Christine Mahoney (2016), Failure and Hope: Fighting for the Rights of the Forcibly Displaced

Cambridge University Press

One of the struggles facing the humanitarian sector regarding displaced people is the discrepancy between the ideal of saving lives, on the one hand and, on the other, the often-abysmal living conditions awaiting those who are saved. This discrepancy is especially pronounced in the case of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) who find shelter but no solutions, leaving them to face increasingly protracted displacement. Christine Mahoney’s (2016) Failure and Hope: Fighting for the Rights of the Forcibly Displaced investigates global advocacy efforts related to protracted displacement, showing how failures have proliferated at three different levels of governance – the international level, the level of national governance of host countries and the local camp level. Mahoney’s focus not only on refugees but also on IDPs provides valuable insights for the humanitarianism literature, which concentrates less on IDPs as a key subject of inquiry. 

In Chapter 1, the author lays out her main contribution to the literature on forced displacement and advocacy for displaced people. Although many scholars have analysed global advocacy efforts through cases that successfully achieved their aims, Mahoney’s project is different. Indeed, she does something rare in the global advocacy literature: she flips the starting point of her analysis from the rare successful international advocacy cases in order to consider levels of governance where advocacy for the rights of the displaced is unlikely to be successful. In Chapters 2 and 3, through content analysis of the coverage of 61 protracted displacement crises between 2000 and 2010 in the New York Times as well as in five different European and American newspapers for 2011, and through fieldwork in seven countries (Colombia, Croatia, Kenya, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Uganda) experiencing major protracted displacement, Mahoney demonstrates how and why ‘failure is the norm’ (2016: 1) in global advocacy today related to displaced people. Although Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia hosted more than 380 000 IDPs in Central and Eastern Europe as of 2008 when Mahoney chose the cases, Bosnian refugees in Croatia and Croatian IDPs were chosen to be focused on because the displacement crisis in Croatia had been experienced for at least five years and the Croatian state had more than five camps to host displaced populations. These cases also perfectly demonstrate how the break-up of Yugoslavia affected the living conditions of people who were citizens of the same country before 1992.

Despite the merit of fieldwork in hard-to-access camps, analysing the coverage of massive displacements through Western media outlets may not be the most suitable method through which to grasp failures in global advocacy, as the silence of the West in relation to the dire humanitarian conditions in the global South as a longstanding concern illustrates.

In Chapters 4 to 6, detailed discussion of each of the seven cases of displacement and the difficulty of advocacy for displaced populations are provided. Throughout these chapters, Mahoney suggests that it has generally been assumed that advocacy at the camp level to improve living conditions for refugees and IDPs is minimal, because of the limited political space available for camp residents and UN officials to make claims. In contrast, Mahoney successfully illustrates how advocacy for displaced people unfolds not only at national and international levels but also at the local camp level. Unfortunately, her in-depth interviews with aid workers and refugees suggest that such advocacy efforts are not successful in bringing about change in the living conditions which refugees and IDPs face. She draws out a great deal about the concerns and problems that drive the failure of advocacy for displaced people. Due to the IOs’ and NGOs’ lack of economic and political leverage, the relegation of the displaced as ‘non-priority citizens’ (2016: 138) and the corruption and economic constraints of host governments, failure becomes standard in advocacy for displaced populations.

Building on this analysis, Mahoney does something different from many other books on global advocacy on behalf of vulnerable populations. In Chapters 7 and 8 she not only shows the reader why advocacy toward displaced people at different levels has not been successful but also suggests a new strategy for global advocacy and concrete action to ameliorate the living conditions of refugees and IDPs, proposing public mobilisation – investing in bettering the lives of displaced persons through micro-financing for social entrepreneurship. Focusing on a wide range of advocacy cases regarding displaced people, demonstrating their limits and proposing a new approach to advocacy and support for refugees and IDPs is ambitious, reflecting Mahoney’s interest in offering ‘not empty critiques, but rather real-world solutions’ (2016: 127).

Her attempt to add an action-oriented flavour to the study of humanitarianism and advocacy in protracted displacement situations is worthy of respect, although Mahoney’s suggestion on this front unfortunately appears to be neither viable nor realistic. Her recommendation to use either person-to-person micro-financing or crowd-funded conditional micro-grant pools faces implementation challenges for the very same reasons that advocacy attempts at the national and local camp levels were set back: the lack of leverage and the use of state power and bureaucracy to hinder the efforts of NGOs and IOs. Given that, as Mahoney details, aid workers often cannot gain access to camps because of state officials’ informal practices – such as asking for bribes – it is likely that advocacy and fund-raising organisations following Mahoney’s proposed model would encounter similar obstacles to accessing persons who are in need. Hence, the book stops short where it should ideally be strong. Mahoney’s empirical work yields an extensive insight into the pitfalls associated with advocacy for refugees and IDPs in protracted displacement, yet her policy recommendations are in need of further refinement. 

Failure and Hope: Fighting for the Rights of the Forcibly Displaced analyses the sources of advocacy failure for displaced people, reveals the asymmetry in capacity between the different institutions concerned with serving vulnerable populations and describes how those failures emerge. Overall, Mahoney’s book is a major contribution to the ongoing pursuit of justice and advocacy for the displaced. Regrettably, it misses an opportunity to advocate for more practical ways of improving advocacy and practical efforts on behalf of forced migrants in protracted situations.

Merve Erdilmen
McGill University, UK