A Feminist Approach to Humanitarian Intervention

Humanitarian intervention refers to a means to prevent or stop a gross violation of human rights in a state, where the state in question is either incapable or unwilling to protect its own people, or is actively persecuting them. It is facilitated on the basis that no state has a prerogative to allow the large-scale violation of human rights, and therefore, if such violations do occur, another state, or other states, may intervene to put an end to them. While a feminist philosophy of supporting the marginalised and taking on structural and overt violence underlines the idea of humanitarian interventions, they are seldom carried out through feminist means. Where military force is treated as the last resort, most instances involve military force as the first resort. Where interventions are implemented, they are carried out without the consent of, on the request of, and in response to the communities for whom they are carried out. In sum, both the use of force and absence of consent come together to cause greater harm than what the intervention intends to avert. The “humanitarian” component then becomes questionable.

By employing a feminist lens, this paper makes the case for dispensing with the use of force altogether and engaging in active community-level consent-seeking processes while carrying out an intervention to address large-scale human rights violations in another state. I start by presenting a brief outline of what humanitarian intervention is. In the second part of this paper, I explore the feminist principles underlying humanitarian intervention and make the case for a feminist implementation of it. In this section, I argue that intervention to restore peace or to bring human rights violations to an end is not humanitarian if it does not factor into account the needs of the people in the community in which such an intervention is made. I also argue that intervention undertaken without consulting or taking the consent of those facing such violations creates room for more human rights violations. Third, I make the case for the need for an approach that responds to structural factors in the site of intervention that led up to the occurrence of mass atrocities in order to ensure that there are no repeat incidents. Finally, I conclude the paper with a vision for what humanitarian intervention should strive to achieve if it follows a feminist path in implementation.  

A Feminist Idea: Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect

                  Unilateral military action on humanitarian grounds has been justified in several contexts globally, oftentimes drawing legitimacy from customary international law.1There is no codified legislative framework offering a process, approach, or system governing the actual conduct of humanitarian intervention operations – but at its base, that there should be “coherent humanitarian justification coupled with a proper procedural and substantive legal regime to underwrite it”.2 State practice indicates the need to identify a humanitarian concern that needs addressing through intervention: be that a case of gross human rights violations in a state, or state-sponsored violence targeting a community, or a case of violence that the state is unable to or unwilling to draw to an end.3

                  The conduct of sovereign states is circumscribed by the rules provided under the UN Charter. To this end, Article 2(4) prohibits the use of force in any form, offering an exception only in the case of necessary and proportional self-defence under Article 51. Any conduct that deviates from the explicit framework of the law requires to be legitimated suitably, and standard international practice has suggested that this legitimacy flows from the Security Council of the United Nations, through its Resolutions. However, the 1990s, known as the decade of humanitarian intervention, witnessed several instances of intervention both authorised and not authorised by the United Nations.4 The United States and its allies engaged in military action on at least three instances without prior authorisation by the Security Council – such as the establishment of no-fly zones in Northern and Southern Iraq in 1991 and 1992, the bombing of the Bosnian Serbs by the NATO in 1995, and the NATO’s Kosovo campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999.5 Some were declared legitimate belatedly, such as the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and the US intervention in Libya during the Arab Spring that was authorised under Security Council Resolution 1973.6

                  There is no legally “binding” instrument that regulates or governs humanitarian intervention, and this has also led to tricky terrain. According to supporters of humanitarian intervention, if it were legal, the very cost of the potential abuse of pretextual interventions would outweigh any benefit from altruistic interventions.7 There are two kinds of intervention: A pretextual intervention is essentially a case of a state’s use of military force in another state in pursuit of its own gain and not for the protection of human rights; and an altruistic intervention is one that is rooted in the core value of protecting human rights.8

                  In 2005, for the first time ever, the global community endorsed the notion that the world at large has an obligation to protect a community that is facing mass atrocity. This came about through the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect, which makes the approach to humanitarian intervention from a different angle – one that endorses that sovereignty is a responsibility – and that a state has a duty to take care of its people.9 When a state fails to do so, the responsibility to take over devolves to the international community. The Responsibility to Protect is aimed at protecting global populations in different communities from mass atrocities and large-scale human rights violations. In all the occasions of intervention in international relations and history, the basis has been genocide or mass atrocity/human rights violations of any kind.

           In the words of Noam Chomsky, “For one thing, there’s a history of humanitarian intervention. You can look at it. And when you do, you discover that virtually every use of military force is described as humanitarian intervention.” This summarises everything that is wrong with how humanitarian intervention is used, executed, and justified. States use military force as the first, rather than last, resort. Interventions take place unilaterally in violation of territorial sovereignty and are not always authorised by the force of law. Furthermore, in the course of intervening, the use of force automatically negates any value for the humanitarian basis that motivated – if only on paper – the intervention in the first place.

           On one level, as Charlesworth explains, the concept of the responsibility to protect appears “hospitable to feminist agendas.”10It fundamentally transcends the traditional paradigm of sovereignty as an equivalent of autonomy and impermeability, notions that feminist scholars have linked to the male body.11The language of responsibility as well also resonates with “research on female reasoning”.12

                  Humanitarian intervention is also a feminist viewpoint in that it seeks to end mass atrocities and violence through, emphatically, non-military modes of intervention; in principle – but not in implementation.13 The motive to take on overt and structural violence and to support the marginalised, oppressed, and the victimised represents a feminist standpoint that strives to engage with structural violence and the protection of the oppressed. The Responsibility to Protect also aligns with this – in that it recognises the failings, violence, and complicity of the state as a structure, and aims to respond to it. However, in their execution, neither is humanitarian intervention nor the responsibility to protect feminist.

A Feminist Approach: Outlawing Military Force and Taking Consent

           A feminist approach to international law in practice is generally marginalised and is entirely absent from the discourse around humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect.14However, such an approach is necessary. That military force is often prioritised over other means of action, and that there is a constant disregard of the agency of those in whose support an intervention is carried out, represents a deviation from the feminist ideals in itself.15, 16 I argue that there are two key components that can ensure a feminist implementation of humanitarian intervention: acknowledgment of the agency of those for whom the intervention is carried out by taking consent and outlawing military force altogether.

Consent of the Governed

           The social contract tradition offers a basis to understand the legitimacy of state authority over individuals. Within this, states are also responsible to their citizens and to protect their interests. Drawing from this principle and state sovereignty under international law, Hathaway et al. made the case for consent-based intervention and argue that a state must either invite or legitimise intervention by another for it to be tenable in law.17 However, only those cases where a state is unable to perform its duties towards its citizens would be open to potentially considering intervention by another state. They go on to suggest that if not the state, only those who legally represent the government can invest or legitimise intervention.

           However, where the state itself is the chief cause of the humanitarian issue, the idea of the state taking the initiative to invite or legitimise intervention is unimaginable. Given that humanitarian intervention fundamentally does not occur at the request or with the consent of the government, unsolicited intervention can be seen as a violation of state sovereignty, and because such interventions are fundamentally coercive in nature, they involve military force or threats of such force.18 Regardless of whether an intervening state follows a strategy of prevention or reaction, most approaches involve the use of force, are top-down, and do not empower those for whom such interventions are carried out.19

           I argue in favor of a consent-based intervention of a different kind: one where the consent of the victims of the humanitarian crisis for whom such intervention is sought, is vital before an intervention. Those against whom an intervention is directed are almost always the government and its supporters. 20 The social contract tradition in the context of international law has been seen as binding individuals as parties to the contract.21 The assumption of a social contract approach is that the parties to the “contract” are equal and have equal bargaining power.22 The point of the social contract is to construct principles that can secure peace.23

           Drawing from this, if individuals are given this equal bargaining power, they can legitimise or invite interventions from third states and prescribe the scope of such an intervention. The ostensible beneficiaries of humanitarian intervention should have a veto authority with respect to intervention on their behalf.24 The basis of intervention on humanitarian grounds is that no state has the prerogative to allow the violation of human rights, and therefore, if it does take place with no action from the state in question towards putting an end to it, another state, or other states may intervene to put an end to them.25 All aspects of human rights are a concern of international law, and therefore, interventions furthering an agenda of protecting human rights are legally permissible.26

           A community consent-based approach to intervention would also pave the way for peaceful engagement, defined and perhaps led by the community seeking such intervention. Military force would not be a natural first choice, and there would be other means for intervention. It may arguably come across as impracticable or potentially difficult to execute – with a very real possibility that there may be posturing and the pursuit of vested interests, it would be an interesting avenue to pursue through the reliance of civil society networks across borders.

Outlawing military force

           The use of force in international law is fundamentally outlawed; the most commonly cited provision endorsing this is Article 2(4) of the UN Charter. In both customary law/state practice and treaty law as interpreted by judicial engagement, the common understanding is that the exceptional use of force must be both reasonable and proportionate to what it is used for.27 

           Most instances of humanitarian intervention have involved the use of force, thus creating what Orford called as “muscular humanitarianism”.28 There is an assumption that an intervention prompted by just forces is assumed to be a positive force.29International practice and scholarship have accommodated such use of force if it is “legitimate,” wherein there is a consideration of the balance of consequences of military action. However, there is a narrow frame accorded to inquiries into consequences, wherein the threshold is whether the atrocities or sufferings that warranted the intervention are ended or not.30 There is, in practice, a “fusion” of military and humanitarian goals that “pushes questions of social justice off the agenda”.31

           The use of military force in the course of humanitarian intervention can also result in the doctrine of double effect, wherein innocent people are targeted deliberately.32, 33, 34 The doctrine legitimises the killing of innocents only if the act itself has good consequences such as the end of a tyrannical regime, that the intention of the actor is good and not one to harm innocent people, and that the good consequences of the act outweigh the bad ones.35 However, the preponderance of good over bad is a subjective assessment to make, and can easily lead to the condonation of several instances of “collateral” harm to innocent people in the name of the “bigger” aim.

           On paper, the use of force is treated as a last resort, one that is neither encouraged nor intentionally normalised. However, in practice, the use of force appears to be the first course of action in any of the instances of intervention. As Engle noted, it warrants the presentation of problems as crises “that only military intervention can solve”.36 There are dangerous consequences of this of which one is that the overt use of military force has its obvious devastating consequences, and another is that such interventions do not question structures and systems that led up to the immediate conflict in the first place.

           Lu cautioned against conflating the idea of intervention with the use of military force, arguing that “The conflation of these two issues in international theory and practice has meant that governments have been able to claim a much stronger social convention against all types of intervention than is supported even in international law…. Many situations may justify some kind of interventionary international response that violates or restricts some aspect of a state’s sovereign authority while ruling out a full-scale military assault”.37

           Non-military interventions exist, and can produce tangible change. Cudd recommended that interventions should be preceded by adherence to five key parameters: a just cause, a right intention, attempts at all strategies in order, minimal use of force to an extent that is both necessary and proportionate to the threat or prevailing violence, and an expectation of good consequences.38 She goes on to recommend a spectrum of options that start from least to most coercive, namely from diplomatic persuasion and support for non-violent internal resistance groups to military intervention aimed at preventing killing and military intervention aimed at removing governmental authority.

           Seeking or calling for judicial support and investigation is perhaps one of the most sustainable ways of calling for an end to human rights abuses. For instance, in 2019, The Gambia initiated legal proceedings against Myanmar before the International Court of Justice with the support of 57 other countries, calling for an end to the genocidal campaign against the Rohingya people in the region. In amplifying the call for justice, The Gambia not only averted greater disaster and protracted war through armed conflict, but also spoke up to present a socio-political reality that comprised structural violence in the run up to the genocide, and called for a judicial solution that holds the promise to pave the way for sustainable peace.

Responding to structural violence

           The focus on addressing overt violence without, or in some instances, instead of responding to the structural and systemic violence underlying it is no less than responding to the symptom than the root cause of the illness.39 No mass atrocities take place without a certain formulaic build up that culminates in the overt violence. If these structures are not dismantled, they may remain dormant to be restored to full power at a later date, allowing for the community to slide back into the state where overt violence prevailed in full force. Papamichaile made the case for how any humanitarian intervention should strive to not only stop direct violence, but should also consider and address violent structures that allow for such violence, and called it a moral imperative.40 Humanitarian intervention should strive to be more than a band-aid policy, and should attempt to address structural violence through institutional reform. In a military intervention, the use of overt violence guarantees that there is no engagement with structural violence in any way so as to alter its propensity to recur or continue post-intervention.

           Non-violent approaches to intervention have a greater likelihood of achieving this. For instance, approaching the International Court of Justice on the lines of The Gambian strategy also offers the ICJ room for judicial activism in a way that require errant states to comply with its decision. Admittedly, practice does inform that institutional reform has been “the most opaque and nebulous” amongst all sites of transitional justice and that most prosecutorial approaches have taken a human rights-based approach to justice, focusing more on human conduct as the cause for human rights violation rather than state failure and complicity, as well as structural violence.41, 42 However, that the prohibition against mass atrocities amounts to jus cogens norms in international law warrants that there is no room for derogation and the demand for compliance can also call for the dismantling of structures that permit such violations to continue.


           A feminist idea of humanitarian intervention is both conceivable and practicable. The basic premise builds on the idea of the consent of the governed – wherein the support for those intervened for is inspired by the social contract theory, or that governments are the mere agents of the people.43 Human rights are obligations for governments to implement and sovereignty is a responsibility, not an inviolable property that is weaponised against human rights. As a principally feminist approach in that it strives to respond to large-scale human rights violations in situations where the state is unable or unwilling to protect its affected population, the responsibility to protect encourages the devolution of this responsibility on the international community. “International law informed by a feminist perspective requires that new means of social intervention, which disrupt traditional roles and gender hierarchies, must be considered to replace military intervention which tends to maintain the global dominance of military power over the freedom of autonomous individuals and of men over women”.44 By prioritising the agency of those for whom intervention is carried out, and by acknowledging that the use of force is both detrimental and antagonistic to the aim of humanitarian intervention and acting on such knowledge, we can potentially look at restoring the humanitarian component to such policies.


Christine Sylvester, ‘Feminists and Realists View Autonomy and Obligation in International Relations’ in V. Spike Peterson (ed.), Gendered States: Feminist (Re)Visions of International Relations Theory (Boulder, Colorado, Lynne Rienner Press, 1992)

1. Rakiya Omaar, Alex de Waal “Can Military Intervention Be “Humanitarian”?,” Middle East Report 187-188 (March/April 1994).

2. ‘Humanitarian Intervention: A Legal Analysis’, E-International Relations (blog), accessed 20 March 2020, https://www.e-ir.info/2012/02/06/humanitarian-intervention-a-legal-analysis/.

3. Cudd, Ann E. “Truly humanitarian intervention: considering just causes and methods in a feminist cosmopolitan frame.” Journal of Global Ethics 9, no. 3 (2013): 359-375.

4. Mary Kaldor, Human Security: Reflections on Globalization and Intervention (Polity Press, Cambridge, 2007), p.16

5. ‘Humanitarian Intervention: A Legal Analysis’, E-International Relations (blog), accessed 20 March 2020, https://www.e-ir.info/2012/02/06/humanitarian-intervention-a-legal-analysis/.

6. ‘Humanitarian Intervention: A Legal Analysis’, E-International Relations (blog), accessed 20 March 2020, https://www.e-ir.info/2012/02/06/humanitarian-intervention-a-legal-analysis/.

7. Ian Brownlie, International Law and the Use of Force by States 338 (1963)

8. Oscar Schachter, The Right of States to Use Armed Force, 82 MICH. L. REV. 1620 (1984)

9. Anne Orford, ‘Jurisdiction Without Territory: From the Holy Roman Empire to the Responsibility to Protect’, Michigan Journal of International Law, Vol. 30, No. 3, 2009, pp. 984–1015, at p. 990

10. Hillary Charlesworth, Global Responsibility to Protect 2 (2010) 232-249

11. Hilary Charlesworth, ‘The Sex of the State in International Law’ in Ngaire Naffine and Rosemary Owens (eds.), Sexing the Subject of Law (Sydney: Law Book Company, 1997

12. Hillary Charlesworth, Global Responsibility to Protect 2 (2010) 232-249

13. Gareth Evans, The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All (Washington: The Brookings Institution, 2008).

14. Hillary Charlesworth, Global Responsibility to Protect 2 (2010) 232-249

15. Hillary Charlesworth, Global Responsibility to Protect 2 (2010) 232-249

16. Karen Engle, “Calling in the Troops:” The Uneasy Relationship among Women’s Rights, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Intervention,” Harvard Human Rights Journal, 20: 189-226 (2007)

17. Hathaway, O.A., Brower, J., Liss, R. and Thomas, T., 2013. Consent-Based Humanitarian Intervention: Giving Sovereign Responsibility Back to the Sovereign. Cornell Int’l LJ46, p.499.

18. McMahan, J., 2010. Humanitarian intervention, consent, and proportionality. Ethics and humanity: Themes from the philosophy of Jonathan Glover, pp.44-72.

19. Gareth Evans, The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All (Washington: The Brookings Institution, 2008)

20. McMahan, J., 2010. Humanitarian intervention, consent, and proportionality. Ethics and humanity: Themes from the philosophy of Jonathan Glover, pp.44-72.

21. Cudd, Ann E. “Truly humanitarian intervention: considering just causes and methods in a feminist cosmopolitan frame.” Journal of Global Ethics 9, no. 3 (2013): 359-375.

22. Cudd, Ann E. “Truly humanitarian intervention: considering just causes and methods in a feminist cosmopolitan frame.” Journal of Global Ethics 9, no. 3 (2013): 359-375.

23. Cudd, Ann E. “Truly humanitarian intervention: considering just causes and methods in a feminist cosmopolitan frame.” Journal of Global Ethics 9, no. 3 (2013): 359-375.

24. McMahan, J., 2010. Humanitarian intervention, consent, and proportionality. Ethics and humanity: Themes from the philosophy of Jonathan Glover, pp.44-72.

25. Fernando Teson, ‘Humanitarian Intervention: An Inquiry into Law and Morality” 5 (1988)

26. Cudd, Ann E. “Truly humanitarian intervention: considering just causes and methods in a feminist cosmopolitan frame.” Journal of Global Ethics 9, no. 3 (2013): 359-375.

27. Martti Koskenniemi, ‘International Law in the World of Ideas’ in James Crawford and Martti Koskenniemi (eds.), Cambridge Companion to International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

28. Anne Orford, Reading Humanitarian Intervention: Human Rights and the Use of Force in International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 56-71

29. Hillary Charlesworth, Global Responsibility to Protect 2 (2010) 232-249

30. Gareth Evans, The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All (Washington: The Brookings Institution, 2008).

31. Hillary Charlesworth, Global Responsibility to Protect 2 (2010) 232-249

32. Quinn,W. (1989) Actions, intentions, and consequences: The doctrine of double effect, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 18

33. Spector, H. (1992) Autonomy and Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

34. Woodward, P.A. (Ed) (2001) The Doctrine Of Double Effect: Philosophers Debate A Controversial Moral Principle (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press).

35. Fernando R. Tesón (2006) Eight Principles for Humanitarian Intervention, Journal of Military Ethics, 5:2, 93-113, DOI: 10.1080/15027570600707698

36. Karen Engle, “Calling in the Troops:” The Uneasy Relationship among Women’s Rights, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Intervention,” Harvard Human Rights Journal, 20: 189-226 (2007)

37. Catherine Lu, “Whose Principles? Whose Institutions? Legitimacy Challenges for Humanitarian Intervention,” in Humanitarian Intervention, eds. Terry Nardin and Melissa Williams (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 188-216.

38. Cudd, Ann E. “Truly humanitarian intervention: considering just causes and methods in a feminist cosmopolitan frame.” Journal of Global Ethics 9, no. 3 (2013): 359-375.

39. Buss, D. (2011) Performing Legal Order: Some Feminist Thoughts on International Criminal Law. International Criminal Law Review 11, 409–423.

40. Papamichail, A., 2018. Structural violence and the paradox of humanitarian intervention (Doctoral dissertation, University of St Andrews).

41. O’Rourke, C. (2016) ‘Gender and Transitional Justice.’ in Handbook on Women and War. ed. by Sharoni, S., Welland, J, Steiner, L, and Pedersen. New York: Edward Elgar Publishing

42. Aroussi, S. (2018) Perceptions of Justice and Hierarchies of Rape: Rethinking Approaches to Sexual Violence in Eastern Congo from the Ground up. International Journal of Transitional Justice 12 (2), 277-295

43. Fernando R. Tesón (2006) Eight Principles for Humanitarian Intervention, Journal of Military Ethics, 5:2, 93-113, DOI: 10.1080/15027570600707698

44. Cudd, Ann E. “Truly humanitarian intervention: considering just causes and methods in a feminist cosmopolitan frame.” Journal of Global Ethics 9, no. 3 (2013): 359-375, 369

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The anthropogenic forcing of greenhouse gases has turned out to be a dominant force propelling sea level rise. Sea levels in the 20th century have been rising at an average rate of 0.06m per decade.¹ The Indian subcontinent is highly vulnerable to threats arising from sea level rise given its demography. The country has a coastline that runs for 7,500 square kilometres. These coastal regions are home to about 170 million people.² Between 1996 and 2016, approximately 236 square kilometres of land was lost to coastal erosion placing people’s livelihoods in jeopardy. Based on a government report published in 2016, around 45.5% of India’s coastline has been affected by erosion of varying magnitudes.³ The coastal erosion problem is a complex effect of various natural processes working in the coastal zone and sometimes beyond it. According to recent scientific predictions, 36 million Indians are likely to be living in areas experiencing chronic flooding by 2100.⁴ Increasing climate-induced calamities and accelerating levels of erosion have called for intervention and support from the government in securing the livelihoods of coastal communities.  Existing policies in the country address displacement from rapid-onset disasters such as monsoons and cyclones under disaster reduction and rehabilitation policies. However, displacement due to slow-onset disasters such as coastal erosion are yet to find a place at the policy level. With the intensity and frequency of disasters increasing in the future, we require a foresighted national-level policy on managed retreat and adaptation in India. This paper analyses existing policies and suggests possible adaptation interventions that will help the nation deal better with the problem of coastal displacement. 

We realize that coastal erosion is an extensive and multi-dimensional problem for a vast country like ours. The Indian government has put in place policies, laws and committees to tackle climate change and climate-induced disasters. The main policy measures concerning coastal protection and management in India include the Disaster Management Act of 2005 that has a section dedicated to coastal protection and disaster management and the west coast policies to tackle coastal erosion. The Act provides for the establishment of several statutory bodies such as the National Disaster Management Authority, State Disaster Management Authorities and District Disaster Management Authorities. It also includes advisory committees, executive committees and sub-committees under the government. The Act lists out the action plan for governments during or post a rapid-onset disaster. It also puts together provisions that allow for the creation of relief funds and their usage during emergencies. The act is inadequate along several lines. The presence of numerous committees and the overlap of duties among authorities mentioned in the Act greatly reduces accountability. Further, the coordination among these bodies appears to be very cumbersome. Disasters cannot be effectively dealt with only through the government’s administrative setup. Even then the role of local authorities and communities in coastal management and protection has been greatly overlooked. The Indian Act also fails to recognize the need for identifying and using traditional knowledge and working together with NGOs.

Efforts are being made to counter the menace of coastal erosion and protect our coasts using both traditional approaches ( hard structures like Seawall, etc.) and the new, innovative soft measures like dune rehabilitation. Policies to curb coastal erosion on the west coast of the country have dealt with structural or hard measures such as the construction of seawalls, revetment, offshore breakwater, groynes/spurs and soft measures like offshore reefs and artificial headlands. Soft measures are usually more effective in the long run when compared to hard measures. Seawalls and other coastal engineering structures end up obstructing the littoral drift of sand and sediment, thus, causing erosion on the northern side and accretion on the southern side of the structure. In the end, they do not prevent erosion as they only transfer the problem further north of the east coast.⁵ The impact of these hard options on neighbouring coastlines create a situation where hard structures are then required in these new areas creating a vicious cycle. An example of such a spiralling effect is the seawall construction in Kerala  (a state government initiative to curb coastal erosion) and its impact on Karnataka’s coastline. The Kerala government has spent around 310 crores building seawalls along its coast.6 Of the 560 km coastline of Kerala, the state has constructed a seawall for 386 km. The government had sought funding assistance to wall the remaining 92 km and demanded INR 2.16 billion from the Centre. Seawalls along the coast of Kerala did help in preventing coastal erosion but as mentioned earlier the littoral drift was obstructed, accelerating erosion rates of the coastline along the state of Karnataka. Groynes suffer from a similar limitation. These man-made structures protruding into the oceans are known to cause accretion on the southern side and erosion on the northern side. Beach nourishment has proved attainable by methods of re-vegetation with temporary offshore breakwaters/artificial reefs. Artificial reefs provide shelter, food and other necessary elements for marine biodiversity to flourish. 

The west coast policies and the Disaster Management Act (2005) focus on mitigation measures mainly undertaken by the government thus alienating local communities from related coastal work. It is important to shift our focus from mitigation to adaptation. Intervention and policies for adaptation are extremely crucial given two main reasons. We cannot mitigate sea-level rise. Even if we drastically cut down emissions, experts concluded that global mean sea-level would rise at least 8 inches (0.2 meters) above 1992 levels by 2100. With high rates of emissions, sea-level rise would be much higher but was unlikely to exceed 6.6 feet higher than 1992 levels. Hence, it is more important to facilitate adaptation than mitigating impacts of sea-level rise. Adaptation policies focusing on alternative livelihoods, social security nets, preemptive retreat and social infrastructure will greatly enhance the resilience capacity of communities thereby enabling better response to a crisis. Existing policies in India address post-disaster management or displacement stemming from rapid-onset disasters but displacement due to slow-onset disasters such as coastal erosion is yet to find a place in Indian policy. Slow onset events are impacting lives and livelihoods leading to the weakening of a community’s resilience. It is important to identify vulnerable areas and build the capacity of local communities to efficiently manage future crises and prevent large scale life and material loss. The second reason comes from the unpredictability that haunts us. Climate change is complex because every system disturbance sets in motion positive and negative feedback. Interactions of various levels create unpredictable events and large scale destruction. The unpredictable nature of climate change and lag is a lesson to build resilience rather than focus on measures that only handle rehabilitation post-disaster. 

Shining a ray of hope on this oncoming crisis is the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management (NCSCM), Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, focusing on better protection, conservation, rehabilitation, management and policy design of the coast. NCSCM aims to support integrated management of coastal and marine environments for livelihood security, sustainable development and hazard risk management by enhancing knowledge, research and advisory support, partnerships and network and coastal community interface. NCSCM has the resources for data monitoring and the mission has started on a good note by tackling the issue of defining High Tide Lines (HTL) and putting forward revised regulations for keeping a check on polluting industries/activities and construction activity along critical coastal areas. Though the vision of this institutional regime is applaudable, little has been done on the ground. The notification though uses terminologies like sustainable development, sustainable livelihood, ecologically and culturally sensitive coastal resources, fails to detail the implementation strategies for each of them.⁷ The mission stands great potential in developing into the institutional setup that India needs in developing and implementing adaptation interventions. However, this is conditional on its alignment with the Millennium Development Goals on environmental sustainability and its focus on the long term impacts of all developmental work in the coastal zones of the country. 

Coastal communities are directly impacted by climate impacts causing declining productivity of fisheries and cultivation lands along the coasts. Existing measures do not help communities in dealing with economic losses. Understanding threats to the economic and social well being of the communities underlines the need for adaptation policies that will help reduce the climate vulnerability of communities and enhance their ability to flexibly adapt to changing conditions. Policies which create alternate livelihood opportunities, social infrastructure, planned retreat, and community involved coastal management need to find a place in India’s climate legislations.

The views expressed in the post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the ISPP Policy Review or the Indian School of Public Policy. Images via open source.


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How would you define poverty? There are several definitions and each one of them helps us imagine poverty in different ways. One way to define poverty is the lack of resources required to lead a basic life. By this definition, as long as your basic needs of food, clothing and shelter are met, you are not in poverty. The United Nations defines poverty as the “inability of having choices and opportunities, a violation of human dignity.” A more quantitative definition from the World Bank defines poverty as living under $1.90 (Purchasing Power Parity) per day. This is the international poverty line. Amartya Sen’s capability approach describes poverty as “a failure to achieve certain minimum capabilities.” This means that poverty is not seen purely as an issue of economic development but includes measures of human rights and access.

It does not take long to realize that poverty has many faces. In a recent project called One Hundred Homes, researchers conducted a visual survey of India to examine what a household falling under a particular income or consumption level as per a standard government survey (IHDS, NSS) would look like in real life. The result was a collection of hundred visual essays showcasing the living conditions of families to understand the connection between wealth and poverty visually. A key insight is that it is almost impossible to predict which household is wealthier just based on the appearance of living conditions. We cannot simply look at assets owned to determine who is better off or worse off. Surveys usually measure poverty through consumption spending in a given period of time on a fixed category of things. This does not account for the value of the house, credit borrowed, subsidies received from the government, etc. In addition to this, the poverty line in itself is based on several assumptions such as calorie requirements and ignores indicators of education, health and wellbeing.

Figure 1: A snapshot from the One Hundred Homes project website (Source: One Hundred Homes)

Poverty, through its appearance and measurement, presents several puzzles. Some obvious facts about poverty may not be true. On the other hand, results from experiments to understand the lives of the poor may be counterintuitive.

For example, one knows about the vicious nature of poverty. But why do the poor remain poor? Do bad decisions cause poverty or does poverty cause people to make bad decisions? Sendhil Mullainathan and other researchers ran a series of experiments to understand how scarcity affects cognitive capability and decision making. For an illustration of how poverty affects thinking, they asked people to memorize a list of words similar to the one below in 20 seconds and asked them to recall as many as they can from memory.

Figure 2: List used by researchers in the experiment to determine effects of poverty on cognitive capacity (Source: Chicago Booth Review)

What’s interesting is that, although “money” was not on the list, people with low income are more likely to remember seeing money in the list than people with high income because words on the list are related to financial concerns. This portrays that money occupies a significant part of the cognitive load of the poor. Further, experiments also depict that people under financial stress perform poorly in cognitive tests such as Raven’s matrices and cognitive control tasks compared to those who are not. This implies that poverty in itself impairs sound cognitive performance. 

A more realistic experiment conducted on Indian sugarcane farmers tested their cognitive abilities pre-harvest and post-harvest. Sugarcane has one harvest cycle per year. Before the harvest, farmers are relatively poor and uncertain about their finances whereas post-harvest, the same farmer is relatively rich. A random sample of small farmers was tested pre- and post-harvest on Raven’s matrices, a measure of fluid intelligence and the traditional Stroop task, which gauges cognitive control. Controlling for other fixed effects such as nutrition, work effort, etc., the experiment showed that being poor reduces cognitive capacity. Farmers post-harvest performed better on cognitive tests compared to pre-harvest.

This research suggests that the poor are less capable not because of their inherent capabilities but because poverty in itself imposes a cognitive load. Imagine if you were to make a decision after staying awake an entire night. Would you be able to make the right decision? The effect of poverty on cognitive function is comparable to losing a full night’s sleep. The poor constantly make important decisions of education, health, consumption and saving in this state of mind. The implication of this is that policymakers need to be aware of the psychological nature and cognitive tax of poverty. Welfare programs with complex ordeals aimed at better targeting may be counterproductive. The timing of welfare policies is also critical. Cognitive aids such as nudge can go a long way in offsetting the effect of poverty on cognition.

This also begs the question, why do the poor have to make more decisions than the rich with regards to essential utilities like savings, healthcare, insurance and so on? A poor person, who may not have access to banking services or formal employment, must decide to save for his or her retirement. On the other hand, the decision is already made by the organization of a rich person through the provident fund. The same goes for insurance, healthcare and even water. A rich person in an urban area can simply open a tap in the comfort of their home and clean water flows out, whereas a poor person has to choose where to procure water from, uncertain of whether it is clean or not, and decide what to do if it is not clean. Poverty impedes cognitive function and affects decision making. Above this, the poor make a significantly greater number of decisions amidst a lot of uncertainty. Both these facts are detrimental to leading a good life. Human beings have bounded rationality and self-control problems, hence fewer the decisions, the better. This is the reason why in developed countries like the United States, essential utilities such as insurance, savings are left to institutions and not the individual. If a poor person has to consistently choose to save every month for his or her retirement, they are bound to run into self-control problems. It is unfortunate that despite evidence on this, policymakers have made little effort to minimize the decisions taken by the poor. What, if not this, is an indication of inequality?

Another puzzle is that of risk and entrepreneurship. More number of poor people are self-employed and own businesses compared to the rich. Entrepreneurship involves risk and uncertainty. If the rich are better at managing risk due to their endowments and safety net, why is it that more poor people start businesses than the rich? This is the mystery of self-employment. That a person for whom it is easier is less likely to do it whereas a person for whom it is harder is more likely to do it.

A possible explanation for this is that the poor are natural entrepreneurs. But the question to ask is whether poor people are creative or does poverty force them to find creative ways of earning their income? This is not to say that poor people cannot be creative. An average poor person is probably as creative as the average rich person. However, there is an overrepresentation of entrepreneurs among the poor. The poor are entrepreneurs not because they want to be, but because they have to be. 

Economics teaches us that people are generally risk-averse. So, they must prefer a salaried job to starting a business. A survey question asking parents regarding their ambitions for their children confirms this belief. The results from rural Udaipur and around the world are that most poor parents want their children to be in a salaried job. Only 7% of parents want their children to run businesses. For the poor, a job is a means to achieve stability and move up the social ladder. However, public policy does not seem to understand this. The policy view is that poor people are more entrepreneurial in nature and several policies have been created to encourage the poor to turn into entrepreneurs. Rural areas have the RSETIs (Rural Self Employment Training Institutes), which focus on providing training for rural youth on entrepreneurial development. There is no such equivalent for urban areas. However, for the urban poor specifically, there is a Self-Employment Programme (SEP) under the NULM, which provides financial assistance to set up self-employment ventures.

From my field experiences of visiting and working with SHGs (self-help groups) of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, the thrust has been for SHGs to begin businesses. NABARD, NRLM and civil society are invested in this idea, providing loans and market support. It is likely that most of the SHGs are not even interested in business but have to involve themselves in order to take advantage of the credit and market support. Even in the recent COVID relief package by the Government of India, the specific relief measure for SHGs was to increase the collateral-free loan limit to Rs. 20 lakh so as to meet their business needs. This differential focus on self-employment for the poor is concerning. 

Additionally, the traditional investment theory of risk-reward ratio does not work for the poor because of capital and technological constraints. Most businesses owned by poor people are not profitable. Different occupations are filled with different amounts of risk and uncertainty. Agriculture is one of the riskiest, yet least profitable occupations. Agriculture is subject to whether uncertainty, price uncertainty, market uncertainty, credit uncertainty, government uncertainty and what not! Hence, a poor farmer is not the same as a poor plumber and public policy needs to give attention to this fact. A reason why agriculture is one of the most intervened sectors by the government is not just populism but also the level of uncertainty tagged with the occupation.

There are many more such puzzles in the world of poverty. To unearth these puzzles, we need to rigorously test the traditional theories we hold about the poor. In a developing world, everybody is undergoing a transformation, with the poor transforming at a faster rate at the margin. Thus, we not only need to ask the right questions but also revisit the existing answers to update our understanding of poverty. Each piece of evidence gives us insights into the lives of the poor and incorporating these insights helps us create better poverty alleviation policies.

The views expressed in the post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the ISPP Policy Review or the Indian School of Public Policy. Images via open source.

On 24th March, 2020, the Indian government announced the imposition of a complete lockdown in the country as a preventive measure against the spread of the Covid-19 virus. As important as it was to enforce a lockdown, it was equally important to think of the unintended consequences that could result from it. In particular, it was important to think about the effect of a hastily implemented lockdown on vulnerable sections of society who live a hand-to-mouth existence and already lie on the margins of government support. The migrant workers are one such section, who were left to suffer in starvation, stranded, with no income, food and shelter. A lack of information and political will, exacerbated by the rigid framework for disaster management characterized the government’s slow response, forcing Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) across the country to immediately intervene and take up the challenge of delivering relief to those in need. However, confronted with resource and infrastructural constraints, this type of relief delivery proved to be unsustainable. The suffering that resulted was nothing less than unimaginable, and can make one see, more clearly than ever, that when a crisis breaks out, relief delivery must be as fast as possible. In this context, I attempt to emphasize three interwoven gaps which need to be addressed, as a stepping stone towards quicker and more efficient relief delivery – Discretion, Data and Trust.

Understanding the Hurdles

As it usually does during disasters, the Indian government invoked the National Disaster Management Act (2005) as a framework for disaster management. In light of how the situation was handled, it becomes apparent to us that the administrative and operational procedures under this act are far too rigid to effectively address the mass hunger crisis that the lockdown imposed on migrant welfare. It took over five days for the Centre to declare the provision of any kind of relief for these people, and even with this announcement of free food, problems of information asymmetry and beneficiary identification still persisted. How would migrants know where to go to avail of these provisions? Did all of them know of its existence? This relief response characterizes the myopic top-down approach that the government tends to take, with heavy paperwork and a lack of urgency. For a response to be quick and meaningful, we need insights that are inspired by the ground reality of the situation. However, the lack of discretionary powers at the local levels of government prevents the realization of these insights. This stems from a lack of trust in local governments from the upper levels of the bureaucracy.

The next problem we are confronted with is a lack of credible data on potential beneficiaries. Without complete information on which people need relief and which areas are affected, it would be difficult for any agent of relief delivery to identify beneficiaries and efficiently allocate resources to different localities. This issue can be seen in the way the Public Distribution System (PDS) functioned to distribute dry rations to poverty-stricken populations. The limitation with PDS was that workers were only entitled to these rations in their home states, which essentially excludes migrant workers from accessing these benefits. Although the PDS system was eventually extended to include temporary beneficiaries, it remains that there was no clear cut mechanism to identify who needs it. There is also no credible data on the number of people who actually benefited from this provision. This problem is not even solved by CSOs in the way they operate, in that they lack the infrastructure to conduct essential surveys to gauge the extent of the problem in each area and coordinate amongst each other. As a consequence, all CSOs and State agents could potentially be targeting the same forty-percent of the population repeatedly, leaving the remaining sixty percent with no access. On top of this, CSOs had faced backlash from law enforcement officials for violating lockdown norms, restricting them from reaching people in need.

The major constraints faced by CSOs and governments are in the form of information and infrastructure. Moreover, due to a lack of credible data and the precedent of slow responses by the government, CSOs will not stand aside and trust the government to do its job. These are gaps that those on the ground are well aware of, and is in fact the very reason that they exist to fill them. Trust is a nuance of the problem that shows up in many ways in the intricate picture of relief delivery. We see a lack of trust not only in lower levels of government from the bureaucracy, but also a lack of trust in the bureaucracy from first-responder CSOs. Overall, it appears that Discretion, Data, and Trust, lie at the root cause of slow relief delivery.

Overcoming the Hurdles

In crisis situations, there is some potential in collaboration between CSOs and governments, where CSOs can serve as a channel for surveying and data collection, and the government can provide them with infrastructural support in the form of access and resources. The most effective way to mobilize CSOs would be through local governments. However, we see from the problem articulated above that discretion becomes a necessary condition to leverage local governments. A decentralized bottom-up approach would allow local governments to facilitate a process of community mobilization and collaboration through CSOs and engage a much larger group of people to help facilitate quicker relief. It would also give local government officials a more participatory role in judgement and decision making on the ground. Here of course, the problem of trust and accountability creeps up once again. With the right checks and balances in place, giving more discretion to local governments to utilize government funds would help to provide infrastructural support to CSOs. These organizations can then be sent on the ground in addition to existing government human resources to survey areas and collect data on affected population. The additional government backing would allow CSOs to reach areas that were previously inaccessible. It would also allow us to capture a more realistic picture of the on-ground situation within its own context, and enable us to respond in a more appropriate, effective manner through local governments. These surveys should be designed in a manner that holistically captures the need of a potential beneficiary, keeping in mind that the notion of ‘poverty’ is a fluid state.  The data collected from these surveys could be reported to local government officials, who can mobilize the necessary resources and funds, after understanding the situation in their areas. This increase in coordination would help in understanding which areas are getting too much attention at the expense of others. Moreover, since the CSOs themselves are collecting the data, it would add a significant amount of credibility, trust and understanding of the situation on-ground.


The nature of collaboration suggested here is intended to be inclusive, collaborative and is founded on trust. With trust, comes the willingness to allow discretion. With discretion, there is a strong possibility of more effective data collection. However, a simple relaxation of bureaucratic hurdles is not a sufficient condition for this. The system is plagued with a lack of transparency and accountability, both of which are detrimental to any form of trust. Issues on this front become increasingly complex with each day, in a world where realities are constantly distorted by conflict and propaganda. One thing that is certain, however, is that people have suffered, and continue to suffer. It is time for us to realistically and practically acknowledge what is going wrong and commit to putting aside our vested interests, in pursuit of collective good. We must develop the political will to step up, and come together in times of crisis.

The views expressed in the post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the ISPP Policy Review or the Indian School of Public Policy. Images via open source.