11 February 2015

Guest Post: Too Much Information?

There has been an exponential expansion in the amount of information and analysis on refugee-related issues over the past 30 years. But has quantity outstripped quality? Jeff Crisp provides this commentary.

Too much information?

Back in the early 1980s, when I first became interested in refugee issues, it was possible to argue that there was a paucity of information and analysis on forced migration and humanitarian action.

That is no longer the case. Readers wishing to learn about refugee issues now have access to a variety of different academic journals, including the International Journal of Refugee Law, Journal of Refugee Studies, Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration, Refuge and Refugee Survey Quarterly, not to mention the research paper series published by organizations such as the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford and UNHCR.

To which must be added journals and research papers series dealing with broader humanitarian issues: Disasters, for example, as well as Humanitarian Exchange, the web-based Journal of Humanitarian Assistance and the International Review of the Red Cross.

Turn to the Internet and even more information and analysis on refugee and humanitarian issues can be found. OCHA, for example, maintains ReliefWeb, which describes itself as “the leading source for reliable and timely information on global crises and disasters.” Until very recently, OCHA also funded IRIN (Integrated Regional Information Network) which in its own words “delivers unique, authoritative and independent reporting from the frontlines of crises” and which is about to become an independent entity. A similar purpose is served by the website of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, formerly known as AlertNet.

Finally, if you despair at keeping track of the dozens of articles, reports and books being written on refugee-related themes, then help is at hand with the excellent Forced Migration Current Awareness blog, an independent digest of new literature which is updated on a daily basis by information specialist Elisa Mason. 

In some respects, the proliferation of publications dealing with refugee and humanitarian issues can be considered to be a healthy development. It is evidently preferable for people to be aware of the human consequences of conflicts and crises than to be ignorant of them. And it is positive to see that the work of refugee and humanitarian agencies is now being more thoroughly examined and evaluated. In 1984, for example, celebrated author William Shawcross observed that “humanitarian agencies do not often publish discussions of their work. They release lists of the assistance they have given, but rarely offer real analysis. As a result, mistakes are repeated again and again.” Using remarkably similar language two years later, the legendary academic Barbara Harrell-Bond stated, “Inside the agencies it is well known that the same mistakes have been repeated over and over again. The importance of evaluating the impact of relief programs is not widely appreciated.”

No one could say that any more.

Despite this apparent progress, there are reasons to be cautious about the massive expansion that has taken place in the volume of information and analysis now available on refugee and humanitarian issues.

The first question is that of quality control. Are there sufficient articles with something interesting and original to say, and which are sufficiently well-written, to usefully fill the pages of the many magazines, journals and websites that are now on the market? My own and probably old fogeyish reading suggests that there are not, and that some of the articles published today simply would not have seen the light of day 20 or 30 years ago, when editorial standards were arguably higher.

A second concern is that of over-intellectualization, and not least the steady penetration of impenetrable post-modernist social theory into the once readable field of refugee studies. Harrell-Bond’s seminal 1986 study of Ugandan refugees in southern Sudan, Imposing Aid: Emergency Assistance to Refugees,* for example, is a gripping page-turner. Whereas much of the more recent literature on refugees is cluttered with the same predictable phrases: 'contested spaces', 'narratives', 'discursive power' and 'deconstruction'. And I can hardly remember the last time that I read an undergraduate essay or Masters dissertation on a refugee-related theme which did not include the now obligatory reference to Italian academic Giorgio Agamben, whose work refers to refugee camps “as a biopolitical paradigm of the modern.” Thanks Giorgio, that's very helpful.

Finally, at a time when the humanitarian system is being stretched to and beyond the limit by a spate of major crises across the world, it seems reasonable to ask whether we are getting value for money from the millions of dollars being absorbed each year by an ever-growing number of refugee-related publications, conferences, workshops, 'webinars', 'peer learning events' and consultations.

It has been astonishing - and in some senses gratifying - to witness the explosion of academic interest in refugee affairs over the past decade. But at the same time, how can we ensure that the task of providing protection and solutions to the world's displaced populations does not get lost in this exponential increase in information and analysis?

*Note: Access to FMO's Digital Library, which houses a copy of Imposing Aid, is currently intermittent!

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