How can anthropology and humanitarian action be better combined?

This article does not mark the difference between humanitarian and development. However, these two fields of action have different times and objectives. While humanitarian action aims to meet the vital needs of the most vulnerable people, development thinks its action in the long term with the will to accompany social change.

The following remarks on the interest of anthropology and the ways of integrating it into humanitarian and development actions should therefore be adapted according to the situation on the ground – more or less urgent, conflictual, unstable. For the humanitarian field, anthropology is perhaps of greatest interest when emergencies become chronic and in the post-crisis and reconstruction phases.

The terms international aid/international action/ aid actors are used to refer generally to development and humanitarian actors and action. However, it is important to be aware of the distinction between these actors and modes of action when reading this article.

How to better marry anthropology and humanitarian action

Anthropology has long integrated development mechanisms and humanitarian actions into its field of study. It brings an often-critical view of the power logics specific to the international action of NGOs. Many anthropologists have studied these questions and it is now agreed that there is indeed a “development anthropology” or “humanitarian anthropology”. The reverse – the integration of anthropology into humanitarian action – is also true, but to a lesser extent.

Indeed, anthropology is not always integrated in the setting up of aid programs or in the reflection of NGOs on their own action. However, the interest of this discipline for humanitarian action is widely agreed upon[i]. i] The anthropological study of populations targeted by international action would make it possible to better understand the populations, the logic of power within groups, and the knowledge and practices in place. This information, once taken into account by aid actors, would make it possible to better target projects and strengthen their adoption by the people targeted. So, what hinders its integration and what solutions are available to humanitarian actors?

Ati Regional Hospital, Batha region, Chad – August 2018, ©Solidarités International
  1. What hinders the use of anthropology in humanitarian work?

a. Opposite modalities of intervention

Anthropology and humanitarianism have completely different modalities of intervention. While the former aims to describe the world with the least possible alteration to its object of study, the aid sector assumes a modification of its field of action and, in the case of development, aims to accompany social change.

These two disciplines operate in opposite temporalities. Anthropological study, because of its ethnographic method, has a long-time frame. It is necessary to understand the logics of actors in depth, and to share their experiences. Conversely, development and humanitarian work are part of a shorter time frame, often defined by the funding granted by donors. Action must be effective – achieving its objectives in a short time – since the NGO is accountable to both institutional and private donors, donors and beneficiaries.

Finally, because of these two characteristics, anthropology and humanitarianism have distinct approaches to reality. Anthropology, which tries to understand the complexity of social relationships, is based on the logic of actors. Conversely, humanitarianism sees reality from its programmatic logics. The latter sometimes requires a simplification and homogenization of social reality.

These very different ways of working make joint work difficult. There is sometimes a misunderstanding between these two working cultures and their respective actors. The anthropologist would be too academic and detached from the “field reality” of humanitarians. His or her work does not fit in with the time of the developer and is not sufficiently operational. The humanitarian is at the service of action and cannot take the necessary distance for more abstract reflections far from the field.

b. A project logic that prevents long time

The integration of anthropology into humanitarianism is made difficult by the very functioning of the aid sector. NGOs have little time between the call for projects and the first response they have to provide. This lapse of time does not allow them to conduct a real study of needs upstream of the definition of activities and expected results.

The project validated by the donor is already complete and includes a needs analysis, baseline study, planned activities, deliverables and targeted results. Once the funds are released, the project can begin. The anthropological study, when it can be integrated into the project, is often located in the need’s assessment phase, which is integrated into the project. This is the problem here: the evaluation phase takes place once the activities have already been defined and approved. However, once the terms of the project have been validated, it is not easy to modify them.

However, readjustments are sometimes essential, as shown in this example in Chad, detailed by Florence Chatot[ii], Groupe URD research officer, during a telephone interview. Groupe URD works in partnership with an NGO that combats female genital mutilation and has carried out operational research focused on analyzing the dynamics and social norms linked to this practice. One of the activities planned by this NGO aimed to retrain female excisers through the implementation of IGAs to compensate for the loss of income linked to the abandonment of the practice. The study revealed that such a strategy was far too simplistic to respond to a problem as complex as the practice of excision. In reality, far from being limited to a strictly feminine “excisor/excised” interaction, the study revealed the existence of a real economy of excision bringing together multiple community actors with divergent interests and who legitimize, by their social function in the practice, its persistence. In fact, one of the recommendations of the study was to reinvest the budget initially allocated to IGAs in prevention activities.

This example points to the need for precise studies, carried out by people who are already familiar with the theme, upstream of the definition of activities in order to avoid readjustments whose costs – organizational, human, financial – can be imagined.

Some associations have the capacity to conduct socio-anthropological studies prior to calls for projects. Médecins du Monde, for example, has even integrated an anthropological skill within its head office in a “Research and Learning” department. The computer graphics below, taken from their website, indicate the location of the socio-anthropological study in the association’s program cycle. This organization is made possible thanks to the relative freedom of Médecins du Monde, which has its own funds that are not earmarked for a particular project.

  1. What kind of anthropology do we need for humanitarianism?

The interest of the humanitarian community in anthropology is real, but the meeting between the two disciplines is not so simple. The researcher is presented as an academic who is too often critical rather than proactive or idealized as the “rescuer” of a failed project.

What kind of anthropology do we need for humanitarianism? The argument put forward in this article is that anthropology must be at the service of action. It must not be subservient to it, but must keep as its objective the improvement of humanitarian action.

a. Making the logic of local action intelligible for international action

Anthropology is interested in precise social functions, always trying to grasp the vision of the people who live the phenomenon in order to understand it. Humanitarian action is often carried out by multinational actors – the UN and its agencies – or non-governmental actors acting outside their borders – international NGOs. The interest of anthropology here is to make the link between this local scale and these international actors. It makes the social exchanges of the one intelligible to the other. It can be mobilized both to help the “global” – the international actors – and to support the “local” – the populations targeted by aid programs.

This is what is put forward by Sharon Abramowitz in her article “Ten Things that Anthropologists Can Do to Fight the West African Ebola Epidemic” (2014). She sets out 10 actions that anthropologists can implement to be useful to humanitarians in the fight against Ebola in West Africa in 2014. I will use here three of its proposals.

1/ Anthropologists can observe, report, interpret and explain local perspectives on external action. The point here is not to understand for the sake of understanding, but to operationalize one’s understanding in order to propose arrangements, adapt humanitarian action and make it acceptable to local populations.

2/ Anthropologists can identify local health capacities and local structures that can participate in the epidemic response (here, Ebola). For the anthropologist, this means not only sharing “objective” knowledge of existing health structures, but also knowledge of social constructions that could be useful for the humanitarian response in place. When faced with a disaster, populations invent and implement means to respond to it and mitigate its effects. The interest of anthropology is to identify these structures, to put them forward so that international action works by integrating them into its response strategy.

3/ Anthropologists can share their local contacts with global health experts who coordinate the response. Whether they are researchers, members of civil society or leaders in the public or private sectors, these people can help and communicate with the actors of international action. Humanitarian response targets different scales and therefore needs contacts at these different levels – local, national, international.

Anthropologists can also make the international humanitarian response intelligible to local populations. They have a role as “cultural mediators”[iii] with the targeted populations.

This work can help defuse social tensions, as Faye has shown in the case of the burial of women who died pregnant in Guinea[iv]. Among the Kissi in Forest Guinea, it is forbidden to bury a pregnant woman with her child in her abdomen. The fetus is to be removed from the woman’s body and the two are to be buried separately. In the context of the Ebola epidemic, it was not feasible to operate on the woman to carry out this separation. Faye explains that “if for some reason it was not possible to remove the fetus from the mother’s womb, it must be sacrificed to a rite of reparation consisting of offerings and various ceremonies. And so the burial took place.

b. Operational research makes it possible to issue recommendations.

Action research”, or “operational/participatory research”, is used to bring together actors in international action (development and humanitarian) and researchers. It is not a question of erasing the specificities of these two disciplines. On the contrary, as stated by Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan, “all action-research must submit simultaneously to the rules of research and those of action, otherwise it will be nothing but bad research and bad action”[v].

Thus, action-research must respect academic criteria such as the recognition of the researcher’s involvement in the subject under study and the taking into account of personal and subjective biases. This is all the more relevant since anthropology values participant observation, in which the researcher has an active role in what he observes.

New constraints apply to “action research”: the delimitation of a more restricted subject, a shorter time frame and more accessible written material.

Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan emphasizes that research is subject to the same principles of selection and detour as development projects. The people targeted by the study select what they share in order to best serve their objectives. The researcher must be able to identify and integrate these processes.

Action research helps to guide action so that it is in line with the logic of the target populations.

The case detailed during a Médecins du Monde seminar[vi] on unwanted pregnancies in Côte d’Ivoire shows how the project was guided by the socio-anthropological study that preceded it.

The study aimed to “understand the difficulties of adherence of Ivorian middle and high school students to the prevention messages distributed in schools”[vii]. vii] It showed the coexistence of two opposing discourses that trapped high school students and reduced their capacity for action. The first, conveyed by peers and social networks, encourages “early sexuality and a multiplication of partners”. The second, carried by adults and certain Ivorian institutions, makes sexuality a taboo subject and presents many barriers to access to contraception.

The approach described made it possible to involve all stakeholders (social, educational, health) in questioning their perception of sexuality, taking into account their position in society and their capacity for action. Young people were integrated into the project by hosting radio programs to support behavior change. Community agents were recruited to reduce the gap between young people’s lived sexuality and the communities’ perception of it.

Goundam, Timbuktu region, Mali. The Solidarités International association has been present in Mali since 2012 and works as close as possible to the people / ©Solidarités International
  1. How to articulate anthropology and humanitarianism? The example of the “contractual model” of Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan

a. Three areas of preferential interactions

In order to link and make anthropology and development cooperate, J.-P. Olivier de Sardan presents the solution of the “contractual model” where “researchers and operators agree to define a clearly circumscribed zone of interaction and collaboration, without renouncing their specific identities”[viii]. viii] This way of thinking about the anthropology/humanitarian articulation is both broader and more specific than action research. The author details three “zones of preferential interactions”.

First, the training of development agents in the method of ethnographic inquiry, which would allow them to avoid certain clichés. Then, the prepositioning of anthropologists to monitor project drifts. Finally, the contribution of new types of surveys, neither quantitative nor qualitative.

b. What type of survey?

i. Anthropo experts

J.-P. Olivier de Sardan proposes three ways to alleviate these investigative problems. The first method is to call upon socio-anthropologists as “experts”. These researchers are specialists in a given theme or region within a research framework and bring these skills to the development framework and the constraints that accompany it – constrained subject matter, speed of action, efficiency. The richness and accuracy of their contribution to the world of development is nurtured by their knowledge, which has been built up over a long period of time in an academic setting.

This is what Desclaux and Anoko (2017) describe during the epidemic of Ebola virus disease in West Africa in 2014. The WHO is calling on anthropologists, including some of them already mobilized during the 2000-2001 epidemic in Uganda, 2003 in Congo, etc. The WHO is also calling on the services of anthropologists, including some of them already mobilized during the 2000-2001 epidemic in Uganda, 2003 in Congo, etc. The scientists mobilized during these different episodes collect and create knowledge on “the medico-technical aspects [of the disease], biosafety constraints, the history of the populations’ reactions during previous epidemics, and the institutional dimensions”[ix].

When the epidemic began in Guinea, the WHO immediately called upon these experts to “implement the humanization of public health measures, to clarify people’s interpretations of the disease as well as the social logics underlying their reactions.” [x].

ii. Mixed research

J.-P. Olivier de Sardan then proposes to set up PhD themes in which development and research actors are involved. They would jointly define the research theme and the development actors would commit themselves to making a plot of land available to the doctoral student.

These research techniques have proven their effectiveness. This was the case for the research fellow, Florence Chatot, who worked in Niger on a water access program. Upstream of the project, she conducted a needs study in pairs with a water, sanitation and hygiene engineer. The study showed the importance of traditional wells for the targeted people and highlighted the difficulties, particularly financial, linked to the maintenance of boreholes.

Thanks to the integration of social sciences into technology and vice versa, the association has adapted its activities by proposing improved traditional wells that do not necessarily meet international standards but correspond to the needs expressed by the interviewees.

Linking technique and social sciences allows to find technical innovations adapted to the field.

iii. Combination of surveys

Finally, it is possible to implement a combination of individual and collective surveys in the medium and short term in order to generate relevant observations in a time frame acceptable to aid actors. The ethnographic survey, which focuses on the individual over a long period of time, can be carried out in conjunction with rapid collective surveys such as MARP (Accelerated Method of Participatory Research).

J.P. Olivier de Sardan proposes with Thomas Bierschenk the ECRIS method or “canvas” (Enquête Collective Rapide d’Identification des Conflits et des Groupes Stratégiques) [xi]. This comparative analysis approach on several sites aims to capture “from within” the local conflicts, contradictions and issues in order to build qualitative indicators adapted to the field and the theme of the survey.

This methodology makes it possible to introduce non-standardized qualitative indicators and common work tracks that then guide the researchers’ individual field.  It is useful for comparing several sites, but also meets needs related to the “preparation, monitoring or assessment of development operations”.

The proposals outlined in this article to facilitate the integration of anthropology into humanitarianism respond to a constant objective of humanitarianism to improve the quality of its programs. Anthropology, with its ethnographic method, and the anthropologist, with an external view, make it possible to highlight the complexity of the world that both the humanitarian and the developer look at. Anthropology thus brings a useful new perspective to humanitarian action, although sometimes difficult to integrate.

Madeleine Trentesaux

Who is Madeleine Trentesaux?

Interested in humanitarian and public health issues, Madeleine Trentesaux is currently finishing her master’s degree in “Human Rights and Humanitarian Action” at Sciences Po Paris. Previously, she completed a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology at the University of Paris Nanterre. She worked for one year as an intern at Fondation Mérieux and participated in international solidarity and development projects in France, Armenia and India.

Madeleine Trentesaux on LinkedIn

[i] Numerous publications exist on the interest of anthropology for humanitarian work. For example, the dossier “Anthropologists and NGOs: fruitful links? “directed by Laëtitia Atlani-Duault.

[ii] Chatot F., 2020, ” Dynamiques et normes sociales liées aux mutilations génitales féminines dans le Mandoul ” [accessible online], Groupe URD, URL :

[iii] Anoko J., Desclaux A., 2017, “L’anthropologie engagée dans la lutte contre Ebola (2014-2016) : approches, contributions et nouvelles questions” [accessible online], in. Santé Publique, Vol. 29, n°4, pp.477-485. URL:

[iv] Fassasi A., 2014, “Ebola: anthropologists, a key component of the response” [accessible online], URL:

[v] Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan, 1995, “Conclusion”, in. Anthropologie et développement. Essai en socio-anthropologie du changement social, Paris, ed. Karthala, p.192.

[vi] “Les recherches socio-anthropologiques à Médecins du Monde : quelle utilité dans l’action ? “2019. Available online:

[vii] Magali Bouchon, 2019, ” Innover dans les pratiques humanitaires par la recherche en socio-anthropologie “, in. Alternatives Humanitaires, n°10, p.3.

[viii] J.P. Olivier de Sardan, ibid, p.194.

[ix] Anoko J., Desclaux A., ibid, p.479.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan, ibid, “Arènes et groupes stratégiques”, p.180.