Global crises feature complex interactions between state and non-state military actors, civilian populations, humanitarian organizations, journalists and private corporations. As zones of overlapping and concurrent interventions, these spaces of war, forced migration and humanitarian disaster often provide opportunities, inspiration—and sometimes the imperative—to conduct research.

As health sciences disciplines recognize most directly, such extreme, catastrophic and comparatively rare events embody moments that societies must understand but cannot ethically re-create in order to study. Researchers cannot intentionally trigger a Chernobyl-level reactor meltdown, an Ebola outbreak or a bombing campaign to examine their public health consequences. Rather, they wait for one to happen and then gather data in order to facilitate understanding, treatment, mitigation and even models of compensation.

Many social scientists, on the other hand, do not confront the relationship between complex crisis and opportunity as overtly—it would be ethically unthinkable to create a war or humanitarian crisis in order to study its consequences. Researchers who work in such spaces often hope their research can be used to ameliorate those conflicts or help those affected by them, in part via critical examination of the effects of multi-faceted, concurrent interventions. Some scholars seek to capitalize on the latest hot topic to gain reputational and professional benefits associated with doing high-risk or extreme research (a process referred to as “outdangering”), or insist that they can provide immediate aid, despite limited evidence in this realm.[1]

Scholarly research is by definition an intervention: To develop a research question is to “intervene” in a debate. Research necessitates the researcher intervene into spaces, social relations and organizations whether through the application of a treatment (versus a control, though the decisions to control or to not treat can also be forms of intervention), the arrangement of particular types of goals into a larger competitive field (governments versus human rights advocates) or embedding new theories and approaches within a broader scholarly deliberation. In fields such as economics and political science, scholars are also often asked for policy recommendations, which may become latent or active interventions.

Not all military, humanitarian and economic interventions are equally necessary, warranted or legitimate. The same applies to academic and research-based interventions; quite simply, not all are created equal. Academic interventions can impose serious harm on individuals, communities, local partner universities,[2] and even humanitarian program staff operating in crisis zones.[3] They may also—by design or not—be used to defend and enable other forms of intervention. Many of the social science disciplines—including anthropology and sociology—have their roots in interventionist colonial imaginaries and campaigns of conquest.

Given that research in crisis-affected settings necessarily involves intervention, important questions arise about how academic projects interact with those of other actors and how these can produce harmful effects. When are researchers unknowingly reproducing sensitive and dehumanizing interactions; fetishizing and commodifying human tragedy; or engaging in problematic labor dynamics? In a regional situation where reinvigorated authoritarian regimes are ratcheting up surveillance, harassment and violence against researchers, the ‘crisis zones’ of displaced persons and refugees have emerged as alternative sites where the state’s official coercive presence is seen as less obtrusive or threatening to researchers. As larger numbers of scholars gravitate toward these locales one must ask what benefit such research—as carried out by social scientists—in fact provides. Drawing upon a decade of observations and experiences from field-based research with armed actors, displaced persons and humanitarian responders in Lebanon and Northern Iraq, I ask if “do no harm” is a sufficient pre-condition for conducting social science research in crisis zones, and what kinds of practices research communities should consider moving forward.


Dehumanizing Assessments?

The sun is barely over the horizon as the team of Iraqi medical workers piles into white, 12-person vans for the short drive to an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp south of Erbil. One of them tells me that in the past months, the number of residents has ballooned to approximately 30,000. Several thousand people arrived in the first week of August 2016 alone, walking through the hot dry agricultural plains outside of Mosul, Hawija, or Makhmur to escape the Iraqi Army’s and Kurdish forces’ salvos against ISIS, known colloquially by its Arabic acronym Daesh. Most of the arrivals are Sunni Arabs who, for one reason or another, had chosen to stay in their homes following Daesh’s takeover in 2014. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) consequently established a screening system whereby men arriving at IDP camps were separated from their families and sent for questioning by security agencies before joining the camp’s population.

When we arrive, a community health team scans a section of the camp that hosts new arrivals, planning an assessment. The team consists of three medical workers who move systematically between households—tents—interviewing family members. At the doorway to each tent, the team leader leans down, greets anyone inside—all the flaps are open due to the heat—identifies the international non-governmental organization (INGO) and its purpose, asks if the team may conduct an interview and notes that a foreign researcher (me) is observing the INGO’s work that day. Everyone answers in the affirmative and invites us inside; many offer bottled water from their daily rations. While air coolers—fans that blow across pipes containing chilled water—sit at the far end of each tent, the electricity is not on yet for the day.

The very act of interviewing in this setting creates and reinforces the categories of aid worker and beneficiary, safe and vulnerable, mobile and immobile. These dichotomies are noteworthy because several of the medical workers are themselves IDPs from Mosul and speak with Moslawi accents. Yet their medical skills and employment place them in a different social category, vis-à-vis both their co-employees at the INGO and the IDPs they are interviewing. Team members click pens and begin the interview, asking the number of people in the household, their ages and about any health conditions they face (a wound, a cold, type 2 diabetes). The community health worker teaches the children in the tent how to wash their hands with sanitizer instead of water (which is in short supply) and demonstrates the technique while making a game of it for younger children. After between five and ten minutes we say our thanks, often politely refusing a lunch invitation and move down the row to the next tent, repeating the entire process.

Repeated interactions such as this one encourage people to relay extraordinarily emotional stories in a depersonalized, systematic, compartmentalized way. Though the new arrivals in the IDP camp were not yet accustomed to the system, interactions that I later observed in other camps and urban program sites immediately revealed a pattern: a beneficiary would encounter a humanitarian worker, state their name, if they were married, if they were widowed (and often the way they were widowed, as this factor can influence inclusion in an aid program), the number of people in their family, the number of children, the number of children under a certain age (an indicator of special needs), any health problems family members had, the physical state of their house, if they had returned home, and so forth. Female heads of households—considered a particularly vulnerable category in the humanitarian world—seemed particularly likely to organize initial interactions in this way, and often carried a dossier of paperwork from past engagements with INGO and United Nations (UN) workers.

In northern Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, as in places such as Zaatari, Jordan, the camps’ built environments facilitate such assessments: Tents are clustered or in rows, with numbers to facilitate information gathering, distribution and monitoring. This level of organization also makes camps attractive locales for scholarly research requiring randomization and structured interviews; people are often home, with very little to do, few excuses to say no and they live in an environment where refusing interventions can be viewed with suspicion. There is pressure to accept visitors, the underlying understanding being that visitors are collecting information in order to provide material aid, services, protection and advocacy. Given the repeated interactions camp residents have with health and aid workers, they develop highly condensed and scripted statements that encompassed a vast range of personal circumstances designed to be delivered quickly and intelligibly to a range of aid workers. The fact that displaced persons deploy these strategies reflects both a strategic reaction to being sorted into particular categories as well as attempts to navigate often paradoxical and depersonalized aid systems with minimal frustration.


Helping or Harming?

Researchers often view their projects as isolated endeavors. In reality, interventions—academic, humanitarian, medical, advocacy-based, government and journalistic—occur in the same spaces and in relation to each other. In violence-affected settings, people’s past experiences with military actors shape reactions to humanitarian and researcher efforts in surprising ways. During the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, for example, the fact that external thermometers looked like pistols, worked by being applied to a person’s forehead and were deployed at checkpoints contributed to associations of health workers with soldiers, generating intense fear of these interactions. The result was that people avoided these health stations, contributing to the spread of Ebola.[4] In humanitarian settings, populations often see researchers not as independent actors, but rather as part of this larger body of outsiders who are internationally mobile, well-paid, culturally distinct and politically removed from the milieu in which they work.

The eliding of professional distinctions and goals by on-the-ground populations was so thorough in Rojava and Iraqi Kurdistan that I was advised to simply tell people that I was working in humanitarian aid; a Kurdish friend argued that is how people on the ground would understand me anyway. Similarly, Johanna E. Foster and Sherizaan Minwalla note of their research with Yazidi women: “One of the greatest challenges we faced in collecting our data was walking in the shoes of hundreds of journalists before us. Even when we went to great lengths to assure women that we were researchers and not journalists, some among the Yazidi community including the women we interviewed perceived us as journalists.”[5] In this setting, many Yazidi women perceived journalists’ work as predatory and dehumanizing and projected associated expectations onto other foreigners visiting the camps.

The nature of research methodologies, therefore, implicates academic interventions as potential influences on ongoing crises. Scholars have repeatedly grappled with questions related to the potential expectation of services and remuneration, as well as the question of whether people understand the distinction between researcher and humanitarian.[6] Yet the fact remains that on an even more basic level, seemingly innocuous styles of scholarly engagement—structured interviews, particularly when recorded, or random sampling for surveys—almost inevitably mimic those used by other actors with whom populations have negative associations (security forces who interview Sunni Arab men before granting them permission to live in an IDP camp; aid workers who conducted an assessment but could not provide sufficient resources in response). These methods thus carry the potential to perpetuate feelings of being surveilled and having their most immediate needs endlessly documented but continually unmet.

While engagement in these spaces is often premised on the idea that one’s contribution will help others, social science researchers rarely have the means to immediately improve people’s lives and work on much longer time horizons than journalists or aid agencies.[7] The result is that conducting research in some of the most seemingly favorable settings—often refugee or IDP camps that seem organized, relatively safe and easy to randomize—may thus produce ethically fraught, seriously biased, emotionally extractive and highly politicized research, even for responsible researchers. The lesson here is not that scholars should introduce themselves as humanitarian workers or promise aid that they cannot deliver; nor is it that scholarly researchers should moonlight as journalists simply to have immediate impact. Rather, they should understand their position as embedded in a broad political and professional class that practices intervention as a mode of knowledge creation; to design meaningful projects with these dynamics in mind; and to think seriously about whether the academic contribution they anticipate merits the extent of intervention they propose.


Fetishizing Vulnerability and Trauma

Push factors for predatory research come from a range of interests, including intense competition at Western universities to provide on-the-ground research experiences for students at all levels. In the summer of 2018, a faculty member at a university in the Middle East told me they had just rejected a partnership with an elite Western university. This university had approached them in the hope that their local researchers would provide support for a group of Western students who wanted to interview survivors of wartime sexual violence and other atrocities. The fact that such professionally coordinated and expensive programs are growing at a time when universities are often cutting support for foreign languages and other humanities reveals their true motivation, which is to increase student applications by offering curated experiential programs that promise high drama research for those with at most entry-level skill sets. A critical evaluation of such a program would reveal that this is not an appropriate project for most researchers, much less student researchers who do not speak the local language and are not mental health specialists.

Nor is the university partnership referenced above by any means an isolated example. Simply Googling phrases such as “study abroad research opportunity refugees” provides descriptions tailor-made for tuition-paying undergraduates hoping to meet refugees in places such as Jordan. One program blurb reads:

Visit Palestinian and Syrian refugee host communities, healthcare facilities, UN agencies, international relief organizations and local NGOs. You’ll also visit UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency), United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNICEF, Danish Refugee Council, International Committee of the Red Cross, various national NGOs and Jordan’s Ministry of Health. These field visits give you the opportunity to observe and experience program themes firsthand.

Such programs monetize educational access to vulnerable populations and contribute to a larger dynamic where refugees are expected to present their stories to strangers in the pursuit of empathy, aid and advocacy. Little is said about how participants have been identified, whether and how they are remunerated and what mechanisms exist for them to end their relationship with the program. It is thus extremely difficult to judge, from afar, the ethical commitments and power dynamics of these interactions. In joining such programs, students bypass many core aspects of research training, including the possibility of rejection by individuals and communities of interest. The very question of access has been resolved through admission to the program. By not developing relationships, fully learning relevant languages or navigating the complex realities of local communities, students leapfrog over the process of building the skill sets these programs purport to develop.

This focus on experience rather than knowledge implicates a deeper trend of cutting corners when it comes to proper cultural, methodological and ethical training. Interviews that I carried out with Yazidi psycho-social workers in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq in 2016 revealed several related dynamics that suggest these practices have long-term consequences. Despite interacting with multiple foreign researchers and being interviewed by journalists on multiple occasions, none of the psycho-social or medical workers I interviewed had previously gone through a formal consent process. In our conversations, these workers emphasized that outsiders—mostly journalists, but also aid workers and UN representatives—always wanted the same, gruesome, sensationalist stories about sexual violence rather than other aspects of their experiences of captivity.

Yet as psychosocial and mental health professionals, my interviewees also expressed concerns about the tension they faced between protecting their beneficiaries and the immediate need to raise funds and advocate survivors’ rights by facilitating access. Humanitarian workers—often heads of mission, sometimes hosting diplomats or celebrities—thus found themselves contributing to the same troubling, extractive dynamics in the name of donor mobilization and advocacy.[8] Workers at one organization noted that outsiders’ sensationalist focus on sexual violence translated into retraumatization for their clients, who were repeatedly asked to re-live dark moments in the name of “bringing stories to light.” According to their psychologists, Yazidi women frequently spoke of these encounters in group therapy sessions, expressing guilt and shame that they did not feel more comfortable telling their stories to strangers.

In this particular case, concerns regarding exploitation escalated to the point where the KRG’s Joint Crisis Coordination Centre started requiring those wishing to interview Yazidi survivors to apply for permission before entering the IDP camps. This type of gatekeeping can be a protective necessity that denies access to harmful (or simply unprepared) actors. So can the implicit gatekeeping done by researchers such as Foster, Minwalla, Sukarieh, and Tannock, whose scholarship has emphasized the warped consequences of unethical journalistic and academic interventions and encouraged other scholars to consider these dynamics when designing and siting research.


Unequal Academic Labor

Such privileged access to fieldwork experiences is echoed in recent studies of the labor dynamics within international research teams. Scholarship about scholarship, so to speak, demonstrates that local academics and research assistants who work for international scholars often experience discriminatory treatment, are exposed to unique risks, face amplified emotional burden, and feel as though they are valued differently than foreigners.[9] The rapid marketization of fixer or research assistant services—pay for access—in response to changing environments, specific events or growing knowledge that researchers will pay for access to certain types of people (local NGOs, military officers, members of the LGBTQ+ community) also creates perverse incentives for locals to transform their personal relationships into monetizable data points.

In crisis-affected spaces, the emergence of markets for these services increase inequalities and often contradict local populations’ wishes. As such, even the act of hiring a translator, research assistant or fixer is an intervention in and of itself. Fair salaries paid, new skills taught and professional recommendations written do contribute to both individual and community benefits. Highly educated, bilingual fixers or research assistants, however, also often explicitly ignore community requests because of the financial benefits offered. The explosion of demand for translation and research assistance in crisis zones can actually warp local labor markets. For example, a Palestinian friend who worked with journalists during the 2006 July War in Lebanon joked that while she didn’t know the first thing about journalism, a foreigner offered her $300 to take her around her destroyed southern Beirut neighborhood and talk to people for a day. Given that her existing salary was $250 a month, she wasn’t about to say no. She remembered feeling uncomfortable with the reporter’s request to find the most miserable people she could to interview.

Another case in Lebanon involved a youth from a Palestinian camp in Beirut who repeatedly brought outsiders into the camp despite multiple requests from his neighbors to stop. Though I refused his services (which were offered unsolicited in a café) multiple foreign diplomats and researchers later spoke to me of this “terrific kid” who “needed to pay his university tuition” (he was not enrolled) and would “take them on a camp tour and to his mother’s house to experience Palestinian cooking.” I later learned that he also worked as an informant for an intelligence service, unbeknownst to his foreign employers. Here, the commodification of a camp space led to researchers bypassing important forms of local gatekeeping, generating exploitative dynamics, rewarding someone seen as “selling out” his community and presenting, in locals’ views, biased representations of their neighborhoods.


Beyond Good Intentions

The relational nature of research interventions means that even a “perfect” project conducted by an ideal researcher will inevitably feed many of these processes if it is conducted in certain settings. Researchers and advisors need to acknowledge the multiple ways that even well-intentioned and carefully planned projects can contribute to negative dynamics.

An obvious starting point is to pose a few simple questions at the development and planning stages of any project. Who is this research for? Is it a learning experience for a beginning, intermediated or advanced student; an entirely scholarly project; or a project with public awareness, legal and/or policy implications? Why does this particular population, site or case merit inquiry? Is there an alternate, less-studied or less sensationalized site that could serve the same purpose? What immediate potential does the project have to improve the lives of those being studied? Will the researcher or research team be a burden on those with whom they are working? How familiar is the researcher with the local context and concurrent interventions? Does the researcher speak the local language? How many other researchers have worked in this area previously? Will access require paying a program, fixer or research assistant? Does the researcher expect to form a long-term relationship with individuals and communities in the site, or will this be a one-time trip? If the project is about atrocity or sexual violence, does the project truly necessitate interviewing displaced people or survivors directly?

Each of these questions presents tradeoffs, rather than absolute conclusions. For example, much social science research necessarily does not have an immediate benefit for participant populations (and scholarly publication timelines alone mean that academics are not often the ones alerting the world to a fresh crisis). This fact does not imply that research should never be conducted in crisis zones; it means that when it is done, it should be particularly well justified, carefully designed and planned, conducted by skilled researchers and that scholars should consider if there are things they can do to provide benefit. If there are not enough good reasons to justify intervention—or if the intervener is clearly unqualified—then the research should not be done. Despite good intentions, it is also reasonable to suggest that allowing beginner students to practice their skills by interviewing vulnerable populations is ethically unjustifiable.

Perhaps the bluntest ethical guidance for researchers and their students is to be more original. One promising strategy is to research up, or across, rather than down in terms of power dynamics; that is, the researcher should explicitly aim to study powerful populations and actors rather than those considered vulnerable.[10] This move—which might, for example, involve studying government officials or humanitarian organizations and workers rather than those for whom they make policy or provide aid—must be accompanied by increased recognition of the challenges involved with accessing more powerful populations and building working relationships with them.[11] While the relative ease with which marginalized and underserved communities can be accessed by researchers may be tempting, the relationships posited by many projects are not built on trust, but rather on latent coercion and practiced scripts developed before the researcher even arrives on site.

Conducting research among conflict-affected populations, a growing trend in the Middle East and North Africa given the major wars and humanitarian crises in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, takes particular care, innovation and an ethical sensibility. Acquiring knowledge of social and political processes in crisis contexts is often necessary and desirable. Yet field-based research in or adjacent to crisis zones is also a mode of intervention that inevitably affects those being researched. The dynamics described above are not “inconveniences” to be overcome—they are dynamic and persistent aspects of political and social life in humanitarian settings that scholars must center in their research design and planning.   ■



[1] Milli Lake and Sarah E. Parkinson, “The Ethics of Fieldwork Preparedness,” Political Violence @ a Glance, June 5, 2017.

[2] Mona Abaza, “Academic Tourists Sight-Seeing the Arab Spring,” Jadaliyya, September 27, 2011; Yolande Bouka, “Collaborative Research as Structural Violence,” Political Violence at a Glance, July 12, 2018; Irène Bahati, “Le Robot Producteur Sud: Quel Avenir Dans Les Zones Rouges?” Rift Valley Institute, May 23, 2019.

[3] Mayssoun Sukarieh and Stuart Tannock, “Subcontracting Academia: Alienation, Exploitation and Disillusionment in the UK Overseas Syrian Refugee Research Industry,” Antipode 51/2 (2019); Kate Cronin-Furman and Milli Lake, “Ethics Abroad: Fieldwork in Fragile and Violent Contexts,” PS: Political Science & Politics 1/8 (April 2018).

[4] Michiel Hofman and Sokhieng Au, The Politics of Fear: Médecins Sans Frontières and the West African Ebola Epidemic (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[5] Johanna E. Foster and Sherizaan Minwalla, “Voices of Yazidi Women: Perceptions of Journalistic Practices in the Reporting on ISIS Sexual Violence,” Women’s Studies International Forum 67 (March 2018), p. 56.

[6] Elisabeth Jean Wood, Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), Janine Natalya Clark, “Fieldwork and Its Ethical Challenges: Reflections from Research in Bosnia,” Human Rights Quarterly 34 (2012).

[7] Janine A. Clark, “Field Research Methods in the Middle East,” PS: Political Science & Politics 3 (2006).

[8] Foster and Minwalla, 2018.

[9] See Bouka 2018; Cronin-Furman and Lake 2018; Sukarieh and Tannock 2019; Bahati 2019.

[10] Anaheed Al-Hardan, “Researching Palestinian Refugees: Who Sets the Agenda?” Al-Shabaka (blog), April 27, 2017.

[11] Lee Ann Fujii, Interviewing in Social Science Research: A Relational Approach (London: Routledge, 2017).

How to cite this article:

Sarah Parkinson "Humanitarian Crisis Research as Intervention," Middle East Report 290 (Spring 2019).

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