Change can happen in the humanitarian sphere. I kid you not. Take TPFKAB. The People Formerly Known As Beneficiaries (also TPFKAAR – The People Formerly Known As Aid Recipients). Long perceived as problematic – as passive, reductive and patronizing – over the past 18 months or so that nomenclature has been banished, the sector now self-imposing the more (politically) correct “crisis-affected populations” or “people affected by crisis.”
The new(ish) label is more correct in terms of the respect it confers upon TPFKAB. Reducing human beings to a status founded in their relationship to us – “beneficiary” or “aid recipient” or (worse still) “victim” (read: victim in need of saving by us) – placed a rather profound act of dehumanization at the centre of the humanitarian lexicon. Kudos for recognizing the issue and making the change. But the new label is sweeping; it too easily counts millions of people who lack a direct relationship to us at all, and whose well-being is heavily defined by that lack. Why? Moving from TPFKAB to “people affected by crisis” involves swapping out those who actually receive aid with the larger, aspirational category of all those who probably should be receiving aid but often who do not. The new nomenclature obliterates this distinction.
The new terminology risks producing a sectoral sleight of hand, as becomes obvious in usage, for example in relation to our humanitarian Waterloo, accountability to those self-same crisis-affected people. Here is how the Core Humanitarian Standard, the latest elixir for our accountability-challenged sector, proclaims itself: It also facilitates greater accountability to communities and people affected by crisis: knowing what humanitarian organisations have committed to will enable them to hold those organisations to account. I hate to sound picky (actually, I am rather picky), but the word “some” seems missing: “some (and often small percentage of) people affected by crisis.” That is who gets our aid.
As Austen Davis wrote 10 years ago, “There are no accountability initiatives that would hold agencies to account for not being somewhere.” That remains true today. In a smart paper on accountability, James Darcy further elaborated on this blind spot, highlighting the degree to which initiatives to establish humanitarian accountability really mean accountability “for what they do, and how they do it; not for what they fail to do”. Agencies remain unaccountable for their “strategic choices.” These form no small gap: “decisions about whether or not to intervene, the timing of intervention and withdrawal, which areas and communities to prioritise, the choice of programme approach and the ‘mode’ of delivery (how to work, with what types of partner, funding etc.).” (at note 10).
The result? Accountability frameworks that offer no accountability to many of those most profoundly affected by the humanitarian response to crisis – those not receiving aid. Accountability, of course, is just one problematic area for the use of the new terminology. What of the very image that comes to mind in a casual expression like “The international humanitarian sector has mobilized in large numbers, with dozens of organizations busy delivering aid to crisis-affected populations in [country].”? If only it were more true.
What of the TPFKABWSBDGA? The People Formerly Known As Beneficiaries Who Should But Don’t Get Aid. The new nomenclature may not conceal the agency or dignity of TPFKAB, may not wrap TPFAAR within their own victimhood, but it nonetheless manages to exemplify the same old trait of placing our lens onto their world, with something going invisible in the process. In this case, millions of people affected by crisis yet unaffected by our crisis response.