Breaking through the humanitarian jargon

Some of the many terms explained in the new humanitarian dictionary. Credit: Ben Parker/The New Humanitarian

Humanitarians from Geneva and elsewhere are translating aid-world catchwords into plain English for those of us who need a little help.

Befuddling or bedazzling, industry jargon is here to stay. (For proof, check out The New Humanitarian’s look at 25 years of humanitarian buzzwords.) But now humanitarians — and those who talk with them — have some help: a 262-page volume, Humanitarianism: Keywords, billed as “the first open access, comprehensive dictionary of humanitarianism.”  Guest contributors  – many based in Geneva –  offer 600-800-word definitions of more than 100 terms.

Staples of the field like neutrality are there, of course, and bits of technical jargon, such as the so-called nexus between development and humanitarian aid. Other terms are more abstract and unconventional: “vernacular humanitarianism” and “innocence”, for example.

One entry, less predictable than others perhaps, is “documents”. Julie Billaud of Geneva’s Graduate Institute writes that “documents embody the bureaucratization and institutionalization of aid in the liberal humanitarian age.”

Billaud told TNH by email: “As a researcher who has been studying humanitarianism for many years, I am intrigued by the disconnect between the way humanitarian organisations present themselves to the outside world — as being ‘out there in the field’ — and the reality of everyday work, which increasingly entails burdensome administrative labour.... this entry represents my modest attempt at analysing the meaning of the many brochures, leaflets, reports, receipts and forms produced by the industry.”

The dictionary’s editor, Norway-based academic Antonio De Lauri, admits that the selection of terms included in the volume is somewhat “arbitrary,” but he explains in a foreword that decisions were based on wide-ranging discussions with contributors. He also noted the limitation of being confined to the English language.

Meanwhile, the Humanitarian Encyclopedia is taking a different approach. With more of a crowd-sourced and Wikipedia feel, though one combined with academic rigour, the Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies aims to publish  entries for  129 concepts. Topics include 17 issues related to COVID-19. Yes, one of them is “epidemic”.