Humanitarianism RG banner.

How the humanitarian system changes with new tools, donors, and perceptions of local dynamics

The humanitarian enterprise currently finds itself at a crossroads. At the tail end of armed international engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is increasingly also faced with new types of emergencies related to climate change, urbanization, and shifting geopolitical dynamics. What is the future of the humanitarian system in light of these challenges? This is the most basic research question that occupies us. Answering it requires investigations into humanitarianism's current character, how it is changing, and how it ought to change.

The Humanitarianism Research Group has a close collaboration with The Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies. The Centre aims to promote and facilitate critical and relevant research on key humanitarian issues, and serves as a hub for research and policy discussion. The Centre is established as a joint PRIO, CMI and NUPI initiative. NCHS also features a national network of scholars working on humanitarian issues from outside the three core institutions, as well as featuring an extensive network of international humanitarian scholars.

Humanitarianism is still an evolving field of study. As illustrated by events over the past ten years, the institutional and political frameworks of the humanitarian enterprise will continue to shift the terrain of global governance in the new century, posing novel challenges to traditional ideas of sovereignty, security, and human welfare. To understand the political, legal, ethical, cultural, and economic implications of this development, there is a need for basic research into the premises and impact of contemporary humanitarian practice, with a focus on developing better conceptual and methodological approaches.

The work of the Humanitarianism research group seeks to contribute to the development of humanitarianism as a field of study in its own right, and to further a more critical debate on humanitarian issues and humanitarian policies at the national, regional, and international level. It also seeks to develop the insights of a variety of cognate disciplines in relation to the complex issue of contemporary humanitarianism. We carry out this work under four thematic headings:

1. Local actors and dynamics of humanitarianism

Humanitarianism is faced with the challenge of finding the right balance between the need for standardized approaches and the need to adapt to unique contexts and challenges for each specific crisis. It also faces the challenges of how to adjust to the persistence of complex armed violence. While addressing these issues, the Humanitarianism research group explores how urbanization shapes the relationship between structural poverty and humanitarian crisis, as well as our understanding of it, and the ways in which climate-change related phenomena, whether sudden-onset or gradual, both trigger displacement and affect those already displaced. Furthermore, we critically examine the coupling of humanitarianism and the protection of vulnerable groups (eg. women, children, and minorities) and how governments affected by humanitarian crisis relate to issues of protection, access, and responsibility.

2. Humanitarianism and technology

The technological underpinnings of the contemporary will-to-care are a basic and yet understudied element of contemporary humanitarianism. There are both possibilities and pitfalls, for example, in using biometrics, information and robot technology, and social media in the identification of humanitarian emergencies and for the delivery of assistance and protection. In addition to studying these, we are interested in the ways in which humanitarian reform and regulatory processes (including standardization, regulation, and measurement efforts) continue to reshape service delivery and protection.

3. New humanitarian actors: rising powers, diasporas, and faith-based actors

Rising powers are increasingly involved in delivering humanitarian assistance. We are therefore interested in understanding how these rising powers understand humanitarianism conceptually. More precisely, how will the common and diverging interests of humanitarian actors, both established and new, shape the understanding of humanitarian crisis at the law and policy level, and how will they impact the delivery of assistance? In addition, we know that diasporas play an increasingly important role in providing assistance during and in the aftermath of humanitarian crisis. But how do diasporas interact with humanitarian organizations and policy makers? We also want to better understand the role of faith-based humanitarianisms within the contemporary system; the approaches, values, and practices that faith-based actors bring to crisis and post-crisis settings.

4. Power and ethics in humanitarianism

The fundamental issues of power and ethics are explored through a critical approach to the relevance and appropriateness of humanitarian engagement. The changing norms of sovereignty and security are examined, as well as the related transformations in the techniques and practices of governance. We address the question of how the security/development/humanitarianism nexus continues to shift the terrain of humanitarian assistance, and how the boundary between crisis and normalcy is determined, especially when crisis is perpetuated. We also examine the evolutions in "human rights based humanitarianism", as we look at whether there are other ways in which a more 'just' humanitarianism can be envisioned.


The Humanitarianism research group aims to establish a strong humanitarian research community at PRIO, with the ability to undertake interdisciplinary and long-term research at the highest academic level. We aim to contribute to public debate and agenda-setting, as well as to the general professionalization of humanitarian practice.

Interdisciplinarity and methodology

The Humanitarianism research group encompasses the academic fields of anthropology, history, criminology, sociology, geography, law, political theory, international relations, and ethics. Although quantitative approaches will oftentimes be utilized or developed, most researchers within this group mainly employ a variety of qualitative approaches.

An error has occurred. This application may no longer respond until reloaded. An unhandled exception has occurred. See browser dev tools for details. Reload 🗙