Anthropology and Sociology
21 April 2020

“Masters of disorder”? ICRC delegates between utopia and bureaucracy

The mandate of the International Committee of the Red Cross is to act as a “guardian of International Humanitarian Law” on the frontlines of conflicts. In a special-section article for Social Anthropology, Julie Billaud, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at the Graduate Institute, observes the ways in which ICRC delegates interpret the principles (“neutrality”, “impartiality”, “confidentiality”) that guide their actions. As she explains in this interview, ICRC delegates, despite their many efforts to master the disorders of war, primarily achieve to maintain hope in the midst of a dystopian present. 

Your article on the ICRC is part of a special section, “The Bureaucratization of Utopia: Ethics, Affects and Subjectivities in International Governance Processes”, that you coedited with Jane Cowan for Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale. How did this project originate?

It is the result of a conversation we started thanks to a SNSF-sponsored international exploratory workshop at the Graduate Institute in 2017, with a group of anthropologists and sociologists who study international governance. The idea for the workshop emerged out of the realisation of a certain disconnect between the progressive ideals upheld by institutions of global governance and the rather dull nature of the bureaucratic labour that constitutes their everyday routine. Our primary motivation was therefore to explore the link between bureaucracy and utopia. 

In your article you explored this link by examining the work of ICRC delegates. What did you find?

Instinctively, we do not associate administrative procedures such as the monitoring practices I document in this article with affective and ethical labour. Most of the sociological scholarship on bureaucracy tends to depict bureaucracies as paradigmatic incarnations of the “banality of evil”, to use Hannah Arendt’s expression. In this article, I was interested in the actors (delegates) who are directly responsible for implementing the mandate of the ICRC as “guardian of the Geneva Conventions”. What I had learned from my fieldwork at the ICRC was that far from being cynically detached, delegates were often passionately involved in trying to make the world a better place. Even though their work involved often burdensome technocratic work (such as writing reports or updating databases), delegates in charge of monitoring the conduct of hostilities sought to manoeuvre between the humanitarian principle of neutrality, international humanitarian law, and the increasingly bureaucratic logic of “confidential dialogue” in order to persuade parties to a conflict to restrain their use of force. In spite of the many political, logistic and administrative constraints they faced, they remained firmly committed to the minimalist utopian ideal of “humanising war”.

What contributions does this article make to the existing literature on humanitarianism and auditing?

The article builds on the anthropological scholarship that conceives humanitarian action as a distinct mode of governing but also slightly departs from it by showing that “humanitarian government”, to use Didier Fassin’s expression, is never totally hegemonic and disciplinary. The material that I collected demonstrates that in spite of the many efforts ICRC delegates make to master the disorders of war, what they primarily achieve is to maintain hope in the midst of a dystopian present. Populations are never entirely “managed” and more often than not, their relationship to the ICRC remains tenuous and fragile.

In the same way, the work of auditing, in spite of the increasing reliance on technologies (such as GIS, crowdsourcing, open-source software), never achieves a panoptic gaze. Because of limited resources, the ICRC needs to prioritise certain conflict areas, issues and groups considered “the most at risk”. This means that monitoring reports only reflect situations like in a mirror: many aspects of conflict-related violence are simply left outside of the frame. 

Based on your findings and observations in the article, what are the possible future avenues of research on “audit cultures and processes”?

Building upon Foucault’s knowledge/power nexus, the anthropological scholarship on audit (notably the pioneering work of Marilyn Strathern), policy (Cris Shore and Susan Wright) and governance by indicators (Sally Merry) analyses how bureaucratic processes shape the parameters of human agency in far more intimate ways than the ones described by Max Weber. Governmentality scholars present these systems of governance not as simply coercive but as producing calculative, responsibilised, self-managed subjects, that form part of productive new sets of relations and regimes of truth. While their work provides important insights into the nature of bureaucratic power and its effects, their framework of analysis leaves little room for considering the many forms of contestation and resistance inherent to the social life of administrations. By focusing on the working methods, subjectivities and ethical dilemmas of actors, the special section brings to light the many forms of contestation that are often hidden from view in studies that are primarily concerned with standardisation and rationalisation processes.

Coming back to this special section, can you briefly tell us about its contents?

The contributors reflect on the tensions and contradictions triggered by global governance from the standpoint of actors involved in a broad range of bureaucratic processes. The special section starts with an anthropological and historical analysis of the first “international functionaries” working in the Minorities Section of the League of Nations (Jane Cowan). It moves on to explore the subjectivities of actors involved in various United Nations fora and EU mechanisms, such as “communities” mobilised to define “immaterial cultural heritage” at the UNESCO (Chiara Bortolotto et al.), experts engaged in treaty bodies proceedings (Miia Halme-Tuomisaari), lawyers working for the EU-sponsored Kosovo Property Agency (Agathe Mora) and Turkish civil servants enrolled in human rights trainings as part of Turkey’s EU accession conditionalities (Elif Babül). Brought together, these articles tell an interesting story of human ingenuity as actors aim to make the most out of often burdensome processes. They also tell a story of the many contingencies which prevent the utopia of a better world from being fully realised. Our focus on actors’ ethical dilemmas and affects provides a fertile ground for understanding the moral economy that guides contemporary bureaucratic practices.

As a former resident researcher at the ICRC, how was your own experience of working for a big international humanitarian institution?

For me, as a political and legal anthropologist with a keen interest in humanitarianism, human rights and global governance, the ICRC represented an ideal object of study. Indeed, the ICRC is one of the largest humanitarian actors in the world, with a distinct history and an international status embedded in the Geneva Conventions. Yet, the ICRC has never been studied from an anthropological perspective. Apart from a few historical studies and sociopolitical analyses, the organisation has largely remained untouched by critical inquiry. In line with the Swiss diplomatic tradition of neutrality, which privileges bilateral negotiations over public denunciation, the ICRC has been particularly skilful in maintaining a culture of confidentiality which sometimes brushes against secrecy. If this environment was not naturally conducive to research, it simultaneously encouraged me to develop creative methodological thinking.

My position as an ICRC researcher and employee was different from that of an independent researcher. However, it provided an opportunity to get an insider’s perspective on how the tensions between the “reformers” and the “guardians of vision” I describe in the article unfolded in the everyday work relationships of the organisation. Such meticulous observations, carried out at headquarters and field level, helped me unpack the inner “mechanics” of the ICRC, from its internal hierarchies to its foundational myths, values and ideology.

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Full citation of Professor Billaud’s article:
Billaud, Julie. “Masters of Disorder: Rituals of Communication and Monitoring at the International Committee of the Red Cross.” Social Anthropology 28.1 (2020): 96–111.

Interview by Bugra Güngör, PhD Candidate in International Relations and Political Science; editing by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner image: excerpt from an image by Dana.S/