Humanitarian fables: morals, meanings and consequences for humanitarian practice

What do fables have to do with understanding structures of inequality in humanitarian aid? Research in Democratic Republic of the Congo shows how personal stories become fables in humanitarian organisations, and help justify decisions that maintain unequal power structures. 

Models of humanitarian vehicles

Stories are rich repositories of meaning, created as people reflect on events. Fables are one of the oldest traditions in folklore and have been found through the ages and around the world: they are a type of storytelling which usually takes the form of tales that illustrate moral lessons, or morals.  

What do fables have to do with understanding humanitarianism, and the structures of inequality that remain pervasive in aid? In a recent article in Third World Quarterly, I describe how personal stories become fables in humanitarian organisations. I argue that examining these fables and their meanings is important, because such fables help to justify certain decisions in aid organisations, which, in turn, help maintain unequal power structures. 

I stumbled across these stories somewhat by accident, as part of a broader research project examining how humanitarians negotiate access to deliver relief aid in areas controlled by armed groups in conflict settings. For four years, I conducted research on how the medical humanitarian agency Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) negotiated access in North Kivu, in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). I spoke to a broad range of different humanitarian employees (both Congolese and foreign) to better understand how they approach “security management”. As I travelled between organisational offices and project sites of MSF, it soon became clear that I was not travelling alone. In locations in the eastern DRC, as well as humanitarian offices in European capitals, I kept coming across the same stories. During interviews with humanitarian employees, these recirculating tales recurred so often that I came to recognise them as travel companions. They appeared to be based on someone’s personal experience, and although each story differed slightly with each telling, the different versions shared a collective meaning, a lesson. I came to understand these stories as organisational fables. 

Three recurring fables and their meanings 

Over time, I became interested in these fables: how they circulate and the lessons they come to embody. It became clear that such stories are doing particular “work” in maintaining an organisational status quo and its associated power structures. These stories teach new humanitarian employees certain “facts” about “the field” and help form and consolidate consensus about why things are the way they are in the organisation.  

I track the work of three fables – which I call Dirty Whores, The Internal Leak, and The Magic Padlock – in justifying certain institutional practices that ultimately reinforce structures of unequal power relations in humanitarian aid. These three fables turned specific events into stories that illustrated a supposed need for foreign humanitarians to maintain a certain distance from local citizens (including their nationally hired colleagues) as a means of personal and organisational security. These stories were not used in official briefings, nor were they actively utilised by the organisational hierarchy. Instead, they spread by word of mouth among informal networks of “international” humanitarians. My aim is not to argue that the empirical content of these stories is not “true”: all three are based to some degree on real events. Rather than focusing on their veracity, however, I focus on their symbolic meanings or “morals”, the organisational structures and practices they help to justify, and the tropes and representations they reproduce in the process, as well as the power relations they help to maintain. 

These fables told different stories. Dirty Whores described the angry reaction of the local population when a foreign woman working for MSF had a relationship with her married Congolese colleague – illustrating the potential dangers of intimate relationships between “internationals” and “locals.” The Internal Leak described how “locally hired” staff might leak information about the location of money and supplies, which becomes apparent when the team are being robbed at gunpoint. The Magic Padlock described the sneaky trick of a Congolese employee who changed the padlock on a technical depot, so that only he had the key – emblematic of supposed systems of corruption among Congolese staff, and a means of discussing “corruption in Africa”. 

The moral of the first fable is that intimate relationships with local citizens are risky: not just for an individual, but potentially for the whole team. The second fable suggests that “national staff” should not necessarily be trusted: they have ambiguous loyalties and possibly even links to armed or criminal networks. They might betray MSF for personal gain. The moral of the third is that “expat supervision” is essential to avoid corruption, and that “national staff” may try and deceive their colleagues.  

These fables explain and ultimately justify the way things worked in the organisation: they help employees understand certain organisational decisions and structures. Indeed, these fables were often presented to me so that I, too, could understand their logic. Dirty Whores helps to explain the rule forbidding intimate relationships between foreign humanitarian employees of MSF and local citizens or colleagues in rural locations. The second and third fables help to explain and justify an organisational structure in which foreign employees occupy senior decision-making posts – a structure that, in turn, maintains a hierarchy between employees in humanitarianism.  

To justify this structure, fables draw on and reproduce certain tropes – for instance, that locally hired African humanitarians are tied to particularistic loyalties or open to corruption. This was not lost on Congolese humanitarians, many of whom described their frustration at the narrative that only “national staff” were involved in corruption. In effect, this “regime of representation”, circulates in fables and represents an important form of discursive power that helps to symbolically fix boundaries between us and them and maintain a particular social order.  

Deconstructing fables to challenge the status quo 

The article illustrates the interconnection between the symbolic power of fables’ meanings and representations, and the reproduction of material practices of inequality in humanitarian aid. Fables matter because they help construct organisational logics and support their associated power structures. They help people make sense of the way things are, and in doing so, these stories help maintain the status quo. The three fables acted as cautionary tales about the potential risks “in the field”. This, in turn, helps shape what actions are seen as possible, and what is perceived to be beyond the realm of possible change. It helps to explain and justify current ways of working – in particular, the reasons for limiting the role of nationally hired employees and maintaining a distance between “international” and “national” colleagues.  

In 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement sparked renewed calls for reform in humanitarianism. After oft-repeated statements about the need to “transfer power” to actors and organisations in the Global South, humanitarians and activists highlighted "colonial attitudes” towards populations in the Global South, the dominance of former colonial powers over formerly colonised regions and the structural racism embedded in everyday practices, as well as the hierarchy of trust, opportunity and pay that discriminates against locally hired staff. In MSF, a “Decolonise MSF” group formed, and an open letter that denounced the organisation as institutionally racist was signed by over 1,000 current and former members of staff. Yet there remains a lack of consensus about what “decolonising” actually means, with growing concern that it has become a metaphor, another “comfortable buzzword” for Northern actors and institutions. 

By describing this interconnection between symbolic meanings and material practices, I suggest that deconstructing organisational fables might be an important part of ongoing discussions about reform in humanitarianism, alongside challenging the practices that such fables help justify.