Instrumentalising Identity: Médecins Sans Frontières and Humanitarian Negotiations for Access in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Instrumentalising Identity examines how humanitarians negotiate access in conflict zones. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork, in-depth interviews and archival analysis, it explores the everyday negotiations between Médecins Sans Frontières and armed groups in North Kivu, in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. The project examines negotiating access looks like on the ground: a social and political process of brokerage, perception management and interest seeking in a complex web of relationships.

The research takes as its starting point a paradox – that humanitarian practice is shaped by, and reproduces, the very forms of difference that its egalitarian values seek to transcend – while exploring how the paradox manifests itself during humanitarian negotiations. Ultimately, identity is central to the process of negotiating access because social markers such as race, gender and nationality intersect with personal histories and networks to become instruments for access. Access depends on who is representing an NGO, and how that person is perceived in relation to the histories of the landscape in which they are working. By instrumentalising identity in this way, humanitarians reify the very political and social borders that they work to transcend.

Myfanwy James
Departmental Lecturer in Development Studies