Queue pour la vaccination au camp de réfugiés Yida

The numbness of numbers

Michaël Neuman

Director of studies at Crash / Médecins sans Frontières, Michaël Neuman graduated in Contemporary History and International Relations (University Paris-I). He joined Médecins sans Frontières in 1999 and has worked both on the ground (Balkans, Sudan, Caucasus, West Africa) and in headquarters (New York, Paris as deputy director responsible for programmes). He has also carried out research on issues of immigration and geopolitics. He is co-editor of "Humanitarian negotiations Revealed, the MSF experience" (London: Hurst and Co, 2011). He is also the co-editor of "Saving lives and staying alive. Humanitarian Security in the Age of Risk Management" (London: Hurst and Co, 2016).

Fabrice Weissman

Graduated from the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, Fabrice Weissman joined MSF in 1995. He spent several years as logistician and head of mission in Sub-Saharian Africa (Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, etc.), Kosovo, Sri Lanka and more recently Syria. He has published several articles and books on humanitarian action, including "In the Shadow of Just Wars. Violence, Politics and Humanitarian Action" (ed., London, Hurst & Co., 2004), "Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed. The MSF Experience" (ed., Oxford University Press, 2011) and "Saving Lives and Staying Alive. Humanitarian Security in the Age of Risk Management" (ed., London, Hurst & Co, 2016).

We welcome Abby Stoddard, Katherine Haver and Adele Harmer's response to our critical article on the production and the use of security data in the humanitarian sector and to our book in general. In a field that has been very much lacking debate, if not controversies, we're extremely glad to see a various range of readers engaging in the discussion. After reading their comments, we might have to acknowledge that what we have here are two very distinct visions of what humanitarian security should look like. These two positions might not be irreconcilable, but for now they are quite far from one another. On the one hand, Humanitarian Outcomes consultants behind the development of the Aid Worker Security Database believe in the intrinsic value of numbers in making humanitarian workers, policy makers and the general public aware of the ‘occupational' risks, as much as they believe in contemporary risk management as the right way to minimize these risks. On the other hand, we, as authors of "Saving Lives and Staying Alive', are wary of both.

In their response, the three authors take issue with our way of analyzing their work. Rather than engaging in a series of quote-based endless exchange, we would advise readers interested in the issue to read the book - especially the chapters dedicated to numbers and guidelines - and make their own mind.

However, central to their argument is the idea that "numbers are neutral" and "guidelines simply tools". Using analytical frameworks developed by sociologists such as Alain Desrosieres, Theodore M. Porter and Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan, we argue the contrary. We show that datasets are not neutral from a methodological, ethical and political point of view. The definition and encoding of the measured variables are the result of conventions, negotiations, interpretations, power struggles, influence strategies, that are historically located. In this regard, we demonstrate that the AWSD as well as other quantification exercise of insecurity are primarily driven by the desire to "support with evidence" three preconceived ideas: that the "humanitarian space is shrinking", that aid actors are increasingly targeted for political reasons, and that humanitarian workers should entrust the management of their security to professional experts.

Having deconstructed the "shrinking humanitarian space" and the "blurring of lines" narratives in our previous book (Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed, The MSF Experience), our most recent opus is mainly dedicated to the neoliberal security management ideology supported by manuals such as the GPR8. In this regard, Abby Stoddard, Katherine Haver and Adele Harmer are right to say that most aid personnel do not follow blindly such security manuals and are still using their own judgment and personal agency. But, as we illustrate through three empirical studies and two historical accounts, they do so despite the tremendous pressure toward centralization and authoritarian control of their behavior and public expression promoted by security manuals.

One more time, we would invite all those interested, especially aid volunteers working at headquarters and field levels to read the book and tell us if we are so far away from their experience.

To cite this content :
Michaël Neuman, Fabrice Weissman, “The numbness of numbers”, 11 mai 2016, URL : https://msf-crash.org/en/blog/war-and-humanitarianism/numbness-numbers-0

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