Nauja Kleist: Studying Somali Diaspora Humanitarianism – Some Methodological Considerations

Studying Somali diaspora humanitarianism:
Some methodological considerations

Nauja Kleist, Senior Researcher, Danish Institute for International Studies,

Diaspora groups are amongst the so-called new humanitarian actors that work outside the international humanitarian system. Growing out of transnational connections that link diaspora groups with their families and erstwhile homelands, diaspora humanitarianism has a strong affective and relational dimension that may enable fast communication about emergencies, knowledge about cultural and social contexts, rapid mobilisation of relief, and delivery to hard-to-reach areas. It may also, however, reflect and perhaps even reproduce existing social divisions and inequalities.

In this blog post, I discuss Somali diaspora humanitarianism, reflecting upon questions of scale and sites. Following the civil war from 1988 and onwards, Somalis have been displaced all over the world, estimated to count around 2 million people today. Most of the global Somali diaspora lives in the neighbouring countries but many Somali families are dispersed across the globe with the UK, US, Sweden as important settlement countries as well. Somali diaspora groups are engaged in multiple and multi-directional transnational and translocal practices in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere, reflecting long-established practices of care, affect and reciprocity whether (materially) expressed through remittances or contributions to development and relief activities.

In situations of post-conflict and complex and protracted crises like Somalia, it can be difficult to clearly distinguish between reconstruction, development and humanitarian activities. Nevertheless, in situations of drought or flooding, fundraising or other contributions may be mobilised on the top of other responsibilities. While these often take place in one city and are focusing on one area in the Somali regions, some activities are based on globally dispersed kinship networks that include people in many countries across the globe, including the Horn of Africa. What we call Somali diaspora humanitarianism can thus also be seen as a vernacular form of humanitarianism: it is not centrally coordinated, it does not fit the modes of operation of the international humanitarian system, and it reflects socially and morally embedded frameworks and practices. Yet, while it destabilises universalist notions of humanitarianism as equivalent to the formal international system, the antithesis to universalism here is not ‘the local’ but rather translocal and transnational practices. Studying diaspora humanitarianism thus calls for attention to entangled social spaces.

Collaborative research and multi-sited fieldwork

One of the key challenges in studying diaspora engagement is indeed the question of sites and scale. Fieldwork in diaspora settlement locations offers insights into how relief practices are articulated and practiced from organisers and activists (if they are our main interlocutors) rather than how the humanitarian impulse is perceived, practiced and negotiated from other positions and locations of transnational social fields, for instance in crisis-affected areas. Multi-sited and collaborative fieldwork is one way of addressing this methodological challenge through following and connecting people, things, and interventions, as George Marcus suggested more than 25 years ago.

Collaborative research offers the opportunity to do joint, multi-sited fieldwork, with attention to different positions and locations. In the collective research project Diaspora Humanitarianism in Complex Crises (D-Hum), we aim to do exactly that. With 12 researchers, based in Kenya, Somaliland, Puntland and Denmark, our key objective is to examine the kinds of assistance that Somali diaspora groups mobilise, channel and deliver to crisis-affected areas and populations in the Somali regions, with attention to differentiated positions and social divisions in transnational and translocal social fields. As with so many other research projects, our fieldwork has been delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but here are some methodological reflections on multi-sited fieldwork.  

One of our focus areas is emergency relief in response to drought and flooding. We will follow such interventions through analysing fundraising and organisational activities in e.g. Nairobi and Copenhagen, and how the contributions are delivered in e.g. Mogadishu and Hargeisa, with a focus on processes of exclusion and inclusion—such as gender and generation, or diversity and intensity of transnational connections in some networks versus a sense of disconnection in others. There are also other sampling principles to consider. Sampling may be matched or unmatched, depending on whether we study the same networks from different locations or if we examine topically—but not directly—related practices and activities. Likewise, our research might be based on synchronic or diachronic fieldwork. In the former, we study networks and their activities as they happen simultaneously in different locations, engaging in simultaneous collaborative fieldwork; in the latter, we might study how some events take place in real time while others will be explored retrospectively. We can think of this as following a spiralling principle. And finally, we may choose to have one main site with supplementing fieldwork in other sites to contextualise our findings.

To summarise: Attention to entangled spaces, scales, connections and indeed disconnections is pertinent when studying diaspora humanitarianism that takes place in transnational and translocal social fields. We can never include everything but we can try to be mindful of what we include and what we exclude in our methodological frameworks.

This blog post is based on a presentation at the AHN EASA 2020 Panel “Locating the Humanitarian Impulse: Questions of Scale and Space” (Session I – P005a – 21 July 2020, 14:00 – 15:45). The commentary on the presentation and panel session by Nell Gabiam can be read here.

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