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How do Sri Lankan aid workers in Vavuniya understand the term ’humanitarian’ and to what extent do they identify with it?
Olivia Collins

Following the end of the conflict in Sri Lanka in 2009, the phase of emergency humanitarian aid is coming to a close. The focus is now on moving towards longer-term development goals. The number of international staff in organisations is being reduced as programmes are increasingly managed by local staff. Against this backdrop of transition, the purpose of this qualitative research is to focus on Sri Lankan aid workers in Vavuniya, to better understand what the term ‘humanitarian’ means to them, how it shapes their identity and guides the programmes they manage. The interviewees are part of a group who will increasingly determine how aid will be provided in the future.

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Though much has been written on the importance of humanitarian principles and conflict sensitivity in crisis situations, the way in which they are understood and perceived by field staff and translated into practical action is often given less importance. The concern here is for national aid workers, the particular role they play and risks they may undertake as both ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ to a conflict. The organisations they work for adhere to humanitarian principles, however, with insider knowledge of a context comes emotional attachment, and making objective impartial decisions is highly complex [1]. How do national staff then, whose identity is inextricably linked to the local context, negotiate these issues? How do they both observe from the outside and yet know from the inside? Do they consider themselves to be ‘humanitarian’ workers, in the sense of adhering to humanitarian principles, and what does that mean to them? How does this professional identity fit in with other facets of their identities: ethnic, religious and linguistic?

[1] This challenge is also commonly faced by international staff who remain for a number of years in a place and become emotionally involved in local issues, the dilemma being that the longer they remain the better they understand the context, but the less they may trust themselves to be impartial. The question of whether true impartiality is in itself realisable will not be addressed here, let us assume that it is a sliding scale from partisan to impartial, and one can be closer or further from the stated aim of impartiality.