Top-Down Formulas do not Work

At the recent Camden Conference global experts in the field of refugees and Internally Displaced People (IDP) discussed the importance of their work and their contribution to solving the humanitarian cause.[1] The conversation quickly escalated into a Western anti-Trump rally and a plea for greater financial support for multilateral agencies working on the issue of refugees and IDPs, particularly the United Nations. As I remind students in my International Relations and Business courses, bureaucracies at the local, regional, national, multilateral and global levels defend their own agendas and self-interest before they defend the interests of their constituents. In the case of humanitarian agencies and scholars, the same takes place as demonstrated by some of the presenters at the Camden Conference.2011-Fail in Cartoon_ Giacomo Cardelli

The highlight of the event was the students and not the presenters. It was important to see high school, undergraduate, and graduate students from across Maine engaged on such crucial issues, and it was empowering to hear them speak out and debate over the global humanitarian crisis not only during the Q&A sections but during the breaks and even after the sessions when the conversations continued in the streets of Camden. The downside was the contrast between those eager to learn and change the world, and those who were watching the show from the comfort of their ivory tower. It would have been important to invite Somali refugees, migrant workers living here in Maine, and other grassroots stakeholders to speak about the issue from multiple angles, giving us a more holistic picture of the challenges and struggles experienced by distressed populations across the world.

At some point during the conference I looked around and it seemed that the speakers were speaking to the choir; the same problem that I have seen at NGOs across Maine that advocate for progressive issues but that constantly fail to reach out to those outside their comfort zone. As I told one of my students, the impact of the Camden conference is achieved when a citizen who is not aware or has a biased position on the issue is challenged, ultimately changing her/his world views.

As suggested by Paul James, the Camden Conference should take the show on the road and bring the issue to the doorsteps of citizens across the country, so that we can move beyond the dilemma of speaking to those who are already engaged with the critical issue.[2] Nevertheless, I insist, the issue must be addressed not only through a top-down approach but also through a bottom-up approach so that a more holistic understanding may be achieved.

It was disheartening to see Dr. James debate with Dr. Timothy Kane over whether or not the United States accepted more refugees then Australia and whether or not Australia was a more benevolent nation then the United States.[3] It forced me to ask the panel about their views on their paternalistic approach to humanitarian work, knowing well that they were disenfranchising the same groups of people that they were theoretically advocating for by converting them into statistics and numbers. With the exception of Dr. Kelly Clements, nobody else responded to my question, yet her answer was evasive.[4]cb143e3797527cb0f3e81e483bf4368b

Only Alexandra Bilak, Director of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, could speak about her groundwork experience in the global South. Her work in Congo contrasted with the lack of groundwork experience of the other speakers that advocated for humanitarian initiatives from the comforts of the global North. Her sincerity and world views gave greater validity and weight to her understanding of the issue, something that could have been replicated by grassroots-based speakers.

I could not avoid asking the speakers why the United Nations was not preparing a plan for the humanitarian crisis that is currently boiling up in Venezuela, considering that criminal organizations were already setting up the logistics in order to capitalize on the emerging internally displaced crisis. But there was no answer.

The reality is that humanitarian agencies like the United Nations may only justify their work by reacting to a crisis but not by impeding one. The lack of a crisis is not good business for them because it would make their agency obsolete. They only become relevant when the crisis unfolds because that is the business model of multilateral humanitarian aid.

Venezuela will be the epicenter of the next humanitarian crisis, joining the already prevalent displacement and humanitarian crises in El Salvador and Honduras, but unfortunately the eyes of the multilateral agents will only turn to this part of the world when it becomes strategically relevant. Sadly the agency of humanitarian crises lies in the hands of the powers within the multilateral system, silencing the voices of the victims on the ground that scream out for help. Only the voice of the experts count, they are the legitimizers, and that is why I argue that top-down formulas do not work and instead perpetuate the failed vicious cycle of crisis and humanitarian aid.

The top-down approach continues to impose itself, but there are still those that believe that the solution to refugee and IDP crises lies in the hands of the locals, in the idiosyncrasies of domestic solutions and the solidarity of the global North. One believer was present at the conference in February. Lacey Darling, a senior International Affairs major at the University of Maine, decided to launch her own gofundme campaign in order to bring school supplies directly to Jusoor’s Refugee Education Program in Lebanon that provides Syrian refugee children with quality education.[5] It is this type of grassroots effort that contrasts the top-down initiatives of the multilateral system.

Although the Camden Conference was not able to change the worldview of disbelievers not present at the Opera House, it did empower young leaders like Lacey to take the initiative in her own hands. This is proof of the powerful impact that this international conference has on our community. I look forward to attending many more.


[1] 2017 Camden Conference. “Refugees and Global Migration: Humanity’s Crisis.” February 17, 2017. Accessed February 27, 2017.

[2] Paul James, the keynote speaker at this year’s conference is Director and Professor in the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University (Australia).

[3] Dr. Timothy Kane is the JP Conte Fellow in Immigration Studies at the Hoover Institute at Stanford. He defended the position that historically the United States has sacrificed lives and invested greatly for humanitarian causes across the world, but he was quickly contradicted by Dr. James and by Dr. Cas Mudde, Associate Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia, who advanced a Euro-centric critique to our interventions across the world.

[4] Dr. Clements is the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees.

[5] For more information on Lacey’s fundraising campaign see:

Stefano Tijerina

About Stefano Tijerina

My name is Stefano Tijerina and this blog’s objective is to connect Maine’s social, environmental, economic, cultural, and political issues to the global system, centering on how the local impacts the global and how the global impacts the local or what is known in Global Studies as the "Glocal" effect. In our present era of globalization it is crucial for the general public to understand how the new dynamics of the international system impact our lives here in Maine and how our local decisions impact the earth. These are my personal views, and they do not express those of the University of Maine System or the University of Maine.