Humanitarians desire a shared understanding of key concepts, but most efforts, whether practice-oriented glossaries or comprehensive reference works, tend to impose top-down meanings. An alternative, horizontal approach to knowledge production is possible, one that can foster a shared understanding from diverse definitions.

Alex Odlum, Research Coordinator for the Humanitarian Encyclopedia, Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies

Santiago Chambo, Linguist Analyst for the Humanitarian Encyclopedia, University of Granada


Practitioners commonly express their desire for a shared understanding of key concepts: if we all spoke, thought or understood the same meaning by the same words, coordination would be easier and humanitarian responses would be improved. However, the reality is that many humanitarian concepts remain diversely defined and divergently understood. Here, we contend that while a shared understanding has obvious coordination benefits in theory, it is important to acknowledge that divergent understandings of concepts are an integral feature of a diverse humanitarian ecosystem. We draw on findings from the Humanitarian Encyclopedia project to show that the solution to conceptual variation is not to simply impose top-down, monolithic definitions of key concepts, as is common in glossaries, dictionaries and handbooks purporting to define the key concepts of humanitarian action. Rather, we propose a collaborative online space where diverse definitions can be described, shared, and combined with empirical knowledge from case studies in a horizontal and integrated way.

Diverse understandings of humanitarian concepts

When analysing how the key concepts of humanitarian action are used in humanitarian documents, it is clear they take on a diverse range of meanings depending on which organisation published the document, their geographical region, or the year of publication. The research programme of the Humanitarian Encyclopedia project has identified many examples of this diversity through an online survey distributed to thousands of practitioners, workshops and forum threads, and textual analysis of large corpora of humanitarian documents and social media discourse. We consistently find that different humanitarians are divided in how they define even the most fundamental concepts. 

Take the concept of humanity, often claimed as a fundamental and universal principle of humanitarianism. In a survey of 1,060 humanitarian practitioners conducted by the Humanitarian Encyclopedia research team in 2018, respondents were shown five different definitions used in the humanitarian domain or closely related fields. [1] The spread of responses was remarkably flat, with no dominantly accepted definition standing out. The top definition of humanity, sourced from the Wikipedia page on Humanitarian Principles, had 282 responses (32%), but the second, extracted from the ReliefWeb Glossary, had a comparable 224 votes (27%). [2] The third definition, adapted from the Red Cross fundamental principles, was still chosen 170 (20%) times, and the fourth, adapted from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was chosen 114 (14%) times. Only the fifth definition, from Oxfam, could clearly be ruled out, receiving just 11 (1%) votes.

Four different competing definitions demonstrate that humanitarians understand key concepts like humanity in different ways. Responses to the same question in more recent workshops and online fora replicate similar discordance among humanitarians [3]. Humanitarian organisations also note variation in their own documents. For example, an IFRC report from 2015 notes that “conceptions of humanitarianism vary across cultures and contexts, and the Western established model is increasingly challenged and contested as a universal model.” [4] ALNAP similarly remarked in 2015 that “humanitarianism through the UN-led system is increasingly perceived in the global South as a Western construct consisting of a set of values and interests that are not universally shared in the places where it intervenes.” [5] Referring to the Arab world, one author noted “neutrality is generally not understood in the same way that Western humanitarian organisations articulate the concept.” [6] Another explained how interpretations of policy jargon are diffuse, stating: “there is currently no consistent or common understanding of what changes the Grand Bargain aims to bring about, or what actions are necessary to deliver them”, and that “as the number of signatories has increased, so differences in expectations, interpretations and understanding of both specific commitments and the Grand Bargain's overall goals have grown”. [7]

The quest for a shared understanding

Evidence of diverse conceptual understandings among humanitarian practitioners tend to attach negative sentiment to this phenomena and express a desire for a shared understanding to overcome the divergence. Such a view is expressed in an OECD document from 2016: “The concept of leaving no one behind needs to be clarified to guide programming and projects and to develop the right instruments…” Because there is no common definition for leave no one behind, the categories of focus are often broad (gender, women and girls; people with disabilities; children; youth)”. [8]

Indeed, blurred terminological boundaries are not just a matter of theory; the inclusion or exclusion of groups and subgroups within the contours of concepts like gender-based violence has direct implications on the scope of humanitarian activities, and protection and assistance vulnerable people can receive. Another example is localisation, whereby definitions and perspectives on who constitutes local can have implications on the quality, effectiveness, and cultural appropriateness of response. Often, the implications of conceptual divergence only become apparent when theoretical conceptualisations fail to capture complex operational realities: impartiality based on needs alone is a noble principle but is challenged in practice by the complications of assessing needs in complex environments characterised by time pressure and scarcity.

Given these implications, humanitarians consistently demand a shared understanding of concepts. For example, with a workforce of 2,000 staff from 100 countries, OCHA explained in 2012 that “making sure that everyone has a shared understanding of the problem and what needs to be done is crucial”. In the Asian regional consultations for the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, participants suggested that a lack of trust throughout the region could be “due to lack of communication and lack of shared understanding, particularly of the 'spoken language' of the humanitarian world.” ALNAP’s study on humanitarian performance and the state of the humanitarian system in 2010 noted “there is a proliferation of agencies claiming to do protection but no shared understanding of what it involves.” Humanitarian documents contain many more examples of the desire for a shared understanding. But, as our studies described earlier clearly show, diversity persists, and ambitions of a shared understanding remain distant.

Limits of vertically defining concepts

Perpetuation of diverse meanings, coupled with ongoing calls for a shared understanding, begs the question of whether the sector has identified the right way of fostering this shared understanding it so keenly desires. Current models for building a shared understanding of concepts take two forms: practitioner-oriented glossaries, dictionaries and lexicons; or scholarly works describing, conceptualising and critiquing the key terms and themes of humanitarianism. 

While the first type of glossary product purports to offer a shared understanding, it might be better described as imposing a singular understanding. Such products articulate clear and concise definitions, explanations, references, norms, and standards. While there is a strong demand among practitioners for such clarity and applicability, it is important to note that simplicity can erase or omit key nuances, as well as reinforcing those understandings that reflect already existing power structures. ConsiderReliefweb’s 2008 Glossary of Humanitarian Terms. The glossary is framed as a value-free, non-partisan compilation of definitions, with a “focus on common usage and understanding of terms”. In reality, 31% of 344 definitions were sourced directly from UN OCHA itself, 16% from its predecessor the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs, and the remainder from various other specialised UN agencies, such as UNHCR, ISDR, and WMO. Only a handful are provided by independent research organisations or think tanks, and none from local organisations or non-institutional sources.

Of course, sourcing definitions from UN agencies makes sense, as these are the organisations with adequate resources and expertise to set out comprehensive standards in writing. But it is also important to recall that the Reliefweb definition of humanity only gained 27% of responses in our 2018 survey of humanitarian practitioners’ preferred definitions. Omitting diverse definitions from the glossary keeps it simple and accessible, but it risks crowding out other perspectives.

The second type of publication is typically generated by academics and scholars, with substantial expertise in the concepts and debates at the core of humanitarianism. A long line of resources has been produced in this area, each with a slightly different focus, coverage, audience, or style. The more academic among these are edited volumes describing a set of key concepts and introducing some key controversies and debates. These include the Routledge Companion to Humanitarian Action, Humanitarianism: A Dictionary of Concepts, and Humanitarianism: Keywords. Other resources are written with the practitioner squarely in focus, such as The practical guide to humanitarian law, or the Dictionary of the international law of armed conflict. Similar resources cover the related area of disaster relief, including the Encyclopedia of disaster relief, and the Handbook of hazards and disaster risk reduction. Many more works unpack similar themes in more narrative or analytical formats. [9]

While the various reference works offer strengths and weaknesses, they are united by a relatively top-down approach to conceptualisation. This is not in and of itself problematic; particularly if entries are open-access and written in short formats and in plain English, expert wisdom can shed important insight on complex concepts and provoke thoughtful reflection from practitioners. Exhaustive as expert authors’ knowledge may be on a concept, however, it is nonetheless subject to a particular worldview. And this view inevitably informs even their more descriptive redaction of concepts, let alone any prescriptive statements of how concepts should be defined, interpreted, or revised. One problem this top-down imposition of the meaning of concepts does present is being at odds with the humanitarian sectors’ contemporary calls for localisation and decolonisation. We therefore propose an alternative approach, whereby diverse definitions and understandings of concepts can be integrated horizontally, and accessed, discussed and updated in a dynamic, collaborative online space: the Humanitarian Encyclopedia.

Horizontally fostering a shared understanding

The Humanitarian Encyclopedia rests on co-produced concept descriptions and apply knowledge that guides an effective humanitarian response. One of the key features of the research process behind this platform has been an emphasis on recognising the diversity of definitions for each humanitarian concept, while fostering a shared understanding of them where possible.

In the first stage of the Humanitarian Encyclopedia project, key concepts of humanitarian action were selected by practitioners, in a systematic, triangulated fashion that sought to mitigate researcher or institutional bias. A final set of 129 concepts was selected through a four-phase participatory process involving document analysis, a survey of practitioners, regional workshops, and validation by humanitarian practitioners and researchers. 

Second, researchers consulted a wide range of practitioners and academics to understand the user requirements for the concept entry content to be displayed on the online platform. This resulted in a template model to be applied to each concept, which features a short textual and visual overview of a concept, followed by an expandable menu which users can navigate to access more detailed content. The overview allows busy practitioners to grasp the shared understanding of the concept, while interested readers can dig deeper into different definitional elements upon which this shared understanding is based. Additional sections also present practitioner insights: data, anecdotes or case studies showing how the concepts may apply in practice, including by organisation type, time, or region. Further sections summarise controversies and debates or trace the origins and evolution of the concept over time. Finally, each concept entry contains a space for further resources and references, and discussion questions for the online forum.

Third, generating the content for each concept template involves a process of expert-linguist interaction, whereby experienced practitioners and scholars interpret linguistic analysis of a set of 4,824 humanitarian documents, tagged by year of publication (2005-2019), organisation types (e.g., NGOs, IGOs, State agencies, etc.), place of publication (e.g., Africa, Asia, Europe, etc.) and document type (e.g., general document, strategy document and activity report). The linguists use knowledge extraction tools and techniques to form a comprehensive definition incorporating elements from multiple sources, but also to capture instances of shared and divergent understandings (i.e., conceptual variation), including peripheral conceptualisations and their sources.

For example, to analyse the concept of impartiality, explicit and implicit definitions of the concept were broken down into nine definitional elements and disaggregated by organisation type. Impartiality is predominantly conceptualised as an approach to delivering humanitarian aid that (1) is purely based on the needs of affected people (i.e., needs-based), and (2) conducted in a non-discriminatory way (i.e., non-discrimination). Most organisations coincide on these two elements. However, there are other peripheral definitional elements such as non-alignment with actors, prioritising urgencies or conducting fair and transparent contracting. While our analysis confirms a core conceptualisation (i.e., needs-based and non-discrimination), it also reveals other fringe understandings that do not necessarily align with the predominant meaning.

Fourth, authors, who are experienced practitioners or scholars, interpret the linguistic analysis outputs and incorporate these into the concept entry template. This fosters a process of collaborative, horizontal, co-construction between authors and linguists, combining top-down expertise of academics, bottom-up field experience of practitioners, and data-driven, technical insights from linguists. Concept entries can have multiple authors to reflect the equality of contributions from different sources. In addition, the broader Humanitarian Encyclopedia platform includes other features that allow complementary, but also contrasting perspectives to feed into the concept entry. For example, users can relate existing reports and articles on the concept by tagging them to the concept entry page. Experts can submit short free-form articles and blogs that reflect on one or more interrelated concepts in new ways. Readers can react to the concept entry and debate interpretations in interactive online fora associated with each concept. Indeed, this forum feature is emblematic of the democratising potential of the Humanitarian Encyclopedia’s knowledge production processes, as it awards badges that allow any user to gain credibility from their contributions, rather than some prior status. With enough contributions, the Humanitarian Encyclopedia could serve as a model for horizontal integration of diverse understandings into a shared one. [10]


[1] Egger C & Schopper D (2018) Online survey “How do you speak humanitarian?”: summary report of results

[2] ReliefWeb (2008) Glossary of Humanitarian Terms

[3] Humanitarian Encyclopedia (2021) ‘Humanity’, Humanitarian Encyclopedia

[4] IFRC (2015) World Disasters Report

[5] ALNAP (2015) The State of the Humanitarian System

[6] Haddad S (2009) ‘Perception and acceptance at community level: the case of MSF in Yemen’, Humanitarian Exchange 

[7] Metcalfe-Hough V et al. (2018) Grand Bargain annual independent report

[8] OECD (2018) Development Co-operation Report

[9] Humanitarian Encyclopedia (2022) Humanitarianism: a collaborative reading list

[10] We gratefully acknowledge the various staff who have worked on the Humanitarian Encyclopedia project over the years, whose efforts have created rich data and foundations for us to build on, as well as many volunteer contributors to the platform who demonstrate how collaborative knowledge production can work.

Last update : Dec 19, 2022

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