Benjamin Thomas White recently published a blog on the surprising ‘fact’ the average stay in a refugee camp is 17 years. Once surprising because of how very long it was, it is now surprising because, despite being frequently repeated, it turns out not to be true. In the first instance, the data it relies upon is from 2003. If the simple passage of time then doesn’t lead you to think a recount might be necessary, then perhaps the UN’s claim that the global refugee population is now at its highest since the Second World War will. Secondly, the figure didn’t include Palestinian refugees. Thirdly, it wasn’t about camps. And finally, as UNHCR’s own documents stated, it was always a very crude estimate. (You can get the full details on Ben’s blog.)
In discussions after the blog, Jeff Crisp – formerly of UNHCR – drew our attention to a report he wrote on the problems of refugee statistics. It is from 1999, and so predates the 17-year stat. Noting ‘the centrality of statistics’ to aid practice to support refugees as well as the field of refugee studies, he goes on to discuss the various reasons why the numbers have been limited, selective, misleading, contradictory, unreliable, and political. There can be ‘positive’ aspects to this unreliability, he is careful to point out, not only negative ones. And he called for more research into the way that humanitarian organisations make use of statistics in their own advocacy.
Ben’s conclusion (spoiler alert) about the 17-year stat is that, in providing a clean figure suitable for such advocacy, it saves us from having to really think properly about refugees at all. In his words, it ‘reduces the enormous complexity of protracted refugee situations, and the much greater complexity, richness, and difficulty of the lives of the people living through them, to a mere cipher.’
Advocacy, of course, is not all bad. Mainstream engagement with these issues is important for many reasons, and we can’t expect the general public – even the much sought-after ‘interested public’ dear to advocates and researchers alike – to invest time in reading long reports on complicated topics without an obvious direct link to their daily lives. Hell, most of us who do something related for a living struggle to read those reports. And so a number, an idea, a story that captures the core of the message and draws attention to the cause can make a valuable contribution.
Oxfam (largely through the voice of its strategic advisor Duncan Green) calls these things ‘killer facts’. Killer facts are ‘those punchy, memorable, headline-grabbing statistics that are picked up by the media and politicians and have immediate impact.’ I’m not sure whether ’17 years is the average length of stay in a refugee camp’ counts as a killer fact by their definition, but it certainly shows one of the attributes that contributors to the comments section on this post identified: that headline stats can take on lives of their own as they are adopted, repeated, put towards the service of various goals. But because they are designed to be self-evident – shocking in their supposedly bare statement of the world as it is – they tend to be more geared towards forcing conclusions than opening debate. What begins as an advocacy tool can become a truism, and one that is used in justification of particular policies.
Fundraising, different from advocacy but intimately connected to it, can bring its own problems. The perceived need to tug at the heartstrings of potential donors has led organisations to continue using degrading, stereotyping, and at times dehumanising images of those they claim to assist, despite the existence of codes of conduct that provide guidelines for appropriate imagery. The desire to promote aid as a force of good has produced the Twitter hashtag #humanitarianheroes as well as this profile of DFID’s emergency response team as ‘the magnificent seven’ each with their own superpower – which makes #humanitarianheroes seem downright self-effacing in comparison.
That piece brings us, albeit unintentionally, almost to the realm of parody, and so reminds us of one of the ways that advocacy (of a kind) can indeed reintroduce complexity through humour, satire, and self-awareness. Perhaps the best known example of this is the Radi-Aid campaign of Africa for Norway, which challenges stereotypes around who gives what to whom. It’s advocacy in the sense that it wants to make a point about humanitarian action, but the goal is not prescriptive. There are other parodies of the aid industry that poke fun at received truths and draw attention to power imbalances. While humanitarian organisations must manage multiple priorities to construct a practice of critique that is effective, meaningful, but not self-defeating, satire seems to offer an outlet for criticisms of a broad kind, a talking point, and a way of bringing the personal back into the discourse of aid without invading the privacy of particular individuals. Not that I’ve seen a satire of life in a refugee camp – yet…