Afghanistan in trouble, Nagorno-Karabakh in danger, and afterwards!

Alain Boinet with the latest editions of Défis Humanitaires.

Afghanistan has returned to the headlines since U.S. President Joe Biden’s declaration to permanently withdraw troops by September 11. This was expected. What has surprised most commentators, who have been covering it from afar but with great confidence, is the Taliban offensive, which has rapidly taken control of many districts and border crossings.

When you look at a map, you see that the areas that have escaped the Talibans are around the city of Herat, the central region of Hazaradjat, the Panshir valley and of course the capital Kabul, with other pockets here and there. In the media, there are many clichés, biases, and lack of knowledge of Afghan realities, but fortunately there is also useful information.

One is tempted to say to oneself, after 20 years of war, American, NATO and UN presence, “it was all for this” with the Taliban now back in power in Kabul. Where are the collective mistakes that have dominated for 20 years?

In the immediate future, what will happen this summer? While the military solution currently seems to outweigh political negotiation, past experience teaches us that a frontal war in Kabul would be devastating for the inhabitants and infrastructure and would cause many casualties on both sides as well as displacement of populations. What will the Taliban do? Will there be talks to avoid the worst and on what political terms? In any case, it is likely that the Taliban will seek to settle this before winter.

Taliban at the gates of Kabul in September 1996, © Robert Nickelsberg

As a result, the humanitarian situation will certainly worsen in this country of 40 million inhabitants, half of whom are affected by food insecurity. Indeed, 80% of the population lives or survives on small-scale farming, which is severely affected by the current drought, resulting in one out of every two 5 year olds suffering from malnutrition! To ensure that relief efforts are not interrupted, humanitarian organizations are asking the belligerents not to hinder access to aid for vulnerable populations and not to threaten the neutrality and impartiality of these organizations.

Nagorno-Karabakh in danger!

The media talk much less about Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan, while yet not a single day passed for months without skirmishes on the borders. One of the most important incidents occurred on 12 May when hundreds of Azerbaijani soldiers entered Armenian territory in the Guegharkounik and Siounik regions. Since then, almost every day there have been incidents and injuries.

The President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, maintains a permanent threat to push his advantage after his military victory in the 44-day war that ended on November 9 after the defeat of Armenia, which caused a real trauma in its population. What is in question is the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh, also called Artsakh, which is landlocked and populated by more than 100,000 Armenians.

Tensions increased again on July 22 when President Aliyev declared on Azerbaijani television that there was no Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh and no special administrative status for this territory, which he calls the Azeri Eastern Zanguezur. These statements are worrisome in that they could be followed by dangerous military initiatives. Diplomatic activity is equally intense and involves above all Russia, which plays a major role with 2,400 peacekeepers stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh and which has military bases in Armenia within the framework of a defence agreement. France is also very present with the United States which follows the situation closely as well as the European Union.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Aliyev in Azerbaijan, 2020, ©Presidential Press and Information Office of Azerbaijan

On Thursday, July 29, after the death of 3 Armenian soldiers near the village of Sotk, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian said on Thursday that he would call for the deployment of “Russian border guards” along the border with Azerbaijan and the deployment of a Collective Security Treaty Organization (Russia and five other former Soviet republics, including Armenia) observer mission.

Humanitarian organizations and foundations are active both in Armenia and in Nagorno-Karabakh or Artsakh to meet the needs of displaced persons, invalids in the fields of health, education, culture, mine clearance and reconstruction in particular.

The month of August with Défis Humanitaires

In this edition, I propose three articles selected for their great interest among those we have already published. There is an article by Pierre Brunet, writer and humanitarian, “Is the humanitarian still on a mission?” which I recommend to you and which distinguishes between the humanitarian and the business in terms of purpose and management. Alicia Piveteau, a young journalist, has published a very interesting article, “The Sahel is a demographic bomb”, which alerts us to the urgent issues to be anticipated regarding the daily increase of a young population in need of education and employment. Finally, Gilles Dorronsoro, an academic and researcher specializing in Afghanistan, paints a picture of the situation in an eye-opening interview on “A so predictable defeat”.

Finally, to conclude.

If these articles interest you and bring you useful information and reflection, I suggest that you share them with your friends, colleagues and relations by sending them the link below each article with a small icon representing a letter.

You can also share these articles on social networks. This will encourage us to continue and improve Humanitarian Challenges for its readers and I thank you in advance warmly.

The next edition will be published on Tuesday, August 31.

To go further, you can listen to the RFI program on Afghanistan.

Alain Boinet.

How can anthropology and humanitarian action be better combined?

This article makes no distinction between humanitarian aid and development. Yet these two fields of action have different timescales and objectives. While humanitarian action is aimed at meeting the vital needs of the most vulnerable, development is a long-term process, designed to accompany social change.

The remarks that follow on the value of anthropology and the ways in which it can be integrated into humanitarian and development actions must therefore be adapted according to the situation on the ground – more or less urgent, conflict-ridden or unstable. In the humanitarian field, anthropology is perhaps most useful when emergencies become chronic, and in 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 can anthropology and humanitarian action be better combined?

Anthropology has long included development mechanisms and humanitarian action in its field of study. It often takes a critical look at the logics of power inherent in the international actions of NGOs. Many anthropologists have studied these issues, and it is now generally accepted that there is such a thing as “development anthropology” or “humanitarian anthropology”. The reverse – the integration of anthropology into humanitarian action – is also true, but to a lesser extent.

In fact, anthropology is not always integrated into the design of aid programs, or into NGOs’ reflection on their own actions. Yet there is a broad consensus on the value of this discipline for humanitarian action[i]. Anthropological studies of the populations targeted by international action provide a better understanding of the populations concerned, the power dynamics within groups, and the knowledge and practices in place. This information, once taken into account by aid actors, would enable projects to be better targeted and their adoption by the people targeted to be reinforced. 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 aid?

a. Opposite modes of intervention

Anthropology and humanitarian aid have quite different modes of intervention. While the former aims to describe the world with as little alteration as possible 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 opposing timeframes. Anthropological research, by virtue of its ethnographic method, takes a long-term view. It requires an in-depth understanding of the logics of actors, and a sharing of their experiences. Development and humanitarian aid, on the other hand, take a shorter timeframe, often defined by the funding granted by donors. Action must be efficient – achieving its objectives in a short space of time – since the NGO is accountable to institutional or private backers, donors and beneficiaries alike.

Finally, because of these two characteristics, anthropology and humanitarianism have distinct approaches to reality. Anthropology, which seeks to understand the complexity of social relationships, looks at things from an actor’s point of view. Humanitarianism, on the other hand, takes a programmatic approach to reality. The latter sometimes requires a simplification and homogenization of social reality.

These very different ways of working make it difficult to work together. There is sometimes a lack of understanding between these two working cultures and their respective players. The anthropologist is said to be too academic and detached from the “field reality” of the humanitarians. His work does not fit in with the developer’s timeframe, and is not operational enough. Humanitarians, on the other hand, are at the service of action, and are unable to stand back and reflect on more abstract issues that are far removed from the field.

b. A project-based rationale that prevents a long-term approach

Integrating anthropology into the humanitarian field is made difficult by the very way the aid sector operates. NGOs have little time between the call for projects and the first response they have to give. This does not allow them to carry out a proper needs analysis before defining activities and expected results.

The project approved by the donor is already complete, presenting a needs analysis, baseline study, planned activities, deliverables and targeted results. Once the funds have been released, the project can begin. The anthropological study, when it fits into the project, is often located in the needs assessment phase, integrated into the project. This is where the problem lies: the assessment phase takes place once the activities have been defined and approved. But once the terms of the project have been validated, there’s no way of changing them easily.

However, readjustments are sometimes essential, as shown by this example from Chad, detailed by Florence Chatot[ii], Groupe URD research manager, 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 associated with this practice. One of the NGO’s planned activities was the professional retraining of excisers by setting up IGAs to compensate for the loss of income associated with abandoning the practice. The study revealed that such a strategy was far too simplistic to address a problem as complex as the practice of excision. In fact, far from being restricted to a strictly female “excisor/excised” interaction, the study uncovered the existence of a real excision economy bringing together multiple community players with divergent interests who, through their social function in the practice, legitimize its persistence. In fact, one of the study’s recommendations was to reinvest the budget initially allocated to IGAs in prevention activities.

This example highlights the need for precise studies, carried out by people already familiar with the subject, prior to the definition of activities, in order to avoid readjustments whose costs – organizational, human and financial – are easy to imagine.

Some associations have the capacity to carry out socio-anthropological studies upstream of calls for projects. Médecins du Monde, for example, has even integrated anthropological expertise into its head office “Research and Learning” department. The infographic below, taken from their website, shows where the socio-anthropological study fits into the association’s program cycle. This organization is made possible by the relative freedom of Médecins du Monde, which has its own funds not earmarked for any particular project.

2. What kind of anthropology do we need for humanitarian aid?

The humanitarian community’s interest in anthropology is real, but it’s not so easy for the two disciplines to meet. The researcher is too often presented as a critical academic, rather than a source of proposals, or idealized as the “rescuer” of a failed project.

What kind of anthropology do we need for humanitarian aid? 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 local action logics intelligible for international action

Anthropology is concerned with specific social functions, always trying to grasp the vision of the people living the phenomenon in order to understand it. Humanitarian action is often carried out by multinational players – the UN and its agencies – or by non-governmental actors operating outside their own borders – international NGOs. Anthropology’s interest here lies in making the link between this local scale and these international players. It makes the social exchanges of some intelligible to others. It can be mobilized both to help the “global” – the international players – 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). In it, she sets out 10 actions that anthropologists can put in place to be useful to humanitarians, as part of the fight against Ebola in West Africa in 2014. I’ll use three of her proposals here.


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

2/ Anthropologists can identify local health capacities and structures that can contribute to the epidemic response (in this case, Ebola). For the anthropologist, this means not only sharing “objective” knowledge of existing health structures, but also his or her knowledge of social constructs that could be useful to the humanitarian response in place. Faced with a disaster, populations invent and implement ways of responding and mitigating its effects. Anthropology’s interest lies in identifying these structures and bringing them to the fore, so that international action can integrate them into its response strategy.

3/ Anthropologists can share their local contacts with the global health experts coordinating 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 those involved in international action. Humanitarian response targets different scales and therefore needs contacts belonging to these different levels – local, national, international.

Anthropologists can also make the international humanitarian response intelligible to local populations. They play the role of “cultural mediators”[iii] with target populations.

This work can help defuse social tensions, as Faye has shown in the case of the burial of women who have 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. Instead, the fetus is removed from the woman’s body and the two are buried separately. In the context of the Ebola epidemic, it was not feasible to operate on the woman to achieve this separation. Faye explains that “if it were impossible, for one reason or another, to extract the fetus from the mother’s womb, a rite of reparation consisting of offerings and various ceremonies would have to be sacrificed”. This is how the burial took place.

b. Operational research provides recommendations.

Action research”, or “operational/participatory research”, is a way of bringing together those involved in international action (development and humanitarian aid) and researchers. It’s not a question of erasing the specificities of these two disciplines. On the contrary, as Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan points out, “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 his object of study, and the taking into account of personal and subjective biases. This is all the more relevant given anthropology’s emphasis on participant observation, in which the researcher plays an active role in what he or she observes.

New constraints apply to “action research”: the delimitation of a more restricted subject, a shorter timeframe and more accessible writing.

Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan points out 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 at 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 aim of the study was to “understand the difficulties encountered by Ivorian secondary school pupils in adhering to the prevention messages distributed in schools”[vii]. It revealed the coexistence of two opposing discourses that confined high-school students and reduced their capacity for action. The first, conveyed by peers and social networks, encouraged “early sexuality and a multiplication of partners”. The second, conveyed by adults and certain Ivorian institutions, makes sexuality a taboo subject and presents numerous barriers to access to contraception.

The approach described above enabled us 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 behavioral change. Community agents were recruited to reduce the gap between young people’s experience of sexuality and the communities’ perception of it.

Goundam, Timbuktu region, Mali. Solidarités International has been present in Mali since 2012, working closely with the local population / ©Solidarités International

3. How can anthropology and humanitarianism be linked? The example of Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan’s “contractual model
a. Three preferred areas of interaction

To link anthropology and development, J.-P. Olivier de Sardan presents the solution of the “contractual model”, in which “researchers and operators agree to define a clearly circumscribed zone of interaction and collaboration, without renouncing their specific identities”[viii]. This way of thinking about anthropology/humanitarianism is both broader and more specific than action research. The author details three “preferred areas of interaction”.

Firstly, the training of development workers in the method of ethnographic inquiry, which would protect them from certain clichés. Secondly, anthropologists should be involved in monitoring project drift. Lastly, new types of survey that are neither entirely quantitative nor entirely qualitative.

b. What type of survey?

i. Anthropo experts

J.-P. Olivier de Sardan proposes three ways of overcoming these survey problems. The first method is to call on socio-anthropologists as “experts”. These researchers are long-term specialists in a particular theme or region within a research framework, and bring these skills to the development framework and the constraints that go with it – constrained subject matter, speed of action, efficient delivery. The richness and accuracy of their contribution to the world of development is nourished by their knowledge, built up over many years in an academic setting.

This is what Desclaux and Anoko (2017) describe during the Ebola virus disease epidemic in West Africa in 2014. The WHO called on anthropologists, including some who had already been mobilized during the 2000-2001 epidemic in Uganda, the 2003 epidemic in Congo and so on. The scientists mobilized during these various episodes gathered and created knowledge on “the medico-technical aspects [of the disease], biosafety constraints, the history of population reactions during previous epidemics, and institutional dimensions”[ix].

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

ii. Mixed research

J.-P. Olivier de Sardan then suggests setting up doctorate programs in which development and research players become involved. They would jointly define the research theme, and the development players would commit to making a field site available to the doctoral student.

These research techniques have proved their worth. This was the case for research manager Florence Chatot, who worked in Niger on a water access program. Upstream of the project, she conducted a needs assessment in partnership with a water, sanitation and hygiene engineer. The study showed the importance of traditional wells for the target population and highlighted the difficulties, particularly financial, associated with borehole maintenance.

Thanks to the integration of social science and technology, 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 people interviewed.

Linking technology and social science enables us to find technical innovations that are adapted to the field.

iii. Combining surveys

Finally, it is possible to implement a combination of individual and collective surveys in the medium and short term, in order to produce relevant observations in a timeframe acceptable to aid providers. Ethnographic surveys, which focus on individuals over a long period of time, can be carried out in conjunction with rapid collective surveys of the MARP (Méthode Accélérée de Recherche Participative) type.

J.P. Olivier de Sardan and Thomas Bierschenk have proposed the ECRIS (Enquête Collective Rapide d’Identification des Conflits et des Groupes Stratégiques) method or “framework”[xi]. This multi-site comparative analysis approach aims to capture local conflicts, contradictions and issues “from the inside”, in order to build qualitative indicators tailored to the field and the survey theme.

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

The proposals set out in this article to facilitate the integration of anthropology into the humanitarian field are in line with the humanitarian sector’s constant aim to improve the quality of its programs. Anthropology, with its ethnographic method, and the anthropologist, with an outside viewpoint, help to highlight the complexity of the world on which the humanitarian and the developer are working. Anthropology brings a fresh perspective to humanitarian action, even if it is sometimes difficult to integrate.


Madeleine Trentesaux

Due to its interest, we are republishing this article by Madeleine Trentesaux which appeared in issue no. 49 of January 12, 2021.

Who is Madeleine Trentesaux?

Interested in humanitarian and public health issues, Madeleine Trentesaux is currently completing a Master’s degree in “Human Rights and Humanitarian Action” at Sciences Po Paris. Prior to this, she studied anthropology at the University of Paris Nanterre. She worked for a year as an intern at Fondation Mérieux, and took part in international solidarity and development projects in France, Armenia and India.

[i] De nombreuses publications existent sur l’intérêt de l’anthropologie pour l’humanitaire. Pour exemple, le dossier « Anthropologues et ONG : des liaisons fructueuses ? » piloté par Laëtitia Atlani-Duault.

[ii] Chatot F., 2020, « Dynamiques et normes sociales liées aux mutilations génitales féminines dans le Mandoul » [accessible en ligne], 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 en ligne], in. Santé Publique, Vol. 29, n°4, pp.477-485. URL:

[iv] Fassasi A., 2014, « Ebola : les anthropologues, composante clé de la riposte » [accessible en ligne], URL :

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

[vi] « Les recherches socio-anthropologiques à Médecins du Monde : quelle utilité dans l’action ? », 2019, Accessible en ligne :

[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.