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Decolonial and anti-racist approaches to humanitarian action

After decades of post- and decolonial studies, their critiques of the international system have gained weight in recent years. First they were pushed by the anti-racist movement with the Black Lives Matter protests and against deaths at the hands of US police, as happened with George Floyd in 2020, which prompted 54 African countries to call for a debate on racism at the UN Human Rights Council. Second, the humanitarian consequences of COVID-19 encouraged debates about the different narratives employed in crises: why were large NGO missions not deployed to alleviate the US emergency during the pandemic? Why was the bias of their local leadership in managing the situation not questioned? Third, the attention and scale deployed to deal with the humanitarian consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been praised for its speed and breadth of resources, but criticised for the double standards applied to many other crises and conflicts in Africa and the Middle East. Worse still has been the justification for the reception of refugees on the grounds that the Ukrainian population was like “us”, being Christian and white, as opposed to people of other origins, who in recent months have been sent back to their countries of origin, tried to manage in third countries such as Rwanda or put up more walls, without taking into account whether there were people entitled to international protection.

These debates have reached humanitarian action (HA), forced by the accelerated mutations of the global system of the last three decades to analyse “humanitarian crises without dogmatisms or previous schemes” and to incorporate new dimensions such as feminism6 as well as “other intersectionalities; questions of colonialism, the decolonial perspective; and environmental elements and the fight against climate change.7 To address these issues, the article is structured as follows: a brief definition of the terms used; an analysis of some of HA’s colonial legacies; the main reactions to its decolonisation; decolonial approaches to its main debates; and some conclusions and recommendations.

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