projects experienced and assessed by different members of Southern displaced populations?
  • Do diverse South-South humanitarian initiatives complement and/or challenge Northern-led humanitarianism?
  • What is the relationship between South-South humanitarianism and the “international” humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality?


The project has identified and examined diverse models of humanitarian responses designed and implemented by Southern state and non-state actors through a combination of primary fieldwork in the Middle East and Europe (2012-2014), a detailed 'mapping' exercise of diverse South-South humanitarian initiatives, international workshops, and a range of publications which will engage with academics, practitioners, policy-makers and displaced populations around the world.

On 6 October 2012, a workshop on South-South Humanitarianism in Contexts of Forced Displacement took place at the Refugee Studies Centre, Oxford, kindly supported by the Oxford Department of International Development’s Outreach Fund (QEH, University of Oxford), by the RSC and by the Policy Development and Evaluation Service of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The podcast of the Opening Lecture delivered by Simone Haysom (Humanitarian Policy Group, Overseas Development Institute) is available to download here: Download the podcast, and the Workshop Report is available to download here. An RSC Working Paper, 'Writing the "Other" into humanitarian discourse: Framing theory and practice in South-South humanitarian responses to forced displacement' is available to download here.

A monograph, South-South Educational Migration, Humanitarianism and Development: Views from the Caribbean, North Africa and the Middle East, which draws on critical theories and insights from intersectional analysis to examine the experiences and implications of refugee youth's participation in South-South higher education programmes designed to maximise 'self-sufficiency' in their refugee camp homes has been published by Routledge in January 2015. In so doing, the book considers the broader implications of such South-South progammes vis-a-vis 'alternative' conceptualisations of development and humanitarianism alike. In particular, South-South educational systems which provide medical training to Middle Eastern and North African refugee youth are critically examined through a comparative, multi-sited and inter-disciplinary framework, examining the extent to which refugee's identities, conditions in their contexts of origin, and a range of structural factors influence their experiences of returning to their refugee camps following graduation.


Dr Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh is now based at the Department of Geography, UCL, where she is continuing her research. Read more