Humanitarian aid as performance?

When refugees use humanitarian assistance in rational but unexpected ways, aid agencies often fail to understand this “off script” response. Identifying the roles actors in the aid system are expected to perform can help address mismatches between them. 

A view through the market at Nakivale refugee camp
Naohiko Omata

In 2008, I asked a director of an NGO running livelihood programmes in a refugee camp in Ghana about the key challenges his organisation faces. Without hesitation, he said: “It’s very difficult to make refugees understand the aim of assistance programmes.” This is a perspective I have since encountered numerous times among frustrated aid workers in many locations.  

Relief organisations providing assistance to refugees expect particular responses from beneficiaries that align with an intervention’s desired outcomes. Yet refugees often improvise or use received support in ways unintended by agencies, devising rational strategies to serve their own purposes and increase their benefits. When refugees’ responses to aid interventions defy relief agencies’ expectations, the refugees aren’t playing the “role” expected of them by aid agencies, creating a disjuncture between the two. Humanitarian staff often struggle to understand the causes, instead creating labels such as “refugee syndrome”, which equates the experiences of forced displacement with the loss of rational thinking and effective problem solving.  

However, empirical evidence demonstrates that refugees respond rationally to aid, based on their lived experiences, in order to increase their access to resources and opportunities under numerous constraints. Yet aid organisations frequently fail – or do not attempt – to comprehend the strategies behind refugees’ decisions, blaming them for “unacceptable” non-conformity. When refugees use aid in different ways from agencies’ intentions or don’t implement training, relief organisations perceive this as predominantly an issue of refugees’ mindset – which, accordingly, should be altered. 

'Refugee syndrome' or rational initiative? 

Using a lens of “performance”, based on “scripts” of expected behaviour, my research explores the social and political dynamics among different actors in the humanitarian sector to explain gaps in expectation between aid providers and refugee beneficiaries. Drawing on two case studies from fieldwork in refugee camps in Ghana and Uganda between 2008 and 2019, I demonstrate in a recent article a significant divergence between the perspectives of humanitarian organisations and refugees, ultimately underpinned by relief agencies’ expectation that aid recipients comply – or perform – in particular ways in response to interventions.  

The notion of performance has been extensively employed in anthropology and sociology, denoting the capacity to execute an action, according to a prescribed social code of behaviour. Each social performance has a “script” defining this code, although individuals can be unaware of their own performative behaviours in everyday social life.  

These features of performance are highly relevant to misunderstandings between aid providers and recipients, shaping perceived desirable behaviours of refugee populations in the eyes of humanitarian agencies. Refugees’ self-initiative, agency and innovation can often subvert aid agencies’ expectations, yet there is a general failing among aid practitioners to acknowledge refugees’ capacity to improvise different ways of acting beyond aid agencies’ “prepared script”. Consequently, when refugees’ responses veer away from the script, relief workers often blame them, attributing their non-compliance to refugee syndrome.  

Creative responses to aid programmes 

In Uganda, for example, refugees arriving in rural settlements receive a plot of land for subsistence and commercial farming, but face increasing environmental challenges, especially declining soil fertility due to over-cultivation. In response, aid agencies in Nakivale refugee settlement taught residents sustainable agricultural techniques, such as enriching the soil with manure. However, most refugees who underwent the training did not implement the new agricultural skills, preferring instead to collect and sell manure to Ugandan locals for cash – to aid agencies’ dismay.  

However, my research found that due to decreasing land fertility, many refugee farmers are trying to diversify their income through non-farming sources, making agriculture a secondary livelihood. Collecting and selling manure is more profitable and efficient than growing and selling crops. Numerous farmers had also had to give up part of their land to accommodate a steep rise in the refugee population. This significantly discouraged them from implementing new agricultural practices. Yet most aid workers did not fully understand these reasons behind residents’ disregard of the new farming skills. “It is very hard to change refugees’ culture and mind-set,” lamented one UNHCR staff member. “They just stick to traditional ways.”  

Similarly, in Ghana, aid agencies ran an information and communications technology (ICT) training programme in Buduburam refugee camp, intending that refugees use their new skills to start businesses or obtain employment. But refugees encountered obstacles such as a lack of micro-finance, barriers to obtaining work permits, and discrimination from local people. Instead, they used their ICT knowledge to seek philanthropic individual sponsors in the global North through networking websites. With perseverance and luck, some succeeded. Refugees saw this “crowdfunding” approach as ingenuity, yet aid staff viewed it with frustration. One senior expatriate at UNHCR’s country office said: “It is a sign of their persistent dependency [on external help]. Donor governments did not fund the ICT programmes to encourage such activities.”  

Roles defined by rigid 'lock-frames'

In both cases, aid organisations expected refugee beneficiaries to “perform” in particular ways to achieve programme objectives. Aid agencies are themselves required to be highly performative in programme design and implementation, usually in relation to their head offices, donors and wider policy frameworks. Staff are expected to enact interventions according to defined scripts, depending heavily on refugee aid recipients to fulfil their prescribed roles by demonstrating the intended outcomes and impacts in the programme design. Yet, as the case studies show, relief agencies’ expectations are not always empirically informed and locally adapted.  

In each location, refugees created a new performative script of refugeehood, pursuing self-reliance and economic betterment through rational behaviours and innovative strategies. However, the current system of aid delivery gives recipients little room for improvisation or manoeuvre, however rational or ingenious.  

The logical framework matrices – “logframes” – which agencies use to measure and evaluate programmes show a linear, causal relationship between planned activities and expected outcomes. Formulated to reflect global aid policies, logframes can become “lock-frames”, making it hard for implementing agencies to deviate from plans even when the context changes.  

Identifying performance to address misunderstanding 

Interviews with aid agency personnel at both research sites showed their need to conform to official aid-policy stance – perhaps unaware that they are performing to an expected script within the humanitarian aid “machine”. Local field officers were more likely than senior staff to understand aid recipients’ “off-script” activities, having usually spent much longer with refugees, but had little scope to encourage such innovation.  

Aid organisations are required to “perform” for international audiences, including funding bodies, donor states, private-sector institutions and the general public. Facing fierce competition for funds, they must constantly showcase programme success, demonstrating that planned activities result in intended outcomes. Under such circumstances, a failure to perform is a threat to humanitarian agencies’ legitimacy and staff members’ job stability. Discourses on “refugee mindsets” are protective measures to gloss over unrealistic and decontextualised programme expectations within the humanitarian aid regime. 

A performance lens can not only help reject such reductionist ideas, but can also reveal expectations within the humanitarian sector, helping address misunderstandings between refugees and relief workers. Laying the blame solely with humanitarian agencies is not productive, as they also face pressure to execute the ideal performance. Instead, we need careful scrutiny of the structural issues that shape humanitarian assistance and create imperatives for different performers and audiences.  

Further information

Naohiko Omata (2022) 'Humanitarian Assistance as Performance? Expectations and Mismatches Between Aid Agencies and Refugee Beneficiaries'. ETHNOS, Journal of Anthropology