Humanitarian governance: accountability, advocacy, alternatives

About the project

  • How is humanitarian governance imagined and organized in the interplay of different actors?
  • How do accountability and advocacy processes of aid recipients and civil society actors alter governance relations ‘from below’?
  • How do different patterns of governance emerge in different types of crisis and contexts of state-society-aid relations?
Humanitarian Governance project logo

The Humanitarian Governance (Hum-Gov) project is financed by a European Research Council (ERC) advanced grant and has a special focus on how civil society actors and crisis-affected people shape humanitarian governance by using accountability and advocacy.


The project seeks to develop models of alternative humanitarian ethics, for example centering on solidarity in addition to humanitarian principles.

Finally, there is a component researching how humanitarian actors conceptualize and deal with climate-related displacement. Hum-Gov works with partner institutes in Colombia, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where case studies take place. The project runs from 2021-2025.

An important secondary objective is to re-asses humanitarian studies by expanding the spaces and strategies that have opened up for reform ‘from below’ in the rapidly changing, risky and unstable contexts of humanitarian crises.

Shaping future humanitarian and ethical research

By focusing on the viewpoints and influence of affected communities and civil society actors, the Hum-Gov project will contribute to the way humanitarian governance is seen and understood. It will also shape future humanitarian and ethical research exploring the boundaries of participatory research in conflict-affected and politically volatile areas, by promoting more equal research partnership.

Why is this research relevant?

The numbers of people worldwide whose lives are endangered and that are rendered destitute by conflict, disaster or political collapse is growing, as well as the numbers of people that become displaced from their home communities. This is partly in relation to climate change.

Changes in humanitarian governance

Humanitarian governance has been rapidly changing over the last decade. The international character of humanitarian action is shifting to recognize and advance the multiple roles of local state and non-state actors. The logic of humanitarian action is becoming more diverse and shifts from a single focus on the humanitarian principles to alternative practices organized around, for example, resilience, accountability or solidarity.

We also expect to see that aid recipients gain more voice to challenge governance through accountability and advocacy practices. Finally, humanitarian actors find it increasingly difficult to define the scope of their actions and identify who is, and who is not, eligible for humanitarian assistance. The latter gains in importance as projections on disasters and displacement in relation to climate change concern ever larger numbers of affected people. 

The Hum-Gov research is a timely project to analyze these ongoing changes and to amplify the voices and influence of crisis-affected populations in humanitarian governance.

People-centred sustainable development

Crisis-affected areas are often in the lowest ranks of the Sustainable Development Goals and hence we see increasing effort from the whole international community, including the United Nations, to promote service delivery and development in these contexts.

The project studies these trends from a lens of social justice and accountability and hence may contribute to make humanitarian action and service delivery more people-centred, and better aligned with sustainable development.

Research team and collaborations

The project team is led by Professor Dorothea Hilhorst and Assistant Professor Rodrigo Mena. Partners include institutes in Colombia, Ethiopia and the DRC and 5 PhD candidates.


  • Bankoff, G, and D. Hilhorst (2022, eds) Why Vulnerability Still Matters. The Politics of Disaster Risk Creation London, Routledge, 107-125

  • D. Hilhorst (2022) ‘Humanitarianism: navigating between resilience and vulnerability’. In Bankoff, G, and D. Hilhorst (2022, eds) Why Vulnerability Still Matters. The Politics of Disaster Risk Creation London, Routledge, 107-125

  • Vezzoli, S., Hilhorst, D., Meyer, L., & Rijpma, J. (2022). Refugee protection in the region: A survey and evaluation of current trends. International Migration.

  • Hilhorst, D. and R. Mena (2021). ‘When Covid-19 meets conflict: politics of the pandemic response in fragile and conflict-affected states’ Disasters.

  • Hilhorst, D., Melis, S., Mena, R., & van Voorst, R. (2021). Accountability in Humanitarian Action Refugee Survey Quarterly, 40(4), 363-389.

  • Mena, R and D. Hilhorst (2021). 'Ethical considerations of disaster research in conflict-affected areasDisaster Prevention and Management. Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print. 

  • Article and commentary in the Dutch national newspaper Volkskrant

  • Digital Humanitarianism in a Kinetic War: Taking Stock of Ukraine – Rodrigo Mena and Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, 21 April 2022. The authors examine the use of technology in Ukraine for humanitarian purposes, focusing on the use of the Telegram app and cryptocurrencies. The authors set out some pointers for discussion and a co-collaborative research agenda while highlighting what is new, some of the risks arising and, more generally, how to articulate a research and policy agenda.

  • The asylum procedure as a hope-generating machine - Thea Hilhorst, 19 November 2020. Over the past few years, the European Union has used discouragement as its main strategy to prevent an influx of refugees, becoming more hard-handed as the number of refugees has increased. A faulty asylum procedure creates false hope to those who are then met by an untimely death or horrific conditions upon reaching Europe instead of ‘making it’ as a handful of refugees before them did. This hope-generating machine divides instead of unites, diminishing the collective power of refugees to challenge the EU’s migration policy.
  • Moria’s male refugees need help just as much as anyone else - Thea Hilhorst, 18 September 2020. The 2020 fire that razed refugee camp Moria in Greece left around 13,000 refugees homeless and fleeing once again. In this blog post, Thea Hilhorst argues that all refugees, regardless of age or gender, should be helped and that the plight of young men, who are often not considered ‘real’ refugees, should also be highlighted.

  • Fighting racism and decolonizing humanitarian studies: toward mindful scholarship - Thea Hilhorst, 18 August 2020. Partnerships between scholars and conflict-affected communities are as unequal as ever, and the disparities between humanitarian studies in the global North and global South remain large. In this blog post, Thea Hilhorst introduces the importance of localization in humanitarian studies, highlighting the need for equal partnerships and meaningful participation, as well as continuous debate to move beyond quick fixes in addressing structural and persistent inequalities

'Ter Apel is not a crisis' – 27 August 2022
Professor Thea Hilhorst has recently been surprised by the situation in the Dutch refugee centre in Ter Apel: 'Of course this is not necessary, we can easily free up a sports hall or something. Food packages were thrown over a fence, as if it was a zoo. Why can this exist?' On NPO Radio 1 in Dr Kelder en Co she talked about her research and sketched the bigger picture about the reception of refugees worldwide. You can listen to the interview in the podcast De Jortcast episode 491 ‘Ter Apel is not a crisis’ (in Dutch), or read the English news article covering the interview’s main topics.

Demanding accountability, advocacy & social justice ‘from below’ - 1 March 2021 Interview with Thea Hilhorst
In celebration of #SocialJusticeWeek, ISS sat down with Professor Thea Hilhorst to talk about her personal connection to social justice in relation to her latest project on humanitarian governance and accountability. Read the full interview with Professor Hilhorst.

Europe’s Achilles Heel: The asylum and migration regime unpacked - 23 November 2020
Students of the Governance, Migration and Diversity Track organized the talk show ‘Europe’s Achilles Heel: The asylum and migration regime unpacked’. With host Iana Hilhorst, guests Thea Hilhorst, Zeynep Kaşli, Sahar Shirzad and Anna Farrow reflected on current European migration management. What challenges does the EU face, particularly at the Greek-Turkish border and regarding refugee camps on the Greek islands? What does the future look like and what are potential solutions? Hear what the speakers had to say by watching the full talk show.

Africa Knows conference - February 2021
Professor Thea Hilhorst was part of a panel during the conference themed ‘Decolonising minds’. In recent years, Africa's universities, research institutions and other knowledge agencies have undergone tremendous change. A growing demand for scientific forms of knowledge and for higher education has pushed many of them to expand rapidly and to engage in a combination of daring initiatives and institutional, scientific, and educational creativity. New knowledge organizations, for example, with ties to religious groups or the private sector, have also been established. 'Decolonizing the academy' has become a loud call within and beyond the continent. Eurocentrism is increasingly questioned, while calls to 'look East' and 'look inside Africa' are gaining momentum.

Guest lecture on fixing the Humanitarian aid system at the University of The Netherlands
135 million people worldwide rely on humanitarian aid to help them cope with war, disasters and poverty. However, the current system for providing this aid cannot keep up with a demand that is growing every year due to climate change and its consequences. In this lecture, Professor Thea Hilhorst explains how and why our system for humanitarian aid needs to be fixed.

Guest lecture at the Centre for Poverty Analysis, Sri Lanka
Professor Thea Hilhorst gave a guest lecture on climate-related migration from a humanitarian perspective. She discussed the different discourses and framings of the relationship between climate change and displacement and their implications for humanitarian action.

Project activities and events

Hum-Gov organizes various project activities and events. These include the humanitarian observatories as a method to understand humanitarian governance, a speaker series on the decolonization of aid, webinars on equitable partnerships and monthly Hum-Gov webinars

Humanitarian governance refers to how the government, national and international humanitarian organizations, civil society actors and communities work together (or not) to address humanitarian needs. Collaboration processes between these different actors are often associated with many challenges, including the effectiveness of aid, accountability, trust and the localization of aid.

Beyond international trends, it is important to look at what can be done to improve humanitarian governance considering specific regional and national contexts. The Humanitarian Observatory is a method that can be used to address this need.

Humanitarian Observatories are organized spaces where participants representing multiple actors discuss a variety of topics in relation to humanitarian governance. Actors can include, for example, national aid providers, civil society actors, research institutions, independent researchers, academics, think tanks and government representatives.

Currently, three Observatories are in the starting phase in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, and Colombia.

For more information

A spin-off of the Humanitarian Governance project was the decolonization of aid series organized in collaboration with KUNO and Partos. This project was partially financed through the Science Communication: Appreciated! fund by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). The objective of the decolonization series was to have a critical and open debate about reshaping humanitarian governance structures, based on academic insights and humanitarian practice to inform and inspire policymakers, practitioners and academics.

Five dialogues were organized, each with a different focus. The dialogues were co-facilitated by Kiza Magedane, writer and knowledge broker at The Broker, and Professor Thea Hilhorst.

The dialogues

Watch the decolonization of aid dialogue series on YouTube

  • Dialogue 1 - A historical perspective
  • Dialogue 2 - A development cooperation perspective
  • Dialogue 3 - A humanitarian aid perspective
  • Dialogue 4 - An ethical perspective
  • Dialogue 5 - The role of the donor


Besides the recording, the findings of the dialogue series on the decolonization of aid were summarized in a booklet.

Spin-off with Partos and the Broker: Future brief – Decolonization of development cooperation

A trilogy on the decolonization of the development sector was initiated in response to the decolonization of aid series.

Martha Kapazoglou and Yannicke Goris, the authors of the first brief from The Broker, collaborated with Emmanuel Kumi, PhD from the University of Ghana, Jimm Chick Fomunjong from the West Africa Civil Society Institute and Professor Thea Hilhorst on Part 1, a future brief taking a historical approach. This brief lays the historical foundations necessary to understand the present and move ahead towards a decolonized future.

It was published by Partos and is available in English, Dutch, Arab, French and Spanish. Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 of the trilogy.

International research collaborations have increased significantly, mainly in the context of programmes funded by Northern governments, educational institutions and other organizations dedicated to humanitarian action and emergency response. While significant to knowledge production, the collaborations have raised concerns and criticisms regarding the real meaning of ‘partnerships’ and complex power dynamics.

To further advance this discussion, the Hum-Gov team collaborated with the Research Ethics Committee of the International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA) to organize four regional webinars in Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, India and Latin America. Researchers, scholars, and consultants were invited to share their lived experiences regarding power relations and possibilities for equitable partnerships.

The report North-South research collaborations: The quest for equitable partnerships includes a brief summary of the discussions. Each discussion had its own theme, starting with:

  1. The terms of the collaboration and agenda setting;
  2. Different types of knowledge and methodologies;
  3. Ownership of data; and
  4. Access to opportunities for publications.

The report also provides concluding remarks and a way forward.

The findings of the discussions were also presented during the 6th IHSA Conference on Humanitarian Studies. Rewatch the conference on YouTube.

During the monthly Hum-Gov Webinar series, guest speakers contribute with different perspectives around humanitarian governance, accountability, advocacy and alternatives.

Edited recordings of the seminars will be available shortly.

In this first webinar of the Hum-Gov Webinar series, Professor Thea Hilhorst introduces the Humanitarian Governance project and opens a critical debate on topics like protection and security, migration, humanitarianism, accountability, advocacy and the need for collaborative approaches.

Who is the humanitarian subject? Who and what is local?

Full webinar coming soon.

How can we capture and do justice to the complex nature of advocacy work, the diversity of contexts in which advocacy happens, and the diversity of actors involved?

Dr Margit van Wessel, assistant professor at Wageningen University, answers these questions in her extensive work on advocacy, civil society collaborations and advocacy evaluation.

Full webinar coming soon.

Dr Samantha Melis, MEAL advisor and Programme Officer at Stichting Vluchteling provides a critical view in this seminar on accountability and localization and answers the following question: ‘How can we move from ‘ticking the boxes’ to system change, and what role can MEAL play to make different choices?’.

Norms & ideas in the Rohingya Internally Displaced Persons crisis

Focusing on the Rohingya Internally Displaced Persons crisis, Jasmin Burnley, doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham, offers an examination of the disconnect between how humanitarian responses are expected to operate and their day-to-day political realities.

Norms & ideas in the Rohingya Internally Displaced Persons crisis

The moral foundation of modern humanitarianism is that humanitarianism is good at heart but that it is sometimes applied imperfectly. Tammam Aloudat, a Syrian MD, humanitarian worker and managing director of the Global Health Centre in Geneva, explains why this assumption is problematic.

Re-examining the ethical foundations of modern humanitarianism?

This webinar draws on ongoing research by Dr Nimesh Dhungana from the University of Manchester. In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, Dr Dhungana researched the role of youth-based activism in challenging inequalities and rights violations of labour migrants in Nepal.

Grassroots accountability activism to safeguard labour migrants

During this seminar Tanya Wood, director of CHS Alliance, discusses current opportunities and challenges for a more accountable aid system. She explores who bares the responsibility of accountability and how organizations need to adapt in how they act as individual entities and in their collaborations.

Full webinar coming soon.

In this webinar Tanja Hendriks, PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh and the University of  Oslo, focuses on the role of the state in humanitarian governance. She argues that civil servants of disaster-affected states are central to relief interventions: they are key to more effective, localized and sustainable forms of disaster response and risk reduction efforts.

Bringing the state back into humanitarian governance

Armed conflict and disasters are increasingly overlapping. Research has focused extensively on how climate change and disasters affect the risk of armed conflict. However, little is known about how disasters shape the dynamics of ongoing civil wars.

Tobias Ide from Murdoch University Perth unravels the impact of disasters on armed conflict intensity.

How disasters shape the dynamics of armed conflict

The book launch marks the publication of Why Vulnerability Still Matters. The Politics of Disaster Risk Creation, edited by Greg Bankoff and Thea Hilhorst. A book in which different aspects of vulnerability and disaster risk creation are highlighted.

Greg Bankoff from the University of Hull and Ateneo de Manila University, Terry Cannon from the University of Sussex and Ayesha Siddiqi from the University of Cambridge were the speakers of the 10th webinar.

'Why vulnerability still matters'

In this next episode, we explore whose ethics — between various actors in the humanitarian arena — matter. Engaging with critical and decolonial perspectives, our panelists explore the possibilities of creating spaces for negotiating different practices and values systems that foster inclusion and reflects the everyday realities of people living in crisis.

Walter D. Mignolo (Duke University), Rachel Kiddell-Monroe (SeeChange), Osman Sow (MSF Holland), Chrysant Lily Kusumowardoyo (ASB Indonesia and the Philippines) and Sione Tu'itahi (Otaga University) were speakers for the 11th webinar.

Whose ethics matter?

EU-ERC logo combined 16:9


This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 884139

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