Evidence 3: 100 most frequently used terms by humanitarian actors

For this third Evidence, let’s now enter the heart of the Humanitarian Encyclopedia project. The Humanitarian Encyclopedia intends to describe and analyse how central terms to humanitarian practice are defined and used commonly or differently by humanitarian actors.

The goal of the project is not to come up with a single definition of such terms but to map and explain the diversity of languages existing within the sector. Our primary focus is on the sector’s lingua franca, English, as we want to understand how – while using a common language – humanitarian actors give a different meaning to the same terms.

To start our journey into this diversity, we have constituted a preliminary corpus of documents which reflect how humanitarian organisations speak of and present their activities. We have privileged documents seeking to strategically position the organisations in the existing humanitarian ecosystem. Drawing upon our database, we have so far collected 319 organisational strategies coming from a wide range of national and international humanitarian organisations. Interestingly the regional composition of our corpus is very close to the regional composition of our database. The representation rate is the same in the corpus as in the database for Central, South American, Caribbean, African and Asian organisations. Our corpus is slightly less representative of North American (20% in the database vs. 14% in the corpus) and MENA organisations (6 % in the database vs. 4% in the corpus). Finally, our corpus includes a higher percentage of European (45% in the corpus vs. 40 % in the database) and Oceanian organisations (6% in the corpus vs. 3% in the database) than our database.

The figure below shows the 100 most frequent terms found in our corpus. Such analysis provides a very general and exploratory view of the terminology used by organisations that define themselves as “humanitarian”. Such frequency analysis only points out words that are widely used by humanitarian actors. It shall be understood as an instant recording of the language used in the sector and does not provide evidence on the importance of such terms for humanitarian actors.

What can we learn from this analysis?
First, “development” is as frequently used as “humanitarian” in the corpus. A detailed analysis of the word shows that humanitarian actors strategically define what they do in relation to development approaches/activities.
Second, terms referring to the activities undertaken by humanitarian actors are predominant. Some denominations particularly stand out:

  • “support” which is closely associated to “vulnerable people”;
  • “management” strongly correlated to “disaster”;
  • “capacity” which is almost always used with “building”;
  • “services” strongly associated to “health”.

In contrast, “assistance” and “aid”, both strongly correlated to “humanitarian” only appear at the 41st and 80th positions.

Third, mentions of areas of intervention are also frequent but some are more predominant than others. “Health” is one of the most used terms (6th most frequent), followed by “education” (35th) and “protection” (54th).
Fourth, the beneficiaries of humanitarian action are among the most represented terms in the top 20 and are often used in combination with each other. “People”, “communities/community”, “women” form a cluster of terms. “Children” and “child” are associated with “disabled” and “families”.

Lastly, mentions of the specific contexts of intervention of humanitarian actors are numerous in this top 100. Frequent denominations include:

  • “Disaster” associated to “conflict”;
  • “Emergency” associated to “response” and, to a lesser extent, to “preparedness”;
  • “Needs” which is associated to a variety of other terms such as “basic”, “complex”, “humanitarian” , “people” and “rights”;
  • “Risk”

The absence of terms referring to the modus operandi of humanitarian actors is remarkable. “Principles” does not appear in the top 100 and is ranked at the 118th position. “Independence” is the most used principle but appears only at the 784th rank, followed by “humanity” (1007th), neutrality (1235th) and impartiality (1266th).

Over the course of the week, you will discover how such terms are used differently across the humanitarian sector.

Leave us a comment to provide your own interpretation of such results!