In: Humanitarianism: Keywords
Alexander Horstmann
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A minority can be defined as “a cultural, ethnic, religious, linguistic, sexual and gender distinct group that coexists with other groups but is generally subordinate to a dominant group” (Encyclopædia Britannica). Minorities can coincide with indigenous people (understood as the earliest known inhabitants of an area) but can also be new or emergent groups in national or urban settings. Resources and the traditional way of life of indigenous people and minorities are often challenged by dominant state centers that exploit the group’s resource base for the interests of the state center and in the long run undermine the group’s capacity to reproduce their way of life, its relationship with the environment, and its cultural identity (see, for example, www.culturalsurvival.org). Competition for resources has made minorities vulnerable for discrimination or–as in the case of the Rohingya in Myanmar–even outright expulsion. As minorities are typically marginalized or oppressed in relation to the center, they are often (but not always) more vulnerable to disasters and conflicts (Roeder 2014).

Humanitarian organizations emerge as a third force, working as a boost for ethnic and religious minorities’ aspirations for cultural autonomy and rights claims. However, humanitarian organizations and development cooperation can also lead to enhancing the enclosure of previously inaccessible minorities and their unwillingly participation in the “civilizing” and disciplining assimilation programs of dominant centers in the minority regions (Duncan 2004). Humanitarian organizations are becoming increasingly important in producing the “truth” about human rights violations in the international media (Redfield 2013). In some ethnic minority areas, where the state does not exercise full sovereignty, humanitarian organizations and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) may assume state functions, providing much of the lacking infrastructures in terms of human rights protection, public health, and education.

When humanitarian organizations lack access to some areas, they negotiate access with local actors, including armed groups (De Lauri 2018). In this way, they often consolidate or reconfigure power relations at the local level among ethnic minorities, armed groups, and political parties. International humanitarian organizations also partner with local organizations in ethnic minority areas and support existing structures and local knowledge (Ferris 2011). Working for ethnic and religious minorities in conflict situations can be difficult, as in most cases organizations do not receive permission to operate and therefore do not receive access to the most vulnerable people. Dependence on permission can lead to perverse effects: for example, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees might be led to relocate villages and thus contribute to enhancing state control over minority villagers (Feldman and Ticktin 2010). In conflict situations, humanitarian agents may even endanger local people who regard INGOs with suspicion or open hostility. International humanitarian organizations can bolster transnational networks of minority people and constitute a crucial part in the making of transnational ethnic and religious communities (Salemink 2003), but can equally contradict strategies of local communities that are based on local knowledge.

In the worst case, competition for humanitarian funding might become a cause for an escalation in violence between different parties in a conflict (De Lauri 2016). In some cases, humanitarian aid can be used as a leverage to consolidate the position of some ethnic, religious, or political groups to the detriment of others.

Support of linguistic minorities is another area of intervention, for example via mother tongue-based education in minority or frontier regions (Lall 2016). Humanitarian organizations engaged in supporting indigenous or minorities’ access to education are at the forefront of pulling together resources for indigenous or minority literacy movements, enhancing the globalization of local aspirations. In this endeavor, INGOs risk a clash with state interests, but can also contribute to the peace process by helping to bridge minority education with national education.

Humanitarian assistance in the education and health sectors complement and add to existing development cooperation from donor governments that support infrastructural projects in minority regions in relation to business investments. These mega-projects are often used for business as well as being ordering devices for military purposes, and can bring about resistance from minorities if they suffer land-grabs and inadequate compensation.

The role of humanitarian organizations and humanitarian workers’ lifestyles may affect trusting relations with minorities. International humanitarian workers are often part of a privileged transnational and networked elite: they use hotels, drive SUVs, and are not always fully aware of specific minorities’ concerns (Smirl 2008).


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  • Encyclopædia Britannica. Minority. https://www.britannica.com.

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